Ben Smith never could have imagined spending the winter at a retirement home in Calgary, sipping Caesar cocktails with three of his best friends – Anton Hood, Brett Sargon and Hunter Walker – while their octogenarian neighbours play bridge and tabletop shuffleboard.
In fact, the four men, who are professional curlers from New Zealand working on their Olympic aspirations in one of the world’s most celebrated curling hotbeds, have made themselves at home since moving into the Chartwell Colonel Belcher Retirement Residence, a senior living community on Calgary’s west side. They are the building’s newest tenants – and its youngest.
“That’s all the women talk about,” said Bill Dench, 67, a retired letter carrier and Zamboni driver who lives down the hall.
The story of how a team of young men wound up occupying two suites at a Canadian retirement home – where the weekly activities calendar includes bridge lessons and cupcake socials, where the average age is 84 and where the first sitting for dinner is at 4:30 p.m. sharp – involves luck, economics and word-of-mouth generosity among Calgary-area curlers. In the process, the arrangement has showcased the virtues of intergenerational living.
“Oh, we really were just shocked,” said Bertha Esplen, 97. “We really were. Because all of a sudden, we get curlers from New Zealand in our building. Man, that was great. We couldn’t wait for them to come.”
Since arriving in September, the team has financed its curling dreams by landing day jobs – Smith, 24, for example, works as a plumber four days a week – while acclimating to life in a sprawling community of surrogate grandparents and well-intentioned back-seat curlers.
At least one resident has asked for a practice schedule so that he can taxi over to the Calgary Curling Club, where the team trains and Hood, 23, moonlights as an assistant ice technician, and offer advice. (“Won’t cost you nothing!” he told Hood.) Others have turned up at the team’s weeknight matches.
“We’ll walk off the ice, and they’ll go, ‘Why did you play that shot?’” said Sargon, 30.
They nitpick because they care. That became clear to Sargon a few weeks ago when he joined Hood at a curling tournament in Okotoks, about 25 miles south of Calgary. As soon as their match began, Sargon and Hood realized that they had their own fan club. Fourteen residents, armed with bag lunches and homemade signs, had made the trip via charter bus to cheer them on in a loss to a team led by Mike McEwen, one of the top curlers in Canada.
“They put on a great show,” said Linda Smith, 74, who had a front-row seat. “I mean, Mike McEwen could’ve really whipped them.”
‘Playing against the big boys’
On a recent weekday morning, the New Zealanders piled into their official vehicle, a 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan with more than 98,000 kilometres on the odometer, for the short drive to the curling club for a practice session. Hood, the team’s skip, or captain, got behind the wheel.
After some light stretching, the team took the ice wearing matching sweatshirts that read, “Team Hood: A Bunch of Kiwis Trying to Fly.” Greeted by a series of 1980s power ballads that blared from the club’s speakers, they began to work on their throws.
For those unfamiliar: Curling is a winter sport that involves pushing heavy granite rocks down a long sheet of ice toward a target. And although it is hugely popular in Canada, curling does have some historical ties to New Zealand. Miners from Scotland brought an outdoor version of the game with them to the country during the gold rush of the 19th century, and it has persisted as a popular activity whenever the ponds on New Zealand’s South Island are cold enough to form a thick slab of ice at the surface.
“It’s more of a traditional game,” Hood said. “There’s a bit of drinking. The skips are grumpier.”
Finding the game was easy enough for Hood, Smith and Walker, 21, all of whom grew up in Naseby, New Zealand, a small resort town that, for many years, was home to the Southern Hemisphere’s only dedicated indoor curling rink. Sargon, who is from Auckland, learned the game on hockey ice.
“You get the Zamboni over it and cut it as best you can,” he recalled.
Sargon soon met the others through curling circles and formed a team. But to truly grasp the sport’s many nuances and reach their long-term goal of qualifying for the 2026 Winter Olympics in Italy – a process largely based on results at the world championships – Sargon and his teammates knew that they would need to immerse themselves in the game. That meant training in Canada.
“There’s basic strategy,” he said, “and then there’s playing against the big boys.”
The team spent several weeks training in Calgary last year before the inaugural Pan Continental Curling Championships, which the city hosted. Sargon said he and his teammates enjoyed the experience – “The ice was great,” he said – even though they had to hopscotch among Airbnb rentals, and a house blew up down the street from one of them. (City officials suspected a natural gas leak.)
The explosion was not enough to deter the team from wanting to return this fall. Over the summer, Hood was chatting with Kim Forge, who sits on the board of the World Curling Federation, when he mentioned the team’s plans. The challenge, he told her, was finding affordable short-term housing in Calgary.
Although curling has expanded its global reach since it returned as a full-fledged Olympic event in 1998, the sport has retained its tightknit feel. Curlers want to support fellow curlers, and Forge was relying on that spirit of camaraderie when she posted a message on Facebook soliciting help from the Calgary curling community in locating “very cheap rent” for Team Hood.
“They are the best bunch of young men and I fully endorse them,” Forge wrote.
The post soon found its way to Cassandra Murray, a retirement living consultant at Chartwell Colonel Belcher who is a former competitive curler. She was brainstorming with Christine Taylor, a colleague, when they came up with a potential solution.
“You probably won’t want to do this, but we do have a couple of spare rooms,” Murray wrote the team via Facebook Messenger.
It should be noted that although Team Hood has a couple of sponsorships – Sargon recently hammered out a deal with Downhill Karting, a Calgary-based go-kart course – curling is not an especially lucrative profession. The four athletes are paying their own way to live and train in Calgary until they leave in March for the world championships in Schaffhausen, Switzerland.
So when Murray offered them a place to stay for free, aside from a few dollars a month for utilities, they were thrilled.
They also were glad to find a situation where they could blend more easily with the fabric of the city than they had last winter. What better way to do that than to share a roof with some of Calgary’s most esteemed residents?
“We thought it could be quite fun,” Sargon said.
Karl Berg, a director of regional operations and sales for Chartwell, endorsed the idea, citing a renewed emphasis on “socialization” among its residents in the wake of the pandemic. He also was aware of a successful intergenerational living experiment in the Netherlands, where the presence of a few college students in a nursing home gave their older neighbours a greater sense of connection to the outside world and increased their mental stimulation.
“It’s been awesome watching people’s faces light up when we talk to them,” Sargon said, “and now we’re really starting to get know more of them. Everyone buys into what we’re trying to do as well, which is cool. Everyone wants to tell us their curling story.”
Berg recalled preparing for the team’s arrival in September when he popped down to the Mad Trapper, the residence’s in-house pub. He could sense excitement in the building. One woman was proudly sharing a decades-old newspaper clipping that featured a photograph of her husband throwing a curling rock.
“I thought that was pretty cool,” Berg said. “And then this gentleman sitting next to us goes, ‘Oh, I know your husband. I played him once. I mopped the floor with him.’”
Sargon was the first of the New Zealanders to show up. Murray told him that his timing was perfect.
“Happy hour is at 2 o’clock, if you’re interested,” she said.
“Say no more,” Sargon said.
A productive partnership
Anyone who knows Esplen knows that she has a favourite curler: Brad Gushue, the golden boy of Canadian curling and a two-time Olympic medalist. Gushue is so popular that he has a highway named after him. Over post-practice coffee and cookies at the residence, Sargon noted that Team Hood was scheduled to face Gushue at a coming tournament.
“Bertha told us she’d cheer for us in every other match,” Sargon said, laughing.
Esplen even had her own brush with celebrity thanks to the New Zealanders.
“I was on CBC!” she said, referring to a recent television news segment on the team.
Wary of overstaying their welcome, the team members had originally planned on moving out in January so they could house-sit in the suburbs for the remainder of their time in Canada. They reconsidered after hearing from concerned neighbours.
“We were getting told not to drive in the winter if we could avoid it,” Hood said. Their current commute to the curling club is very short.
So they asked Murray if they could stay. No problem, she said.
“They’ve been amazing,” she said. “There is so much life in the building.”
The team, meanwhile, has augmented its training by hiring Carolyn McRorie as a part-time coach. McRorie was a member of the 2010 Canadian women’s team that won the silver medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics, and Hood described her as a master technician.
The team put some of her lessons to use at the end of a long day, winning a match in an evening league at the Calgary Curling Club in front of a knowledgeable crowd.
“I can’t believe how much curl there is in this ice,” a spectator said.
The next morning, Hood and Smith left for their day jobs – but not before they volunteered Sargon and Walker to paint a fence at the residence.
“They told us it would be a two-hour job,” Walker said. “It’s not a two-hour job!”
But the sun was warm, and by 2 p.m., they felt they had earned a break. So they decamped for happy hour at the Mad Trapper, where a crowd had already gathered for a performance by Jim Baxter, an area musician. Sargon and Walker grabbed seats at a table toward the back.
Jennifer Erno, an activity aide, asked if they were ready for a couple of Molsons from the cash bar. Sargon reached for his wallet before he realized he had left it in his room.
“That’s OK,” Erno said. “We know where you live.”