Curling is a sport in which two teams of four players each send stones over an ice surface toward a target circle in an attempt to place nearest the centre. In Canada, curling has steadily grown in popularity since the first club was formed in Montréal in 1807. The national championships (Brier, Scotties) and Olympic trials are among some of the most popular sporting events in the country, and many winners of these tournaments have also achieved victory on the international stage. Curling is one of the country’s most popular sports, and is the most televised women’s sport in Canada.
Curling is a sport in which two teams of four players each send stones over an ice surface toward a target circle in an attempt to place nearest the centre. In Canada, curling has steadily grown in popularity since the first club was formed in Montréal in 1807. The national championships (Brier, Scotties) and Olympic trials are among some of the most popular sporting events in the country, and many winners of these tournaments have also achieved victory on the international stage. Curling is one of the country’s most popular sports and the most televised women’s sport in Canada.
Although there is some artistic and etymological evidence from the 16th century in the Low Countries of Europe pointing to a similar ice game, most authorities agree that curling as we know it today was codified in Scotland and exported from there in organized form. Certainly the origins and early evolution of this sport in Canada were due to the consistent, enthusiastic and ubiquitous presence of the Scots. Undoubtedly, too, curling has thrived to a prodigious and unparalleled extent here. Factors contributing to its contemporary popularity in Canada include the wintry climate, the traditions of the game, certain technological advances and the active patronage of influential persons (many of them Scottish). From their influential position in Canadian society, many Scots were comfortably situated to indulge in and promote the traditions of their native land, including curling.
First Clubs in Canada
Some historians have suggested, without documentation, that curling began on the North American continent among Scottish soldiers during the Seven Years' War of 1756–63. Curling certainly occurred informally before 1800, until a group of Scots who were identified chiefly with the fur trade formed the Montréal Curling Club in 1807, described as the first sports club in Canada. Other Scots formed clubs in Kingston (1820), Québec City (1821) and Halifax (1824). These pioneering enthusiasts experimented with local "stones" made of iron or maple, as well as imported stones from Scotland.
By 1839, when more clubs had been formed, locally made granite curling stones were being advertised in Toronto at $8 a pair. A year later, the first book on curling in Canada was published — James Bicket's The Canadian Curler's Manual. Intercity matches began in 1835, interprovincial ones in 1858, and in 1865 the first international bonspiel was held between American and Canadian clubs at Buffalo, New York. Much of this progress was aided by the long, cold winters and the availability of innumerable lakes and rivers, ensuring abundant and safe ice on which to enjoy curling. Indeed, these conditions surpassed even those in Scotland, an unusual occurrence for a transplanted sport.
In fact, it was often too cold to participate outdoors, and curling fanatics took their sport indoors; members of the Montréal Curling Club were likely the first to do this in 1838. The neighbouring Thistle Club constructed an enclosed rink six years later. By 1859, Toronto had its first indoor facility, and soon indoor curling rinks became common across Canada. During the 1880s and 1890s, until ice hockey arenas were created, these rinks were being used by many fledgling ice-hockey teams.
A Canadian Game
Despite the dominating Scottish influence, other nationalities participated from an early date. Because a Canadian-born curler, William Reynolds, had won the Denham Medal in 1843, a Toronto newspaper claimed: "Curling may now be considered in this Province a Canadian rather than a Scottish game." Similar sentiments were expressed in Québec in 1861 when a French Canadian (Benjamin Rousseau) won a gold medal in curling competition. And the progress of non-Scottish teams (often called "barbarians") against Scottish-born teams was keenly reported.
Since the Earl of Dalhousie was reported as a member of the Québec City Curling Club in 1828, the sport has included many famous figures within its ranks, such as Sir John A. Macdonald, Lord Aberdeen and Lord Strathcona. The vice-regal support of the governors general was especially significant. Lord Dufferin (1872–78) was an ardent proponent and had a rink built at his own expense at his official residence, Rideau Hall. In 1880, he instituted the Governor General's Prize, one of Canada's coveted curling trophies. His successors also sponsored the sport, adding to its prestige.
Another stimulus to the sport was provided when a Scottish curling team, captained by Reverend John Kerr, toured Canada in 1902–03. The team played matches in 11 cities from Halifax to Winnipeg, then visited 6 American cities. The Scots lost more matches than they won and returned home tremendously impressed with the status and progress of curling in the Dominion. When a Canadian team first toured Scotland in 1908, it won 23 of 26 matches, including three international contests for the Strathcona Cup.
Curling in the West
By 1910, almost every town in the West had an arena, and Winnipeg was the acknowledged curling centre of Canada. In 1950, it had more curling clubs than Montréal and Toronto combined; and Manitoba had more clubs than Ontario and Québec. The Flin Flon club was the largest in the world, with more than 50 rinks. During the 1940s, outdoor curling with cement-filled jam tins became a craze across the Prairie Provinces. The West was also the host of the first "Carspiel," which was held at Nipawin, SK, in 1947, with four Hudson sedans valued at $2,200 each as prizes. The popularity of curling in the West would be reflected by the number of national and international champions from that region over the coming decades.
By the 1920s, curling enthusiasts had begun to organize nationwide competitions. A Dominion championship competition was inaugurated in 1927, sponsored by the W. D. Macdonald Co, for a trophy known as the Brier (the first Brier champion was Murray Macneill of Nova Scotia). This annual event gave curling a significant impetus and became one of the most prestigious trophies in Canadian sport. Sponsorship has changed a number of times; since 2005, the Canadian national men’s curling championship has been known as the Tim Hortons Brier. The Brier has been held annually since 1927 (except for 1943–45 during the Second World War). In 2002–03, many curling teams boycotted the competition owing to disagreement with the Canadian Curling Association over prize money and sponsorship.
From 1927 to 1939, the Brier was held annually in Toronto at the Granite Club. Meetings at the Granite Club also led to the formation of the Dominion Curling Association in 1935 (renamed the Canadian Curling Association in 1968). In 1940, the Brier was hosted for the first time in Winnipeg, the city that many consider the national (and even international) centre of curling.
The western provinces produced many national champions in the first decades of the Brier. In 1949, Ken Watson of Manitoba became the first curler to win the Brier three times. Ten years later, Ernie Richardson formed the famous Richardson Rink in Regina, SK, which went on to win four Briers in five years. Two other curling teams, both from Alberta, won the Brier three times each during this time period: Matt Baldwin (1954, 1957 and 1958) and Ron Northcott (1966, 1968 and 1969).
In the mid-1970s, there was a short shift in success from Western Canada to Eastern Canada. For the first time there were Brier champions from Québec and Newfoundland. Jack MacDuff skipped his Newfoundland rink to a Brier title in 1976 in Regina, SK, and a year later Jim Ursel won the Brier in his home town of Montréal. Since the mid-1970s, Alberta and Manitoba have dominated the Brier, although other provinces have also provided national champions.
Men’s World Championship
In 1959, there was added incentive to win the Brier. For the first time, the Brier champion would represent Canada internationally. The World Championship, known initially as the “Scotch Cup,” was a five-game series between Canada and Scotland. Richardson’s curling rink from Saskatchewan won the first two Scotch Cups in dominating fashion, winning all ten games. Hec Gervais of Edmonton won the 1961 championship (the same year the United States joined the tournament), followed by Richardson, who once again won back-to-back titles in 1962 and 1963.
The 1964 Scotch Cup was played in Canada for the first time, with Calgary hosting at the Stampede Corral. Vancouver’s Lyall Dagg won the Cup that year, but in 1965 an American team was victorious. One year later, when the Scotch Cup returned to Canada with Vancouver as the host, Calgary’s Ron Northcott went undefeated.
In 1968, Air Canada sponsored a new world curling championship known as the Silver Broom. The first (played in Pointe-Claire, Montréal, QC) was won by Northcott, who won it again the following year. In fact, Canada was victorious at the first five Air Canada Silver Broom World Curling Championships: the Don Duguid Rink won in 1970 and 1971, and the Orest Meleschuk rink won in 1972.
In the 1970s, Canada struggled during the World Men’s Curling Championship. After Meleschuk’s victory in 1972, Canada did not win again for eight years. However, Canadian dominance at the world championship level was restored in the 1980s with seven victories: Rick Folk (1980); Al Hackner (1982, 1985); Ed Werenich (1983); Ed Lukowich (1986); Russ Howard (1987); and Pat Ryan (1989).
Canada would continue to dominate the World Men’s Curling Championships over the next two decades: Ed Werenich (1990); Russ Howard (1993); Rick Folk (1994); Kerry Burtnyk (1995); Jeff Stoughton (1996); Wayne Middaugh (1998); Greg McAulay (2000); Randy Ferbey (2002, 2003, 2005); Glenn Howard (2007, 2012); Kevin Martin (2008); and Kevin Koe (2010).
Since 1995, the world curling championship has been sponsored by Ford Canada and is known as the Ford World Curling Championship when played in Canada.
The copious quantities of whisky said to be consumed at bonspiels apparently delayed the participation of women in curling, but in 1894, the first ladies' curling club was formed in Montréal. Before 1900 there were several women's clubs in Eastern and Western Canada, and curling was soon established as a sport for both sexes and almost all ages.
National Women’s Championship
However, it would take over half a century for women to have their own national curling championship. The first Canadian National Women’s Curling Championship was played in 1960 in Oshawa, ON. The event took place 33 years after the first Canadian National Men’s Curling Championship in Toronto.
For the first year, the Western Canadian champion was flown to Oshawa to play the Eastern Canadian champion. The event, known as the Dominion Diamond D Championship, was won by Joyce McKee of Saskatoon, SK. A year later, tournament organizers used a similar round-robin format as the Brier with McKee defending her title.
Dominion continued sponsoring the event until 1967. Notable champions in the 1960s included Mabel DeWare of Moncton, NB (1963), who went on to become a cabinet minister in the New Brunswick legislature and a senator in the Canadian government, and Betty Duguid of Winnipeg, MB (1967), sister of two-time world men’s curling champion Don Duguid.
The province of Saskatchewan dominated the women’s national championship from 1969 to 1974, winning six straight national titles. From 1971 to 1973, Vera Pezer won three consecutive titles as a skip, a record until Nova Scotia’s Colleen Jones won four straight titles from 2001 to 2004.
In 1972, Macdonald Tobacco Company became the primary sponsor of the National Women’s Curling Championship and the tournament was renamed the Macdonald Lassies Championship. However, despite giving the event strong promotional and public relations support, they were pressured by the Canadian government to end their sponsorship in 1979 because of the government’s anti-tobacco thrust.
Scotties Tournament of Hearts
In 1982, a new era in women’s curling began when Scott Paper became the primary sponsor of the national women’s curling championship. The new event was initially known as the Scott Tournament of Hearts before a name change was made in 2007 to the Scotties Tournament of Hearts. According to curling historian Doug Maxwell, “the Scott Tournament of Hearts is Canada’s longest-running, sponsored national event.”
The other significant change to the Canadian women’s curling championship in the 1980s was the adoption of the Team Canada concept. In essence, this meant the reigning champions did not have to participate in provincial playdowns to qualify for the national championships; instead, they received an automatic berth and were known as Team Canada. (The Team Canada concept was instituted at the Brier for the first time in 2015.)
The most successful Canadian curler in the history of the Scott Tournament of Hearts is Nova Scotia’s Colleen Jones, who won six titles. The Halifax native won the first Scott Tournament of Hearts in 1982, followed by victories in 1999 and 2001–04. When Jones was not curling, she could be seen regularly on CBC as a sports broadcaster.
After the Colleen Jones dynasty, Winnipeg’s Jennifer Jones went on a notable run starting in 2005, when she won four Scotties in six years. Another repeat national champion is Ottawa’s Rachel Homan, who won the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in 2013 and 2014.
Women’s World Championship
The first Women’s World Curling Championship took place in 1979 with Gaby Casanova of Switzerland capturing the title. Marj Mitchell’s rink from Saskatchewan became the first Canadian team to win the Women’s World Curling Championship in 1980. Just three years later, Mitchell died of cancer at age 35. (Since 1998, the Scotties Tournament of Hearts Sponsorship Award has been named in Mitchell’s honour.)
The first Women’s World Curling Championship on Canadian soil took place in 1983 in Moose Jaw, SK with Switzerland hammering Norway 18–3 in the gold medal game. Canada’s Penny LaRocque of Nova Scotia lost 6–3 to Norway in the semifinal.
From 1984 to 1987, Canadian teams won four consecutive World Women’s Curling Championships, solidifying Canada as a superpower in women’s as well as men’s curling: three-time Scotties champion Connie Laliberte won in 1984; Linda Moore won in 1985; Marilyn Darte (later Bodogh) won in 1986; and Pat Sanders won in 1987.
In 1989, the Women’s World Curling Championship took place in the same location (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) as the Men’s World Curling Championship for the first time. Heather Houston defeated Norway’s Trine Trulsen in the gold medal game to join men’s champion Pat Ryan as Canadian world champions. The Women’s World Curling Championship would remain in the same location as the Men’s World Curling Championship until 2004. Since 2005, a World Championship has taken place in Canada every year, with the Women’s World Curling Championship in Canada in even years and the Men’s World Curling Championship in Canada in odd years.
In the 1990s, Canadian women won four World Women’s Curling Championships. Sandra Schmirler’s curling team from Saskatchewan won three titles (1993, 1994, 1997). Marilyn Bodogh also won the second Women’s World Curling Championship of her career in 1996 in front of an appreciative crowd at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton.
In the 2000s, Canadian women won five World Women’s Curling Championships: Kelley Law (2000); Colleen Jones (2001, 2004); Kelly Scott (2007); and Jennifer Jones (2008).
Canadian Mixed Championship
Another important national curling competition, the Canadian Mixed Curling Championship, began in 1964. Over the years, many Canadian mixed curling champions have also won the Brier or Scotties Tournament of Hearts. The list includes Rick Folk, Barry Fry, Jan Betker, Jeff Stoughton, Colleen Jones, Kevin Koe, Jean-Michel Ménard, Mark Dacey and Kim Kelly. In 2004 in Timmins, ON, Shannon Kleibrink of Alberta (who went on to skip Canada to a bronze medal at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Turin) became the first female curler to win the Canadian Mixed Curling Championship as a skip.
Other National Championships
Other curling competitions held in Canada include championships for Canadian Schoolboys (first held in 1950); National Seniors (since 1965); Canadian Junior Girls (1971); the Canadian Senior Ladies (55 and over; established 1973); the Canadian Masters (60 and over; established 2000) and the Canadian Wheelchair Curling Championship (established 2004).
There has been some debate about when curling became an Olympic sport. In 2006, the International Olympic Committee determined that curling had debuted at the first Olympic Winter Games in 1924. Thus, the British are now considered the first Olympic curling champions because of their 1924 win. After the 1924 Games, curling was a demonstration sport at the 1928 and 1932 Olympics, and then returned as a demonstration sport to the 1988 games.
In 1998 at Nagano, Japan, the sport was for the first time an official Olympic event. Though the Canadian men's team led by Mike Harris settled for silver, Sandra Schmirler's team from Regina captured the first women's Olympic gold medal in curling. Sadly, Schmirler died of cancer at age 36 just two years later in 2000.
The men's competition at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City was a battle between Canada, Norway and Switzerland. These well-matched teams played intense and close games, resulting in Norway taking the gold medal after a hard-fought game against Canada. The Canadians, skipped by Kevin Martin, won the silver medal and the Swiss the bronze. The Canadian women, skipped by Kelley Law, won the bronze medal. At the 2006 Olympic Games in Turin, Italy, the Canadian men's curling team won the gold, and the women's team, skipped by Shannon Kleibrink, again won the bronze.
The Canadian men’s team that won the 2006 Olympic Winter Games was skipped by Brad Gushue of St. John’s, Newfoundland. In the semifinal, the Canadian team scored five points in the ninth end on the way to an 11–5 win over the United States and then in the final scored a remarkable six points in the sixth end en route to a 10–4 win over Finland.
Canadian curlers enjoyed success once again at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. The Canadian men, led this time by Kevin Martin, won a second consecutive Olympic gold. The team, undefeated in round-robin play, proceeded to the final match where they defeated Norway 6–3. The women's team, led by Cheryl Bernard, were edged out by Sweden (6–7) and won silver.
At the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Canada won the gold medal in men’s and women’s curling at the same Olympics for the first time. The men’s team, led by skip Brad Jacobs, finished with a record of 7–2 in the round robin, beat China 10–6 in the semifinal, and Great Britain 9–3 in the gold medal game.
The women’s team, led by skip Jennifer Jones, enjoyed unprecedented Olympic success. They became the first Canadian women’s team at an Olympic Winter Games or World Women’s Curling Championship to go undefeated throughout the entire tournament. Jones’ team beat Great Britain 6–4 in the semifinal and Sweden 6–3 in the final to win Olympic gold.
In recent years, the Canadian Olympic Curling Trials has arguably passed the Brier and the Scotties Tournament of Hearts as the most important national curling event on Canadian soil. Canada’s elite curling teams have made the Olympic Winter Games a top priority and regularly form their teams in four-year cycles to maximize their preparation. In fact, winning the Canadian Olympic Curling Trials can be just as prestigious for Canadian curlers as winning an Olympic medal because of how difficult it is to beat the other elite teams throughout Canada.
W.A. Creelman, Curling: Past and Present (1950); Perry Lefko, Shannon England, The Queen of Curling: The Sandra Schmirler Story (2000); Gerald Redmond, The Sporting Scots of Nineteenth-Century Canada (1982); D.B. Smith, Curling: An Illustrated History (1981).