Ed (the Wrench) Werenich Returns to CurlingBEHIND THE GLASS, inside the warm, wood-panelled lounge, the consensus is that out on the ice, The Comeback is faltering. "Eddie doesn't look like he belongs there," exclaims one man. Folks in the peanut gallery at the Minden Curling Club murmur in agreement and go back to their caesars - it's too early for rye, the weak winter sun having just crossed the yardarm. In the fourth end, Canada's most infamous curler appears to be in deep trouble. His attempt to draw a stone around a forest of guards has just failed miserably. The opposition skip adds insult, parking last rock in the house and scoring three for a 4-1 lead. Ed (the Wrench) Werenich mouths a silent obscenity, stuffs his hands into his pockets, and push-slides his way down to the other end of the sheet, puffs of breath trailing behind him.
There are three other games going on at the same time at this eastern Ontario qualifying tournament in Minden. It's the last-gasp chance for teams hoping to move on to the Ontario championship and contend for the country's top curling prize, the Nokia Brier. But the crowd in the lounge is really only interested in the match featuring the star attraction. At 56, the Wrench is easily the oldest guy on the ice, a couple of decades beyond most of his competitors. When he announced his retirement in 2000, his status as a legend in the sport was already cemented - remembered as much for his titanic scraps with the curling establishment as for his two world championships, two Canadian titles, 10 appearances at the Brier, and 18 trips to the provincial finals.
His unexpected return to competitive play last fall left a lot of people wondering what he was trying to prove. Werenich's new rink - fellow greybeards Neil Harrison and Lino Di Iorio, both 52, at vice and lead, and Ed's 25-year-old son Ryan - started strong, making the semifinals in three of its first four tournaments, but quickly faded from view. Now, they're on the bubble, the seniors' tour beckoning in the wings.
Other skips on the ice huddle with teammates or scream instructions to sweepers. Werenich does little beyond snapping his gum, tapping his old-fashioned corn broom where he wants the stones to land, and scowling. But in the fifth, he takes a point with last rock. In the sixth, he steals one. When his rink ties the score in the seventh, he allows himself a discreet fist-pump. The gallery is ready to believe again. "He hasn't changed - just his hair is whiter," says a woman with a golden wrench pinned to her cardigan.
The Wrench's rink steals two in the eighth and cruises to victory. In fact, he wins five straight in Minden to clinch a berth in this week's provincial finals, his first since 1997.
After he's made his way through a throng of well-wishers to buy the losing side a drink at the bar, Werenich plops down at a table and tries to explain why he's back spending his weekends in chilly, small-town rinks. "I didn't miss the game at all," he says. "I thought I'd never curl again. I mean, I had to quit when I did. I was awful, I couldn't make a shot." Last March, some old friends convinced him to make a one-off appearance at a Toronto bonspiel. He found the knee and back pain that had dogged him for years was gone. "I threw the rock like God. I made everything. It was unbelievable. I was never that good when I was good," Werenich cackles. The chance to play on a team with his son made the idea of a comeback irresistible.
Fans may be rejoicing, but it's hard to imagine many smiles in the offices of the provincial and national bodies that run the sport. By advancing to the "tankard" finals, their harshest critic is now back in the spotlight, gleefully throwing bombs, just like the old days. "The Brier curling is very weak," says Werenich. "I always get in shit for saying this, but the teams from out East aren't as strong as those from the West."
This is supposed to be a hatchet-burying season. There's a truce in the dispute between the Canadian Curling Association and the 12-year-old World Curling Tour cash-spiel circuit that kept most of the country's top teams out of the Brier the last two years. But the Wrench is not in a forgiving mood. "What the CCA has done is destroy the history of the game by being stupid. It all came down to a little bit of money," he says. "Now [Edmonton's] Randy Ferbey has won three Briers in a row. He didn't win anything. Look at who he played. There should be an asterisk in the record books."
Werenich, a Toronto firefighter, has traded shots with the CCA for years. In 1987, during the team selection process for curling's debut as a demonstration sport at the Calgary Winter Games, the CCA threatened to disqualify him if he didn't shed some pounds from his portly frame, a public humiliation he has never forgotten. In 1990, when he won his second Canadian title, he took his revenge by suggesting he'd boycott the Worlds unless the CCA-appointed national team coach stayed at home. Now, with the 2006 Winter Games on the horizon, he's incensed at what he sees as more attempts by the CCA to punish WCT players and manipulate who will get the chance to represent Canada in Turin, Italy. "They've already snuck in a rink from Halifax," says Werenich (Mark Dacey's team gets a guaranteed spot at the Olympic trials by virtue of having finished second at last year's Brier). "I don't know what the hell he's going to do there - other than finish last, I guess."
Dave Parkes, chief executive officer of the CCA, chuckles when asked if he has a strategy for dealing with the outspoken Werenich. "We'll deal with Ed the same way we deal with any player out there," he says. "People who want to learn the facts will do so. People who want to listen to this other stuff will do so." Parkes says the demands of the WCT players - they want the right to wear uniforms with their own sponsors' logos rather than the Brier sponsors' - could cost the CCA hundreds of thousands of dollars, undercutting its ability to stage the costly event. The Olympic qualifying process remains largely unchanged from past years, he says.
George Karrys won a silver medal for Canada at the 1998 Nagano Games as part of Mike Harris's rink. Now the publisher and editor of Canadian Curling News, Karrys says he's not surprised Werenich has found a way to again get up the noses of curling's pooh-bahs. "Eddie was always very aggressive, on and off the ice," he says. "He's the hero of the common man - the ultimate blue-collar curler." Earlier this season, at a tournament in Gander, Nfld., some people travelled three or four hours just to watch the Wrench. Karrys expects a similar response at this week's provincials in Owen Sound. "Eddie is the huge sentimental favourite to win," he says.
Werenich says his expectations have already been surpassed this season. He figures he's curling at about 75 per cent, something he couldn't have accepted in the past but is untroubled by now. "I'm basically lazy. I should get on the treadmill, get on a program and work real hard. I could probably get three or four more good years, but I'm having fun," he says, laughing again to prove it. It's like the old days, growing up in Benito, Man., where kids made their own rocks by freezing barn hinges into jam jars, and played outside in the Prairie cold, gambling for comic books.
Part of The Comeback's appeal is that it's been like a reunion. "This year, I played Glenn Howard four or five times." he says. "I played Al Hackner. I played Guy Hemmings. We've been battling each other for 30 years now. It's like an old-folks home out there. There are no secrets - you play hard and go to the bar." Werenich pushes his ball cap back on his head and looks around the lounge. The din is growing as the beer bottles pile up on the wood tabletops. Old friends and rivals are waiting to say hello. "This is the kind of place I feel comfortable in," he says. "Once you get bitten by this game, it's just unbelievable."
Maclean's February 9, 2004