Curling championship leaves its mark on Nunavut capital

Stone thrower's Iqaluit legacy

By CHRIS WINDEYER

There's no denying that hockey is at the top of Nunavut's sports pyramid.

But organizers of the Canadian Mixed Curling Championships, which wrapped up in Iqaluit last weekend, wanted to ensure a legacy for the event, in the form of a new crop of budding young curlers.

Enter William Tschirhart. The veteran curling instructor from Sidney, British Columbia, 25 kilometres north of Victoria, estimates he's been teaching curling "forever," then for "a thousand years." He later revises his estimate downward to 30 years.

The Canadian Curling Association brought in Tschirhart for the Learn To Curl program, which ran alongside the mixed tournament at the Iqaluit Curling Club last week.

"The enjoyment and the fun of the game is what we're most concerned about," Tschirhart says, before a throng of Grade 4 and 5 students from Nakasuk School take over the curling club.

He teaches his students the basics of the game, getting them used to navigating the ice with a Teflon-coated slider that goes over the shoe, then teaching how to throw stones and sweep.

"Usually people surprise themselves at how quickly they can [learn to] deliver a curling rock," Tschirhart says.

With help from Nunavut curler Peter Geike, Tschirhart teaches the kids how to slide on the ice, pushing off with the non-slider foot.

The slider is what gives a curler the momentum needed to deliver a shot, and the students encounter varying degrees of success. Several students fall, and brooms and sliders go flying, though no one is hurt.

Then the students are divided into four big groups, then divided again into red teams and blue teams of four, corresponding to the colour of the rocks they'll learn to throw. The teams throw rocks and try to knock the other teams' out of the rings (known as the house).

This exercise prompts in one case a fierce girls-versus-boys scenario with four girls loudly urging Grade 5 student Akshuyalia Onalik to knock his own red stone out of the rings.

Instead, after some hesitation while the girls chant "Throw! Throw! Throw!" Onalik calmly takes out their blue stone to score two. The girls are crestfallen.

Most of the students say they'd like to play again, though few are sure they'd want to take up the sport full time.

Grade 5 student Jessica Peter said she doesn't think she'd give up hockey for curling, but said curling was fun and easy to learn. And more kids should try it, she said.

"It was really fun. They should check this curling stuff out."

By week's end, nearly 200 students and adults passed through the Learn To Curl program. Geike, a board member of the Iqaluit Curling Club, knows only a few will ever take up the sport full time. But the point of the program was to get people to see how fun the sport is, then later build the skills of those who return to play again.

As for national competition, Geike says he hopes to see a Team Nunavut competing in the national junior championships, perhaps as soon as 2010. Nunavut is entitled to a spot in that tournament.

"We're a little bit away from the Brier or the Scott," he says.

Tschirhart says Nunavut could one day qualify a team for the Brier or the Scott, respectively the national championships for men and women.

But any rink from here would have to get through teams from the Yukon and Northwest Territories who have more, and more experienced, curlers.

With a smaller talent pool north of 60, seeing a Nunavut rink competing for a national championship one day isn't out of the question.

"Try going to the Brier from southern Ontario," Tschirhart says. "The road is endless. So there are some advantages to being from the North."

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