'A hard pill to swallow': Sask.'s Brier championship drought reaches 40 years

CBC

Jim Wilson realized they'd done something special when the final rock came to a stop and the crowd gave them a standing ovation.

Wilson had no idea his 1980 Brier victory with Ron Mills, Tom Wilson and skip Rick Folk would be the final time a Saskatchewan team would hoist the national men's curling trophy.

 "I was 26 years old. You think this will be an everyday occurrence," Wilson said in a recent interview inside his home rink, Saskatoon's Nutana Curling Club.

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"When I curl now and I see how sore I am, it sure does seem like 40 years, haha. But no, it goes by pretty quick."

With the Tim Horton's Brier underway in Kingston, Ont., Saskatchewan fans are hoping this will be the year the drought ends. After all, curling-mad Saskatchewan has 18,000 registered curlers in more than 230 clubs, according to the provincial governing body, CURLSASK.

The women's teams have had more success on the national stage in the last four decades, led by skips Marj Mitchell in 1980, the late Sandra Schmirler in 1993, 1994 and 1997, and Amber Holland in 2011.

Even the Saskatchewan Roughriders, no strangers to championship droughts, have captured three Grey Cups in this 40 year span.

"It has been a very long time. It is a hard pill to swallow," CURLSASK executive director Ashley Howard said.

Olivier Ferapie/CBC
Olivier Ferapie/CBC

Wilson said the biggest test during their 1980 championship run was qualifying at the ultra-competitive local level. Only seven out of the 125 teams from each club qualified for the city championships. They snuck into the final spot.

From there, they cruised nearly undefeated through the rounds at cities, northerns, provincials and the Brier in Calgary.

In the Brier final, they were up against ace Al Hackner of Northern Ontario, who would go on to win two titles in later years.

Saskatchewan jumped out to a 6-0 lead, but Hackner came back to tie. Saskatchewan surged ahead again in the late ends. Wilson remembers his team's final shot. They just needed to draw near the centre of the ring. The shot found its mark.

"It's there. It's there! Ah, great shot," the CBC Sports commentator said. "There goes one broom in the air. They're giving them a standing ovation."

The crowd erupted and Wilson's teammates were ecstatic. He said he was overwhelmed by a feeling of calm after so many stressful rounds and so many years of work.

"It was really just a sense of relief," he said.

Wilson would qualify for another Brier, but 1980 was the last national win for Saskatchewan.

Like most other teams at the time, Wilson and his crew had been curling together since they were classmates at Saskatoon's Aden Bowman Collegiate.

That's no longer the typical scenario. At the elite level, professional super teams are assembled with less connection to their home clubs or provinces. They use sponsorship and prize money to train full-time and compete extensively around the world.

Curling Canada
Curling Canada

Howard and Wilson said there are pros and cons to this new reality. They said these well-financed super teams have a better chance of succeeding at the world championship and Olympic level.

On the other hand, they said curling and its fans differ from other sports. It's seen as an activity for all. The Brier is still seen as an amateur championship where everyone has a chance.

Wilson said changes are needed. He said the Brier should no longer be used to determine Canada's team for international contests.

He'd like the Brier reserved for true amateurs — those coming from small town rinks, with day jobs.

Curlers over a certain income or sponsorship level could have their own tournaments. Those professional teams, with no provincial affiliations necessary, plus the top two teams from the Brier, could compete in a separate tournament for Olympic and world championship spots.

"A lot of these really good teams have their sponsorship money that is just huge," Wilson said.

"It's hard for a normal team to compete with that. You know, they just don't have the budget to go to spiels and practice and to get time off work. It's tough."

Howard said excellence should be a priority. Efforts are underway to improve coaching and expand curling to the university and other levels.

But Howard also calls herself a traditionalist. The residency requirements have become more relaxed over the years. Men from Saskatchewan have won the Brier since 1980, but they moved to other provinces to join other teams. Rick Folk won in 1994 with B.C.

The drought, however, extends far beyond the relaxed residency rules or the emergence of super teams.

Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press
Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press

In the Brier's 93-year history, Saskatchewan men have captured only seven titles. Four of those teams were skipped by icon Ernie Richardson.

Manitoba has won 27 times, with Alberta close behind at 26.

"It's time to take a look at things," Howard said.

Wilson, Howard and others will be following all the action this week as Regina resident Matt Dunstone tries to bring home the championship. Saskatchewan's team isn't ranked in the top half of the field, so it could be a difficult task.

"We'll be rooting for them," Howard said. "They have a chance. They really, really do."

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