Curling up north: Northern territories represented at the 2020 Brier

In 2018, Curling Canada, the sport’s national governing body, made some key changes to the men’s and women’s national championships.

For the first time in history, every province and territory would be guaranteed a spot at nationals. The decision was made, in part, to grow the sport across the country, especially in areas where curling isn’t so popular.

Curlers in the Yukon and Nunavut seem to have benefitted the most from the new policy, with the territories having competed in each of the last three Briers and Scotties Tournament of Hearts.

At this week’s Tim Hortons Brier, both territories are seeking to build on the experience they have gained over the last few years, going up against some of the best curling rinks in the world.

Life as a competitive curler in Canada’s North is dramatically different than it is for those in curling ‘hotbeds,’ like Manitoba or Saskatchewan.

For one, teams like Thomas Scoffin’s (Yukon) or Jake Higgs’ (Nunavut), struggle to find competitive opponents throughout the season. While Ontario may say a solid field of contenders at its provincial championships, the same cannot be said for the territories.

For example, at this year’s Yukon men’s playdowns, Thomas Scoffin’s rink faced just two challengers, winning the double round robin 4-0.

This puts teams like Scoffin’s at a major competitive disadvantage heading into nationals. While many of the rinks in contention this week compete regularly on the World Curling Tour, the Brier is typically the only truly ‘competitive’ event of the season for teams in the territories.

“There’s very few competitive curlers right now in Whitehorse and we have to travel quite a bit to play down in BC and Alberta,” Scoffin said of the competitive challenges that come from curling up north.

While Scoffin’s rink does face some unique challenges as curlers from the Yukon, the squad at least is able to regularly compete and practice together, which is not the case for Team Nunavut

Only two members of Jake Higg’s rink actually live in Nunavut, and the skip himself resides in Strathroy Ontario. This adds to the team’s already considerable disadvantage, as they are unable to work together as a foursome outside of major competitions.

“It’s hard for the team to practice and prepare together, and this year, because things were pretty busy, we weren’t able to get together and do some bonspiels,” said Nunavut lead Edmund MacDonald.

These disadvantages mean teams from the northern territories arrive at nationals with different goals than some of the more elite squads. While rinks like Kevin Koe’s and Brad Jacob’s expect nothing less than to the win the whole tournament, teams from the territories have some lessened expectations.

“Just take it one game at a time and hope to get a couple of wins,” said Thomas Scoffin of his team’s goals this week.

While rinks like Jake Higgs’ and Thomas Scoffin’s are relatively new to the Brier, the same cannot be said about the Northwest Territories’ Jamie Koe. Koe, who hails from Yellowknife, has represented the territories 14 times at nationals. Throughout his nearly two-decade career, the veteran skip has seen the game grow up north.

“Looking at our juniors right now, they’re a little young but there’s a lot in the 10-15 range that are up-and-comers, so the future looks bright,” Koe said.

While the game has grown overall, Koe acknowledges that the pace may have slowed in recent years.

“I think we’re struggling like most other places,” said Koe.  “[It’s] tough to get members now, similar to clubs across the country.”

Having a team represented at the national championships certainly helps to grow the sport of curling. Exposure on social media and national television can help inspire future generations of athletes in Canada’s north.

“The more exposure we can get the better,” said Thomas Scoffin. “I think if younger kids seeing that on TV can kind of put themselves in our shoes one day, that would be awesome.”

Some critics and players have begun to question whether representation of every province and territory is needed at the Scotties and Brier. However, for the game to grow and inspire future generations of athletes to get involved in competitive curling, it is important that young people see their home province/territory represented on the national-stage.

Dylan Chenier is a busy student, writer and actor. When he’s not writing about his favourite sports like curling or auto racing, he can often be found on-stage or behind the scenes at the Domino Theatre. Follow him on Twitter for more 2020 Brier coverage at @DylanC98.

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