CONWAY — In just its fourth year, the Mount Washington Valley Curling Club has grown by leaps and bounds and starting Thursday, it also has the singular honor of hosting the Grand National Curling Club’s Arena Club Championships.
At Ham Arena in Conway Village, the championships — which culminate on Sunday with the finals featuring competitors being led in to the strains of a bagpipe music, a toast of Drambuie to the sport, each other and the sincere wish for “good curling” — will feature 24 Eastern Region teams from as far south as Atlanta and as far west as Pittsburg.
The championships are open to the public and admission is free. For anyone unable to attend in person, the action will be live streamed at www.mwvcurling.org.
Pete Ellis, tournament chairman — or in curling terms, the club bonspiel — said he and his fellow curlers at the MWVCC are happy to be hosting the championships, but with typical curling modesty, he expressed that sentiment mildly.
Curling, said Ellis, who grew up playing hockey in Massachusetts and now resides in Madison, is “a game played by ladies and gentlemen.” Curlers don’t cheer their good or lucky shots, nor do they cheer their opponent’s failures. Victories are quietly acknowledged, not celebrated, which is apropos, said Ellis, because curling, like golf, originated in Scotland, and most Scottish golfers when they win will simply tip their cap to the applauding crowd.
Despite its gentility, curling can be and is an intense sport, Ellis said, recalling that the first time he saw it was during a trip he and his wife Paula-Jeanne took to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“I turned on the TV looking for a hockey game and I found none,” he said, instead, “I saw idiots running around hollering and I didn’t understand a single thing at all.”
Nonetheless, Ellis was intrigued and the next morning he went to a local bookstore where he bought “Curling for Dummies,” returning to his hotel room desperately hoping that there’d be some curling on the TV, and there was.
Later, he realized that the “idiots” he saw the previous day were competing in the men’s Canadian championship.
The Ellises began curling at a club on Cape Cod where they lived and, when they came north, they joined with like-minded folks, among them Pat Kittle, who is the MWVCC’s president, to bring curling to the Ham Arena.
A board member at the arena, Kittle said he was approached by several people after the 2010 winter Olympics and asked about starting a curling club in Conway.
Kittle conceded that “It took a bit of time and effort to convince the rink director and the other board members that this was not a crazy idea,” but in spring 2011, the club held an informational meeting attended by 70 would-be curlers.
Today, the MWVCC has that many members, who come from all over the Mount Washington Valley as well as points north and south well into the Lakes Region and beyond. The club has previously hosted tournaments, but the GNCC’s Arena Club Championships are its biggest ever.
Both Ellis and Kittle hope that the championships will go off well and that they may also fire the interest of a new generation of curlers.
Nationally, curling is growing “something better than modestly,” said Ellis, who noted that “every four years we get the ‘Olympic bump.’”
Curling is played by 1.5 million people worldwide, he pointed out, the overwhelming majority of them in Canada where the game was brought in the early 19th century by Scottish soldiers posted there. Gradually, curling found its way into the U.S. and, along with golf, was a sport most commonly played at country clubs.
The high cost of operating a curling-only facility, however, forced many of the country clubs to give up curling, but the sport successfully migrated to multi-use arenas, like the Ham Arena where it has thrived.
Ellis and Kittle thanked their fellow club members as well as the Conway community for rallying around the Arena Club Championships which begin — minus the Drambuie — today at noon.