VANCOUVER – So your curling fandom revolves around the Scotties, does it?
Did you know there is a Canadian team battling in a world championship right now? And in relative obscurity? And in British Columbia, not far from the Victoria STOH?
The last time we saw Jim Armstrong he was teaching some poor patsy the three-man lift, a gimmick that has been carried on in fine fashion by famous lead players Jamie Korab (Team Brad Gushue), Ben Hebert (Team Kevin Martin) and others.
It was right around his days as president of the World Curling Players’ Association, and somewhat far removed from his playing career which saw him compete in six Briers, losing the 1987 final to Russ Howard.
So it is initially, admittedly, a bit shocking to see the big man wheeling round the brand new Vancouver Olympic/Paralympic Centre, wearing the Maple Leaf for the first time as skip for Team Canada at the 2009 World Wheelchair Curling Championship (WCF photo by Dallas Bittle, click to zoom).
But we get used to seeing this. Armstrong looks comfortable – enough – and patient in his chair. Only playing for two years, after first being invited to “hang out” with Team Canada at a training camp, Armstrong is now the skip of a national team that has been rebuilding ever since 2006 Paralympic champion skip Chris Daw left the scene.
We asked Jim if he’s ever tempted to just stand up, get out of that chair and walk over to the stone he wants to freeze to, or hit, or draw around.
“Yeah,” said Army.
“But that first step would be ugly.”
Was he initially nervous, playing for Canada for the first time in his career?
“Yeah I was, a little bit,” said Armstrong.
“I think anytime you’re in this setting, if you’re not getting the butterflies there’s something wrong.”
There are some colourful characters in wheelchair curling. German skip Jens Jaeger lets out occasional whoops and likes to take mock, exaggerated bows to his coaches and fans with every victory.
Jaeger hasn’t been in the worlds since 2005 – when he finished in 13th place – but he smoked everybody at the Worlds Qualifier in Prague, and he is pretty much smoking everybody here in Vancouver – he’s through to the Page 1/2 game Friday night, against Sweden. He’s certainly come a long way.
Canada plays another colourful team, the United States, in the Page 3/4 game, also Friday night at 8:00pm. They finished third, Canada fourth. They also won bronze last year. And they have a few wild childs on that team, let us tell you.
Then there’s China and Korea – two teams among five that finished just one game out of the playoffs – which are the loudest teams around. Both squads like to yell at the rocks, from release to finish, as if they want to just stand up, get out of those chairs and run over to the stones to sweep them. Chinese skip Haitao Wang has a particularly brutish, gutteral baritone… which you can hear from the players’ lounge.
These guys – and gals – can shoot, too. And they’re incredibly pleasant, funny and grounded, even compared to the majority of able-bodied curlers.
“There are no asses in this game,” says Armstrong.
“And I’m guessing its because they’ve all got a story about how they got here.”
You got that right, Army.
Here’s hoping that Vancouverites come out and support the wheelies, support Team Canada. There’s only a handful of draws left: Frday night (8:00pm), Saturday morning (9:00am) and the Gold and Bronze Medal games on Saturday at 2:30pm.
Admission is just five bucks.
So get down here. Here’s the event website.
For those outside Vancouver, you can follow the results here… and read a ton of draw summaries here… but best of all is some live blogging, focussing on Team Canada games, going on at the popular Wheelchair Curling Blog.
If you can get out of your chair – unlike these athletes – then come on down. Otherwise, get online and check it out.