Saturday, Dec. 16, 2006 | The sport of curling registers in the consciousness of most San Diegans about once every four years, if that, when Olympics TV coverage reminds them about the little-known ice sport. Sunny December mornings here are a far cry – geographically and ideologically – from the frigid temperatures of Labret, Saskatchewan, Canada.
But Elliot Hicks, a Canadian born in Labret – population 173 – is trying to bridge that gap by organizing Canadian ex-pats and transplanted American Midwesterners into a curling league. The winter game, played on long, skinny sheets of ice, is more than a few people sliding rocks and sweeping brooms, he says. It’s a social phenomenon, a game for the sporty but athletically disinclined, a chance to find a little bit of winter in a place that sees near-perpetual sunshine.
Hicks, an M.I.T. alum in mechanical engineering, sat down with voiceofsandiego.org around a picnic table at La Jolla Shores one recent sunny morning to chat about the finer points of curling – including specialized shoes, gloves, and $5,000 concrete rocks – and being a Canadian in San Diego.
How long did you live in Labret?
Well, for about five years, and then I moved to a “city” of 1,800 people, and that’s where I lived until I went to school at M.I.T. (in Boston) when I turned 18.
Do you have kids, a family here in San Diego?
I actually have one daughter who’s about four months old.
How soon do you think you’ll be teaching her to curl?
[laughs] Well, the stones weigh 42 pounds each. As a club, we’ve set up a minimum age of 11 years old.
Do you have anyone that young?
Not yet. We do have a couple of 16-, 17-year-old high school kids that are interested. They’ve been playing in a couple of our open houses so far. I think we’ll have sort of a youth segment. But we really have a wide range of people and ages involved.
So, how does the curling club in San Diego work? Are you a full-time staff member for it?
We’re just getting started. We started as a Yahoo group at the beginning of the year, just kind of people that were interested in it. … One of the people that’s out here, helping organize this, is John Wilson, who started the Ogden Curling Club in advance of the 2002 Olympics. They didn’t have any curling in Utah. Setting up the Ogden Curling Club was part of getting a curling venue for the Olympics. So he had experience getting that started and he’s very involved with the USCA, which is the U.S. Curling Association. He’s an officer there so he has a lot of experience starting a club and a lot of contacts in the community.
What’s the culture like for curling in San Diego? I mean, we’re sitting at the beach in December. It’s not exactly a winter-sporting town.
(laughs) No, it isn’t And it’s really just kind of getting started. There are a lot of transplants in San Diego, which helps a lot. There’s a rising number of Canadians – apparently, like 40,000 Canadians in the San Diego area.
So, yeah, there’s a surprising number of Canadians who are popping out of the woodwork, saying, ‘I had no idea there was any curling in San Diego,’ so they’re excited. And we have a lot of people from, you know – Wisconsin, Michigan, the Northeast, where there is some curling out there.
But a lot of people that are interested in the club just saw it on TV during the Olympics and thought, ‘Wow, that looks like fun, I want to try it.’ So we’ve had a lot of those people. And the North County Scots have been very generous supporters. They actually provided one of our sets of rocks, which is a big deal. It’s about $5,000 for a set of rocks.
How many are in a set?
Sixteen stones is a set of rocks, and we need four sets of rocks in order to really form a league.
What about the kind of person? Is there someone who is, sort of, a ‘typical curler?’
Not really. I think if there’s any sort of common thread, it’s that people that are attracted to curling are generally fairly social and fairly relaxed. If you’re kind of a hard core, competitive person, you’ve got to tone it down a little bit in order to curl. It’s not that curling isn’t competitive, it can be very competitive. But certainly, for the most part, it’s a very social sport. … It requires a lot of skill but not a lot of athletic ability. So it can be for people that are interested in sports but don’t necessarily have the athletic ability to participate in some of the other sports.
How many people are involved in the San Diego curling club?
It’s a little hard to say, because our Yahoo group has grown to … about 60 people now or so, and we have sort of an interest list that’s probably an additional 80 people. We continue to grow – the last open houses we had 30 or 40 people. … At the moment we’re playing at the Isoplex in Escondido, it’s a hockey rink, so we only have a limited amount of time. And we also have a limited amount of equipment to start. We have a couple sets of very old stones, which actually came from a different hockey rink somewhere in the L.A. area.
They were bought sometime in the ’60s, maybe early ’70s, somebody who tried curling for a while, and apparently it was working. So they buried them … under the floor. So they were recently discovered; somebody discovered two very old, but functional, sets of curling stones under the floor, kind of buried in an ice rink in the L.A. area. So they’ve been kind of traveling around. We’ve been trying to get a hold of them for the last couple of months, and the Isoplex has been nice enough to give us some free ice time so that we can have open houses and start building interest so we can open up league play.
You wouldn’t be playing teams from another city, though, right? Would it be inter-club play?
Well, yes and no. We’ll be having league play where it’s just inter-club play. A curling sheet is narrower than a hockey rink, so you can fit four, maybe even five curling sheets onto a hockey rink and have four games going on at one time. So that’s usually how a league would work, you’d have eight to 12 teams, and four games going on at once.
But there are also regional and national playdowns – there is a whole play-down system for getting to the national championship. … The Mountain Pacific area doesn’t produce a whole lot of teams.
Do you expect that, in the future, San Diego could be a breeding ground for Olympic curlers? Or do you think the club will be a little more relaxed than that?
I don’t think it’ll happen anytime soon, but I don’t see that there’s any particular reason why not. The biggest impediment is probably (the lack of) a dedicated curling facility. And San Diego is tough to build in because it’s so expensive. But if we were able to build up the interest it’s possible that we might be able to do it.
I think curling in San Diego is an interesting proposition because it’s an interesting place to have curling. I think we’ll appeal to some people as sort of an alternative to some of the beach sports. … But also, curling has a lot of bonspiels, which are weekend tournaments, and, I think that as a destination bonspiel, for people up in Canada and in the American Northeast and places like that – you know, people in the summertime who want to curl.
Or, in the winter for people who want to get out of the snow?
A little of both. Well, we’ll probably start with a summer bonspiel until we build up some steam. And then I’d like to have a couple a year, so we’d have a winter and a summer. We’re working on that. We’d like to get the bonspiel started for next summer.
You mentioned that San Diego is an unusual place (for curling). What do you think the attitude is toward winter? Do people even really remember that winter exists in San Diego?
(laughs) Um, not really. One of the reasons why organizing things in the summer is a little bit easier is because ice time is actually a lot harder to come by in the wintertime. So there is a bias toward winter sports being played in the winter in San Diego.
Although, by the same token – I play a lot of different sports – and it’s … perpetual here. You know, having come from Boston, where you play some sports here, and other sports there. San Diego is definitely … all blurred together.
And I think that’s kind of a problem. I think in most sports, like curling, you kind of need an off-season. Give people a chance to recharge.
What’s your day job?
It’s hard to define what exactly I do. My title is director of operations and I work for a technology startup.
And why did you come to San Diego, was it because of the job?
No, actually, my wife grew up in San Diego. We met in Boston, playing hockey, actually, and she got tired of the cold and dragged me out here.
Do you think you’ll ever go back to Canada?
What do you miss about it, anything?
I miss the seasons, actually. I miss the winter. I do miss having curling clubs. I mean, where I grew up, there was a curling club in every – everything that could be considered a town had a curling club. It was almost like the definition of what was actually a town. If you didn’t have a curling club then you were just a house. But even very rudimentary curling facilities. Like, one of the towns near where I was had maybe 15 houses in it – tiny population – and their curling shack was an enclosed building. They didn’t even have any real heating or cooling; it was all natural ice. So you go in, to get out of the wind and stuff like that, but you had to be dependent on the fact that it was going to be cold enough for you to have actual ice.
And Labret, the town I was born in, their curling club wasn’t actually that bad, but it was right near the train tracks. So you had to be very careful about when you took your shot, because when a train was going by, everything would shake. The rocks would shake and move. If you took a shot and the train went by, you were screwed – it would vibrate off to the side.
What has the Olympics done to keep curling in the consciousness of people who would otherwise not know anything about it?
Well, there’s been a tremendous amount of growth in curling. There are new clubs in the L.A. area as well and there are several new clubs that have popped up on the west coast in the U.S. People are much more aware of it.
In the last Olympics, my friends know that I curl, so I get a lot of questions. You know, people start seeing it on TV, they have questions for me.
They want to know what the rules are…
Yeah, they want to understand what’s going on. So, it piques people’s interests. I know in the 2002 Olympics NBC’s rating for curling was about triple that of other non-mainstream sports. Which is why, in the last one, there was so much more curling broadcast. I could see entire games, and just about everything was broadcast. It was great.
Is Canada sort of the premier nation for curling? What other countries are major players?
Well, Canada is always competitive and has the largest number of players. Great Britain always does well, mostly because of the Scottish teams. (Medieval Scotland is credited with the birth of the sport, and Scottish emigrants carried the game to Canada.) Sweden does well, Norway is pretty good. So, the northern European countries and Canada are kind of the major players. The Japanese are actually pretty good. … They hosted the Olympics in 1998, and they went from no curling to having pretty good curling teams. …
And, going back to your question – Can we produce Olympic-quality teams in San Diego? It’s not really a question of what the weather’s like outside. It’s really a question of how interested people are in getting good at it. You only need four fairly talented people and enough time to practice.