Merv Curls Lead
If you’re a member of the world’s curling elite, Merv Bodnarchuk, curling impresario, has got a deal for you. Join the all-star team he’s putting together, and he’ll pay you more money than any curler has ever made. There’s just one catch.
Red Deer, Alberta – December 3
Merv Bodnarchuk peeled a crisp new hundred-dollar bill from the wad of cash he kept tucked in the pocket of his curling pants and he ordered another round: two bottles of Pilsner for me, two cans of Coors Light and two glasses of Clamato juice for him. He poured the beer and juice, mixed half and half, into another glass to make a concoction he called a Clam’s Eye. He took a long tug on the blood-red drink, and told me to hurry and down my Pilsners; he was ready to order another double round. It was late, nearing closing time on a Thursday night in early December, and JB’s Lounge in the Black Knight Inn in Red Deer, Alberta, was packed with the world’s finest curlers, in town for the Skyreach Curling Classic IV. Famous athletes, of a kind, they sat drinking Molson Canadian and rye and Cokes and Paralyzers, filling ashtrays with stubbed-out du Mauriers, discussing life on the bonspiel circuit. They were dressed in nylon sweatsuits and curling jackets with the names of hometown car dealerships and grain-supply companies stitched on the chest. The chubby, rosy-cheeked members of the Harris team, from Toronto, Olympic silver medal winners in 1998, stood propping up the bar in the red Nagano Team Canada winter jackets, which they insisted on wearing inside, despite the close, smoky warmth of JB’s. The curlers had converged on Red Deer from small towns and cities across the prairies and Rockies and eastern provinces, just as curlers have come together to play almost since these parts were first settled.
Merv was forty-eight, older than most in JB’s, a wealthy, barrel-chested Vancouver venture capitalist with a thick moustache and a booming voice and a surprisingly gentle handshake. He and I sat alone at a table, slightly apart from the rest. The other curlers in JB’s had an easy familiarity with each other, their friendships and rivalries formed over thousands of hours spent on freezing curling rinks, watching each other slide a forty-pound slab of granite 150 feet down a sheet of ice. The curlers gathered in the bar were nearly all white, and most were in their thirties. they held down day jobs as farmers or accountants or teachers; they were in sales or trucking or government.
There generally isn’t a great deal of money to be made in curling – for most teams, winnings don’t exceed expenses – but what money there is, is made in the first half of the season, in what is known as the World Curling Tour. The tour runs every weekend from late September until Christmas in curling clubs across the country (the World, in this instance is defined, for the most part, as Canada). The Red Deer bonspiel was the second-richest event on the tour; the winning team would take home $40,000.
In the second half of the season, overseen by the Candian Curling Association, the goal is to qualify for the Labatt Brier national finals in March, and the only rewards along the way are a trophy, face time on television, local-hero status, and the right to claim a corner of an antique mythology.
For Merv Bodnarchuk, though, the small-town traditions and ideals of curling held little appeal. He was going to make big bucks out of curling, upend the game, revolutionize the sport. Merv had a business plan. A concept. Curling is a major draw on Canadian television, he said, second only to hockey in ratings for sports. The Brier, he said, pulls in a bigger audience than the Superbowl or the Grey Cup. In the United States, however, curling was next to nowhere. No cable deal, no Olympic medals, no Brier. But Merv was going to change all that. He had named his team the Anaheim Earthquake, and despite the fact that few people in that southern California city had ever heard of curling, let alone Merv’s team, the Earthquake was, at least notionally, the pride of Anaheim. Merv said he was going to make curling big in California, as big as beach volleyball. Hell, Merv was going to create beach curling; the technology exists to make ice anywhere, he said. He would put a rink at the corner of Hollywood and Vine and get Jay Leno or Arnold Schwarzenegger to try the game. He was going to start a professional curling league, with the Anaheim Earthquake as the charter member and franchises in half a dozen sunbelt cities. He would package the games and sell them to American cable sports networks. Merv said he was getting a work visa for the States in the next week or two; as soon as the curling season was done he was moving to California. He said there weren’t many entrepreneurial-type people left in Canada beaus Canadians always sneered at ambition, always found reasons why things couldn’t be done. Like the rest of the Earthquake -indeed, like every single man curling in the Classic – Merv was Canadian, but before long, he said, he was going to get citizenship in the United States, and then he was going to hire a team of curlers to come down from Canada and play for him. He would get his players citizenship, too. They would curl for the U.S. at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City and win the gold medal.
“Imagine the publicity of winning a gold medal for America,” Merv said. “I have to be up on that podium.”
Paying for another double round of Clam’s Eyes and Pilsners, Merv explained that he had come late to the game: he had curled as a boy in the prarie town of Binscarth, Manitoba, and socially in the years since, but he had only taken it up in earnest in his forties. He had spent more than half a million dollars on curling in the past four years – half a million U.S., he said – and that was before he had even launched his invasion of America. The sums Merv has parted with were, of course, unheard of. No one spent half a million dollars on curling, and certainly not doing what Merv did: paying top players lucrative salaries to curl on his team. As a rule, teams are formed out of local alliances and common ambition, but not the Earthquake; to create the Earthquake, Merv recruited the best players money could buy from across Canada. He offered handsome wages and a quarter-share of all prize money, and he covered all expenses: rent on the apartments in Vancouver he leased for his players, airplane tickets, entry fees to bonspiels, meals, hotels, drinks in the bar after a day at the rink. His curlers would give up their day jobs and curl full-time. The Earthquake would be the only professional franchise on the tour, and, of course, they would be unbeatable. All this, with only one proviso – Merv would curl lead.
Wayne Middaugh, the skip of the current Brier – and world champion – team, walked past our table, and Merv waved him over. “What’s the most money you ever made in your life?” he asked Middaugh. “How much would it take to get you to come to California and play with me next year?” Middaugh was narrow-shouldered and soft-chinned, a Midland, Ontario, golf pro in his early thirties; he was arguably the single best curler in the world.
“I don’t know, Merv,” Middaugh said. “What are you offering?”
“A hundred grand,” Merv said. “A hundred grand American.”
Middaugh looked amazed. He didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no; he whistled and he backed away from Merv and made for the lobby of the inn.
Merv asked me if I wanted a slice of pizza, and I said no. He bought us each two slices. C’mon, eat up, he said. The whole night, we’d been sitting on the fair side of the bar from all the curlers. Now a drunken shout came from across the room, directed our way.
“There he is,” a curler called. “Merv Bodnarchuk – Mr. Curling.”
The curlers in JB’s Lounge turned and laughed.
Merv lowered his gaze.
“Some people like me and others don’t,” he said quietly. “You have to take the good with the bad.”
The next morning, the sky was slate-grey, and the parking lot outside the Reed Deer Centrium Arena was slick with ice. Inside, the Plexiglas surrounding the hockey rink had been removed, and the relatively crude ice used for hockey had been covered with five perfectly level, perfectly white sheets of curling ice; the climate and relative humidities were carefully monitored by computer sensors, the surface shaved and shammied and sprinkled with tiny drops of purified warm water, which froze on contact and formed millions of pimple sized pebbles. These served as the gliding surface for the rocks and created the low rumbling sound that envelops the game and is imprinted on every curler’s unconscious.
To an outsider, curling can appear arcane, but the basics of the game are straightforward. There are four positions on a team – lead, second, third, skip – and they rise in the order of which they shoot and the degree of skill required. The skip is the most important; the lead, where Merv Bodnarchuk curled, the least. Each player delivers two rocks in each of the ten rounds, or ends, that make up a game, but each player has a specific role: the skip stays at the far end of the rink, directing the placement of shots; when everyone else has curled, the skip then shoots the last, usually decisive, two rocks. The other three curlers rotate through the shooting and sweeping positions, each delivery mounting in complexity and import.
Thirty-two teams had paid the $1,500 entry fee for the Skyreach Classic in the hope of qualifying for one of the eight places in the final rounds – the money rounds – and all five sheets in the arena were in use. The seeming inelegance of the curlers back in JB’s Lounge – their stout bodies and skinny arms, their short legs and thick waists – was replaced, in the Centrium, by a preternatural grace, like a walrus finding hits element as it slips into water. They slid down the ice and released their stones with the delicacy of a loving caress.
The Centrium resounded with shouts of curlers and the smack of granite colliding with granite. No! the skip would call to the sweepers once a stone was released and he could begin to assess the shot’s prospects. No, Lay right of her, Never, Not ever. And then Yes! would suddenly be yelled, the voices as harsh as a pirate captain on the high seas: Yes! Yes! Don’t stop. Hard! Harder! Harder! Every inch! Hurry Hard! HURRY HURRY HURRRRRRY! The sweepers worked their brooms at a furious pace, trying to measure the speed and line of the rock against its objective, careful not to touch the rock with their brooms, not to “burn” a stone and disqualify it from play. The various uses of sweeping – to melt the ice for a split second and create a fine layer of water and train the rock to a straighter course, to clean the ice and make sure a rock doesn’t “pick” on a piece of dirt or grit and stray from its appointed path – are fundamental to the game. It is sweeping, married with the ice conditions and the turn given to the handle of the stone as it is let go, that determines the amount of curl in curling. If delivery of the rock is taken to be Nature, then sweeping is Nurture: in a game of inches, and fractions of inches, sweeping can change the destiny of a thrown stone by as much as eight or ten feet.
It was still early in the draw in Red Deer, but things hadn’t been going very well for the Earthquake so far: they had already lost twice and they faced elimination if they lost again. Things hadn’t, in truth, gone very well for the Earthquake all season long. Despite their billing as a Dream Team, and all the money Merv was spending this year, they had yet to win a bonspiel. The $17,500 in prize money they had managed to collect placed them twentieth on the WCT rankings, the last qualifying place for the tour championship in March. At the Husky Oil bonspiel in Saskatoon, in one of only two games the Earthquake had played on television, Merv had misplayed a shot in sudden-death overtime and cost his team the game. Off the ice, too, there had been woes. Merv had fired the team’s third, Bryan Derbowka, after a spiel in Portage La Prarie, Manitoba. Sharp words had been exchanged. In November, at the SGI Charity Classic in Regina, in the parking lot outside the Agridome arena, Merv had been punched in the face by a disgruntled investor in a car-rental company Merv had started in Vancouver. Merv’s curlers had been called “mercenaries” in the Winnipeg Free Press and other players had muttered that they were curling prostitutes and whores.
The Earthquake were scheduled to play next against the team, the “rink,” of Mike Harris, the Olympic medalists. Before the match, Merv’s team took their warm-up slides. Dale Duguid, the skip, went first. Last year the team Dale had skipped was the Manitoba champion and a semifinalist in the Brier. He was thirty-nine and being paid more than $50,000 by Merv, by far the largest amount on the team, in deference to his skill and to the central role of the skip. The money was enough to lure him into taking a leave of absence from his job as an auditor for Revenue Canada. Dale squatted low on the ice, an old cornstalk broom in his left hand, and he slid out compact and panther-like, his weight evenly poised on his front toes as he hissed along the ice. The two starting blocks, known as the hack, dug into the ice at either end of the rink and the beginning point for delivering the rock, were used by the rest of the team in descending rank: Mark Olson, a Winnipeg realtor and former Brier champion Merv had engaged fro the weekend to play third, slid out steady and sure. Shane Park, twenty-seven, the former Alberta junior champion playing second (and, during the summer, a greenskeeper at a B.C. golf course), exploded from the hack, the stainless steel slider on the sole of his shoe lying flat on the ice and grating loudly. Merv, at lead, emerged from the hack more upright than the others. His balance held for eight, ten feet, and then he began to waver left and then right. He grabbed for the ice and he grimaced and rose unsteadily and went to wait for the game to start.
In Saskatton, a commentator for The Sports Network had likened Merv to George Steinbrenner, the bloated and egomaniacal owner of the New York Yankees – only with Steinbrenner playing himself at shortstop. In JB’s Lounge, Merv had told me that he was an excellent player, good enough to compete at the highest level. The function of the lead’s rocks, like the opening gambits in a chess match, is largely to create a tactical advantage for later players, and Merv told me he knew his position well and had the skill to execute. But at the Classic, Merv’s teammates hadn’t even bothered to sweep his rocks. Some of his shots had come to rest in their intended place but too many others had careened past the target. Shane had rolled his eyes heavenward with each of Merv’s miscues.
Against the Harris rink, despite his earlier troubles, Merv curled nearly perfectly: he had flawless weight and line and his rocks arrived in the spots Dale signalled. Some of the other curlers watching in the stands, including former world champion Ed “The Wrence” Werenich, began to crack wise at Merv’s fine play, but if Merv heard, he didn’t seem to care. Between shots he stood in the middle of the rink, apart from the others, studying the proceedings on the other sheets. In the fifth end, the halfway point of the game, harris was leading three points to one. The Earthquake had the final rock, the “hammer,” and they were in a position to score two and tie the game. Merv and Shane swept as Dale yelled Yes! Hurry! HARD! Merv was working closest to the rock, following Dales cues, his broom scouring the ice in a frantic jig…and then his broom touched the rock; Merv burned the rock. Shane slammed his broom on the ice in frustration. Dale turned away and gave his head a shake. Instead of the Earthquake picking up two points, Harris scored one and his team went ahead fourt o one. The Earthquake never recovered: they lost and were eliminated from the Classic; they shuttled back to the hotel and left Red Deer in angry haste. The next day Wayne Middaugh told me that he had decided how much Merv would have to pay him to play with him: a million dollars. Middaugh said he only wanted to play with his friends.
Yorkton, Saskatchewan – December 9
Bryan Derbowka sat in the back office of the City Limits Inn, the hotel and bar he owns and operates with his brother and father on Yorkton’s main drag, opposite the Dairy Queen. In September, Bryan had been hired by Merv to play third with the Earthquake for the season, with the promise of payment of $20,000 plus a quarter of any winnings. At the time Bryan had told theSaskatoon StarPhoenix that he didn’t have an opinion on the controversy raised by Merv staffing his team with “hired guns.” “I’m not against it and I’m not for it,” he had said. “I’m just in the middle of it.” Six weeks later, he was fired. Bryan showed me the letter Merv had sent ending his contract, citing “sub-par” play and “irreconcilable differences.” The letter demanded the return of Bryan’s team jacket. The jacket, nylon slashes of purple and black and white in Merv’s own design, had a crest depicting the world cracking at the seams, and above the globe, a stylized “Earthquake” logo. The word “Majik” was stitched on the opposite chest, a reference to Merv’s childhood nickname of “Magic,” but spelled in what Merv called “the French way,” to avoid trademark hassles. Merv kept two sets of the jackets, one for the team to use when he wasn’t with them, the other, “good” set, for use when he was. Bryan said he should never have given the jacket back, because the jackets meant everything to Merv.
When Bryan was dismissed, it was reported in the “Last Rock” column in theWinnipeg Free Press that “the firing actually came as a relief, after a brutal week that saw Bodnarchuk lambaste the Yorkton curler in the press for playing poorly and then humiliate him even further in Portage last weekend as Bodnarchuk openly recruited curlers” to take Bryan’s place. Byran told Curler(“Saskatchewan’s only curling newspaper”) that Merv shouldn’t be pointing fingers; Merv wasn’t capable of competing at the highest level. “If he feels I’m the problem,” Merv replied in an interview with the Winnipeg Sun, “why does he want to play with me?” Bryan claimed that Merv still owned him half his contract fee. “If he honestly feels he deserves more money,” Merv told the Sun, “good luck.”
Sitting in his office in sweats and a windbreaker, Bryan described a swirl of conflicting emotions. It had been an honor to play on a team that Merv considered the best, but the Earthquake wasn’t really a team. There hadn’t been a single time that they had gotten together after a game, he said, bought a bottle of rye, and just talked and got to know each other. “When I was playing with Merv,” he said, “I didn’t go around saying bad things about him. I backed him one hundred percent. The other guys on the team said things about Merv, but only to me; when Merv was around they’d say, ‘Merv, you’re playing great.’” Bryan had a stack of press clippings form his tenure with the Earthquake. One, which featured a prominent photograph of Merv Bodnarchuk, was annotated in the margin with the words “pariah” and “social outcast” and “bum” written in block letters. Bryan said the thing that hurt the most was that he had given his heart to Merv and that Merv had stepped on it. He recalled the day Merv was attacked in the parking lot outside the Regina Agridome. The team arrived for their match, Bryan said, and there was a man waiting who demanded $50,000 from Merv. “Merv and the guy were nattering back and forth. Merv told us he could handle it, so we all went inside. But then I went back outside – Merv was my boss, I’m wearing his colors, I’m going to stick up for him. When I get outside, Merv’s on his knees, halfway under the van, and the other guy’s on top of Merv just giving it to him. My heart went out to him.” Bryan said Merv played that day, despite a cut and bleeding lip, and Merv was humble and quiet, and the Earthquake won. The next day, during the semifinals of the spiel, a man in the stands stood up, Bryan said, and started screaming at Merv: “You cocksucker! You owe me fourteen thousand dollars! I want my money!” During the fifth end break, the man came out of the stands and went after Merv and had to be escorted from the arena. Merv, his lip stitched from the day before, slid out to the middle of the rink and watched as the man was removed. “Another investor,” he said.
Bryan said it wasn’t that he didn’t like Merv. He wished there were more people like Merv in curling, more people who would invest in the game and have ideas to expand its horizons. He said he would play with Merv again, maybe. “I don’t want to cut the son of a bitch down,” he said.
North Battleford, Saskatchewan December 11
“Thunder on Ice,” the next stop on the tour, began on Thursday night at the Granite Curling Club in North Battleford, a Quonset hut-shaped building with arch-ribbed wooden rafters and signs advertising the likes of Con’s Saw Sharpening and Green Acres Fertilizing. Merv was away on business in the Middle East, trying to convince investors in the United Arab Emirates to put money into the car-rental concern he was going to start in America in conjunction with his curling league, but he called the Granite Club from Dubai theree and four times a day to check on how the Earthquake were doing. And the news, again, wasn’t good.
Bryan’s permanent replacement at third, Doran Johnson, had joined the team, and a friend of Shane’s from Edmonton named Pat McCallum had signed on to curl lead for the weekend. The Earthquake had won their first two games without Merv, but they lost their next two and were forced to play at eight o’clock on Sunday morning to avoid elimination. Doran, who had taken a separate room with his girlfriend, visiting from Saskatoon, didn’t drink and went to bed early on Saturday night. The others, though, were bunked together and they stayed out until late drinking rye and Blue and Paralyzers, first at the bar at the Tropical Inn, then at the box-like local casino, where a Native country and western outfit were playing Garth Brooks covers.
The next morning, standing in a freezing cold curling rink, bleary-eyed and pale, screaming at each other to sweep hard, hurry HARDER, tempers on the Earthquake were running short. Dale missed a shot and Shane slammed his broom, the game’s signal gesture of disgust, and Pat kicked the cushioned barrier at the end of the rink. In the fifth end, Doran and Shane began to argue about tactics for sweeping rocks. Doran, pretending to rub some sleep from his eye, slyly flipped Shane the bird.
“You giving me the finger?” Shane asked.
“You bet ya,” Doran said.
“Do that again, you’ll be eating it,” Shane said.
In the final end, the score tied at four points each, Dale had the last rock of the game — he had the hammer coming home. The other team’s final rock was near the centre of the house, just off the bull’s eye, and Dale had to clip his opponent’s rock and stay in place to score one and win the game. Dale slid out of the hack and released the stone. It was moving on a perfect line. But in the time it takes a lightly thrown rock to curl toward its target – twenty five seconds that can seem like a lifetime – chaos broke out. Shane and Pat were sliding beside the rock, their brooms poised, waiting for the yells to sweep or not, and the contradictions began quickly. Dale, at the shooter’s end of the ice, said No, Whoa, Lay off her. Doran, as the third and vice-skip, was at the other end. Yes! he screamed. Yes! Yes! On her! Hard! HURRRRRRRY!
No! from Dale; Yes! from Doran.
Shane and Pat hesitated, looked back and forth, and then began to sweep. The stone kept a straight path – too straight. Left to its own devices, left unswept and shaping its arc to the rind of frost on the ice, it might have curled enough, but as it was, Dale’s shot just ticked the other stone; the other stone spun and stayed in place. The Earthquake had lost. They had failed to qualify for the final eight, again; they wouldn’t win any money at Thunder on Ice; there would be another hasty, angry departure. Shane kicked a rock and almost fell over. Pat threw his broom. The crowd cheered their loss.
“I feel like I’ve been bent over and raped and pillaged,” Shane said.
“Fuck,” Pat yelled. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
“Do you think Doran did it on purpose?” Dale asked Shane and Pat. “Do you think he wanted to lose?”
The Yellowhead Highway – December 12
Riding west on the Yellowhead that afternoon under a brilliant winter sun, passing barren, drought-plagued wheat farms and a herd of wild buffalo grazing in a nature reserve, Doran told me had had the most unique curling life of anyone I would ever hear of. He said he had two suitcases full of newspaper stories about his exploits, and he was always referred to as “controversial” or the “bad boy” of curling. Doran was forty-one, plump, and dressed in tight blue jeans and cowboy boots. He had a fringe of thinning red hair and an easy, gap-tooth grin. Doran said he hadn’t held a day job in nearly twenty years; he made his living as a professional gambler. He played a form of stud called Texas Hold ‘Em and he said he averaged fifty dollars an hour in winnings playing in casinos around western Canada. Like clockwork, he said: fifty dollars an hour if no one was cheating and the table wasn’t fixed. Doran said he was one of the sharpest knives in the drawer.
A few years ago, after more than a decade of disputes with the curling bureaucracy, Doran was banned from competition in southern Alberta for allegedly cursing and banging his broom and smashing up a locker room. He had been a curling nomad ever since. This season, at the spiel in Portage, Bryan’s last with the Earthquake, the rink Doran was curling with had gone over the time limit imposed on teams to make their shots and had been disqualified. In protest, Doran had refused to leave the ice: the Sit-In on Sheet Seven, Doran’s act of non-violent civil disobedience, had caused a stir in the curling press and furthered his reputation as a curling outlaw.
The loss in North Battleford was still fresh on Doran’s mind, the feelings still raw, and he told me what he thought had gone wrong. It wasn’t the sweeping crisis. “There was too much acrimony on our team throughout the game,” he said. “We became four individuals instead of one team. That’s why the rock didn’t curl enough to make the shot. By the laws of physics, that rock should have curled enough to make the shot – it only need another millimeter – but it didn’t because we didn’t collectively will it to happen. The only way a team does well with that last rock is if the team members keep each other safe from outside forces throughout a game so that there’ as positive energy force going into the rock. I believe that men can move objects with their minds. If they are working together, they can will a rock to go to the right spot.”
Jasper, Alberta – December 18
The weekend before Christmas, the streets of Jasper were covered with ice. The highway through the mountains into the national park was murderous, with strong coursing winds, blinding drifts of snow, and mile after mile of black ice. In the Jasper Activity Centre, modern and tidy and alpine-fresh, like everything else in town, locals shrugged and affected indifference and said that the roads were fine, despite the dates and pileups that had been in the news all week. It was thirty below outside, too cold for anyone except the wild elk grazing on the bushes along the main drag, but inside Bluster’s Curling Lounge, it was warm and cozy. On the curling rinks framed by the lounge’s picture windows, the elements had been tamed, and curlers slid confidently down the ice.
Dale and Doran and Shane had come from Vancouver to Jasper on Thursday night, but Merv was still away on business somewhere, and they had no idea when, or if, he would turn up. In the past two weeks, the Earthquake had dropped to 23rd on the WCT money rankings, and if they didn’t at least make the finals of the $25,000 Santa Spiel, they wouldn’t qualify for the season-finale Tour Championship. The boys were in good spirits, though: it was the last weekend of the exhausting spiel season, and Shane had a thousand-dollar bill in his wallet, part of the proceeds form the $4,000 he had won in a single hand of Let-It-Ride poker during a team outing to a Vancouver casino. Doran had won $250 in five hours of gambling, precisely fifty bucks an hour.
Without Merv, Shane and Doran each threw an extra rock in every end, to make up for the two lead rocks, and the Earthquake won their first two games easily. In a match against the rink of Arnie Asham, from Winnipeg, the Earthquake took an early and commanding lead. The handles of the stones were marked with the names of some of the local sponsors – Chez Francois Hair Affair, Marmot Texaco Car Wash-Video-Rental; Shane had just played a pluperfect take-out with the Shovel Pass Home Hardware stone when one of the spiel’s organizers handed me a telephone. It was Merv calling. He had returned from the Middle East and he was back in Vancouver and he had booked a flight. He could make it to Jasper by midnight. He wanted me to ask the others if they would let him play with them. he had missed a couple of games, he allowed, but he really wanted to play. He said he would call back in ten minutes. In between ends I passed along Merv’s plea.
“Should we let him play?” Dale asked Doran and Shane.
“It’s not right, him coming into a bonspiel cold like that,” Shane said.
“He hasn’t played much this month,” Doran said. “We should make him sit out a game or two, make him practice before he plays.”
“You can tell him that,” Dale said to Doran. “I’m not telling Merv to sit.”
“Ah, what the hell: let him play,” Doran said.
“Tell him to bring his checkbook,” Dale said to me.
The next morning Merv was in Jasper and he greeted me by waving the brand new work visa for the United States that had been franked in his passport. It was a three year investor’s visa, made out to Merv Bodnarchuk of Curling International. The Earthquake had been winning, but with Merv curling lead they lost the next two games in quick succession. Merv’s rocks were nearly always just a little off, his delivery too heavy one shot, too light the next. Forced, again, into playing at eight o’clock on Sunday morning in a sudden-death gamete o qualify for the round of eight, this time the Earthquake went to bed early, and this time they won. They were in the money.
As the Earthquake advanced through the quarterfinals and semifinals, the din of curlers on the ice gradually abated, the losing teams loading up their pick-ups and minivans and leaving town, some with eighteen-hour drives home ahead of them. In the parking lot outside the curling rink, CTV Sportsnet set up satellite trailers, and grandstands for the crowd were constructed next to the sheet of ice chosen for the cable network’s broadcast of Monday night’s final. Representatives of the International Management Group, the company that runs the world professional tennis and golf tours, arrived in Jasper; IMG owned the television rights to most of the World Curling Tour’s bonspiels, and the Santa Spiel, as it was known locally, had been transformed by the power of commerce into the BellVu Express Classic. The final would be watched by nearly 100,000 viewers across the country.
Blister’s Lounge, which had bristled all weekend with curlers downing Paralyzers and talking curling, had grown quiet. Alone with his fellow Earthquakes in the bar, Merv’s enthusiasms took hold of him. He wanted to share his list of favorite things with me. His favorite colour was purple, he said, the dominant motif of the team jackets. Neil Diamond was his favorite singer – he loved his power music. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Donald Trump, Dolly Parton – Merv reeled off all his passions. He said his greatest regret in life was not pursuing a hockey career; he had once hired Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull to play in an exhibition game, with Merv playing centre on their line. Curling was a great sport, he said, and he thrived on the competition. He had convinced his Middle East investors to put money into his car-rental company, and he would get the Arabs to invest in curling, too, once they saw the operation he was going to create in California. The connection with the businessmen from Dubai had come from a chance encounter in an airport, he said. “I just meet people by destiny,” Merv said. “Everyone has a plan set for them, and if everyone would learn to follow their own plan and their own intuitions, they’d get a lot more done in life.”
The Monday night curling broadcast, the final of the Santa Spiel, began with the Jasper Highland Pipe Band and an honor guard of two Mounties in dress uniform parading the length of the ice. In the players’ area next to the rink, Doran jogged on the spot and Dale and Shane had a last cigarette. Merv flipped through the pages of The Joy of Curling. The Earthquake were playing the rink of Kevin Martin, from Edmonton, former Brier and world champions who had won $50,045 in a spiel the weekend before. For the final, the Earthquake were wearing brand new curling gloves and the special jackets that Merv kept in reserve. Each curler had groomed himself for TV, Doran brushing his prickles of hair, Shane shaving off his Vandyke and slicking his hair with gel, and they all wore looks of keen concentration. Merv won the coin toss, and so his rink had the advantage of throwing the last rock; they had the hammer. In the first end, Merv and Shane and Doran placed their rocks well, and the Earthquake were set to count two points, but Dale’s hand appeared unsteady as he realized the final rock and they only got a single point.
“Jesus,” Dale muttered to himself.
“Sorry, guys,” he said to the others. “I just overthrew it.”
“That’s okay,” Doran said.
“Your weight was good,” Shane said.
The recriminations of earlier bonspiels, the sullen silences and the thinly veiled contempt, had been vanquished in the quite heat of the television lights. Merv, who had curled inconsistently in Jasper thus far, was superb, his accuracy the equal of the opposing lead, who was, by all reckonings, one of the best in the game. Merv’s rocks were sweet by his teammates, and when he squatted in the hack Doran Shane encouraged him and reminded him of how to play the shot: Not too light, Keep her out of the house, Nice and easy. The strengths of the Earthquake came to the fore: Shane, fast out of the hack, deadly accurate at smacking into the other team’s rocks and keeping them out of play; Doran, a lefty, slowly drawing back in the hack like a pool shark lining up an eight-ball, playing soft touch shots and fine cuts; Dale, calm and sure after his early nerves, forcing difficult shots on Martin, moving the game ever closer to a decisive moment. In the ninth end, with the score tied at three and the Earthquake holding the hammer, Merv played his two lead rocks to split to the left and the right sides of the house. It was impossible for Martin’s team to knock both of the rocks out at once, and this tactical edge echoed through the shots of the seconds and thirds: the Earthquake were in position to take a commanding lead, with only the tenth and final end left to play. With his final shot, Dale needed to draw his rock to the middle of the target to score two points. Merv put Dale’s rock next to the hack, a gesture of respect for his skip, and Dale flipped the stone over and shined the underbelly with his hand to make sure there we eon tiny pieces of grit on the granite riding surface. Dale’s hand was dead still as he released the stone.
“No,” Dale yelled. “Right off her.”
Merv and Shane carefully tracked the progress of the stone, waiting for a call to sweep.
“Yes!” Doran yelled from the far end of the rink. “Hurry!”
Merv and Shane waited for a moment.
“Yes,” Dale joined in. “Hard. HURRRRRY!”
Merv and Shane leaned hard on their brooms hurried their broomheads across the ice. Five, ten, fifteen seconds passed. The rock began to slow down: as if the Earthquake were willing a thrown stone toward its fate; as if they had, for a fleeting moment, kept each other safe from outside forces; as if there was such a thing as destiny.
“It’s right on the button,” Shane said.
It was a piss-cutter, a real honey peach.
“Great shot,” Doran said.
“Great shot,” Merv said.
The Earthquake took up one of the tables in Blister’s Lounge, the beverage room now all but abandoned. Merv insisted on buying drinks, though he finally relented and let me buy him a couple of Clam’s Eyes. The giant mock check for $10,000 presented to the team was lying on the floor, and the trophy carvings of elk and deer and grizzly bears were scattered on the table. Merv’s quarter-share of the winnings was $2,500, but there were airfares and hotel bills and restaurant tabs to pay. Merv, it turned out, wouldn’t get to keep any of the prize money; Merv, it turned out, still owned his curlers money. “C’mon, guys,” He said. “Let me have five hundred bucks. I want to feel some of that money. I want to feel like I have something to show for it.”
The curling rinks, visible through the picture windows of the lounge, were deserted, the lights diamond and the television crew disappeared into the night. On the ice a few hours earlier, at the moment of victory, a moment now turning and arcing into memory, Merv and Shane and Doran and Dale had for the first time embraced each other.
“Look at us now, guys,” Merv had said, draping his arms over the shoulders of the Earthquake. “Who says we’re not a team?”