At 65 years old, Bill Louch returned to curling three years ago.
“My wife and I curled for two years in the early 1970s,” he says. “Then when we moved out to Hudson, and joined the curling club, we thought, how much could have changed in 45 years? Turns out a lot!” When asked to explain, he chuckles. “We don’t bend the way we used to!”
“Seriously,” he says, “the game has changed too. We have ways to accommodate older folks. Twenty per cent of our members use a stick to deliver the stone instead of getting down in the hack. That means that people who have any knee or back trouble can still play.”
Barry Gleason, also 65, adds, “Some of us can still deliver the stone from our knee,” he says. “Of course, that doesn’t mean we can always get back up!”
Curling is one of Canada’s oldest sports. The first curling club was formed in Montreal in 1807 and is still immensely popular. The Royal Canadian Legion’s Branch #115, in Hudson, Quebec, 45 minutes west of Montreal, sports two sheets of ice, and two “draws” (curling for “game”) take place simultaneously.
The day-curling teams, comprised of retired seniors ranging from 60 to over 80, are starting to arrive. Some wear brightly coloured Legion jackets, others their own choice of clothing, but each carries his or her own “broom.” Though bristles have been replaced by brushes, gameplay is essentially the same as it has been for centuries.
A stone (weighing a little over 19kg) is “delivered” down the ice, which is pebbled with frozen droplets of water. The droplets melt a little under the stones, helping to create a wet, slippery surface. Brooms sweep the ice to help stones travel farther.
Here, the ice is maintained by team members. Fred Albert, 82, uses a wide scraper to level the ice as Barry Roland, 70, sprays droplets to pebble the frozen surface.
Albert has been curling for over a decade. In 1987, he suffered a detached retina in his left eye. Despite surgery, he has lost all vision in that eye. It doesn’t deter him. “I can still see the stone,” he explains, “and I’m used to everything. It’s the same when I golf. You get used to it.”
Albert’s wife, Jeannette, has also had her share of physical challenges. In 2014, she experienced a small heart attack. She’s fully recovered, and golfs with her husband in the summer. At 77, she also enjoys playing computer games, and Netflix.
“I’m not bad with the computer!” she says proudly. “Better than other old people!”
The Alberts are not the only ones who have medical challenges.
“One member,” Louch says, “has two artificial knees, and one artificial shoulder. She’s still curling, and still curling well.” He grins. “There was some joking in the locker room here, a week ago, about how this used to be the Golden Age. Turns out it’s the Titanium Age!”
“This is a friendly competition,” offers Bill Crabtree, 75, as the group enters the rink. “The real battle happens after the game.” He motions to the bar area. “That’s when we see who can bend the elbow most.”
“It isn’t a fast sport,” adds John Coutts, 68, a former scheduler for Air Canada. “This isn’t hockey. But we sure do get loud.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. The rink soon echoes with calls of “Up! Up!” and “Whoa!” These are calls from the players called “skips” at the target ends; skips tell their teammates when to sweep or lift their brushes. The length of the sheet is 46 meters; each pair of players follows the stone at an accelerated pace, sweeping as it nears the target.
Albert is the skip of his team, calling the shots until the last two stones remain. Those will be his to deliver. On the other sheet, former dairy farmer Bob Cameron, 65, is the skip, and his voice carries all the way down the ice.
“Off! Off!” he shouts, and then, “now!”
The approaching pair begins sweeping at a furious pace, clearing a path for the stone. As it crosses the “hog line” (which must be cleared completely for the stone to remain in play), Cameron’s voice rises. “Yes!” he shouts, “that’s it, that’s it!”
The blue-handled stone stops short of the target, despite the best efforts of the team. Cameron shrugs. “Not bad,” he concedes, though the disappointment shows in his expression.
When the two-hour mark arrives, the teams wrap up their ends. After the stones are neatly lined up for the next draw, the players climb the four steps to the main lobby, amid compliments of “good game.”
As promised, they gather in the bar area, where losing teams buy the drinks and snacks. Louch is pleased with his game, but is even more content with the after-game.
“We’re a very active social group,” he says. “The curling is fun, but it’s really only part of why people join the Legion.”
As players begin to leave, warm goodbyes are said. It is very clear that these people transcend the stereotype of seniors. They show youth of spirit and a zest for life. They defy age, both in looks and physicality, and they are exemplary of an admirable reality: just because people get old does not mean they have to be old. The day-curling club at the Hudson Legion proves that every time they hit the ice; and they show no signs of stopping.