Women of the ice

November 2021

With Thunder Bay getting set to welcome the top female curlers in Canada to the 2022 Scotties Tournament of Hearts from January 28th to February 6th, it provides a perfect opportunity to take a look back at the history of women’s curling in our community, and some of the women from across our region who have left their mark in the curling world.

That history can be traced back over 125 years, with an 1895 Fort William paper describing women taking to the ice to play a few ends against a men’s rink. An article featured in the publication A History of the Fort William Curling Club, noted that a more organized form of women’s curling dates back to January of 1910 with the members of the ladies auxiliary competing on Monday and Thursday afternoons and being granted the privilege of practicing any afternoon of their choice. I say privilege because like many private sports clubs at that time, and in some cases for many years later, women were not allowed to be members. I am pleased to report that has since changed, with more and more women now having a seat at the board table of local sport organizations.

By January of 1918 the Fort William Ladies Curling Club was operating two afternoons a week on three sheets of ice, and by 1926 it had expanded to five sheets. Dues during those early years were between two and three dollars a season, jumping up to five dollars by 1949. By 1988, when the Fort William Curling Club Business Women’s League was formed as a way to provide evening ice for those women who could not curl during the day, membership dues were $100.

The ladies of Port Arthur were also active on the ice over a century ago. An excerpt from the Port Arthur Curling Club’s publication A Century of Curling noted that on December 5th, 1911, the ladies were liberated from their aprons and kitchens as the men of the Port Arthur Curling Club invited the ladies to curl.

The Port Arthur Ladies Curling Club was formed in the fall of 1925 with a membership of twenty-four curlers. The club grew over the years and in 1946 some of the women decided to form another club called the Hill City Ladies Curling Club which operated for many years.

In 1959 the Port Arthur Golf and Country Club (known today as the Thunder Bay Country Club) added a curling rink to their facility which would eventually become home to the Lakehead Ladies Curling Club.

It was also during the 1950s that women’s curling became more organized on the regional level with the formation of the Northwestern Ontario Ladies’ Curling Association. In 1956 the Eastern Canadian Ladies Curling Association was formed and it was a Port Arthur curler by the name of Hazel Watt that became that organization’s first President. In 1960 when the Canadian Ladies Curling Association was formed, Watt made history again by becoming the first President of the national women’s curling group.

The hosting of a national curling championship for women in Canada began back in 1961 as the Diamond D Championship, named after its then sponsor Dominion Stores, and was overseen by the Canadian Ladies Curling Association (CLCA). In 1972 the Macdonald Tobacco Company took over the sponsorship and renamed it the Macdonald Lassie. When the federal government no longer allowed sponsorship of sporting events by tobacco companies, a new sponsor was sought, with the Scott Paper Company coming on board in 1982 leading to the creation of the Scott Tournament of Hearts, which became known as the Scotties in 2007. In 1990 the CLCA merged with Curl Canada to become Curling Canada which has overseen the championship since that time.

Unlike the men’s national curling championships, which have had a Northern Ontario representative since its inception in 1927, it was not until 2015 that female curlers from our region were provided that opportunity. Between 1961 and 2014 in order for our local women curlers to advance to the national level they had to beat out teams from all across the province.

A number of women from Northwestern Ontario have skipped teams at those national championships including the likes of June Shaw, Peggy Wherrett, Helen Sillman, Anne Provo, Kim Clark and Krista (Scharf) McCarville. Skip Heather Houston and her rink of Lorraine Lang (3rd), Diane Adams (2nd), Tracy Kennedy (lead) and Gloria Taylor (5th), made history by claiming back to back Canadian titles in 1988 and 1989 and the World title in 1989.

In 1991 the Eila Brown rink claimed the Canadian Senior Ladies title. National titles have also been claimed by female curlers from Confederation College and in 2003 Krista Scharf and her Lakehead University squad claimed a silver medal for Canada at the 2003 Winter Universiade in Italy.

In 1969 the Fort William Curling Club was the site of the National Ladies Curling Championships and in 1996 the Fort William Gardens hosted thousands of curling fans at the Scott Tournament of Hearts. Another popular aspect of women’s curling in Thunder Bay has been the hosting of bonspiels. One of the most popular was the Thunder Bay Women’s International Bonspiel which spanned many years. Since 1997 the Bearskin Airlines Hope Classic has raised close to three and a half million dollars to help fight breast cancer, with their 25th edition set for the Fort William Curling Club from February 25th to 27th, 2022.

If you haven’t done so already, get your tickets for the 2022 Scotties as it promises to be a great event. If things go according to plan, fans will have the chance to cheer on the Krista McCarville rink as they represent Northern Ontario. Mind you, Krista and her team of Kendra Lilly, Ashley Sippala and Sarah Potts may be busy packing their bags for China and the 2022 Olympic Winter Games around that time if they are successful at the Olympic Trials taking place in Saskatoon at the end of November. Either way, women’s curling in Thunder Bay will add yet another chapter to its already rich history. Good luck and good curling to all of the participants and thank you to the outstanding volunteers who will help welcome our nation’s top female curlers to Thunder Bay. See you at the 2022 Scotties!

Diane Imrie is the Executive Director of the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. She can be reached at dimrie@tbaytel.net

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