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    Categories: Local Sports

Full house for stick nationals

STICKING TOGETHER - Barb Palmer and Tom Steele are among six two-person teams from St. Albert competing at the Canadian Open Stick Curling Championship

The St. Albert husband-and-wife duo of Tom Steele and Barb Palmer are sticking together as medal contenders at the 10th annual Canadian Open Stick Curling Championship.

“It’s the gold medal all the way for us,” Steele said with bravado just days before nationals, starting 8 a.m. Monday at the St. Albert Curling Club.

“We have better communication skills than most teams because we practice that, so we should do well,” Palmer chimed in.

Nationals will bring together 48 two-person teams and among the 21 Alberta entries are six from St. Albert, including the Steele/Palmer tandem and 2014 provincial champions Bob McKenzie and Milt McDougall.

British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are also represented at nationals and a wheelchair stick curler will also compete.

“It’s going to be a huge event with people from all across Canada,” Steele said. “We’re certainly excited to have the opportunity to go out and not only play but socialize with other curlers at a national level in an event like this. It’s a one-time-only thing for a community like St. Albert.”

Steele and Palmer are also active on the organizing committee. Several of the 38 volunteers played in or assisted behind the scenes with the successful 2012 provincials in St. Albert, of which 12 of the 32 teams hailed from the club.

“Our volunteers have put in a tremendous amount of work since last September trying to get nationals organized,” said Steele, who helps co-ordinate all the various sub-committees to ensure they work together.

“I don’t believe people are aware how much time is needed and how much volunteer participation we need to put on an event like this. The number of hours I think is way beyond what anybody would ever expect is needed,” added Palmer, the volunteer coordinator for nationals. “We’re very fortunate that we’ve had such a terrific response from our 50-plus (league) members and the community as well.”

Monday’s opening ceremony, highlighted by the parade of curlers to bagpipe music, is scheduled for 10 a.m.

The opening day of nationals wraps up at 9:30 p.m. Monday and resumes Tuesday at 8 a.m.

The guest speaker at Tuesday’s banquet at 6:30 p.m. is 2010 Olympic gold medallist Marc Kennedy. The two-time Brier winner and 2008 world champion with the Kevin Martin rink was inducted into the St. Albert Curling Club’s wall of fame in 2011.

Nationals continue Wednesday at 8 a.m. and the finals rock the ice around 5 p.m.

Every team at nationals is guaranteed five games. Eight teams qualify for the championship bracket and the playoff round includes a consolation bracket.

“It looks like we’re going to be flying pretty high for the whole week. It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Steele said.

Games are six ends and the average playing time is one hour.

A member of each team is positioned at opposite ends of the sheet and the two delivering curlers release six stones apiece with their teammates as the skips that end. The roles are reversed for the next end.

There is also no sweeping between the hog lines.

“I don’t think a lot of people appreciate how difficult it is to control a rock at the end of a three foot stick,” Palmer said. “Most curlers think that you grab a stick and all of a sudden curling becomes very easy and anybody can do it but there is a real skill to it.”

Nationals will mark the Steele/Palmer debut together in a stick bonspiel.

“This is our initiation test,” said a grinning Steele.

“Hopefully we’ll still be with each other when it’s over,” laughed Palmer.

The retired couple still curl by hand but have participated in the Friday morning stick league in St. Albert for two years. Steele has also teamed up with a variety of partners on the stick bonspiel circuit.

“Tom convinced me we should do this as an activity together and it’s been terrific,” said Palmer, 62. “I’ve actually enjoyed it more than I ever thought I would. It gives you a different look at the game than normal curling and it certainly is preparing us for the time if we ever need to use a stick in order to continue our curling careers.

“It really complements your curling. It gives you another different look at the game of curling. You really have two skips on the team, which is unusual. Normally I don’t skip a team so I have my ends that I skip in stick curling.”

Steele decided to give stick curling a crack after knee surgery limited his mobility.

“I wanted to keep curling so I picked up the stick for a bit and when my knee healed up I went back to throwing by hand,” said Steele, 65, who delivered his first rock at the St. Albert Curling Club 53 years ago. “When Milt (McDougall) came along with his stick league I thought that was a good opportunity for us to practice with the stick and feel out the game.”

Steele curled mostly as a skip before trying his luck with the stick and struggled initially getting his draw weight down pat.

“It terrified me so I went back to playing lead when I spared just so I could practice drawing when I did stick curling.”

Steele is convinced stick curling will keep him involved in the sport for a long time.

“At our age one day we’re going to end up having to probably stick curl because you get arthritic knees and all that sort of thing,” he said. “For a while I was trying to debate whether I should do more stick curling. One of our good friends was a stick curler with bad knees and I asked her what’s the best thing about stick curling and she said when I come off the ice my knees don’t hurt.

“I’m just so happy to be able to stick curl.”

Jeff Hansen: Jeff Hansen joined the St. Albert Gazette in 1991. He writes about sports, athletes and teams from St. Albert and area.