In its more than 50 years of operation, the Lillooet Memorial Curling Club has always relied on volunteers to keep the club running.
This year is no exception, and club members are giving a big thumbs up to volunteer ice man Ross Milward.
For the “love of the sport and the betterment of the club,” Milward volunteers at least 200 hours per year to putting in and taking out the ice, running the Ice Cat to shave the ice, removing the old pebble from the surface, ensuring the ambient temperature is just right when curlers are on the ice and doing all the other task that make Lillooet’s ice surface one of the best in BC.
“I’m a bit of a perfectionist,” he says of his multi-tasking at the curling rink.
Milward became a serious curler in 1987 while he was an RCMP officer in Whitehorse. He was called on to don his red serge uniform for the opening ceremonies when the Yukon capital hosted the Canadian championships. “I thought ‘Man, this is really cool,’” he recalls.
He advanced quickly in the sport, curling in eight or nine Canadian police championships and at the pinnacle of Canadian men’s curling in two briers – the 2000 Brier in Saskatoon and the 2003 Brier in Halifax – representing the Territories.
While he was in the Yukon, he also trained in ice-making techniques.
Last week, he spent more than 10 hours preparing the ice for this weekend’s season-ending April Fools Bonspiel.
He told the News he’s excited that 32 teams will be participating in the event, some from as far as Calgary.
“We had 24 teams at last year’s bonspiel and that was a good year,” said Milward.
The club has decided to experiment with this year’s April Fools by changing the traditional format.
“We’re going to seed the teams and divide them into four pools based on their ability,” he explains. “For me to come up in a traditional draw against a team that’s hardly ever curled before, it’s no fun for me, it’s no fun for them because they get beat. That’s not to say that I’m going to beat them, but the odds are in my favour. So how much fun is that for the other team?
“This way, everybody has good games, everybody pays the same amount of money to get into this and everybody curls exactly the same amount of ends because there’ll be no blow-outs because our scoring system is for every end you win, you get two points. If you lose the end, you get one point. Theoretically, someone within the novice or beginner pool - if they play well within their pool – could win the whole spiel because they have the total points.”
He says another positive aspect of the new format is that it keeps all the curlers in town until Sunday, which should provide an economic boost for local hotels, motels and restaurants.
“When we organized bonspiels the traditional way, half your teams are gone by Saturday night. This way, that’s one more night in town for everybody.”
To change things even more, this year’s bonspiel will feature a skills competition. “Everybody throws a rock to the button and then we measure the distance from the button and that will break the ties,” he says. “It’s something else you don’t do with a traditional format. It may not be so great for the super-competitive curlers, but it will be good fun for the curlers, overall.”
The April Fools action kicks off with the first game this Friday at 6 p.m. The bonspiel should conclude by 4 on Sunday.
Between draws, Milward and the other members of the ice crew – Lochie Longhurst, Hans Meyer, Pat Reynolds and James Buick from Nanaimo – will be out cleaning and re-pebbling the ice.
Did we mention Milward will also be curling in the bonspiel?
“I like curling because it’s a team sport,” he says. “I’m a skip now. I played lead all my life but wound up as a skip after we came here in 2006. Everybody has a job to do and I like that.
“Watching it on TV, people see the two guys sweeping and people might not know what they’re doing, but they play a huge role in making a shot. They can make a shot or they can ruin a shot if they misjudge it. The sweepers are there to keep it going, keep it straight. But they can’t judge line, they can only judge weight. So the skip and the guy throwing have to start yelling about the line. So all four people have to work together.”
In recent years, the Lillooet club has purchased state-of-the-art equipment, including the Ice King and blade, fixed the up hand scrapers, installed Jet Ice filters to take impurities out of the water and purchased a new pebbling can apparatus.
With assistance from B. J. Gagnon, one of the head ice makers from the Canadian Curling Association, Milward says Lillooet has gained a reputation for “top-notch ice.
“This ice is as good as any you’re going to get at any curling club. We don’t get quite as much curl as the Brier or the Scott or any of the big events, but it’s almost too much curl for the recreational curler…I don’t mind saying that, thanks to B.J., who’s become a good friend of mine, we have great ice. We get maybe three feet of curl, they get maybe five feet of curl at the world championships.”