Story last updated at 8:05 PM on Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Curlers take to Homer’s ice, win fans

By Ben Stuart
Staff Writer

From the frozen tip of North America to the end of the road, the tight-knit curling community is getting tighter and expanding at the same time this week in Homer.

Ten teams consisting of 40 players from four northern Canada provinces and Alaska have come to the Homer Spit in search of fast ice and 2006 Arctic Winter Games ulus.

The hardware will be handed out after the medal rounds on Friday. But for the youngsters competing and their parents, the experiences of travel and meeting new friends has become its own reward.

The Nunavut contingent, for instance, has yet to win a match at these Games, but Alek Montpetit, a 16-year-old curler from Iqaluit didn’t seem to be bothered by that on Tuesday.

“We haven’t done that well, but it’s fun,” he said. “I really enjoyed the opening ceremonies, especially the dancing competition.”

When he’s not throwing stones or sweeping the ice in Homer, Montpetit said he’s doing what most kids his age do back at the athletes’ village in Soldotna.

“I went to the skate shop, just hanging out with friends,” he said.

One of his new friends, Atticus Wallace, a 15-year-old curler from Fairbanks, called his first Arctic Winter Games a “great experience.”

“It’s fun to compare what’s different and what’s the same about people from different places,” Wallace said. “And it’s fun to meet people who like curling.”

By most accounts, the community of people who like curling could be growing.

Sandy and Bill Bailey drove down to Homer from Sterling to take a look at the sport first-hand.

“I think we got it figured out,” Sandy Bailey said. “We’re having a good time. We really got hooked on it from watching the Olympics.”

Sandy said the couple drives down to Homer each spring for lunch, but decided to come down early this year for the Games.

“Bill says it’s a real action sport,” Sandy said.

Bill chuckled.

While the rules, strategies and technique of the sport continue to make many locals scratch their heads, the sights and sounds of the game have spurred a sort of international dialogue outside the glass. Locals scramble to find someone who looks like they might know what is going on — and the Canadians are always nice enough to share.

During warm-ups on Monday — where 20 or more athletes tossed stones simultaneously to get a feel for the ice — several spectators commented on the jet-like sound reverberating off the steel walls of Homer’s new ice arena as the heavy stones slid slowly across the ice.

Coaches and parents, on the other hand, were busy smiling at their stopwatches. The stones take roughly 25 seconds to travel the nearly 200 feet across the sheet.

Slow times mean fast ice — a good thing in curling.

Montpetit said it is taking a while to get used to it. Back in Iqaluit, the ice is “crappy, with lots of bumps and imperfections,” he said. “The ice (here) is insane.”

Others have said the curling sheet, manufactured by Jayson Braaten, Jerry Spence and a few friends from Saskatchewan and Fairbanks, rivals ice found at international competitions, such as the Olympic Games. In between the matches, Braaten’s crew scrapes and sweeps the ice, then sprinkles it with water to create a pebbling effect. (For more on making ice for curling see page XX.)

When they’re done competing each day, the athletes load into buses and head back to Soldotna. And the parents, many of whom are staying the week in Homer, spend time with their kids in Soldotna, or check out the local scenery.

Lauren Duncan from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, said she spends a lot of time running to the store to get snacks for the kids.

“They’re always hungry,” she said.

Duncan drove down from Whitehorse with her daughter Chelsea, the skip for the Yukon girl’s junior team, and a few family friends.

They stayed in Anchorage to catch the start of the Iditarod, before making the trek to Homer, she said.

“We’ve been mostly here (watching curling), But we’ve enjoyed watching the eagles and the volcano,” she said. “Hopefully it doesn’t erupt too much.”

Duncan said the kids were impressed with the lasagna and salad dinner some Homer residents provided for the kids, while she also enjoyed the local hospitality.

“It’s full of lovely people,” she said. “They’ve welcomed us with open arms.”

Duncan is no stranger to Homer, however. Her family used to come to town to halibut fish in the summer. But she hasn’t been to Homer since her last trip some 13-years ago.

“Holy Moley has it changed,” she said. “It has boomed here, spread out all over. But we still like it.”

As the competition continues over the final two days, and dreams of winning ulus start dancing in athletes’ heads, the matches tend to get more intense.

The competitors, family members and spectators got a sneak peek of that intensity Tuesday afternoon, as the male junior teams of Northwest Territory and Alaska finished off the second round of round-robin play.

Team Alaska built a commanding 9-6 lead through the sixth end as NWT started slowly. After several scoreless ends, however, NWT positioned four scoring stones in the house with only one Team Alaska stone remaining.

The option was simple, said Wallace. A successful throw to the button would give Team Alaska the win.

They tossed the stone perfectly on point, as it slowly curled toward the center ring in between a pair of NWT stones.

The Alaska skip barked commands to the broomers, who swept furiously to keep the stone moving. As the stone slowed the yelling got louder and the sweeping got more intense. But it stopped just two feet short of its goal.

The dejected Alaska sweepers stood over the stone in disbelief, before turning to congratulate the NWT team.

“We had them for a while,” Wallace said. “We knew they would be a good team. That’s curling. Sometimes it just comes up short.”

The playoffs begin at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in Homer, with semi-finals begining at 10:30 a.m. Friday.

Ben Stuart can be reached at