Curl Scots drop in at New Westminster club

Scottish skip Greig Henderson surveys the situation during his Strathcona Cup match at the Royal City Curling Club in New Westminster on Friday. - Grant Granger/NewsLeader
Scottish skip Greig Henderson surveys the situation during his Strathcona Cup match at the Royal City Curling Club in New Westminster on Friday.
— image credit: Grant Granger/NewsLeader

Nothing like a little scotch and rocks in the morning.

In this age of political correctness such a declaration needs clarification. In this case it’s a group of Scots who dropped into the Royal City Curling Club on Friday morning to throw some rocks as part of a century-old tradition called the Strathcona Cup.

It first began in 1902, when the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in Scotland sent 25 curlers to Canada for a tour. A few years later, a Canadian team was invited so they could return the hospitality. Lord Strathcona, who drove The Last Spike for the CPR before moving back to Scotland and becoming president of the club, donated the trophy for the competition.

It has evolved to the point where every five years the cup is contested on either side of the pond. This time it’s the turn of the Scots to visit Canada with half of the 56 curlers starting their tour in the Maritimes and the other half in B.C. before meeting in Toronto in early February.

Despite the social traditions of camaraderie over lunch or dinner, the host teams buying the visitors the first drink after a game and a table being set aside for scotch tasting, it’s a competitive get together. Every point scored on the two tours counts toward the overall total. Canada won in Scotland in 1998 and 2008, but the Scots won when it was last here in 2003.

Patrick Johnstone of Royal City came off the ice briefly  while skipping one of the Canadian teams Friday morning and said self-deprecatingly, “We may have a problem, they might be better than us.”

Tradition dictates a curler can only make the overseas journey once.

“I was at the right year to do it. I’m 61. At 51, I thought I as too young. At 71, I’ll be dead,” cracked skip Greig Henderson, a third on the 1980 Scottish men’s champions.

“This is fun, but you want to win because Canada won it in Scotland five years ago, and Scotland won it 10 years ago here. There’s pressure. You don’t want to give up too much. Yesterday we went for a big gamble and ended up giving up five.”

Shortly afterward skip Billy Howat’s lead Ian Borland came off the ice and jabbed Henderson in the arm to say his team had just picked up a five-ender to cancel off the one given up by Henderson.

If they don’t return to Scotland with the Cup, the 2003 squad members won’t let these guys hear the last of it. In fact Howat, who was the 1985 Scottish champion and had to play the world championships in Glasgow, said the pressure was harder to win here than there was in his home country 28 years ago.

The group traveled to Vancouver Island for a few days before heading to the prairies to not only hit the big cities like Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg, but stop in smaller centres such as Lloydminster, Weyburn, and Brandon as well. They’ll play 28 games in total.

“It’s a test of stamina,” said Henderson.

He lost his match Friday to a team skipped by Neil Houston, who is coach of Andrew Bilesky’s Royal City men’s team that recently qualified for the provincial championships. Houston won the 1976 world junior championships playing for Calgary’s Paul Gowsell and the 1986 world men’s title playing second for Ed Lukowich. Although he’s never participated in the Strathcona Cup, Houston can’t count the number of times he’s played in Scotland.

“It was good fun, and you know they’re coming out to try hard, they’re not giving you any freebies,” said Houston, who was the curling event organizer for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and will run the 2013 men’s championship in Victoria in April. “The big thing is to win your game so nobody can bad mouth you anyway.

“I want to know if [Henderson] remembers me. We were at a bonspiel in Norway about eight months after they lost those worlds and they had a New Year’s Eve party, the best I’ve ever been to. I’ll have to see if he remembers.”

With that he headed upstairs to the lounge to buy Henderson a drink and carry on the tradition of the Strathcona Cup.

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