Adapting to Curling Canada’s Return to Train/Play guidelines has seen Lee Toner tackling the challenge from something of a two-pronged approach - perhaps on more occasions than not.
First and foremost, there is Toner the physician, but also avid curler, as anxious as all of the other fervent rock throwers in the area to resume the sport they love, but armed with substantially more medical experience dealing with the health risks posed by COVID-19.
Then there is Toner the curler versus Toner the coach, the man who has attended the Briar on no less than seven different occasions, but who is also fully engaged with a very competitive team of young female curlers that includes both of his daughters.
Truth be told, there are both similarities and contrasts to each perspective that Lee Toner brings to the table.
“I have to say that both for my men’s team (the Sandy MacEwan rink) and the team that I coach, the young U15 team (with Mia Toner at skip), we have done a lot more stuff off the ice this year: physical training, mental performance training, that sort of stuff,” said Toner.
“But we’ve also been able to get on the ice, and we’ve had to figure out different ways of doing things. For both teams, I think this has been an opportunity to work on some things that we never seem to have time to do, just because our time was mostly spent competing,” added Toner.
“On both teams, we’ve improved on some of the technique and delivery and some of the technical aspects of the sport.”
And in these times, curlers young and old, competitive and recreational are dealing with issues that they likely never envisioned. The ability to think outside of the box has never been a more valuable asset.
“Curl Sudbury has made ice available when there aren’t necessarily a lot of people out curling, so it’s been relatively safe to practice,” said Toner. “And we always wear our masks. We’ve actually figured out ways to wear our masks without fogging up our glasses by using a combination of anti-fog spray and tape over the bridge of the nose, and frequent switching of masks to make sure they don’t get damp.”
Despite some tinkering with the rules, game action is not all that different from prior years. “I think from the sweeping perspective, because the directional sweeping is so often involved now, the new rule that allows just one sweeper has not been all that different.”
Still, if patience is a virtue garnered by age, the men’s team might be dealing with a lack of bonspiel a little better than the crew just waiting to take the next step in their development. “I think the young team is itching to compete,” said Toner. “They’re improving, they had a really good prior year, and they were really looking forward to testing their skill out.”
“I think at times, they find it a little bit harder to kind of keep the optimism up, I suspect.”
Over time, there’s little doubt that curling becomes more of a social outing, even for the still competitive teams. Where some might find this the toughest pill to swallow, Toner noted that he is something of an outlier in the crowd. “For some people, that’s the time they really like,” he said.
“I miss the on-ice part perhaps more than most, who may cherish the time they get to sit and chat with their friends and that sort of stuff. For me, I like to compete. I like to throw - I like the on-ice part more than the off-ice part.”
To that end, it is perhaps more of a Dr Toner approach that guides his interactions with fellow club members. “I’ve been trying to minimize the amount of inside the club time, before and after games,” he stated. “I think that’s probably where the virus will spread, more than anywhere else.”
“We’re getting there later, getting ready in the car, and then straight home after the game.”
As a fan of the sport, Toner was among those who was encouraged by the Curling Canada announcement regarding national championships being contested in a bubble format for 2021. “I watched the World Juniors and enjoyed it, even without fans,” he said. “Their bubble seemed to work pretty well, even with the high rates of transmission going on locally.”
“I think it will be a little bit different, but everything is different,” he added. “My tolerance for different is much more variable now, just because I can appreciate the effort that goes into putting together some of these events, and what has been done to make it as safe as possible for athletes to come back to some semblance of their sport.”
As he looks forward, Lee Toner does so more as a coach, but a coach who is grounded in reality. “With the girls, we’re at a spot where we are appreciating every chance we have to get on the ice,” he said. “It doesn’t look like there will be a whole lot of events for us to play in. That being said, Curling Canada just announced that the U18’s will be in Timmins in 2022.”
“So hopefully, if it’s safe by then, we’ll be competing for a spot to play in that event. It’s nice to have something to look forward to.”