Long before the likes of Jennifer and Tracy Horgan and Amanda Gates started forging a path for teenage female curlers in the region, giving way to the era of Krysta Burns and Kendra Lilly and others, and on to siblings Jamie and Megan Smith, as well as Lauren Rajala, Kira Brunton and Bella and Piper Croisier, culminating these days with the junior contenders but still U18 eligible rink that is Team Toner, there were the earliest of youthful women curling seeds being planted in these parts.
For whatever reason, at that time, they seemed to bloom better elsewhere in the north.
The first NOCA U21 Women’s Curling banner would be presented in 1988 to the Nadine Landon foursome from Thessalon, but it wasn’t until 2005 that the afore-mentioned Horgan sisters, Gates and Stephanie Barbeau would retain northern bragging rights in Sudbury.
It seems almost incomprehensible that all of this would occur almost thirty years after the Becki Ross, Alison Strong, Wendy Wharton and Leigh Runciman Idylwylde quartet would not only claim the only all-Ontario title in the history of the local club in this particular age division, but would also go on to garner silver medals at the Canadian Juniors in Chilliwack in 1978.
In fact, the only squad they would sit behind (competition at the time was a full round-robin, with no ensuing playoffs – first place finishers earned gold) was the Cathy King Alberta team, with the now Canadian Curling Hall of Fame inductee (2013) having broken through as the first female skip to win nationals in junior, women’s and senior levels in Canada.
Mind you, the Sudbury rink did have the advantage of enjoying a very strong connection to the sport at the team – at least in terms of the young lady and soon-to-be retired professor at the University of British Columbia, Becki Ross.
“I am indebted to my dad (Chucker Ross),” said the 62 year-old author and Doctor of Philosophy (U of Toronto). “He was my inspiration. He competed in the Brier in 1974. I started watching him curl competitively when I was nine. I felt like that gave me the edge. I learned the strategy from him; watching him skip – and I have his competitive drive.”
“Being immersed in men’s curling at that high level, learning very nuanced strategy from a young age, gave me a leg up. It felt like that was my secret magical super power, understanding how men aggressively played the game.”
If Becki Ross was an Idylwylde rink-rat from the word go, the same could not be said for vice-skip Alison Strong, the U.K. born and now Toronto-based retired dentist who maintained a life-long friendship with her former back-end mate. “I was outdoorsy, very outdoorsy, but not so much into competitive sport,” said Strong, who took time to chat late this week in spite of dealing with the passing of her mother and beacon of light and energy, Stella Strong.
“The Idylwylde made it work,” she continued. “They were really supportive; they helped us get going to so many competitions. There was just a really great community of curlers.”
Along with the club setting came the venue that is Lockerby Composite School, the site where the team would first come together, with Becki and Alison in grade 12 and Leigh and Wendy in grade ten. A year later, it was pure magic.
“We played in what was called a Super League, so we got a lot of practice in that league,” said Runciman (now Dodds), a retired teacher. “We played against older teams and other junior teams.”
But when it came to the northern junior ranks, at least for the 1977-1978 season, Team Ross was absolutely untouchable. “We had no competition – seriously,” said Runciman. “We never lost a game. We won five straight at provincials.”
Ironically, it was all done without the benefit of a coach – at least not in the sense that coaches are known to the current crop of junior curling rinks. “If we wanted a few tips, Chucker would take us out or we would play Becki’s younger brother Larry and his team for practice,” stated Runciman.
As is so often the case, the memories that became entrenched have far less to do with actual competition and more with life, in general. “It was a long time ago but it was quite a formative experience in terms of our attitude in life, going forward, that event,” said Strong. Knowing little of what to expect from Junior Nationals, the woman who would go on to curl for some 20-25 years, quite recreationally, at St Georges in Toronto recalled the eye-opener that was just the eighth running of the bonspiel.
“There’s all of this pomp and ceremony – it was a lot bigger than I expected,” said Strong. “The only thing we may have seen on TV back then was a little bit of the Brier. The teams were so well prepared. There was just this huge network of curling – and so many pins. We had these sashes that we just kept putting pins on and when you walked, they just jingled, jingled, jingled.”
Far be it to omit the obligatory mention of outfitting – especially when one is dealing with the eldest of the five Ross siblings.
“We had these fancy outfits that Becki orchestrated because she’s the fashion maven,” laughed Strong.
“I probably had a bit of a hand in engineering the matching outfits,” said Ross, the question bringing an immediate smile to her face. “They were green and gold, heavy wool sweaters, polyester pants and one fancy outfit for luncheons and dinners out. For those, we had black velvet blazers with a beautiful white decorative blouses with plaid kilts.”
“We looked absolutely smashing.”
And while there are plenty of very delightful team pictures of the Horgan, Burns, Lilly, Croisier and Toner rinks in more recent times, one senses that this standard of apparel will never again be equalled.