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Bobby Ray: Steering a new course for the NOCA

Dating back even to his time in high-school, Bobby Ray envisioned his future career in the curling industry as being a form of one-stop shopping.

"I had my sights set on working for the Granite Club for the rest of my life," said the life-long North Bay resident, late last week. "I thought I was going to die in that position, working as a general manager at the club in North Bay."

"That was the case up until two months ago."

In one fell swoop, Ray expanded exponentially the scope of his curling club involvement. Now, his vision must be extended to venues from Mattawa to Thunder Bay, from Sault Ste Marie right through to Hearst and Kapuskasing.

The 29 year-old graduate of Nipissing University has been hired as the Executive Director of the Northern Ontario Curling Association (NOCA), replacing Leslie Kerr, who had been in the position for some 14 years or so.

While this latest career move might not lie in complete lockstep with the hometown facility at which he has been employed since the age of 15, it's not as though Ray is venturing miles off the path which appeared to be his destiny from the time that he first joined the North Bay Granite Club, as a member, at the age of 11.

"I never found an interest in the more traditional sports, hockey and baseball," he stated. "My brother was playing those, but they just never connected with me. I think it was because of the individuality of curling. A lot of people would talk about the importance of how curling squads operate together as a team, but you can do a lot of the practicing by yourself."

"I certainly did that, throwing endless amounts of rocks just by myself, after school, and I enjoyed that time."

A much better than average curler, Ray would toil in the NOCA junior ranks, though foiled more often than not by Sudbury nemesis Evan Lilly. More recently, he would represent Northern Ontario at the Canadian Club Curling Championships (2017) in Kingston, and has twice advance to the provincial mixed curling final, only to settle for silver.

But where some in these parts have made a name for themselves as teen phenoms on the ice, Bobby Ray was carving out an impressive reputation on the other side of the glass.

"I got my first summer job as a 15 year old, working in the tennis clubhouse," said Ray. "I got certified as a tennis coach when I was 15 or 16. By the time I was 19, I got a summer job managing the tennis club, and the curling club was in the process of hiring a manager. They ended up asking me if I was interested in taking on something year-round."

"I became manager of the two clubs combined, and I was going to university at the time, so (former club manager and long-time curler) Mark Brown split the position with me. When my three years of schooling were done, I took on the position, full-time."

But it wasn't just his youth that was setting Bobby Ray apart. Armed with the confidence and comfort that came with interacting for years with his club constituents, both in tennis and in curling, Ray wasn't about to be satisfied with the status quo.

"I love working inside the curling club, changing things up and trying new things," he explained. "This is a world built on tradition, and I loved shaking things up a little bit. Thinking outside of the box sort of came naturally to me, and I'm really lucky that my club played along."

"You don't always get that - there are many boards that suppress new ideas," continued Ray. "I've always had really supportive mentors and board members. We've tried a bunch of new ideas and things are completely different at the club than they were ten years ago, and that's something I am really proud of."

Where club memberships have traditionally run from fall to spring, bringing together a full 21 weeks of curling, Ray opted to break the season into three seven week segments. "We basically have a fall, winter and spring season, and you can join for any of them. There is a financial benefit for joining for a longer period of time."

"It's great for snowbirds, who go away for that middle piece and then come back. It's really great for someone who wants to just come out and try it." In fact, a progressive step by step immersion to curling can easily lead newcomers from a Learn to Curl session, on to a Rookie League for seven weeks, and closing out the season participating in what amounts to a house league division D bracket, of sorts.

Yet another new initiative ironically became the genesis for Ray's unexpected job switch. It was at an evening gathering for coaches and organizers of the summer Amethyst Camp, which moved from Sudbury to North Bay just a few years ago, where the new E.D. first learned of the impending retirement plans of his predecessor.

"From that moment, I knew that I would apply (for the job)," said Ray. "I wasn't sure that I would necessarily accept it, but I knew that I would throw my hat into the ring."

The temptation to share the best practices that he has established at his beloved Granite Club is simply too attractive to resist. "It's definitely the club development piece, that's where my passion lies," he said.

"I know that part of this job involves working with competitions, I know a big part of it is being bogged down in administration and government reporting. That's the part that I am not necessarily looking forward to as much. I'll get it done, for sure, but the pleasure I have had in North Bay has been in changing the product from how it used to be to something more attractive."

"I want to spend more time bringing that to all of the clubs in northern Ontario," Ray added. "I think a lot of the clubs just need a bit of a refresher. And I think there is a lot of value in having conversations with the club curling people from across the north - but that's going to take some time."

And it will definitely take Bobby Ray far beyond the confines of the North Bay curling club that he fully expected to call home for the rest of his days.