8 Ends: Shorty Jenkins Classic still going strong 22 years later

John Epping shoots a stone during the GSOC Elite 10 men's quarterfinals Saturday at Chatham-Kent, Ont. (Anil Mungal)

CORNWALL, Ont. — Just as the legend of the late Shorty Jenkins lives on, so too does his namesake tournament.

The AMJ Campbell Shorty Jenkins Classic has been one of the staple events on the World Curling Tour since 1996 and attracts teams from across the globe. Teams from China, Japan, Austria, Netherlands and more were on hand for this year’s tournament joining some of Canada’s best in a mini-Grand Slam atmosphere packed into the Cornwall Curling Centre.

What has kept the Shorty Jenkins Classic going strong all of these years later and why do curlers keep coming back? Let’s dive into Eight Ends to explain.

1st End: The secret of success

Gord McCrady, who now serves as the event’s chairman, and Clarence Jenkins, better know by his nickname Shorty, created the event back in 1996 to repay the Brockville Country Club for funds used to buy a new compressor, chiller and condenser.

“Our goal originally was five years and it just grew from there,” McCrady said. “The first year we had 20 men’s teams and then we expanded the next year because Shorty said we needed ladies teams. We’ve got to have the ladies teams so we went to 12 ladies and 24 men’s and it just took off from there basically.”

The Shorty Jenkins Classic made a seamless transition in 2015 to the Cornwall Curling Centre with the tournament continuing to draw big crowds and all of the top curlers.

“They just do a great job here,” skip Glenn Howard said. “The ice conditions are fantastic. The facility is fantastic. A lot of credit goes to Cornwall too. I know a few years ago Brockville lost their ice and they had like three weeks to prepare. They put on an unbelievable job and they’ve kept it since. Gord McCrady and his crew have always done an amazing job. The curlers love it and I think that’s why we all keep coming back.”

What makes the tournament different from others, McCrady said, is they try to cater to the curlers, literally, by providing a players’ lounge with food, beverages and a place to relax plus drivers on dispatch duty to chauffeur them where they need to go.

“We try to do little things to make the curlers stay and make it a little different, a little better and a little nicer,” McCrady said. “It just grew every year to the point where we are today with 18 ladies, 24 men’s and $92,000 in prize money. It’s just amazing to see it progress and it’s probably, I’m not sure but I’m going to guess, it’s one of the longest-running bonspiels of this calibre and definitely in Canada or the world.”

“It’s always great,” added Team Epping second Brent Laing, who first played in the event when he was still in juniors during the late 1990s. “The community always really rallies around it. It’s nice to get out in September. The weather always seems to be great so we can get out and play some golf. It’s kind of been one of the cornerstones of the tour for a long time. It used to be the first event of the year but now the season is getting longer but it’s an amazing event and it’s always great to be here.”

Golf and curling tend to go hand-in-hand and McCrady also credits that as a reason the Shorty Jenkins Classic took off when it was held at the Brockville Country Club.

“I think Jeff Stoughton in the year he won the bonspiel, he curled … eight games including the playoffs and 27 holes of golf,” McCrady said. “That was a very successful weekend.”

McCrady said the feedback he receives from the curlers is amazing and he estimates at least half of the field has already told him they’ll be back next year.

“It tells us we’re doing the right thing,” he said. “Curlers want to play on good ice, which we have. They prefer to play in front of crowds versus an empty curling rink. We have crowds all the time. Since day one of the Shorty we’ve been blessed with having great crowds in the rink.

“The curlers want to have fun to a certain degree. Still, they want to have fun and enjoy the event. … It makes us as a committee, and myself, feel very proud that they want to come here every year, especially when people like [Brad] Gushue are calling and apologizing for not coming.”

2nd End: The legend of Shorty lives on

Shorty Jenkins was quite the colourful character — known for wearing a pink cowboy hat and pink boots — and although he passed away in 2013 at age 77 after battling Alzheimer’s disease, his legacy continues not only through the event but also the techniques he shared with his fellow ice-makers.

Shorty treated ice-making like a science and McCrady believes the King of Swing changed the sport.

“He was a magician with ice,” McCrady said. “If it wasn’t for Shorty, I’m sure we would have evolved curling where we have, but Shorty put the curl in ice. He introduced stopwatches to curling. He was the first guy to understand rocks and the different types of stone and how rocks reacted. He started sandpapering rocks to make them curl more or go faster. The things he’s done for the game over the years is just incredible.”

Howard knew Shorty very well — “for 100 years, literally,” he said — and added it’s really special to have it in his name and honour.

“He’s arguably the best ice-maker that ever lived,” Howard said. “He revolutionized our game with the great ice conditions we used to get in Ontario. I think his knowledge has been bestowed onto the ice-makers today and I think that’s why we have such great conditions. …

“They did a phenomenal job in Brockville and now they’re doing a phenomenal job in Cornwall. It’s a testament to how well they run it by how many guys and teams show up every year. There’s always a waiting list to get into this spiel and that’s because it’s one of the best on tour.”

McCrady also explained some of Shorty’s quirks that he had to deal with over the years.

“He called everybody ‘Harry’ all of the time, so you didn’t know who he was talking to,” McCrady said with a laugh. “He would yell at you but he was doing it only because he loved his ice so much, he didn’t want anybody to get in his way. If you’re working with him as an ice-maker or a volunteer, he would still yell sometimes but it was all just Shorty. You just had to know who Shorty was.

“He changed the game drastically. There are a lot of things with this bonspiel that Shorty wanted us to include over the years. The game today has evolved, in my opinion, because of Shorty’s stuff in the 1970s and 1980s that he introduced.”

With events disappearing from the calendar — Saskatoon and Edmonton are both notable omissions on the men’s side this season — McCrady believes it’s as important as ever to keep the Shorty Jenkins Classic running.

“The goal is 25 years if we can get there and then probably after that it’s going to be 30 years,” McCrady said. “We want to keep it going but everything runs its course eventually and we hope that’s not for a long time with the Shorty Jenkins.

“It depends on the curlers. If the curlers stop coming to the Shorty, we can’t have a product on the ice to attract the fans and the sponsors. That’s why we make little changes in the bonspiel every year to keep the curlers happy and coming back. We listen to them and try to do the things they want to keep them coming back because without them we don’t have a product.”

From the sound of it, that doesn’t appear to be a problem.

“It’s a challenge to see these events go,” Laing said. “It’s great that we’re getting so many new events but I don’t know. We need somebody in charge that just says here’s your weekend and until you say you don’t want it we’re not going to plop another event on your weekend. I can’t even imagine all of the work the committee has put in here over the years. … It’s just a top-class event.”

Howard added: “I love this game and we’re getting a few new ones all the time but this is a mainstay. This is one they keep on the same weekend every year. Everyone knows when the Shorty Jenkins Classic is and everyone marks it on the calendar.”

3rd End: Ice is nice

Being that Jenkins was an ice-maker, it’s important to McCrady to have great ice for the event and that honour goes to Jon Wall.

“It’s pretty special,” said Wall, who has made ice at the event for the past seven seasons. “Shorty really was an innovator of the game and he got inducted into the world curling hall of fame for that. He went and took chances and created the big swing.

“He kind of put ice-makers on the map so to say and made our job more important, so it’s always something you look up to. He’s a legend, especially being in Ontario it’s one of those things you strive for that bar that he’s set. It’s an important job for me every year, so I look forward to it.”

While you will not see Wall don pink boots nor a pink hat, McCrady sees a lot of Shorty in him and said it’s a shame the two never had the opportunity to work together.

“Jon understands the love that Shorty had for this bonspiel and for great ice,” McCrady said. “Jon has taken that and has given us great ice since he started doing the ice for us. He understands Shorty wanted the ice fast and lots of curl, so Jon has been fantastic to work with. We jab each other once in a while like Shorty and I used to do but it’s all in good fun. It’s just fun to see an ice-maker that’s somewhat normal but enjoys and takes pride in his work. I think that’s one of the things that bothered Shorty the most is when ice-makers didn’t take pride even in their club ice. It would be dirty or things like that.

“Jon has a lot of the same attributes that Shorty had when he was younger too and through the years. I don’t know whether he’s read lots about him or heard lots of stories but he’s a great ice-maker. Even Jon said to me this hot weather, I’m sure Clarence is up there testing me to make sure I can make ice good in this hot weather.”

It’s anything but your typical eight-hour day, which is usually stretched over the course of 14 to 18 hours by having to be on hand in case a rock handle malfunctions or, as was the case immediately after our interview, water starts dripping from the ceiling and an emergency bucket needs to be fixed above the sheet.

“It’s a bit of a long haul and a grind but you make it through,” Wall said.

4th End: New Team Epping already paying dividends

The season and the Olympic cycle are still in their infancy but those who have already hit the road for two or three weeks have yielded some positive results.

John Epping’s Toronto-based team is one such case following up their semifinal performance at the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard with an undefeated championship run at the AMJ Campbell Shorty Jenkins Classic.

Epping’s new front-end of Laing and lead Craig Savill look like they haven’t missed a beat together since their days winning 12 Grand Slams on Team Howard.

They still have some things to work on — as all new teams do — but have looked solid so far and it’ll be intriguing to see how much better they can become. Although, they’re fittingly ranked sixth on the World Curling Tour right now (shout out to Drake for dubbing Toronto as “The 6”).

5th End: Believe the hype for Team Wrana

Team Wrana captured their first World Curling Tour title winning the Shorty Jenkins Classic women’s championship. Now the question becomes is it the first of many?

A couple years ago when I was at the Oakville Fall Classic, I talked to former Team Edin lead Viktor Kjell, then coaching Scotland’s Team Smith, and he praised the young Swedish squad. Considering they went to the final that year, losing to compatriots Team Hasselborg, it was clear even then they were the real deal (and that was before Team Wrana won the world junior title later that season).

Team Wrana has moved up to 16th on the World Curling Tour’s Order of Merit, which also means we’ll most likely start seeing them regularly in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling sooner rather than later.

6th End: New role for Neufeld

Denni Neufeld appears to be fitting in nicely with his new crew, Team Gunnlaugson, who were quarterfinalists at the Shorty Jenkins Classic.

“It’s been fantastic,” Neufeld said. “The guys are all great guys. We’ve had some good practises so it’s still new but it’s feeling pretty good. I’m enjoying it.”

The Winnipeg native Neufeld not only joined a new team this season but has also taken on a new role moving up from lead to second and he’s enjoying the change of scenery.

“It’s definitely different,” he said. “I get to throw a few more different shots, some bigger-weight shots, which I’m excited about but I love it.”

Neufeld wrapped up a stellar run with Team McEwen having won seven Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling titles together. He admitted it is a little odd now not playing with his brother, B.J. Neufeld, who joined Team Koe after Team McEwen disbanded.

“We played together for 11 years and I always thought I’d play with him but it’s feeling pretty good,” Neufeld said. “I think I’m moving my way into a comfortable position here on this team.”

7th End: Teams to watch

After hitting the World Curling Tour for the past few weekends, here are some other teams to keep track of.

– Team Einarson: Last week’s top story made it back-to-back title wins on tour picking up the Morris SunSpiel championship this past Sunday. If they can make it three in a row, then we’ll declare them on fire.

– Team Dunstone: This team has the power and looked fierce in their runner-up finish at the Oakville Fall Classic and quarterfinal result at the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard.

– Team Harrison: Another club that qualified in consecutive weekends making the quarterfinals at the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard and AMJ Campbell Shorty Jenkins Classic. The former Team Flaxey trio of Clancy Grandy, Lynn Kreviazuk and Morgan Court had established chemistry but have meshed well already with skip Jacqueline Harrison.

– Team Yoshimura: It’s basically Team Ogasawara minus Ayumi Ogasawara with former alternate Sayaka Yoshimura now in charge. Again, the chemistry is already there giving them a head-start early in the season with a title win at the Oakville Fall Classic, quarterfinal finish at the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard and runner-up result at the Colonial Square Ladies Classic.

– Teams from China: Which one? All of them. You’re going to see them everywhere on tour leading up to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics as China will want to put on a good show as the host nation. No true contenders have emerged from the pack just yet but think back to four years ago. South Korea’s Team EunJung Kim was virtually unknown then and went on to earn silver on home ice at the Pyeongchang Winter Games.

8th End: GSOC SZN around the corner

We’re just over a week away from the start of the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling season. The Princess Auto Elite 10 gets underway next Wednesday evening at St. Clair Campus Arena in Chatham-Kent, Ont.

Ten of the top men’s teams and 10 of the top women’s teams from around the world are set to do battle in the match-play event. Watch the Princess Auto Elite 10 starting Thursday, Sept. 27 at Noon ET on Sportsnet and online at Sportsnet NOW (Canada) or gsoc.yaretv.com (international).

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