Between a rock and a cold place

It’s not much to look at, to be honest. A whitewashed rectangle with a long barn behind it, next to a red-brick middle school on a wide suburban thoroughfare. Driving by, nothing about the Charleswood Curling Club will turn your head. It’s easy to miss. But any given Sunday, park your car along the side and push through the blue doors beneath that yellow canopy. Climb the stairs to your right and pull up a seat in the lounge overlooking those five slick sheets of ice. This might as well be Anywhere, Canada, but it’s the centre of a proud history. There are kids learning the game on one sheet. A mixed group of retirees on another. Mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters — generations, sharing the simple joy of a sport that ties them together. And in the middle, there—that 50-year-old doing 360 spins before throwing the rock — yeah, that’s Jeff Stoughton, whose team is a favourite to earn a spot representing Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. A two-time world champion working on his game amongst the everyday curlers who call this nondescript building in west-end Winnipeg home.

It’s a home built and maintained by the determination and sacrifice of its volunteers. The story of Charleswood reaches back nearly seven decades and its future depends entirely on the strength of its traditions. Curling is more than a leisure activity here. It’s a commitment to family and friends and community. The 800 members of Charleswood — ranging in age from six to nearly 90, and in skill from beginner to world champion—have always funded the rink themselves, barely breaking even each year since it was founded in 1946. The old wooden beams of the current building were raised back in 1955. Pictures of that construction still hang proudly at one end of the lobby, as though the ground was broken just a few years back. Truth is, there are clubs like Charleswood scattered from coast to coast. Its ice isn’t produced by the most advanced technology (though it is meticulously pebbled, thanks to the efforts of Garth Reimer, the club’s ice maker). It’s never hosted a Brier; too small. And it’s not even the oldest rink in the city. But Charleswood is built on a common will; a passion for a sport that is more about the experience than the payoff. It’s special because it’s so comfortingly normal.

Ask that world champion. Jeff Stoughton joined Charleswood 20 years ago — around the same time a bridge was built linking the once-rural community to the rest of Winnipeg. “It’s sort of like your mom-and-pop corner grocery store or diner,” he says. Even with the connection to the larger city, Charleswood still evokes the ruggedness of country life. Despite the notoriously vicious winters of Winnipeg, the club didn’t get insulation until a little over a decade ago. “Usually if the wind chill outside was -30, the wind chill inside was -10,” says Stoughton. But he and the other members stuck through the cold, embraced by the intangible warmth of the place. Stoughton chose Charleswood as a matter of convenience when he moved to the area in the early ’90s, and basically raised his family there. Sons Riley, now 21, and Cole, 19, were part of the club’s junior program and are still members. Ten-year-old Elizabeth isn’t into the sport yet but has been a regular visitor on the ice next to her dad. “It’s a real community,” Stoughton says. “It’s more than just going to throw rocks.”

It was after joining Charleswood that Stoughton’s career took off. The Winnipeg native had already earned two mixed national championships, but his real mark came with a 1996 Brier win in Kamloops, defeating Kevin Martin’s rink in the final. He went on to win the world championship later that year in Hamilton, Ont. Both of those banners now hang in a large case against the wall, along with the others from his ever-expanding curling CV. Stoughton won his second Brier in 1999 and his third in 2011, the same year he won his second world championship. In 2012, he took his first Canada Cup and won the National in January 2013, completing a career grand slam.

What you won’t find in that case, however, is an Olympic medal. The one honour that has eluded Stoughton’s team is a chance to represent Canada on the biggest stage in sports. “I think an Olympic medal would be a great way for my career to finish off,” he says. “It’s something we’re missing and would really, really love to get.”

He’ll have to earn a spot in Sochi at the Olympic trials at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg in December. The journey from here to there is lined with bonspiels in Saskatoon, Toronto, Portage la Prairie, Abbotsford and Medicine Hat—between each, a trip home to Charleswood. It’s a return to a community—ages six to nearly 90, 800 strong, 68 years on, the foundation of a growing legacy, one Olympic medal away from being complete.

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