Northern Ontario on the path to curling dominance

Brad Jacobs shoots a stone during the Boost National in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. (Anil Mungal)

SAULT STE. MARIE, Ont. — Brad Jacobs smiled on the inside when he heard moose calls during the opening draw of the Boost National.

The Olympic gold medallist, playing in his hometown Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling event this week, said it felt like the Brier when that unmistakable sound filled the Essar Centre.

“You get that feeling of being at the Brier,” Jacobs said. “I almost said it out loud to my guys, ‘It feels like the Brier out here. We’ve got some moose calls.’”

A homemade Northern Ontario moose call can be assembled out of a tin can, shoestring, chalk or rosin plus something sharp to punch a hole in the bottom of the can. We figured Tracy Fleury’s team from Sudbury could put one together “with their eyes closed” so we challenged them to make an instructional video while blindfolded. Mission accomplished.

While the sound itself is not exactly all that pleasant, it’s one Northern Ontario curlers call their own.

“Love the moose calls,” Fleury said with no hesitation. “It reminds us of home so we definitely appreciate the fans with the moose calls.”

Coming up with a way to describe the noise is a bit challenging though with some interesting interpretations.

“I think in another interview I said it was like someone or an animal throwing up almost,” said Kendra Lilly, who throws third stones on Krista McCarville’s Thunder Bay team. “It’s not a nice noise but it’s our noise so we embrace it.

“It’s hilarious. It’s what we know and some people just think it’s the most ridiculous sound ever but we love it. It’s different; it’s Northern Ontario. I mean nothing is more Northern Ontario than a moose.”

Get used to hearing the moose call at elite-level events as Northern Ontario has established itself as a powerhouse across the board in curling.

On top of Jacobs being the reigning Olympic champ, he’s a perennial contender at the Brier winning the national championship in 2013 and earning medals at the past two. McCarville finished runner-up at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts this past season during a remarkable comeback year where she also was victorious in four consecutive tour events. Fleury has established her team as a threat on the World Curling Tour, ranked in the top 10, and her younger brother Tanner Horgan claimed silver at the Canadian juniors.

Throw in a Canadian mixed championship for Trevor Bonot’s crew from Thunder Bay last month and Northern Ontario has all of their bases covered for curling domination.

“It’s great to see how much depth we have in all the different categories,” Horgan said. “I think the last four national events we’ve put a team in the playoffs, which is something totally new for our province so it’s just so awesome to see Northern Ontario doing so well.”

“I think a lot of people underestimate Northern Ontario and sometimes they think that we shouldn’t have our own spot,” Lilly added. “But we’ve proven — all the teams in mixed, women’s, men’s and juniors — that Northern Ontario is a force to be reckoned with. We’re proud to show everyone what we’re made of.”

Team McCarville lead Sarah Potts said while Northern Ontario might not have the quantity of teams, it’s the quality that counts.

“I know some people questioned whether Northern Ontario should even have its own spot so it’s pretty huge we’re all doing so well,” said Potts, a second-generation star with both her parents, Rick and Lorraine Lang, having won world championships. “The mixed, I know Trevor’s team, that was awesome at the Canadians.

“Jacobs is obviously tough to beat. We don’t have many teams in the Northern Ontario women’s but Fleury is a very great, top-ranked curling team. Although we don’t have the numbers we have the quality of teams so it’s good.”

The teams are well aware of their roots too. When it came time to film a double takeout for our Sick Shot Challenge, Fleury’s team opted to recreate Al Hackner’s legendary double from the 10th end of the 1985 Brier final versus Alberta’s Pat Ryan that sent the game into an extra. Hackner (with Rick Lang at third) went on to steal in OT to win the national championship for Northern Ontario.

“The Shot” is considered one of the greatest of all-time — and certainly the greatest in Northern Ontario history — yet to Fleury’s team it was just another check on the list of challenges.

“It was actually Tracy’s idea and once she suggested it, it was a no-brainer,” said Jenn Wylie, Fleury’s sister and vice skip on their team. “It was a must-do. We kept trying it until we made it.”

Jacobs and Fleury earned their spots to the Boost National based on merit while McCarville and Horgan received sponsor’s exemptions. McCarville hopes having four Northern Ontario teams competing in a Grand Slam trickles down to the junior ranks for the future.

“I think it’s good for all the curling in Northern Ontario and hopefully the junior programs are seeing this,” McCarville said. “It’s always great to have our province be in top events like this. It’s really beneficial for the curlers back at home.”

Big-time curling will be back in Northern Ontario next season with the National returning to the Essar Centre and North Bay recently winning the bid to host the 2018 world women’s championship.

“It’s wonderful,” Wylie said. “It’s nice to know our friends and family are going to be able to come watch us. Hopefully we’ll be in the Slam next year and even for us if we’re not in the worlds in North Bay it’ll be fun just to go watch it there. We’ll definitely be in the crowd supporting the event.”

“It’s really great to see big events coming to Northern Ontario,” Fleury added. “It’s just a good thing for developing the sport in Northern Ontario so it’s awesome.”

With everything coming up Northern Ontario, best to start getting comfortable with those moose calls. Even Team Jacobs third Ryan Fry, originally from Winnipeg, has grown accustomed to it over the years.

“I’ve been around here for a long time now so it’s nice to hear at the Briers,” he said, “and it’s nice to hear it especially from your hometown crowd.”

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