Northern Ontario Wheelchair Curling Champions (from the left): Skip Carl Levesque; third Rick Bell; coach Dave Kawahara; second Mel Prairie; lead Sharon LaFroye and alternative Doug Dean.
In 2008 they were teammates by chance.
The foursome, chosen in 2008 by the Northern Ontario Curling Association when the organization was asked at the last minute to enter a team into the national tournament, this time around earned their way in on the ice, going 4-0 at the recent provincial play-downs held in January in Sudbury.
Approached in Wal-Mart and asked if he wanted to try the sport out, ultimately earning a berth on the inaugural 2008 Northern Ontario squad, Levesque said the team is firing on all cylinders heading into nationals, which will take place at the Fort William Curling Club.
“I think everybody is shooting very well,” he said before a recent practice. We have just got to be positive and stay in good spirits,” Levesque said.
Prairie said based on their results in Sudbury, he’s expecting big things on the weekend, a chance to qualify for the world championship in South Korea on the line.
“To be honest, I think we’ve really gelled together as a team,” he said. “Sudbury really proved we’re cooking. Everybody’s getting along, everybody’s got the team spirit.”
Wheelchair curling differs from the traditional game in two significant ways. Curlers can either throw stones using their hands or by pushing them down the ice with a delivery stick. There are no sweepers, so learning to read the ice in a hurry is the key to success.
Bell, who said this weekend’s championships should open the public’s eye to a sport that is just starting to catch on in Northern Ontario, where they could barely form a team half a decade ago.
“You have to be precise and use the proper weight,” Bell said. “If you’re too hard it will go through. If you’re soft it will come up short.”
There’s also the matter of how much the rock with curl. With no sweepers to guide the stone into the rings, a shot that starts on one side of the sheet can often finish on the other.
LaFoye, who turned to the sport in 2006, called playing at home a dream come true.
“I don’t even have the words to describe it,” she said. “It was a team effort to make it and I honestly see us in the final, I think, if we play as well as we did in Sudbury.”
A member of the 2008 squad, she said this time around feels a bit more satisfying than simply being picked to go at a selection camp.
“This is a totally different feeling, to know that we played our way here as a team.”
Coach Dave Kawahara, is tempering his expectations for the squad, though he knows the talent is there to compete for a title.
“We curled very well in Sudbury. If we can curl like that, we’re hoping to make the playoffs. I’m quietly optimistic,” he said.
Team Northern Ontario opens the championship Sunday morning at 10:30 a.m. against Newfoundland and Labrador.
A second Northern Ontario team, Rick Prudhomme’s rink from Sudbury, will act as tournament hosts. They landed the spot when Team New Brunswick withdrew.
They open against Manitoba.
The final is set for March 25 at 2:30 p.m.