Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Electric, and infectious

It was well past midnight and National Team coach Jim Waite was still lecturing on uniform sizes, documents and other stuff. Suddenly, the Regina hotel salon was invaded by a horde of clapping, chanting curling fans, many clutching cases of beer.

Hold on
, yelled Waite. We have to get through this, and then you can party with them, just give us five more minutes.

Six minutes later the Canadian Curling Association bureaucracy was finished, and the latest round of leaping, hugging and backslapping began.

Just being around Canada’s first francophone Brier champions is inspiring. The excitement is electric and infectious.

It’s not hard to imagine a similar party with Team Ontario – or Manitoba or Alberta – being a much quieter, businesslike affair... all in a day’s work for the big-name teams, and low-key satisfaction of a job well done.

Instead, it becomes apparent that Team Quebec’s Francois Roberge (photo middle-front) – who dropped himself from skip position three years ago and recruited Jean-Michel Menard (photo left) from faraway Gatineau to man the tee – is quite possibly the most excited champion in the history of curling. Three hours after the match, his feet are still far off the ground.

Roberge and lead Maxime Elmaleh (photo second from right) both speak passionately of their love of curling and the Brier. I cannot believe it, says Roberge, who is called "Frankie" by teammates and opponents alike. I have watched every Brier final since 1985, I watch like crazy, declares "Max".

Roberge, the all-star third, confirms that he too is a Brier TV junkie, whereupon he is asked if he wants to hear The Call – the last words pronounced by CBC commentator Don Wittman during Menard’s winning throw– right then and there, or if he would rather wait to see it on videotape. Now, now, tell it to me now! Roberge exclaims.

Jean-Michel Menard... trying to become the first Francophone team to ever win the Canadian Men’s Championship... will he do it? (whack) He does!

Simple yet classic. The veteran Witt timed it perfectly; “He does!” came just after the final rock made contact and just before the athletes exploded into the air in celebration.

Roberge was in tears, listening to the words. He balled his fists together and shook them with his eyes closed... and promptly went in for another hug. Of course.

Later, a fan shows off the video of their victory stone, shot on a tiny digital camera from far up in the stands. The boys crowd around, then start screeching and hugging again. Frankie watches it twice.

The team – which includes second Eric Sylvain (photo second from left), himself a former skip – are all big U2 fans, and like many athletes use music – and other superstitions – to support their mental approach to the game. During (the Quebec provincial) the song I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For was on, and that was not good, says Roberge. I said turn it off, it’s negative!

Then, here at the Brier, we have the hotel room number 2006, and I say that this means something! And the first song in the van is the first line from the U2 song Sunday Bloody Sunday ... “I can’t believe the news today...

Through Brier week there was much media coverage of the challenges Quebec curlers face to grow the sport in their province. Prior to Regina 2006, Menard’s team took the unpaid job of such self-promotion very seriously, and now they find themselves to be the driving force of what is sure to be a renewed effort in publicity, promotion and participation. Menard himself won the Brier’s Ross Harstone Award, a sportsmanship honour bestowed by his fellow players, which also includes in its critiera a committment to promoting the sport of curling.

Roberge had one of the best media quotes of the week: What I want is for Quebec to stay in Canada, so I can get back to the Brier. But first comes the World Championships, and Roberge reports that immediately after the final, the first 25 Quebecers were committed to making the 7-hour drive to Tsongas Arena in Lowell, Mass. The team hopes many more will take advantage of the close proximity and make the trip.

The squad – minus their skip – returned home to Quebec City yesterday and a victory party was held at their home Victoria Curling Club. Menard lives in faraway Gatineau, just outside of Ottawa, and enjoyed a victory celebration of his own at the airport.

Here’s an on-the-scene report from a TCN spy:

JM arrived late. Lots of TV and radio reporters...TVA, CBC French and English, TQS, CTV, Le Droit newspaper and a few that I am not sure about. He had to do a few interviews over the phone for the radio and other reporters that couldn’t be there. Lots of friends and family were there. The Rideau Curling Club manager and members; the president of the Gatineau Curling Club that is not built yet; friends from his work... his uncles... a few members from the Ottawa Curling Club... I would say around 50 or so! JM was very happy!

Leaving Regina on Monday night, gold medallist Russ Howard spoke about the Quebecers. It might have been difficult for Howard to watch his brother Glenn lose the final, but the Olympian spoke almost proudly of the newest champions.

I played in a spiel with my son just the weekend before the (Olympic) Trials in Quebec, and they (Team Menard) were there. We played them twice. They are just great guys. Everybody at that event was so happy to see us there, and we were just four guys who drove through the middle of the night from New Brunswick. They treated us like kings.

I was near the ice after they won, and Maxime leaned over the boards to me and he was crying his face off. He yelled You’re my hero and I told him You’re MY hero.

Russ added that he was very nearly laughing at Elmaleh, whose emotional state was so powerful that his anguished face looked more hurt than happy. Amazing to see, said Howard.

Congratulations Quebec, on winning only your second Brier title in 77 years (following Jim Ursel at Montreal’s Veladrome in 1977) and the first for a true francophone team. As stated earlier:

In an Olympic year, which saw five Newfoundlanders and a living legend from New Brunswick-by-way-of-Ontario win the first-ever men's Olympic gold for Canada, nothing should surprise any of us anymore.


CCR Scotty Harper award winner Allen Cameron
Terry Jones
Perry Lefko
Jim Bender
The Bender Awards
Donna Spencer

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