Young Wilberforce curlers lead new trend

By Darren Lum

Before two highly publicized curling injuries in the past several months the Wilberforce Elementary School students had already become part of a new wave of curlers who have started wearing head protection.

Head injuries took centre stage with curlers in this country after a death by a 72-year-old Scarborough woman back in October followed by the tumble of 2006 Olympic gold-medal curling champion Brad Gushue on national television during a major competition in November.

Although the Wilberforce Curling Club had one student group learn to curl three years ago it was two years ago that the club opened its doors to all of the students (Grade 4 to 8) from the elementary school located just down the road and were instrumental in successfully applying for Canadian Tire Jump Start grants to purchase protective head gear.

The Trillium Lakelands District School Board’s OPHEA (Ontario Physical Education) guidelines requires head protection for activities on ice but not for curling. However the club and the administration of the school thought it was a good idea for the Wilberforce Elementary School students to wear “safety tuques” as a precaution against head injuries.

Wilberforce Curling Club’s Dave Watson and the budding curlers affectionately call them Beanie Boppers. He said the products were already known because of major curling clothiers have had them in their catalogue for the past few years.

“We saw the protective head gear and saw it was an important issue particularly for kids when they’re out on the ice learning how to curl and so we went ahead purchasing head gear” he said referring to the Heads Up brand of products.

“That was one of our concerns as a curling club. We wanted to do it. The Ontario Curling Association really supported us with safety on the ice [being] paramount for kids curling” he said.

The club offered instruction in the winter sport within the framework outlined by the OCA Little Rocks program (eight weeks of learning which included safe practices and a week of testing) to be included as part of physical education curriculum. Students curled one day a week for an hour at the club during school. There were three separate sessions of Grade 4/5 Grade 5/6 and Grade 7/8 each week.

Although the OCA and Canadian Curling Association are promoters of safe curling they have not made head gear protection mandatory. However individual clubs do have rules for head protection for their younger curlers such as Wilberforce’s.

“They don’t make it mandatory but they highly recommend it. That’s one of those crazy use of words right?” he said.

There were $9000 worth of grants over two years from the Canadian Tire Jump Start program that covered the protective hat costs for every student including 25 this year for Grade 4 students joining the program to receive a tuque for free. This past year the grants also covered the purchase of 65 brooms. The Jump Start program normally awards money to individuals but “they saw the wisdom in providing the equipment for the kids.”

At the start of each year included a one-day indoor curling lesson for the at the Lloyd Watson Memorial Centre by the Curling Canada’s Rocks and Rings program.

Two of the students have fallen but their falls did not warrant a demonstration of the pad’s effectiveness. Watson said once the pad is damaged that it can be sent back to the company for study and be exchanged for another one.

They are currently looking for an alternate venue as the Wilberforce Curling Club building undergoes repairs for a recent brine leak.

Before the elementary curling program he didn’t really think of wearing protective head gear despite falls.

The curler with more than 40 years of experience long-time member and one of eight volunteer coaches with OCA accreditation to coach said they lead by example and all wear toques with the protective pad.

“You don’t even know you have the thing on. Once in a while you might think oh what’s this at the back [of my head]” he said describing what it’s like to wear head gear.

There is a tendency to fall backwards so the protective pad can be insurance against a head injury.
He adds you rarely see competitive curlers wearing anything on their heads on television and if they do it really stands out.

“You think some guy is crazy because he is wearing an ordinary peaked hat. You know because curling has always been a bare-headed sport. It’s never called on anything for protection or whatever” he said.

Watson isn’t sure how to encourage more adults to wear head protection.

He believes starting children young will make them lifelong head protection users similar to how children become used to wearing head protection for other activities such as bicycling and ski/snowboarding.

“I think eventually those kids after they graduate Grade 8 … they’re going to wear their Beanie Boppers. It’s going to become a natural thing to wear” he said.

All the tuques are kept at the club for the season and are labelled with the curler’s names.

Watson said this has been a positive experience. He adds this will raise awareness and bring attention to head protection for other curlers.

Although the Wilberforce Curling Club’s support has not wavered it’s aging facility was not up to the task this season after a leak has forced the end to the 2015-2016 season. The club is attempting to work out an idea to keep the students curling. Watson said the club has seen resurgence since a membership drive and the start of the student program. There are now 65 members compared to only 35 two years ago.

Despite the raised awareness there is only a handful of protective head gear users in Haliburton County. All of the county clubs researched for this story such as Minden Curling Club Wilberforce Curling Club and Haliburton Curling Club encourage safe practices to their membership. However none have made it mandatory for their members.

It’s easy to remember helmets are a must for contact sports such as hockey and football. Curling is not hockey but it has its share of risk.

A report released in April last year from the Public Health Agency of Canada revealed of the 90 per cent of injuries in recreational curling resulting from a fall a little more than 30 per cent were head impacts.

The Red Wolves Special Olympic curling team’s co-ordinator coach and parent Yvette Brauer said all of the members must wear protective head gear.

“We opt for the halo as it is widely used and looks cool. A number of our coaches are wearing them as well although not mandatory for them” she said referring to the Ice Halo that looks like a head band. “Keeping everyone safe from serious injuries is our main focus some of our athletes have  balance issues so this is definitely beneficial especially for them.”

At the Minden Curling Club Pauline Plooard an Ice Halo wearer for the past five years said she remembers past members who fell and suffered a head injury that never returned to the sport. At the time specific head protection was not readily available. The club eventually starting to sell the Ice Halo version of head gear. She was the first at her club to wear it.

Last week during women’s house league she pointed to the four sheets of ice where there was a diversity of styles worn by more than a third of the 32 ladies curling. There are only a few men wearing protection who wear helmets.

President of the Haliburton Curling Club Mary Hillaby admits she doesn’t wear anything but said safety is a top priority at her club as evidenced by the information outlined on the club’s home page as well as taught in their clinics emphasizing the use of grippers paying attention to condition of equipment and particular actions with rocks and conduct on and around the ice.

“We’re constantly making everyone aware of it not to the point of scaring them. We just want them to be safe” she said.

She adds there is greater awareness among her membership because of the injuries even if the Gushue facial injuries sustained from the fall would not have been mitigated by protective head gear.
Hillaby has thought of wearing protective head gear but isn’t certain of which to choose.

She wasn’t certain about numbers related to protective head wear users at her club but has noticed there has been an increase compared to a few years ago.

The club sells Ice Halos.

Just down the road from the Haliburton Curling Club JoAnne Sharpley Source for Sports owner JoAnne Sharpley offers an entire line of curling equipment including the full array of hats that have the foam insert at the back of the textile head gear which were on sale (as of writing).

Although there hasn’t been a dramatic shift to wearing head protection Sharpley said there is enough demand for her to continue to sell the products. In the last couple years she has sold close to 30 hats with protective pads.

Besides the curling specific head gear there have been a few requests from males to purchase snowboard helmets because of the multi-use nature and for its appearance.

Not only is it a safety concern she said but it will become a sales strategy. She is asking her staff to encourage customers buying new equipment to consider head protection for sports such as curling snowboarding or skiing.

As far as the Haliburton club’s younger participants in the Youth Curling Club Hillaby has left headwear up to the parents’ discretion and sent letters home. On a recent Thursday where youth were curling there was one curler wearing protective head gear.

She acknowledges some of the reservations related to head protection but is fully aware of the growing selection available.

“When people think protective head gear they automatically think helmets but some of the designs are cool. You can have a tuque with protective pad at the back. There’s baseball caps. They’re trying to make it more appealing to people to wear” she said.