Roy Johnson straps on his helmet, slips on a knee brace, grabs his broom and heads out onto the sheet.
At 82, he doesn’t plan on quitting curling any time soon, thanks, he says, to a key invention.
“The reason that I can curl now is the development of the stick,” said Johnson, a member of the Scarboro Golf and Country Club.
“Rather than having to come out of the hack on my knee, I can now just walk out and use the stick without bending over,” he said.
As decades pass, bones start to ache, balance isn’t what it used to be and the likelihood of needing surgery increases. Obstacles like these make crouching into the hack and balancing on one leg tougher.
This is exactly what Eric Downer, an over-80 curler, had in mind when he helped invent what is now dubbed “the stick.” Also known as a “cue,” the five-foot long shaft has a bendable plastic tube at the bottom that slips over the handle of a rock.
Johnson began curling in 1995 when he was 67. Recently retired at the time, Johnson was fascinated by the sport and began playing every year.
But as the years passed, competing against younger men grew tedious, he said.
Fellow curlers Bob Caunt, Walter Mckowan and Arthur Burford also experienced the challenges of the wide age gaps. Together they pioneered the Octogenarian Curling League at Donalda Club in Don Mills seven years ago.
“As we started getting into our 70s it got a little tough for us,” Burford said. “So we set up the over-70 curling league. A few of us in that league got older again and said, ‘We’re 80, this is getting a little tough.’ ”
The league features eight teams from across the GTA, each composed of six or seven players.
Even though the league has no playoff, an end-of-season cash prize gives the teams some competitive incentive.
The final matches of this season took place March 4. Team Scarboro finished fourth.
Throwing lead for Scarboro is Bill Greer, 81, followed by Roy Johnson. Ken Smith, 82, is the team’s vice. Harold Jamieson, 85, is Scarboro’s skip.
And while fourth place falls short of a medal, the team closed out the season with a solid 10-2 victory over eight ends.
Scarboro’s over-80 team also plays pick-up games twice a week in Scarborough, as well as several bonspiels a year.
Using the stick, all four members make the transition from throwing the rock look easy. But the stick does come with its drawbacks, Johnson said.
“It’s difficult to get the proper weight of the stone and that’s very important when you’re drawing,” he said. “There is a certain method. You have to take the right amount of steps each time as well as remembering how much strength to use and how much to twist the stick when releasing.”
The drawbacks are a small price to pay, though, for what the stick has done for the careers of many elders, Johnson added.
“The stick has resurrected my career in curling and it’s done wonders for some of my friends,” he said.
The stick has helped older curlers, but dangers remain. Three years ago, Downer died after slipping and smacking his head on a sheet of ice.
Several octogenarians now wear helmets or thick protective bands around their heads in case the grip on their special shoes falter.
Knee braces are also standard, providing much-needed support while shuffling down the sheet. For those whose vision isn’t what it used to be, monoculars that hang around the neck are used to see the house from the other side of the sheet before throwing.
With Donalda’s growing support and advances in equipment, the future of the league is uncertain. Team Scaroboro’s members said they believe the stick will attract more people to the sport and that the careers of curlers will benefit in the long run.
On the other hand, the foremen of the league believe otherwise. Burford worries about the gap in age groups, noting the 55-60 range has far fewer participants.
“I think [the league] will go on for a few more years,” Burford said. “It is a struggle because you need 6 or 7 players for each team.”
If Team Scarboro is right, Donalda won’t have to worry about gaps in age groups, but will instead experience a surge in participants.