Dave Ablett has been curling religiously for over a decade. Now, he spends time each winter passing his knowledge and experience down to kids through the Haliburton Youth Curling program.
The initiative, which has been running for over 15 years, returned in 2022 after an enforced three-year hiatus due to the pandemic. Ablett said 16 youth completed the program, which started last fall and wrapped up in March. It ran every Tuesday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
“It’s been a great year – we had nine first timers come out and stick with us for the full season. It’s been really encouraging seeing how much these kids have taken to curling,” Ablett said.
The purpose, he said, is to expose young people to a sport that can be played by anyone.
“I’m 75 years old and I still get out and curl at least once a week, and I’m nowhere close to being the oldest guy in the club. There’s a lot of people who curl into their 80s,” he said. “We just love the sport so much and want to share it with other people.”
The club received a grant from the Canadian Tire Jumpstarter fund this year that allowed them to offer the program for free. The money covered the cost of registration, equipment and transportation.
Ablett said the first few weeks were spent teaching the basics – like how to slide, throw a rock and sweep. The rules of the game are also explained, as well as safety protocols. He noted youth are also taught about what he calls “curling culture.”
“I’d say that’s one of the more important things we do – impress upon them how to approach the sport. Anytime I’m in a rink, everyone is smiling and having a good time. There’s never any ill will towards another player. It’s about like-minded people getting together and having fun,” he said. “Sure, you can be competitive, but it’s important to be a good sport too. That’s what curling is all about.”
There is a small team of coaches who assist with sessions each week, including Russ Duhaime, Susannah Moylan, and, new this year, Owen Nicholls.
The 18-year-old Nicholls has developed into one of the country’s top up-and-coming curlers after getting his start with the local program several years ago. His coaches made a huge impression on him while he was growing up, and he wanted to give back.
“It was quite the full circle moment for me, being on the other end of the ice. I remember what it was like for these kids just starting out, because that was me not so long ago,” Nicholls said. “I had a lot of fun helping. It was good for the kids too; they were able to see that someone from their town came through this program and is now having some success. I think it opened their eyes a little bit, to see what’s possible.”
He brought his competitive teammates from the London-based Team Stratton along to assist with a practice in March, something Ablett said “wowed” the kids in attendance.
Nicholls is far from the only local success story. National college championship silver medalist Liam Little graduated from the program in 2019, while sisters Jessica and Savannah Byers have made a name for themselves on the women’s youth and college circuits in recent years.
The crown jewel though is Jacob Dobson, who this year claimed wins at the Curling Canada College Championships and the Swiss Junior Cup.
“My coaches in Haliburton provided me with such a strong foundation. They made it easy to fall in love with the sport. They inspired me, taught me how to play and showed me what I needed to do to keep improving,” Dobson said. “You don’t usually find this sort of a program unless you’re in a big city, so the fact something like this is available in Haliburton is amazing. It gives us small town kids an opportunity to chase our dreams.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without that program. I’d encourage any kid to give it a try,” he added.
Ablett said the steady stream of success stories to have graduated in recent years shows the local group of coaches are doing something right.
“There’s a limit to what we can teach them, none of us older guys are professionals by any means, but we give them the basic tools they can then take and build on elsewhere. Seeing how many kids we have competing on the provincial, national and international level, I think that speaks very highly of the program.”