Curling veterans Bunny and Shorty Mercereau. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press

Curling: small-town Canada’s game

A special feature with Shorty and Bunny Mercereau about Sparwood, curling, how times have changed

If anyone knows anything about life in small-town Canada, it’s Shorty and Bunny Mercereau.

From the plains of Saskatchewan to the small mountain town of Sparwood, the couple, married now for 62 years, have seen Western Canada grow and change over the years.

They are united by a shared passion for one thing in particular – the sport of curling. In the 1960s, curling was the sport that connected small-town Canada.

In 1970, the Mercereaus were among the first to buy a home in the newly-established town of Sparwood, as it was transitioning from the then-populated Michel and Natal.

It was pure accident that the Mercereau’s ended up settling in Sparwood. On holidays to visit family in Cranbrook, they stopped in Sparwood when they saw a big truck being built beside the highway.

In Saskatchewan, Shorty had previously worked on machinery for the Department of Highways. He couldn’t resist the opportunity to see a big truck being built.

Shorty spoke to a man on the site, saying “Gee, I’d really like to drive one of these”. The man referred him to the employment office just up the street. When Shorty arrived he found that they offered him over double what he was making in Saskatchewan.

“So he goes into the employment office, he came out in 10 minutes, papers in his hand and says, ‘I can start tomorrow!’” recalled Bunny.

“Two of the mines has just started,” said Shorty, adding that he was allowed to choose which site he worked at.

Shorty stayed behind at the workers camp while Bunny continued on with their four kids to Cranbrook. This new opportunity with Kaiser Resources is what cemented the Mercereaus in Sparwood.

A few days later, Shorty called Bunny in Cranbrook and said, “You’ve got to come back, I can buy a house!”

“We were having heart failure,” said Bunny. “A mortgage payment, we’d never had a mortgage payment before. Fifty-six dollars a month!”

At the time, the price of a house in Sparwood was $21,000, not including annual discounts offered by the mine. After many renovations over the years, the Mercereaus continue to live in this house.

The year was 1970; the mine had been open for one year, and Sparwood was booming. Every day the Mercereaus would see license plates from all around North America.

“On your block, it would change daily,” said Bunny. “You would see license plates from the Yukon, Manitoba, Texas. On one block, there were 10 cars, all from different provinces.”

“They came from all over,” said Shorty.

At the time, transient workers were a common sight. The average job lifespan was 17 days.

Shorty was born in 1929, and grew up in the small Saskatchewan town of Duck Lake. In the 1940s, the town opened a new school and curling rink.

Curling arrived in Saskatchewan in 1879 and Shorty started curling 64 years later. He curled a stone for the first time at the age of 14 and still remembers how he was introduced to it.

One of Shorty’s uncles had just returned from fighting overseas, jovial, full of life, exuberant that he had made it home.

“He wanted to do everything,” said Shorty with a laugh, recalling how he had learned to curl soon after arriving home and wanted to take Shorty with him.

“I’d never seen a curling rock,” said Shorty. “He says ‘well, you’re young, you’ll learn!’ I said I’d never seen a rock, I didn’t even know what it was for. He says to me – ‘that other man up there (points to the other skip). You’re curling against him. Don’t forget that’.”

In those days there were no tools specifically for curling – all you needed was a jacket and your street shoes.

In Saskatchewan, Shorty worked seasonal shifts with the Department of Highways. Bunny says that even though he didn’t work in the winter, he was never home. Rather, he would spend all his time at the curling rink. Shorty remembers that curling at the time was booming, everyone played. Now, he says, it’s ‘gone to hell’.

“It’s too busy, too much money involved,” he said.

Shorty and Bunny, who also curled, explained that over time, the sport of curling has become a spectator sport. Back in the day, a game of curling consisted very much of one team placing a rock in the house and the other team taking it out.

This would go on back and forth until one team made a mistake. For spectators this was rather uninteresting to watch. Since then, the sport has been modernized to make the game more exciting to watch.

For example, the introduction of the four-rock rule prohibited the opposing team from taking out or removing any guard rocks (rocks that stop in the Free Guard Zone) until four of 16 rocks have been played in an end.

This created the need for teams to place guards, draw around them, plan their takeouts, and create new strategies. Curling Canada claims it increases offense, decreases the likelihood of a blank end and improves the ability to return from a deficit. Some have hailed this as a positive change in the sport; others, not so much.

The couple explained that it used to be a game of takeouts. Now, it’s a game of inches.

Shorty admitted that although he isn’t a fan of some of the new rules and what the sport has become, he agrees they’re necessary for the survival of the sport.

“Otherwise, curling will just fade away,” he said.

Curling wasn’t the only sport that Shorty loved as he was growing up. For a time, he also played on a Japanese baseball team, based out of Brooks, Alta.

Shorty and Bunny curled in Sparwood for years, up until 12 years ago when Shorty called it quits. Bunny had stopped by that time as well.

For many of those years, they played together on a team, and Shorty recalled that Bunny was a good curler.

“Couldn’t take anything out though,” said Shorty, receiving an eyebrow raise from his wife from across the room.

“No we made a good team,” he added. “We never fought.”

“Shorty – he played ball hard, he played curling hard, he partied hard, and if there was any energy left, he went to work,” said Bunny.

The Sparwood residents helped fundraise for the Sparwood Curling Club before it was built in November 1975. Since its inauguration, the two curlers participated in every bonspiel (curling tournament), and were awarded lifelong memberships in 2005 by club president Dave Endicott.

The Mercereaus’ four children, Danny, Mickey, Lynn and Lorne, have caught the curling bug, and two of them continue to play in mixed and men’s league.

Bunny said she hopes the sport of curling never dies and interest from youth is needed to make this happen.

Although neither of them curl anymore, Shorty and Bunny still religiously attend club matches, watching the game from up in the lounge, where their vintage sweaters, shoes and corn brooms hang on the walls as symbols of the past, and a reminder of how far the game has come.

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