Bringing Winter Indoors: The Environment of Curling in Canada

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This is the seventh post in the Winter in Canada series edited by M. Blake Butler and Ben Bradley.

Arguably more than any other sport, curling is quintessentially Canadian. It is one of the only sports (okay, women’s hockey must be mentioned as well) in which Canadians expect their national teams to win at the international level. It’s true that they don’t always win, but the anticipation is real. Even though there are excellent teams in other countries, Canadian curling has more depth than anywhere else. In the World Curling Rankings, four of the top ten men’s and women’s teams come from Canada, more than any other country. If one looks at the top one hundred teams, the strength of Canadian curling is even more apparent.1

Today, there are around one thousand curling clubs across Canada, from Stephenville, NL, to Whitehorse, YT, and there are more active curlers than in any other country.2 In a recent study for Canadian Heritage, nine percent of the respondents aged sixteen or older, asked about their participation in “organized” sport in the previous three years, said that they had curled. Baseball was only slightly more popular, at eleven percent.3

Illustrated London News, 17 February 1855

That Canadians embraced curling makes sense: curling is a winter sport, and Canada has a lot of winter, right? Moreover, Canada has a lot of Scots. Curling likely originated in Scotland as a sport played on frozen lochs, where personal strength determined one’s ability to hurl a stone down fresh ice, exposed to the elements, towards a target.

As in Scotland, curling was initially an outdoor winter sport in Canada. One of the earliest images of curling in what is now Canada comes from the Illustrated London News in 1855. In this drawing, male curlers and a much larger group of spectators, male and female, gathered at Montréal’s harbour, within sight of the Nelson column. The accompanying article explains that this “grand Curling Match, or ‘Bon Spiel’” was played on a very cold day (about -20 degrees Fahrenheit, or almost -30 Celsius). About 500 players and spectators braved the cold temperatures. The artist, James Duncan, helpfully depicted the British flag in the foreground, planted on the river ice, reminding the metropolitan audience of the apparent allegiances of the colonials. The players used household straw brooms, rather unlike the carbon fibre brooms with a fabric broomhead that most curlers use today. Given the playing surface, the 1855 curlers used the brooms to clear away snow from the ice, as well as the bits of straw that other players might leave behind while sweeping. If they were particularly adept at sweeping, they might smooth the ice, and even melt it slightly to make the rock slide farther and straighter. “Curling,” the journalist assured the metropolitan reader, “is a favourite sport in Canada.”4 This was an exaggeration: given the anglophone and middle- or upper-class nature of many curling clubs in Québec, at least, French Canadians, among other groups, tended to feel unwelcome.5

Through the nineteenth century, men curled on frozen lakes, ponds, and rivers. By the 1890s, women began to join organized games as well. In the nineteenth century, Québec curlers favoured iron “stones” while Ontario curlers used granite ones. The iron stones performed better in the generally colder outdoors conditions in Québec, while the granite rocks did well on Ontario ice. Québec curlers didn’t abandon the irons completely until 1955.6 For many decades, curlers were expected to own their stones. In the twentieth century, forty-pound stones, crafted from the dense granite of Ailsa Craig off the coast of Scotland and later from the Welsh quarry at Trefor, have become standard equipment.

Curling al fresco creates its own challenges. In Scotland, the famous outdoors Grand Match dates to 1847. When the designated location freezes over, curlers from the north and south of the country converge to test their skills on the unpredictable natural ice. But the problem is that the lochs don’t often freeze over anymore. The last three Grand Matches occurred in 1959, 1963, and 1979. In 2010, the Lake of Menteith came close to freezing sufficiently, but the organizers were not confident in the safety of the ice, and the official event did not proceed, though many enthusiastic curlers ignored the recommendation to stay away.7 Since 2002, Winnipeg has hosted a charity Ironman outdoor curling event in February on the Red River, where the chances of thick ice in February are somewhat better – for now.8

Sporting rules had to account for variations in weather. The 1898 constitution of the Kootenay Curling Association repeated the codes followed by other clubs: a game could be interrupted “if, after it has been begun, the condition of the ice, by reason of thaw setting or snow falling, becomes such, as not to afford a fair test of the curling skills of the competing players.”9

As a way of reducing the influence of the elements, beginning in the late nineteenth century, some enthusiasts built sheds to protect the natural ice. Curling in these sheds still relied on below-zero Celsius temperatures: it had to be winter outdoors for curling ice to be of sufficient quality. The oldest organised curling club in Canada, the Montreal Curling Club, dating from 1807, first started using a shed to protect its ice around 1870.10 Following advances in refrigeration technology in the late nineteenth century, the first major indoors artificial ice skating rink was constructed in Chelsea, England, in 1876, followed by what was later called Madison Square Garden in New York in 1879.11 By the early twentieth century, some Canadian curling clubs started to use artificial ice. High Park Curling Club in Toronto, for instance, erected its own building in 1911, and it installed artificial ice in 1926.12 In Montréal, three clubs adopted artificial ice in 1928.13 The shift to artificial ice was gradual, however. In 1948-49, 82 of the clubs in the Curling Association of Ontario still used natural ice, and 27 artificial.14

“Bonspiel Fever Grows in Canada: Ancient Game in a Modern Setting,” 1959. Photograph by Gar Lunney. Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography fonds, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives.

In the twentieth century, the environmental history of curling became primarily the story of a shift indoors. Curling on a frozen lake is not the same as it is on artificial indoor ice. Natural ice cannot allow for the precision shots of the television curler. Curling like hockey or general skating has largely moved winter indoors, even if outdoor rinks remain a part of the experience and the mystique of those other sports. Especially in the context of climate change, outdoors curling is much harder to guarantee consistency.

Over time, the clubs worked out a delicate balance of keeping the ice cold while warming the air above. You can curl in a t-shirt, if you are sweeping hard enough to generate the requisite body heat. Being inside, the costs of freezing the ice and heating the playing space are key components of the expense of running a curling rink (or a hockey rink), and the costs depend on the weather outside. Ammonia is no longer the key ingredient in cooling the ice. That is a good thing, given the dangers of the gas. In 2017, in Fernie, BC, three workers at the local hockey arena died as a result of an ammonia leak. According to a CBC report, the chiller was overdue for replacement but city officials had put off the maintenance due to financial restraints.15

It takes energy to create the ice for an indoor curling rink. Canadian data indicate that around half of ice and curling rinks rely on electricity, while the other half rely on natural gas. Of 275 ice rink buildings that were studied across the country in 2020, only three are Energy Star certified.16 For major competitions, where the spectators are not separated by glass from the rinks, the expenses are of course higher, and the engineering decisions are more complex. The body heat from the spectators affects the quality of the ice, and top-level players want to have the best ice possible.17

Promoting curling with the world’s largest curling stone, Moncton, NB, 1980.[18]

Consequently, high-level as well as Saturday-night curling competitions have become an indoors escape from the wintery weather outside. Inside the viewing area, it can be toasty warm, an appropriate place to share a drink with team-mates and the opposition after the game. On the ice, you know to expect a cold, but not frigid, temperature. To curl today in Canada is to enjoy a controlled experience of winter.


1, as of 18 February 2024.

2 In contrast, Scotland with a population about 14% of Canada’s has only twenty-two rinks,

3 “‘Future of Sport’ Public Opinion Research”, report for the Department of Canadian Heritage, 7:

4 Illustrated London News, 17 February 1855.

5 Pierre Richard, “Le curling au Québec entre 1870 et 1920. Une exclusion discrète des milieux francophones et ouvriers,” Globe: Revue internationale d’études québécoises 9, 2 (2006) : 91-108.

6 The Montreal Curling Club, 1807-1907 (Montreal, 1907), 18; Pierre Richard, “Une histoire sociale du curling au Québec, de 1807 à 1980” (PhD thesis, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, 2006), 306-7.

7 One of the few lochs in Scotland called a “lake.”


9 Constitution: Kootenay Curling Association (Revelstoke Herald Presses, 1898), 6.

10 The Montreal Curling Club, 36.

11 “Introduction”, David Whitson and Richard Gruneau, eds., Artificial Ice: Hockey, Culture, and Commerce (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 1.


13 Richard, “Une histoire sociale”, 302.

14 John A. Stevenson, Curling in Ontario: 1846-1946 (Toronto: Ontario Curling Association, 1950), 253-254.



17 Bowen Gua, et al., “Regeneration Energy Analysis on Desiccant Wheel System in Curling Arena for the Winter Olympics,” Building and Environment 214 (2022).

18 Thanks to Don Wright for this image.

Feature Image: from “Constitution of the Montreal Curling Club and rules of the game, as amended, 3rd January 1874.”
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Colin Coates

Colin Coates is Professor of Canadian Studies at Glendon College, York University.

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