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Burgeoning Stu Sells series an important part of curling calendar

A visit to the High Park Club during the Stu Sells Toronto Tankard is like the curling equivalent of seeing your favourite band in a small club and then chatting up the musicians afterwards over a few pints.

A visit to the High Park Club during the Stu Sells Toronto Tankard is like the curling equivalent of seeing your favourite band in a small club and then chatting up the musicians afterwards over a few pints.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, spectators entered the five-sheet club on a residential street in the leafy west-end neighbourhood to watch up-and-coming regional teams take on big names like Kevin Koe, Brad Gushue and Brad Jacobs. 

"Hockey Night in Canada" was on the big screen by the bar. Curlers and fans alike lined up for drinks. A live band was tuning up at the other side of Toronto's oldest curling club. 

The curling Canadiana throwback -- to a time before the sport got serious with fitness, training and focus on the Olympics -- is part of the charm of the "Stu Sells" series of mid-level tour events that has become a key part of the domestic season.

Not every elite player hits the bar area afterward. Some sip protein shakes and head for the exits right after they play. Others get in on the fun and let loose a bit. 

For top teams, the competitions serve as important building blocks for the campaign. For other rinks, it's an excellent opportunity to make progress and test their skills against some of the world's best. 

Throw in some of that old-school curling spirit and it's a formula that seems to work. Real estate agent and curler Stu Sankey -- the Stu behind "Stu Sells" -- got on board as a sponsor over a decade ago and hasn't looked back.

"I try to make it a fun event for the curlers so they just weren't coming (to town), curling, going back to their hotels, coming back and curling," Sankey said. "There was some fun involved in it. I think that kind of goes with the fans too because they're staying and they're taking part in some of these things."

Significant changes were required for the 2020-21 season due to the pandemic. The usual "Stu Sells" experience has been much different of late with physical distancing and venue capacity limits in effect.

With club openings delayed and four Grand Slams cancelled, curlers are happy to be back at regional events even if the usual ranking points and international entries aren't there due to the pandemic. 

The Stu Sells Toronto and Oakville events were moved down the highway to the KW Granite Club in nearby Waterloo last month. Now up to eight events -- including junior competitions and a mixed doubles stop -- the Stu Sells series has moved beyond the southern Ontario area.

Next up is the Nov. 13-15 Stu Sells 1824 Halifax Classic, with veterans like Gushue, Jamie Murphy and James Grattan joining younger Atlantic-based teams in the field. 

"I'm just trying to keep it alive at the club level," Sankey said in a recent interview. "Not a training ground, but so they have a chance to get some points and maybe they might break into the top."

In a regular season, Stu Sells events would serve as prominent mid-tier competitions -- Sankey describes them like a club-level Grand Slam -- on a calendar highlighted by the top-flight Slam series. Now they're helping fill the void as teams look to stay in form with Olympic Trials just over a year away.

With solid purses, points and deep entry lists guaranteeing interest, pre-pandemic Stu Sells fields could easily be confused for world championship draws.

Scotland's Ross Whyte and Japan's Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi made the trip to Toronto last fall while the Oakville women's field had the likes of Sweden's Anna Hasselborg, Russia's Anna Sidorova, Switzerland's Alina Paetz and Scotland's Eve Muirhead.

The Stu Sells formula has worked in part because the bonspiels don't see the Grand Slams or Season of Champions events as competition. 

The top-ranked Hasselborg, for example, was in Oakville last season but she was also there as a lower-ranked player on the rise. Even if top teams choose to play elsewhere, the Stu Sells series is still appealing for rinks just below them in the rankings.

Sankey, a High Park member, was first approached about getting involved in sponsorship by bonspiel organizer Gerry Geurts and club icemaker Roy Arndt. At the time, Sankey recalled them mentioning there was a real void on the Toronto bonspiel scene.

"As soon as we announced it, we were full in like half an hour," Sankey said. "Back then we had Howard, Epping, Jacobs, the American champs. We were just like boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. It was like full on. I was like, 'Oh, I guess there is a need.'"

Sankey said things quickly snowballed and he took over the Oakville event, added some junior competitions  - including giving a berth in the Toronto tankard to the junior champ - and was on his way.

"The first few years I did it more for the passion than the return," he said.

The series also prevents stagnation and repetition from settling in on the regional scene, said Geurts, who operates the CurlingZone website. 

"Because we're bringing in so many international teams to play around these events, it creates that sandbox for the up-and-coming (regional) teams to play, to compete and get those games against other teams," Geurts said.  

Sankey, 54, can often be found on site at the events he sponsors. He'll mingle with spectators and athletes, help organize online broadcast feeds, all while watching the action as an avid fan and supporter.

"The work that he puts into the sport and the support for the sport is absolutely amazing," Geurts said. "It's great to have somebody like that who has such a love and passion for the game."

Sankey is planning a season-long points competition for the 2021-22 campaign. Points will be awarded from events in Toronto, Oakville, Halifax, Brantford and Port Elgin with the winner to receive a new car.  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2020. 

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press