By Martin Cleary
Listening to your older brother can, sometimes, be a wise move.
Howard Rajala did that 46 years ago and look at the Rideau Curling Club member now – he’ll soon be off to represent Canada at the 2023 world senior men’s curling championship in South Korea.
Let’s roll the clock back to that day when the seed was planted that would allow Rajala to experience the new sport that would change his life forever.
Rajala was a Grade 9 student in Sault Ste. Marie, ON., when his brother Norm, who is five years older, was introduced to curling that day. Norm thought curling might be something Howard would find interesting and suggested his younger brother give it a try.
Familiar with enclosed venues that had a sheet of ice as a former houseleague hockey player, Howard decided to give curling a try. He went to the Soo Curling Club, the only one in the city in the mid-1970s, and discovered it suited him perfectly.
He started and organized his high school curling team for five years as he thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of the game from the strategy to the competitions to the camaraderie.
As a University of Waterloo mechanical engineering student, he worked on his game wherever he was stationed for his co-op work sessions and played one year for the Warriors’ school team as he worked on his two-year Masters degree in the late 1980s.
Rajala settled in Ottawa 34 years ago and has been one of the city’s notable curlers, whether as the invited third for the well-respected Rich Moffatt rink for a decade in men’s competition or skipping his own rink in the senior ranks for the past 10 years.
In a career that has seen success and disappointment on the Ontario and Canadian championship stages, Rajala struck gold on the weekend, when his rink of third Moffatt, second Chris Fulton and lead Paul Madden won their first Canadian men’s senior curling championship in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
It was a moment of redemption for the Rajala rink, which was first assembled in the 1990s as a men’s team and represented Ontario at the 1999 Brier in Edmonton. The Rajala rink lost its final round-robin game to miss a tiebreaker opportunity and finished at 6-5.
“I couldn’t believe it at the start. It’s really satisfying,” Rajala said in a phone interview on Tuesday about winning the national title. “I’m just so happy for [our team]. The five wives also came to watch and it was really great to have them there.”
For the past 10 years, Rajala has been trying to win his first Canadian curling championship at any level, after losing the 2013 and 2017 national men’s senior finals and being denied an opportunity to compete in the 2020 Canadian championships because the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the event. He also played in the 1999 Brier as the third for skip Moffatt and one Canadian mixed championship.
“In 2020, we had won the Ontario championship and were three days from flying to the Canadian championship when COVID hit and cancelled it,” Rajala said. “We were playing well and looking forward to making up for the 2013 and 2017 losses. You never know when you are going to get another chance.”
Curling their best at the end of their 12-game Canadian men’s senior championship, Rajala’s rink scored a pair of back-to-back one-point victories for the title, defeating Nova Scotia’s Glen MacLeod 6-5 (extra end) in the semifinals and Alberta’s James Pahl 7-6 in the gold-medal game.
“A Canadian championship was definitely a goal,” Rajala said about one of his personal objectives. “The thing about wearing the Maple Leaf on your back at a world tournament is it’s quite thrilling.”
The Rajala rink will represent Canada at the 2023 world senior curling championships April 22-29 in Gangneung, South Korea. It will be the first time he will skip a Canadian team at a world championship, but not his first time playing at the global event.
When Bryan Cochrane of the Russell Curling Club represented Canada at the 2017 world men’s senior championship in Lethbridge, AB., Rajala was the fifth man or alternate for the team. Rajala, who has Finnish heritage, “got exposure to the whole atmosphere” of a world championship and played against Finland’s Oiva Manninen in the opening round-robin pool – four ends at lead and four at second.
Rajala, Moffatt, Fulton and Madden are a well experienced team, whether it was Moffatt leading the charge to six Ontario men’s finals and winning four times between 1993 and 2000 or having Rajala in control winning four Ontario seniors and playing in three Canadians.
“Obviously, we’ve been around and understand the game,” Rajala added. “It’s the compatibility of the team. We know how to pick each other up after a shot doesn’t go well. We’re very positive. We’re battlers. We always hang in and keep playing.
“What’s nice is the comfort level for me as skip. I know how they throw and I can relax. It’s easy for me to put the broom down and I’ve seen them make the shots many times.”
The Rajala rink will prepare for next year’s world championship by playing in the Ottawa Valley Curling Association men’s senior qualifiers with hopes of returning to the Ontario championship March 15-19 in Ingersoll. As a rink, they also play in a Tuesday night men’s league at the Rideau Curling Club.
“(Worlds) will be fantastic, amazing,” Rajala said. “There will be the 14-hour time difference, the different scenarios, the food, the culture. It will be fantastic.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
HELP SHINE A LIGHT ON LOCAL SPORT! The Ottawa Sports Pages has proudly provided a voice for local sport for over 10 years, but we need your help to continue another 10 and beyond. Please donate to the Ottawa Sports Pages Fund today.