By Martin Cleary
Normally at this time of the year, the thoughts of competitive curling are long gone for Rideau Curling Club skip Howard Rajala and replaced by the upcoming golf season.
But not this year. Rajala may not start hitting balls and marking birdies until some time in early May.
By winning his first Everest Canadian men’s senior curling championship last December, Rajala, 61, triggered a mechanism that is making the 2022-23 curling season unlike any other experienced by him and his long-time team of third Rich Moffatt, 64; second Chris Fulton, 59; lead Paul Madden, 60; and alternate Phil Daniel of Windsor, 60.
Team Rajala has competed in more competitions over the past four months, booked extra practice ice time, found some sponsors and filled a file folder full of papers so his rink can properly represent Canada at the 2023 World Curling Federation men’s senior championship April 21-29 in Gangneung, South Korea.
Canada, the defending champion, will play its opening match in the first draw against Denmark on April 21. It will proceed to face Belgium (April 22), Hungary (April 23), Czech Republic (April 24), Poland (April 25), Finland (April 26) and Japan (April 27). The playoffs and medal matches will follow April 28-29.
Rajala will attempt to follow the footsteps of previous Canadian skips, who have won the gold medal 12 times in the first 19 years of the world men’s senior championship. Russell Curling Club’s Bryan Cochrane won the 2019 world title in Stavanger, Norway, and former Ottawa Navy Curling Club skip Wayne Tallon of Fredericton, N.B., was the 2014 world champion in Dumfries, Scotland.
When Cochrane won his world title, Rajala served as the team alternate in Lethbridge, AB. So, Rajala understands the atmosphere surrounding a world men’s senior championship.
The 24-country men’s field has been divided into three groups of eight teams each. Rajala is only familiar with the Australian rink skipped by Hugh Millikin, who curled in Ottawa before moving Down Under about 1990. Millikin will be competing in his 13th consecutive world men’s senior championship and has won bronze medals in 2010, 2011 and 2014.
In preparation for this month’s worlds, Rajala had a chance for the team to measure itself against high-level competition. It played two exhibition games against the Korean men’s team before skip Jeong Byeong-jin took his squad to the recent world men’s curling championship at TD Place Arena. Korea posted a 1-11 record at worlds.
“Team Korea came up early from Southern Ontario and rented ice at the Rideau Curling Club. We played two games against them,” Rajala said in a phone interview Thursday. “It was quite fun to do. Both matches came down to the last rock. We won one match and lost one.
“When we arrive in Korea, we’ve arranged to play Team Korea on the 19th (of April), which is two days before we start. It will be at the national training centre, which is for all the Olympic athletes. I’m looking forward to playing there.”
The Rajala rink will be well prepared for its first world men’s senior championship.
In late January, Rajala won an open bonspiel on his home Rideau Curling Club ice. At the Ontario senior men’s championship in Ingersoll, the defending champion played seven matches, but finished in seventh place at 2-5.
After its two matches with South Korea, Rajala led his team through five games last weekend to win the Rideau Curling Club men’s championship.
Rideau closed its doors for the season on Easter weekend, but the Rajala rink received some welcome support from two local clubs, securing practice ice three times this week at the Ottawa Curling Club and Saturday and Sunday at the Ottawa Hunt and Golf Club.
Off the ice, Rajala worked with Curling Canada to complete all the forms and snap all the puzzle pieces together to attend the world championship.
“There was a lot of logistical planning and running around,” Rajala added. “We worked with Curling Canada and it took us through the proper forms to fill out.
“There was travel planning, fights to arrange and a sleep plan for us to help us get acclimatized. We leave on April 17 and land April 18. That will give us a few days to adjust our sleeping patterns.”
The team members also were fitted for Canadian jerseys, off-ice jackets and golf shirts.
“I’m a spreadsheet guy, so I have it all on a spreadsheet,” Rajala continued.
When Rajala moved to Ottawa in 1987, Rich Moffatt was one of the leaders on the local men’s curling scene. Rajala was skip for his own team, but in the summer of 1992, he received a phone call from Moffatt, who asked him to join his team for the 1992-93 season.
It was an opportunity that had only one answer: Yes.
For 11 years, Moffatt, Rajala and Madden played in the men’s provincial and national tour events. Fulton joined the team in 1996. The main highlight was winning the 1999 Ontario men’s tankard and finishing one place out of the playoffs and tied for sixth at 6-5 at the Brier national men’s championship.
But in 2003, the four curlers agreed to go their separate ways for work and family reasons. They, however, remained in curling on different teams. But a decade later, the four individuals reunited and it felt normal again, except Rajala became skip and Moffatt would be the third.
“I consider myself fortunate. They’re good friends. We golf in the summer. There’s comfort there,” Rajala said. “Being friends helps. We all strive to be the best at our positions. We have roles on the team and we’re comfortable with each other’s roles and support each other.”
For 22 years, the Rajala team has found success – three Ontario men’s senior curling titles and three national men’s senior championship finals with one gold medal – in large part to two key factors.
“Communication,” Rajala explained. “It’s always a team shot. The thrower releases. I let them know if the line is good and the sweepers let me know the weight.
“Having curled together we know each other’s tendencies – how to release and when to sweep. That’s a big factor as well.”
After the world men’s senior championship, the members of the Rajala rink will return home, recover from jet lag and start thinking about golf. At some point in the dead of summer, the team will have its informal annual general meeting for curling, when someone asks the question: Well, will we curl as a team in 2023-24?
“It’s a running joke each year,” Rajala said. “At the end of the (curling) year, we don’t chat about it. But while playing golf, someone will say ‘what do you think about next year?’ Sure. It’s on a year-by-year basis.”
If a Rajala team member puts forward a motion at its curling AGM this summer to hit the ice for the 2023-24 season and it’s seconded by another member, it will be fuelled by the events, results and excitement of an extraordinary, marathon season.
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.
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