Curling championships in Parksville

Kelowna’s Jim Cotter rink hungry for another national title in the same rink

Kelowna skip Jim Cotter is back to defend the B.C. Men’s Curling Championship he won here last year, and his new third, Jason Gunnlaugson, 28, brings a lot to the table, not only in terms of his curling skills, but some great story’s as well about the time he won the Russian Curling Championships.

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Gunner, as he’s known, started curling at a very young age.

“My family was big into curling — my grandpa won the seniors back in the day and went to the Brier in the early ’80s, it’s a pretty crazy curling area, so I was always around it; I grew up playing the game. It was a lot of fun.”

How he came to join Cotter’s crew was pure happenstance.

The two of them had played on tour together the last half a dozen years or so, “so we knew each other a little bit, but basically what happened is I was moving to the Vernon area for work, so one day I just called him up just to see what was happening, and lucky for me it just so happened his third (of three) years, Kevin Folk was moving away (to join the police force).

“It was a natural fit,” Jason said easily.

Fast forward a bit and the Cotter team has been busy this season as they ramp up for the B.C.’s. Gunnlaugson figures they’ve played in about eight or nine events so far, “so ball park around 60 games.

“We tried to mix it up this year. We played a couple events in B.C. and we travelled a fair bit as well.”

Two weeks ago they flew to Halifax then drove to the outpost of Pork Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia, for one of the stops on the Grand Slam series.

“That was quite the trip,” he chuckled. “We started out in Kelowna, played in Vancouver, and then went all the way over to Halifax, so we spanned the whole country.”

That was the only one of the three Grand Slam events the Cotter rink entered that they didn’t qualify for the playoffs in (they made it to the final in their first one and the semifinal in the other).

“A little bit disappointing,” he said, “but at the same time you’re playing against the absolute top ranked curlers in the world in those grand slams. Overall we’ve had some good success this year, so we’re pretty happy.”

THE RUSSIAN CONNECTION

A machine operator/account manager for Knifeless Tech Systems out of Vernon in his other life, Gunnlaugson’s curling journey took an interesting turn in 2010 when he was hired as a player/coach for Russia’s national men’s curling team.

The way the story goes, he is friends with certified national ice tech Hans Wuthrich and his wife Patti. Hans is the premier ice maker for curling in the world — he did the ice for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and has been recruited to oversee it in Sochi as well.

Patti, a high level coach, got to know Gunnlaugson during her years as executive director with Curl Manitoba, and contacted him on behalf of the Russian Curling Association which was not only looking for Canadian coaches, but for Canadian players to play for Russia.

“So I guess somehow I made the top of the short list, and I got an email one day while have’n a sub in Winnipeg, and it said ‘do you want to play for another country and get paid?,’ and I was like, well I’ll at least go to the meeting,” he laughed.

That was in April of 2010 and two days after that initial meeting in the ‘Peg he found himself in Russia for another.

With Patti as their coach, he and two of his teammates at the time formed a team with two Russian players (in keeping with the five man rotation), and went from there.

The team went back and forth between the two countries to compete and train — they spent two or three weeks training and playing in Russia on three different occasions — and six months later the team made news when, with Jason at skip, and his crew won the Men’s title at the 2010 Russian Curling Championships.

“We actually competed in and won the Russian championships,” he marveled one more time. “It was crazy,” he laughed, “so we gotta figure out how to win the Brier this year so I can have two different championships from two different countries. That’s the goal.”

With Sochi, Russia set to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, the wheels are in motion to give their athletes any edge they can.

After winning the Russian championships Gunnlaugson said the whole team came back to Canada in November and played in a couple events to tune up for the European Championships (the two Russians on the team had a great time in Gimli, Manitoba, by the way, but that’s another story), which they had qualified for, and which lead up to the World’s, which happened to be slated for Regina, Saskatchewan that year.

“So really close to home; we were quite pumped, and you only had to finish top seven or top eight out of 10 at the Euro’s to qualify, definitely an achievable feat, and we were geared up and ready to go and then four or five days before leaving for the Europe when we the news we would not be going over and that our deal was over.

“Never saw it coming,” he said, “but it wasn’t a huge shock, I mean we had faced a lot of hurdles during the process. It was definitely upsetting, being a full time athlete, for someone who wishes they could do that. It was my definitely my dream job. It was crazy, it was fun, and I got to go to the rink for four hours every day and get paid to do it, it was definitely pretty cool.”

“The playing for Russia part was kind of weird, but overall it was great. It would have been really fun to see how good you could get, doing that every day…”

The Russian experiment only lasted from April through to the end of November 2010, “before we got canned.

“There’s nothing like getting fired by the Russians …they don’t say anything,” he laughed. “You just don’t get your ticket to get back to the next event.”

“Yeah the media liked that one apparently,” he said when asked about the story floating around that the Russians demanded they become Russian citizens.

“That isn’t exactly what happened.”

What happened he says is the powers that be had to push through the process to get the Canadians their Russian citizenship’s. The way it works he says is they wouldn’t have dual citizenship as it’s known, but would essentially be Russians when they’re in Russia “and when we’re in Canada or anywhere else in the world we’re Canadians.”

“It wasn’t the greatest situation but there were a lot of positives and we were okay with that, but unfortunately there was some politics at play, there was a campaign against them by the parents of the people whose jobs they were taking; wealthy, influential Russian parents, who were likely responsible for having their citizenships held up and the team disbanded.

Still in all, “it was a great experience,” said Jason.

Their time in Russia was spent at two different rinks — one in Moscow, and the other two hours up the road in Tver.

“What a difference. Moscow is this huge city, it’s beautiful, and then there’s Tver which is like something out of a vampire movie, that’s how it looks. It was definitely out in the sticks.”

“He’s a young guy, but he’s a huge addition to the team,” defending B.C. champion, skip Jim Cotter said when asked his take on the newest member of his rink. “He’s a pretty neat kid.”

In the meantime, Gunnlaugson summed up the mood best when he said “I think we’re all just ready to hit the ice — we’re prepared to get out there and make it happen.”

Watch The NEWS for more on the 2012 Canadian Direct Insurance B.C. Mens Curling Championships, being played out at the Parksville Curling Club through Sunday.

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