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Canada 2022

Its been five years since my last trip to one of my favourite countries. And again I was there for curling. We had a KSA mens team entered into the new Pan-Continental Curling Championships which is an amalgamation of the previous Pacific-Asia (as per our visit to Kazakhstan in 2021) and the previous Americas Challenge. So in reality the championships for every country outside of Europe. This competition is split into 2 divisions – A and B, based on world rankings, and KSA was to be in the B division.

Getting there was easy for me, all I had to do was complete the Canadian electronic travel authorization (eTA) and book flights. However my Saudi team mates needed a full visa and once the team was selected about 1 month before the competition the application process was started. The guys went to the Canada visa centre in Riyadh, which is located near to the Diplomatic Quarter, and the application itself was smooth. Progress of the visa application would be advised via emails to those concerned. The first response was to say that the applications had been received and that there would be a wait of 119 days for the biometrics to be processed. This was not good, and there did not appear to be any way to fast-track the process. We approached the World Curling Federation to ask for help with the situation, and they provided a Letter of Confirmation that KSA was participating in the competition, and Curling Canada also provided a Letter of Invitation. The Saudis sent these into the system but it did not seem to make any difference. There was no avenue to speak to anyone to expedite the biometric check, all very frustrating. Cutting a 3-week long story short, it took me speaking to a contact in the British Embassy in Riyadh to get a contact at the Canadian Embassy who then arranged for the visa process to be unlocked. The guys actually received their visas 2 days before travel, not the ideal preparation for the expedition.

Travel was booked through Air Canada, with a Lufthansa flight RUH to Frankfurt and AC forward to Calgary. We departed at 02.00 on Friday 28th October, arriving at 15.30 same day, albeit with a 9-hour time difference. Elaine, who is recovering from knee surgery, had booked wheelchair assistance at the airports to save long walks and was helped at RUH, FRA and YYC. This was great for us, as this service allowed her (and with me in tow carrying our 2 cabin bags) to skip to the front of queues at security and passport checks. There was a snag at FRA where the booked wheelchair did not appear at the plane door (actually we suspect an earlier exiting passenger took a liking to it and commandeered it), and it took 30 minutes for one to be sourced. The Lufthansa crew were obliged to wait at the plane until all pax were offboarded and eventually the pilot dismissed them and personally stayed with us. What good service, thank you Sir. The contrast with the Air Canada crew – both on the outward and return journeys was noticeable, the AC cabin crew were devoid of any personal interest and compassion for passengers and did their jobs and no more. In fact the stewardess on our FRA-YYC leg spent most of her time complaining about one of her colleagues whilst pushing her trolley about – most unprofessional. This is a cultural difference I have noticed on several occasions when travelling to/from/within North America – the European care levels are higher on national carrier flights (but obviously not on economy airlines) than their USA/CAN counterparts. In general the Asian based national carriers have an even higher standard, but that is by the way. Maybe we are conditioned to accept the customer service levels of our home regions? On the return flights the flight was delayed leaving YYC due to a) baggage loading (15 minutes) and b) the plane being de-iced (45 mins) as it was snowing at the time. This reduced the connection time at FRA to a tight 30 minutes, but the airport staff excelled and we were whizzed from one gate to the other via an assistance buggy. Much better than the outward journey.  

The venue in Calgary was truly exceptional. It was the same place as the 2021 Curling World Championships which were held in tight Covid bubble regulations conditions. This is the Canada Winter Sports HQ complex where the 1988 Winter Olympics were held, with the ice arena being a more recent addition. The WinSport ice halls consisted of 4 (yes four) full-sized ice hockey pads, with the best one being a full stadium sized hall where the A division was housed, and the second-best where our B-division was held. Whilst we were there were competitions and practices for ice hockey, figure-skating and ringette in the other 2 arenas. Ringette? I hear you ask – yes, I had to ask too. Apparently it is a gentler no-contact relation of ice hockey for women and instead of a hard puck they use a 6-inch diameter rubber ring; and is native to Canada but is spreading gradually with Finland being the other significant Ringette nation. Also in the WinSport campus are the ski-jumps (3 sizes) and the bob / luge / skeleton track. And 3 short indoors ice tracks for practicing push-starts.  Impressive. If Saudi Arabia is looking for facilities to copy as it gears towards hosting the 2029 Asian Winter Games, surely this is the place to see.


Ski jumps in autumn ...


... and in winter


The indoor push-start facility

We had arranged a practice game before the competition with a local team in the North Hill Curling Club – a very pleasant venue with good facilities. Thanks to Cliff Butchko and his team, and our friend Lorne from NZ for the introductions. An additional team-building event was a visit to a bowling alley. Here we found another variation of the sport, in Canada they favour a 5-pin variant with a ball you cannot stick your fingers into, which is larger than a hockey/cricket ball and around the size of a croquet ball. Good fun though.


5 pin bowling

On the competition ice we were in a pool of 8 mens teams, with us playing against Guyana, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Kenya, Kazakhstan, India and Qatar. We won 2 games (NGR and KEN) and came close in our matches against KAZ and QAT. These two victories were KSA’s first ever at international level, so we were quietly pleased about that. GUY was promoted to the A division for next year, and the B division will also include Brazil (demoted from the A division) and China who were a surprise no-show this year. This was another great experience for us all.


WinSport curling A hall - impressive


WinSport curling B hall - not too shabby either. If only we had something half as good in Riyadh!


Team lineup: photo courtesy WCF


Match underway v Guyana: photo courtesy WCF

Whilst we were in Calgary the seasons turned from autumn to winter and the snow fell and after that we had temperatures as low as -15 degrees C. On our one day off we had an expedition to Banff which was about an hour and a half away. We always like going there, it is a lovely town, so scenic especially with snow on the ground. And in -15 with added windchill, a bowl of soup in a café was so welcome. That’s something we rarely appreciate in Riyadh. Some members of the team braved the cold to spend time at outdoor thermal springs pool with its water temperature of 45 degrees C. Lovely to be in , but a chilly challenge before and after! 

A snowy scene in Banff

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* Call Alastair Fyfe directly on 07785 370074 (UK) or +966 503095212