Bud Burbee’s first crack at the Kelly Cup men’s curling infamy happened in 1975, when he was called up from the Prince George teachers’ league to form a rink and complete the draw for a 128-team lineup.
Back then, with more than 500 curlers entered, it took five days to determine a champion in what remains the 100-year-old Prince George Golf and Curling Club’s most prestigious annual event. Burbee knew he was out of his league as a last-minute fill-in and the task became even more onerous when he learned who would have to face in the opening draw.
It was none other than Kevin “Duke” Smale, a two-time B.C. provincial men’s champion skip whose team of third Pete Sherba, second Pat Carr and lead Bob McDonald to finished second at the Brier six years earlier.
So it was David versus Goliath when Burbee, in only his second season of curling, stepped onto the ice with his rookie crew.
“I wasn’t even a skip, and we showed up for our first game, never having played together and I looked at the draw and we had Kevin Smale,” said Burbee. “He’s just gone to the Brier (in 1969 and 1971) and he just stayed up in the bar and only came down to throw when it was his turn to throw. He didn’t give us any credence at all.”
That would soon change.
“We got going fairly well and scored a five-ender in the middle of the game and it came down to, we were tied coming home,” Burbee said. “I didn’t have last rock and there was a guard in front and I drew around that and got to the top eight and Kevin got in and drew around it to the button for the win.
“That was worth the entry fee, because he was the best curler in Western Canada. To come that close - we were all rookies and I think they underestimated us so much and didn’t bear down. But for us, that was a real thrill.”
Burbee, an elementary school principal, got his start curling Friday afternoons when the 18-sheet curling club hosted hordes of teachers for league games in the main building and the auxiliary rink in what is now known the Roll-A-Dome. The club was a magnet for singles and young married couples and their weekly social event started with the games on the ice and ended in the lounge over drinks, dinner and sometimes dancing.
Burbee jumped up to the men’s league and refined his game playing with the likes of Ted Moffat and Jim Horswell. He and Moffat went to the men’s provincials in 1989 and won the Kelly Cup A-event twice but never claimed the big trophy. Burbee also played third for Horswell’s team that reached the final of 1994 senior Canadian championship in Moose Jaw, reeling off eight straight wins after a 1-3 start before losing the title to New Brunswick on a measured point.
Since 1926, the Kelly Cup has been the season-ending bonspiel at the club. In its heyday, until curling participation began to fade at the turn of the century, the club's marquee event attracted teams from all over Western Canada to Prince George. Entry fees and equipment sales during the weekend would regularly swell the club coffers by $40,000.
The 42-inch tall trophy was commissioned by local jeweler John Kelly and it replaced the Simon Cigar Cup originally presented to the men’s champions from 1920-25. Sherba won the Kelly Cup twice, once with Smale in 1969 and once skipping his own rink 1971. Tobacco and liquor companies were prominent sponsors and it wasn’t usual to see curlers on the ice smoking and drinking during their games. The banquets were legendary, with live bands, exotic dancers and beer-chugging activities that lasted late into the night.
“It’s not like today, where you made sure you didn’t drink or anything like that, in them days it didn’t matter,” said Sherba. “We’d stay up all night sometimes and have to play the next morning. Now, if you want to win, you’ve got to behave yourself until after the thing’s over. That was a time when the Kelly Cup was a big deal.”
Horswell, an English immigrant who first learned to curl with Carr in Pouce Coupe, reached the Kelly Cup final just once in his career, losing in 1976 to Barry Naimark of Vancouver. Horswell, who was living in Houston at the time, had a two-point lead coming home but Naimark, whose team included Carr former Prince George curler Fred Kapphahn, scored three with his last shot for the comeback win.
“In those days they were 12-end games and it was a big entry in the Kelly Cup,” said Horswell. “We ended up curling 11 or 12 games.
“There were enough teams they had to have an all-night draw through the qualifying events. The games would go all night and it was an endurance test. There were huge parties at the Kelly Cup and you’d be lucky to survive it. You had to keep up to the drinking, and it was sweeping with the straw brooms. We were pretty beat up by the end of it.”
By the late-‘60s cashspiels were becoming commonplace in curling clubs across the country and Prince George jumped on board. The calcutta auctions had prize pots of $50,000 or $100,000 and the payouts attracted some of the biggest names in curling, including Northcott, Ernie Richardson, Matt Baldwin and Hec Gervais.
“I remember all those different curling personalities in the clubhouse and Richardson was smoking his cigars, it was quite a time,” said Horswell.
The Prince George Curling Club formed on Oct. 14, 1920, just five months after the end of the Spanish flu pandemic that infected an estimated 500 million people over two years and killed as many as 100 million. Vice-president Thomson Ogg collected $100 donations from prominent citizens to build a two-sheet facility which opened that year on Dec. 10 on the banks of the Nechako River at Third Avenue on the city park site now occupied by the Hands On Car Wash. “Splendid Standard Curling Rink Is Now Completed” read the Citizen headline that day. The building was 160 feet long and 33 feet wide and the rink was flooded on a honeycombed sawdust base to resist frost heaving.
The founding president of the curling club was Peter Edmund Wilson, who in 1914 established the city’s first law office - Wilson King. Wilson was head of a nine-member committee overseeing the original club of 65 members when the first stones were tossed. Built without refrigeration, the building had an exposed south face and the heat of the sun shortened the curling season, so in 1923 the club moved to a shadier location at the base of Connaught Hill near the current site of Rolling Mix Concrete Arena. It remained there until February 195, when the club moved into the basement of the newly-constructed Civic Centre on Seventh Avenue.
Winters were colder back and icemakers of the new four-sheet rink connected a propeller to a motor at the end of the building to divert chilly winter air over the ice surface. Fifty-one rinks entered the 1951 Kelly Cup draw, braving the -40 C chill outside the building to try to get their names engraved on curling's biggest trophy. The weekend highlight, as reported in the Jan. 29, 1951 Citizen, was Casey Butcher’s double seven-ender in a win over the Giddens Ltd., Kamloops rink skipped by Percy Letcher. “Old-time skips declare this is a feat unmatched in curling annuals.”
Kelly Cup teams were eligible to win the MacKenzie Trophy, as well as the Hudson’s Bay, Automotive and Lumbermen’s trophies and the Smith Cup and one team could conceivably win them all until the club bought into Wilf Peckham’s suggestion that the other trophies became secondary prizes for teams trying to qualify for the Kelly Cup championship round.
The length of the season was still at the mercy of Mother Nature’s whims until January 1956, when the club moved to the Roll-A-Dome site, which offered 10 sheets of artificially-chilled ice. The current club facility opened in 1973, giving the city an additional eight sheets.
The Smale rink's surprising run at the Brier title in 1969 captivated the city. They went 9-1 that year taking on the best in the country, their only loss to Calgary’s Ron Northcott, who went 10-0. The boys from P.G. were the second team ever to go 9-1 in the men’s national tournament and not win or tie for the title and they came home to a hero’s welcome on March 10, 1969 at Prince George Airport, where a crowd of about 1,000 people met their plane. “Just fantastic,” Smale told Citizen sports editor Bob Groves. “We kind of thought there would be a few people out but not this many. It’s just a great feeling.”
Smale and Sherba began curling together in 1967 and won the Interior title that season – the first of many times they qualified for the provincials. Considering his work ethic and dedication to practice it was no fluke Sherba became one of the top curlers in the country by the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Originally from Vernon, he was living in Burns Lake and working as an electrical contractor in 1960 when the town built its curling rink. He offered to wire the building if he was provided the materials and he decided that year to try to learn how to play the game. The following year Sherba moved to Prince George and his team won four tournaments.
“That’s all we did, there was nothing else to do in Prince George,” laughed the now 86-year-old Sherba. “We had a league that had about eight teams that were real good ones, including ourselves. Every weekend we’d go to little tournaments and have five or six games. I’d probably average about eight games a week.
“When you played as much as we did, it’s automatic that you’re going to make a good shot. That’s the reason we were winning. We played more than anybody else, and practiced besides, four or five times a week.”
There was no need for Sherba to join a gym when he was curling so often.
”With curling, those rocks are heavy,” said Sherba. “They’re 40 pounds, and you have to be a pretty strong guy and with all our throwing we’d get pretty tired out.”
Over the years, the curling club has hosted a number of championship events, including the Canadian senior men’s and women’s (1987), Scotties Tournament of Hearts (1994 and 2000), Safeway Select men’s provincial (2008), Road To The Roar Olympic qualifier (2009), B.C. Scotties (2014) and Canada Winter Games (2015). In March, the club was all set to stage the 2020 World Women’s Curling Championship at CN Centre when the pandemic broke out. It was cancelled one day before it was to begin.
The club has produced its share of champions, including: Frank Labounty (n eight-time provincial wheelchair curling champion who won the national title in 2015); Diane Dalio (1994 provincial women’s); Dennis Graber (2012 provincial senior men’s); Patti Knezevic (1993 provincial junior, 2015 provincial Scotties); Bill Lim (2018 men’s 55-plus Canadian champion) and the Fewster sisters, Jen Rusnell and Kristen Pilote (2019 provincial women’s). Gerry Peckham, Wilf's son, moved to Ottawa to become the high-performance director of Curling Canada, a position he currently holds.