LAS VEGAS — Not content to be one of the best curlers in the world, Kevin Martin went rogue to make the sport more lucrative for athletes and more marketable.
The 51-year-old from Edmonton was inducted into the World Curling Hall of Fame on Tuesday at the 361 World Men’s Curling Championship in Las Vegas.
“I’m proud to be part of that group who have loved the sport and seen it grow and helped build it to where it is today,” Martin said following his induction ceremony at the Orleans Arena.
“There’s so many people in this Hall of Fame that have done a lot for game, yes on the ice, there are many curlers, but some great builders.”
Martin joined Elmer Freytag of the United States Curling Association, who was inducted posthumously, and World Curling Federation board member Young C. Kim of South Korea in this year’s class of inductees.
An Olympic and world champion and four-time Canadian champion, Martin might have won more titles had he not been a ringleader of a player-led boycott of the Canadian championship from 2001 through 2003 to wring financial concessions out of what was then the Canadian Curling Association.
He championed the World Curling Tour, where curlers are paid to wear their teams’ sponsors crests and win prize money. Martin wanted curlers to have similar financial compensation at the Brier.
The WCT’s Grand Slam is now eight events offering just over $2 million in prize money.
Curling teams at the national men’s and women’s championship now receive money from Curling Canada for wearing the event sponsors’ crests, with the winning teams earning the most at $40,000.
Prize money for the association’s Canada Cup and the Continental Cup of Curling also rose exponentially.
Martin’s fingerprints are all over those developments, according to Brad Gushue, who is skipping Canada at the world championship.
“What he did in the development of the Grand Slam was extremely important,” Gushue said. “The Brier now, as least we make some money at it, whereas before, you’d spend a week (there) and lose money.”
Martin said the athletes exercising their collective power to bring about change is an important piece of his legacy.
“To get the players together as a group and understanding that together we’re way stronger and what we think actually matters,” he said.
“I think over the years, the powers that be, the World Curling Federation or Curling Canada, I think they agree.”
On the ice, “K-Mart” or “The Old Bear” was formidable.
“He had a solid belief that he could do it all,” said Jules Owchar, Martin’s coach of 30 years. “There was no one who practised harder than he did. He made sure of that.
“He was well-organized and he always made sure to get the best team and tried to go at it professionally.”
Early in Gushue’s career, Martin was his nemesis, but he also became a mentor as Gushue joined the team as their alternate player for the 2013 Olympic trials.
“You knew if you left him a shot, he was likely going to make it,” Gushue said. “You could play a perfect end, look like you were going to steal one or two and all of a sudden you look up and he’s got a three because he made a run double.
“He had all the weapons. The big weight, the finesse. Definitely one of the legends in the game and in my opinion he’s the greatest curler of all time.”
The pressure on Canada’s curling teams in international competition is intense, particularly at an Olympic Games.
Martin, third John Morris, second Marc Kennedy and lead Ben Hebert were in the glare of that spotlight in 2010 in Vancouver. They went undefeated to win the gold medal.
“I feel that team was the best curling team that has ever played the game so far,” Martin said. “We were very fortunate that team got together and had a home Olympics.
“I’m not sure all that pressure, which is real, didn’t actually help us. I kind of think it really did help get us focused on the job at hand and we played extremely well for that entire Olympics. That’s something I’ll never forget.”
Martin won 18 Grand Slam titles and retired in 2014. He’s still in the game as a television commentator and instructor.
His nickname “The Old Bear” came courtesy of former teammate Kevin Park in the 1990s.
“Just the way I was built. Big legs, big butt like Jack Nicklaus and the same type of attitude towards sports he thought,” Martin explained. “He actually started calling me ‘the bear’ and it got switched to ‘the old bear.’”
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press