Bringing curling to Australia

The recruiting campaign promises jobs in the IT world or even a spouse, but the sales pitch was a lot simpler for Jay Merchant to move to Australia and help put them on the curling map.

Jay Merchant helped curling legend Guy Hemmings get to the 2008 Brier

Jay Merchant helped curling legend Guy Hemmings get to the 2008 Brier

The recruiting campaign promises jobs in the IT world or even a spouse, but the sales pitch was a lot simpler for Jay Merchant to move to Australia and help put them on the curling map.

He was already there and pursuing his own career.

“In 2007 they asked me if I would curl with them, but I was just finishing my masters and ran out of cash, so I went back to Canada and worked in oil and gas and saved up enough money so I could come back and finish up my law degree and join the team,“ said Merchant, 28, who is working towards his corporate law degree at Bond University in the city of Gold Coast, 40 minutes south of Brisbane.

The goal is to get the Australian curling team to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi — but they have a long road ahead of them.

Due to immigration issues, Merchant is only allowed to coach the team consisting of skip Hugh Millikin, third Ian Pallangio, second John Theriault, and lead Steve Jobs.

To be a player on the team Merchant has to gain his permanent residency in the Land Down Under, which first requires him to get a distinguished talent visa, and from there he will gain his duel citizenship.

But none of this is guaranteed. It is a complicated and extremely expensive process and at the end of the day it could all be for not.

But he’s optimistic.

“2014 is within reach, but it’s a long reach and that’s why we are moving forward on this distinguished talent visa,” said Merchant. “I’m allowed to coach for Team Australia, but I’m 28 years old right now, I’m a good curler, I do not want to be coaching for the Australians — I want to be playing for the Australians.

“It’s a gamble, it’s not a guarantee, so we’re just trying to make it a good application.”

The team as it stands now narrowly missed out at qualifying for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver this past February.

Adding someone of Merchant’s experience and quality would be a major coup for the Aussies.

Merchant was a young curling star growing up in Red Deer and had his hand in several of the banners hanging from the rafters of the Red Deer Curling Centre. He grew up curling with and against the likes of Chris Schille and Scott Cruickshank.

He has spent the last 10 years curling with some of the biggest names in the game on the World Curling Tour, and was a key component of Guy Hemming’s 2008 team.

“He’s a legend in the sport. He was pretty fantastic. This is a guy who pushed me to curl at the top of my game and he’s a very likeable man from Quebec — everyone in the country loves the guy. And he’s someone I would love to tap into as a resource for curling over here in Australia,“ said Merchant who credits his old coach Larry Watts for his curling career.

“If this migration goes through, I’m going to be giving Larry a call on Day 2 to see if he wants to be involved in curling over here in Australia. If this is the best case scenario and we do make over to Russia in 2014 I would love to see Larry coaching Team Australia.”

Merchant would like to get the Australian team on the World Curling Tour this season not only so they can see some real competition, but so they can actually play on a proper sheet of ice.

The sport is in its grass roots in Australia. Currently their are five teams in the country and no proper curling rinks. They take advantage of their opportunities to get on the ice at the hockey arena after all the hockey teams are through, and they’ll throw a quick layer of pebbled ice down before breaking out the granite.

Their closest actual curling rink is in New Zealand.

“It’s quite a bit different, there’s no actual curling facility, the ice is — I’m trying to be polite — compared to Red deer the ice is definitely not anywhere close to the ice that the five very good competitive teams over here need to compete at the world level,” said Merchant.

It should be of little surprise that the vast majority of people involved in curling in Australia grew up playing the game in Canada.

But Merchant insists the game is slowly catching on in Oz.

“There’s a lot of ex-pat Canadians that curl, but we’re finding more and more Australians are becoming trained and skilled so they can compete at the world level,” said Merchant. “That’s something we want to work on is to bring more and more Australians out to the ice rink.

“Most people laugh when I tell them I’m a curler. I was in a cab coming home from the airport the other day and the cabbie asked what I was doing, and I said ‘I’m studying at Bond but I’m coaching the curling team for you guys and hopefully I will be playing,’ and he just laughed and he goes ‘Bloody curling? I didn’t know we had a curling team.’ And I said ‘Well that’s part of the problem, we need to get the word out there.’”

That kind of expanding awareness of the sport is huge for Merchant. One of the big issues they face is cost with people paying $15-20,000 each just to curl.

“A lot of the oil and gas companies in Canada have offices over here and that is an untapped resource right now — so if we can tap into the oil and gas and mine companies over here, the sponsorship will go up,” said Merchant. “I’ve never had to pay for curling out of my own pocket. I’m a PR person and let’s tap into that so that these guys do not have to have the financial burden of paying for it for themselves. There has been a lot of interest in sponsorship, they just need someone with a little bit of background in securing funding and a little bit of energy.”

If all the pieces come together, Merchant will have to trade in Canada’s red and white for Australia’s blue, green and gold. But that’s a moment he is only looking forward to.

“I love this place and I would be just as proud to wear a kangaroo on my back as I would to wear a Maple Leaf,” said Merchant. “I just love the country, the people are great.”

jaldrich@bprda.wpengine.com