Sarnia’s ‘Ice Man’ paints circles around the competition

Don Bourque pushes a power scraper over the ice to make it smooth and ready for pebbling.
Troy ShantzDon Bourque pushes a power scraper over the ice to make it smooth and ready for pebbling. Troy Shantz

Troy Shantz

Cleanliness is to next godliness, but if you ask

Don Bourque it’s also the secret to a great game of curling.

“Everybody who comes here says how they love how clean the ice is,” said the head ice technician at the Sarnia Golf and Curling Club.

Don Bourque, head ice technician at the Sarnia Golf & Curling Club. Troy Shantz

Don Bourque, head ice technician at the Sarnia Golf & Curling Club.
Troy Shantz

Our crew prides itself on how clean it is.”

Keeping the eight sheets on Errol Road West free of debris is a fraction of what Bourque has been doing at the club for 27 years. Sarnia is widely known for producing some of the best ice anywhere in the sport, regularly drawing curlers from across Michigan and Ontario for practice and competitions.

In fact, some of North America’s top curlers are regular fixtures in town. They include former U.S. men’s champion Heath McCormick, U.S. national competitors Stephanie Senneker and Emilia Juocy, former Ontario champion Mark Bice, former Canadian champion Steve Bice, Canadian champion Steph LeDrew and provincial champion Ryan LeDrew, among others.

But it’s members young and old who are on the sheets almost daily throughout the season, and the integrity of the ice can make or break their games.

“They’re not always happy,” Bourque said with a laugh.

“Generally everybody’s fairly happy but when somebody loses a big game or a money game, and they had a rock pick — they sometimes can get a little ticked off.”

Sarnia Golf & Curling Club ice technician Brad Cook 'pebbles' a freshly scraped ice surface. Using ionized water, the technician waves a wand to spread warm water droplets over the ice, which enable players to manipulate the rock's trajectory. Troy Shantz

Sarnia Golf & Curling Club ice technician Brad Cook ‘pebbles’ a freshly scraped ice surface. Using ionized water, the technician waves a wand to spread warm water droplets over the ice, which enable players to manipulate the rock’s trajectory.
Troy Shantz

The P.E.I. native was an excellent curler himself. In 1986 he even made an appearance at the Canadian Brier as lead of the Silver Fox Curling Club of Summerside.

“I still curl, but I think I was so into the ice making that I kinda just put that on the back burner,” he said.

Working under esteemed ice technician Marcel Dewitt at the KW Granite Club, Bourque spent four years in the Waterloo Region before hearing of an ice technician job in Sarnia.

“I saw the water and said, ‘Wow,’” Bourque recalled of first visit. The city has proven to be a perfect fit for the family, he said.

When not maintaining ice in winter and golf greens in summer, Bourque is often found on the water kiteboarding.

He and assistant Brad Cook dedicate 40 hours a week to the ice at the SGCC. It begins each fall by laying down layers of freezing water on the chilled concrete over a two-week period.

A crew ensures the ice layers are level, painted (the paint freezes rather than drying) and implanted with decals and wool thread to mark divider lines.

When the season begins the ice requires attention daily.

Unlike a skating rink, curling sheets have a textured surface accomplished by scraping the ice smooth and ‘pebbling’ it with beads of water. Using a wand a technician sprays the surface with a hand motion not unlike that of a symphony conductor.

“If you throw a stone down on hockey ice you couldn’t get it to the other end. There’s too much friction,” he said.

“That’s why they apply the pebbles on the ice, (to) reduce the friction.”

Finally, after a light scrape called ‘nipping,’ the ice is ready to go.

Bourque said impurities in the ice actually aid a curler’s ability to manipulate the rock’s trajectory. But ice technicians work hard to maintain clean sheets, so the rocks don’t curl as easily.

Each of club's curling rocks is made of granite, weighs 42 pounds and is worth about $1,000. The SGCC has had its set for 55 years. Troy Shantz

Each of club’s curling rocks is made of granite, weighs 42 pounds and is worth about $1,000. The SGCC has had its set for 55 years.
Troy Shantz

Bourque said Dewitt and another technician, Shorty Jenkins, compensate by adding texture to the rocks, a process Bourque introduced to the SGCC eight years ago.

Twice a season Bourque uses a specific type of sandpaper to roughen the bottom of the 42-pound granite stones.

Each rock is worth about $1,000 and made to last. The club’s set has been in use for more than half a century, he said.

“What other product could you have that you bang with a lot of force for 55 years?” he asked. “Not even steel.”

Don Bourque uses a manual scraper to clear debris in preparation for pebbling the ice. Troy Shantz

Don Bourque uses a manual scraper to clear debris in preparation for pebbling the ice.
Troy Shantz