Curling has come out of coronavirus cold storage in a ‘season of recovery’ for Scotland’s roaring game.
Ice sheets lifted during the pandemic have been re-laid for the return of the sport.
The weekend saw players flock to Forfar for the opening bonspiel at one of Tayside’s busiest rinks.
Forfar Indoor Sports is home to 42 clubs from Angus, Fife, Perthshire and the Mearns.
The Suttieside Road complex has been operating for more than a quarter of a century, the last 12 seasons under the ownership of Brechin businessman Mike Ferguson.
It also includes ice skating, indoor bowling and a kids’ soft play attraction, meaning the business has felt the full commercial impact of the coronavirus crisis.
Mike, the current chairman of the Scottish Ice Rinks Association, said: “It has been a very tough time, not just for us, but rinks all over Scotland.
“We are absolutely determined to bounce back and make this our season of recovery.”
Last season was all but a write-off for the sport – although Forfar fared slightly better that some other rinks.
“We managed four weeks’ curling under the restrictions which were in place at the time but then had to close again,” Mike added.
“We held our ice as long as possible in the hope we might be able to get back, but that didn’t happen.”
Lifeline financial help
Kirkcaldy and Kinross also benefitted from the sportscotland administered support from a £55 million Scottish Government emergency sports funding package.
“It was a lifeline for us and the other rinks,” Mike said. “It has helped carry us through the costs of sitting through the summer to allow us to open our doors again.
“Bookings are down, but that is to be expected at this stage and I think we will see them come back when people see we can have them back on the ice safely.
“Bowling and curling take place in massive halls where social distancing can easily be maintained.
“But we have also made significant investment in improving fresh air flow with more powerful dehumidifiers and taken all of the other steps around making the sports safe for players to enjoy.
“The outdoor bowling season was fairly tame because of the pandemic, and although indoor bowls is seen more as a game for seniors I genuinely feel it is appealing more to younger players.
“Ice skating is the same – it usually takes a few weeks for people to realise we are open again but then it becomes busy with families.
“The weather has also meant people can continue to do things outdoors, but when it changes we also usually see a rise in numbers.
Forfar Indoor Sports has also secured a curling coup for the turn of the year.
Players from across the globe will arrive in Angus for the World Curling Federation mixed doubles qualification event.
The tournament in early January will be the first time Forfar has staged an event at this level.
Mike continued: “To get a major competition like this is a real feather in our cap.
“But it will also bring people to stay in Angus and we think that’s good news for everyone as the whole area continues its recovery from the pandemic.”
However, major challenges resulting from the legacy of the pandemic continue to lie ahead.
“One issue which is typical of the situation facing many businesses is the rise in utility costs,” he continued.
“We are seeing a 20-30% increase and we cannot just pass that on to our members or the public.
“For example, my ice guys started making the sheets three or four weeks ago.
“It is a lengthy and costly operation and easily £3,000 per week in costs, so for that alone you are looking at a five-figure outlay to get the season going.
“We are also experiencing the same situation as other areas of the hospitality sector in regard to staff shortages.
“It’s fairly acute at the moment and when you are quite a big enterprise like this, with the different elements of the business, it is a nightmare trying to find staff.
“At the end of the day, however, we are just pleased to be back in action and see out curlers, skaters and bowlers back.”