What do you get when you mix four longtime curlers, a former NCAA baseball catcher, quantitative data on some very heavy rocks and a willingness to break with a team naming tradition that’s been status quo since the 1978 World Championships?
You get the Islanders.
Competing on the World Curling Tour in tournaments all over North America, the Islanders are comprised of skip Paul Cseke, second Jay Wakefield, third Corey Chester, lead Ty Russell and coach Cody Hall. They have come together with two goals in mind; represent the island as BC’s entry in the 2023 Tim Horton’s Brier, and getting points on the World Curling Tour to have a chance at the 2026 Olympics.
On first glance, they appear similar to other top curling crews, But their name is an anomaly in a sport where, traditionally, teams compete under the banner of the skip’s last name (e.g. Team Cseke). But said skip believes having a label that represents more than just one player showcases the democratic spirit of a game where, no matter your position, regardless of skill or tenure, everyone has two rocks to throw.
“It always felt wrong to me that a curling team was called by the skips last name,’ says Cseke. “It is a team game and we’re thrilled to be the first team on tour picking a team name. While we have received some pushback from tournament organizers, most have been supportive of our team name and brand. We wear the Islander name proud and always want to do our best to represent all of Vancouver Island. Our sponsors all have Island roots, and we want to showcase them and the community we come from as we travel to tournaments.”
That spirit of camaraderie in curling has long been a hallmark of the sport. The idea of growing the game resonates with every curler who calls the game a passion. Though there are many feats of athleticism involved in curling, possessing lightning reflexes or a ridiculous vertical jump are not prerequisites for getting involved in the game. This lends itself to being a highly inclusive sport. From young to old, from beer league to the Islanders level, the spot offers an array of opportunities for fun and competition.
Though curling is rapidly growing in Victoria and elsewhere on the island, it is still gaining traction given that temperatures in these parts rarely dip below freezing. That being said, there are vibrant curling clubs up and down the Island, and the Islanders want to put the sport in the public eye as much as possible and want to help out every club from Victoria to Port Hardy.
When not out on tour, they can be found training hard at the Victoria Curling Club located right beside the Save on Memorial Centre downtown Victoria. If you live on Vancouver Island and are interested in trying curling, connect with the Islanders on social media and they can help get you started. You can find them on Facebook and Instagram @Islanders Curling (FB) @Islanderscurl (IG).
The team are big fans of the VCC, which is vying for a chance to host the 2024 Tim Horton’s Brier, and with good reason. “It’s a great place to train, we have the best ice in the province and training on it gives the best opportunity to perform while we are on tour,” Cseke states, adding that the ice is managed and created by their very own coach, who has also worked on the ice at previous Brier tournaments.
The Islanders aren’t only unorthodox in their approach to the team moniker, but their roster makeup and overarching strategy as well. Their lead, Ty Russell, played NCAA Division I baseball for Alabama A&M University, but has now traded in his catchers mitt for a curling broom. Having curled on the island/in Victoria as a junior, Russel has re-entered the fray after a ten year hiatus in a role that might not be familiar to the non-curling community: the fridge.
A sweeper with significant arm strength and coordination can get the rock to curl in a given throw as much as eight feet on a given shot, giving the team a marked advantage in the variety of shots available to the thrower. Russell’s experience tracking a baseball sixty feet away translates well to curling where one is surveying, and sweeping, a rink that’s 146 feet end-to-end, albeit with a slight difference in the pace and size of the object being thrown. His return to curling was sparked when he received a call from friend and team third Corey Chester, who asked him “one, are you available this weekend, and two, are you ready to get back into curling? We’re gonna need a seriously strong broom.”
“It’s definitely something I take pride in,” says Russell of his sweeping efforts. “These guys are always looking to get a leg up on the competition, and in the offseason we decided we wanted to do some more physical conditioning, so I wrote us up an initial weight plan and how the progression should look and feel,
“Corey and I were playing in a men’s league together, and he asked if I wanted to play in the more competitive Tuesday league. After that, I went to Trail to play with the team and was happy with how I did given I hadn’t played in a decade, but the best part was how we all instantly jelled after spending just a few dozen hours together.”
“On the Islanders, everybody understands their role, what they bring to the table. A group of four guys who are so even, so willing to trust each other, makes for a team dynamic that’s conducive to not just competing at a high level but having a great time as well.”
In addition to his role of ‘fridge,’ Russell also wears the hat of team statistician, a significant spot as the team prides itself on using advanced statistics to pursue a ‘Moneyball’ approach to curling, not unlike the recent emphasis put on underlying numbers in hockey. This can result in some of their plays looking a little unconventional, but Cseke believes ‘it’s a result of having a new look at the game and trying new tactics to get an edge.’
“Last year one thing the guys appreciated was doing our pre-event practice differently at provincials,” says Russell. “For some events, you have a session of 10-15 minutes on each sheet, throw every rock you want to throw and see how they respond, identify any potential problem stones, that kind of thing. Cody and I set up some laser speed traps that would trigger some stopwatches, and long story short we made efforts to standardise the speed of every rock we threw in the building, and that helped make everyone feel really prepared.”
The Islanders level of detail goes beyond charting data on how fast the rocks glide down the ice. It goes into the ice itself.
“When we practice, we manicure the ice to the conditions that you’d see in a provincial or national championship,” says Cody Hall, Islanders coach and the head ice technician at Victoria Curling Club.
The Islanders will have one of their greatest tests of the season coming up at the Nufloors Penticton Curling Classic, a tournament that often ices some of the biggest names in curling. Their pool features a who’s-who of teams that have excelled in recent years, including not just the reigning 2022 Olympic gold medalists, Team Edin from Sweden, but the 2018 gold medalists, Team Schuster of the USA, for good measure.
To round out the field, the Islanders face off against Team McEwen, and Team Pierce, who the Islanders lost to in the 2022 B.C. Men’s Curling Championships, a tournament that would have sent them on as the province’s entry to the Brier. A provincial title rematch, the two prior Olympic gold medalists, and the Islanders. The event will be streamed on the website curling.live from November 3rd to 7th, and the team is relishing the competition.
‘It’s a great chance to test our mettle against the best, and also good for our brand as its a tournament with lots of viewers,” says Hall. “I said I’d never coach again unless a team said they weren’t gonna half-ass it, focus on nutrition and conditioning, practice three times a week, really trying to win, and they go even harder than that.”
As busy as the Islanders are playing most weekends in the winter, they do make time to give back to the community. This year they are running a beginner curling charity event for CFAX Santas Anonymous, called “Curl for a Cause” on December 17th. Whether you’re an Islander, a mainlander, new to curling or a Brier winner, everyone is welcome on the ice!