Sean Whyte has a conundrum. He feels the lure of curling, but he has a busy April in front of him at home in British Columbia.
The Edmonton Eskimos’ can’t-miss placekicker – perhaps the biggest curling fan presently playing in the Canadian Football League – knows the World Men’s Curling Championship is coming up at Northlands Coliseum, April 1st to 9th. Even though some of the best men’s teams on the planet are converging on the same city where he plies his professional sporting trade, and that holds great attraction for him, Whyte is in a tough spot. He has commitments at home, including trying to get his pilot’s licence. You can, however, hear it in his voice; the tumblers in his head are clicking, searching for a way he can maybe make a live appearance happen.
“Well, I can maybe shoot over….” he says, humming and hawing a little.
He’s already thrown stones (and kicked field goals) with Team Canada skip Rachel Homan, who’s currently leading her team at the Women’s World’s in Beijing, China. Perhaps he’d get the chance to toss a brick or two with Brad Gushue at the Men’s?
“If you think I can throw a rock with Gushue, then for sure, maybe I’ll drive over there,” says Whyte, chuckling. “Quick road trip. That’d be awesome. He just seems like a classy guy and how do you not cheer for a guy like that?”
Whether Whyte makes it over the Rockies for some live draw action in Edmonton is questionable right now. What is not, is his love and respect for the game of curling. Nor is his proficiency at nailing field goals for the Eskimos, something he did at a 93.8% accuracy clip (45-for-48) during the 2016 season, making him the league’s most accurate kicker last year.
While he is not curling this year, Whyte is watching on television whenever he can, intently spying his friends on the Homan rink and taking in what he agrees was an amazing Brier in St. John’s, complete with a final, iffy draw to the circles for a win for Team Newfoundland & Labrador.
A BIG DRAW IS LIKE A BIG FIELD GOAL
“It’s just like hitting a game winning field goal,” says Whyte of the final Gushue shot that won N&L it’s first Brier title since 1976.
“It could be from (only) thirty-two yards away, but those uprights close up on you when you’ve got pressure on you,” he says of the so-called “gimmes” in his sport.
He feels the same feeling could have come over Gushue, who was attempting what is the equivalent of a chip shot field goal in the CFL. A simple draw to the eight-foot, something that a pro skip can do in their sleep almost all of the time. However, put the weight of a province on your back and know that the moment you’ve been waiting your life for is at hand? That changes things.
— Sean Whyte (@SeanWhyte6) March 10, 2017
“I can only imagine looking down from the hack,” says Whyte. “This is something so simple you could do it in your sleep but now it’s for this? It makes things a lot tougher. To calm the nerves and to have that touch is pretty impressive. It comes down to one shot like that. The enormity of the pressure is… huge.”
He adds a little something, knowing that Gushue’s draw needed some furious sweeping in order to win it all. “I thought oh my God he’s gonna be short! The sweepers did a good job, it was a team win. It was fun to watch.”
As was The 2017 Scotties, for Whyte, who struck up a friendship with Team Homan, a few years back. He chatted with Homan, he says, early on during the tournament, indicating that she wasn’t feeling hugely confident heading into the event. He says he told her to look at things in a way that is very familiar to him.
“It’s like a football season,” he recalls saying to Homan during their conversation. “As long as your team builds and you guys are hot at the right time, the very end, that’s all that matters.”
Whyte – who won a Grey Cup championship with Edmonton in 2015 – was impressed by the Homan team’s win over Manitoba in the Scotties final, especially the extraordinarily difficult double take out Homan needed to pull off in the tenth, in order to force an extra end. “I just don’t know how they do it,” he says, laughing. “It’s such a precise shot and they’re so friggin’ far away.”
A JOKE TURNS INTO A VALUED FRIENDSHIP
Whyte met Team Homan after what he thought was just a bit of a gag interview he gave while playing with the Montreal Alouettes four years ago. In that interview, he was told to throw a rink together consisting of football players, and to choose who he wanted to play. He chose Homan and didn’t give it another serious thought. He was surprised when she later messaged him and asked him to not only throw stones, but to kick field goals with her. Homan, he says, surprised him again when they took to a field in Ottawa to split some uprights.
Whyte decided to spice things up with a little wager for drinks, he says, and bet Homan “whatever field goal you make, I have to make it from double (the distance).”
“The girl goes out there and makes a 45-yard field goal,” Whyte says with what seems a mixture of righteous indignation and respect. “I think it was her second try, she made a 45-yarder. Later on, she tells me she was a soccer player,” he laughs.
Those who know Homan well speak of her competitive nature in all sports. Those who don’t know her can obviously see that nature leap off a TV screen as she stares down the ice with a steely gaze of concentration before she shoots. Whyte’s friendship with Homan provides some insight that might be surprising to those who believe Scotties champions do not ever feel any doubt.
“When we first became friends we were talking and she said ‘I wish I didn’t ever get nervous. There’s gotta be a way to defeat that.’ I’m like what? Then you wouldn’t be human. It just doesn’t work that way.”
For his part, Whyte has gleaned some info from Homan and her teammates Emma Miskew, Joanne Courtney and Lisa Weagle. “It’s pretty cool to talk with them about their mental approach,” he says, agreeing that a kick from the hack and a field goal attempt have some things in common. While curlers often go through a checklist just before they shoot, Whyte does the same before a snap sends a football hurtling back to his holder and is placed on the kicking tee. “Weight to broom” is a mantra you can hear curlers say often. “Head down, swing easy,” is what Whyte says to himself before a field goal or extra point try.
CURLING COMES LATE… AND FOR FINANCIAL REASONS
A love for curling did not blossom at a young age for Whyte. His parents, Tom and Pat, were curlers but he had no interest himself. That changed when he joined his first pro football team, the B.C. Lions. As member of the team’s practice roster, Whyte earned little money and was looking for a way to put a few more loonies in his pocket. That’s when he became an assistant for the ice tech at the Peace Arch Club in White Rock, B.C. “I just needed a job and my parents curled there,” he says.
Whyte learned to take care of the ice – “I liked to put a thicker pebble down with an extra fine pebble on top,” – and then started to throw rocks in his down time, picking up the odd game as a spare. He was 23-years-old when he threw his first stone. He had a knack for it, he says, particularly the hitting side of the game. He liked it.
“Once I started actually playing and understanding and respecting the game – because it’s friggin’ tough – then I started to really watch it and enjoy it,” he says.
Sparing for teams whenever he could, Whyte became more attached to the sport but as his football career took off, curling had to take a back seat. He did play in a spiel, a year ago, with his father and Dean Joanisse, the skip who’s elite team fell to John Morris in the final of the B.C. Men’s championship this season.
— Sean Whyte (@SeanWhyte6) February 12, 2017
While he did have an offer to play on a team with Eskimos’ Assistant Equipment Manager Graeme Scott – “For the most part the guys that talk curling are the equipment guys,” Whyte says of the Edmonton locker room – Whyte, instead, needed to head home for the off-season.
With the CFL schedule stretching into November (late November for playoff teams), long after curling season has begun, Whyte’s options are limited. “I can’t really sign up for any team,” he says. “All I can do is stop by and ask ‘hey, you guys need spares?’”
He can also sit on his couch, watching his friends go for a world title.
And while he’s doing that, maybe he’s seriously contemplating a trip over the mountains to meet Brad Gushue.