William George and Edward Webb of Orillia were off on an adventure.
The 1932 Winter Olympics were being held in nearby Lake Placid, New York and these 40-year old sports fans were going to watch the hockey tournament. The Canadian team was expected to dominate the field again as they had in 1928, winning the three games in the medal round by a 38-0 total score to win the gold medal.
Webb and George wanted to be front and centre when they won again in 1932.
Of course, there were other sports to watch, too: skiing, skating and that popular sport in Orillia, curling.
Curling was returning to the Olympics as a demonstration sport that year after being removed from the event list in 1928. Orillia was a powerhouse curling town, a local team was to win the Ontario championship the very next winter.
Everyone in Orillia was familiar with, if not adept at, sliding those 40-pound rocks down the ice.
Upon arrival at Lake Placid our intrepid fans made a beeline to the Olympic indoor ice rink where the competition was just getting under way. The curling bonspiel was to be run over the first two days and then the hockey tournament would get rolling. They looked forward to warming their seats for a full week.
What our boys found there was a kerfuffle.
It seems one of the curling teams was a no-show. The bonspiel was between four Canadian teams and four U.S. teams. The Northern Ontario rink was nowhere to be found. A missing team would throw the whole schedule into a mess.
With the crowd gathering the officials had a conundrum on their hands.
To our boys’ surprise, an announcement came over the loudspeaker for any experienced curlers to come to the office. With a quick glance at each other George, a drug store owner, and Webb, a civil engineer, immediately jumped up and scurried straight down to the office off the lobby.
Both were members of the Orillia Curling Club and George was a regular skip at the club bonspiels; Webb had not thrown a rock for almost two years.
The decision had been made to form a replacement team of substitutes from the crowd to maintain the simple format of the bonspiel. Of course, they’d come last, but the format would work, and a gold medal could be awarded without any convoluted playoffs.
Not only were George and Webb named to the team, George was made the skip. They were going to play in the Olympics!
Escorted directly to the change rooms the new team found a set of sweaters waiting for them, generic sweaters since the Northern Ontarians hadn’t arrived with their fancy outfits, but sweaters that would make wonderful souvenirs if nothing else.
A set of corn brooms was dug up and then they were brought over to the door to be ready for the official march in of curlers. All pomp and ceremony, just 10 minutes after settling into their seats in the stands.
What a turn of events!
Each Canadian team – Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and Northern Ontario – would play each of the American teams – New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Michigan – once, and the team with the best record would win the gold medal. Four games over two days.
The Northern Ontario Substitutes were marching out to a match with the champions of New York State with no practice, and no warning at all. Goodness, they barely knew their teammate’s names.
It wasn’t even close: New York 20, Northern Ontario 8. No one expected any other outcome. The U.S. teams were each going to have one easy win it seemed.
That evening it was even worse. After time to mentally prepare (or to get nervous as reality kicked in) they lost again to Connecticut 18-3.
Back at their hotel that night the Orillians finally had a chance to settle down and get their heads together. Curling is a game of focus and concentration. They were experienced players, they just needed to focus. They were determined to make a better showing in the morning.
Their draw in the morning was the Massachusetts rink. They had been beaten badly by both Ontario and Manitoba the day before. If there was a win to be had for the Orillians, this was it. The first day’s draw had helped them get to know the ice and had shaken the jitters out of them. It was show time now.
The real Canadians showed up this time: Northern Ontario 21, Massachusetts 7. They had won a game at the Olympics!
That afternoon was the final game against Michigan, a team that had lost badly to each of the other Canadian rinks. And it was another bad loss for them here by a score of 19-11.
The Northern Ontario Substitutes finished up their Olympic bonspiel with a 2-2 record, good for fifth place in the eight-team field. Only Connecticut of the American teams finished ahead of them, because of their head-to-head win.
Then the next morning the hockey tournament started, decidedly a let-down after the excitement of actually being on the ice as an Olympic competitor. Canada went on to win that hockey gold medal but not until winning a double overtime thriller against the U.S. team, 2-1.
All in all, it had been a pretty good week for Webb and George.
It has long been the lore in Orillia that we have had only one Olympian hail from Orillia, the great boxer Walter Henry in 1964 and 1968 (the same lore says Brian Orser, an Olympic medallist, is really from Penetang).
Both Rob Town and Toyin Olupona qualified for the Olympics in track and field, in 1984 and 2008 respectively, but were left off the teams because of the more stringent Canadian standards.
Michele Brotherton came second at the 1988 Olympic trials to find Canada was only sending one discus thrower. Walter Henry, as the local history reads, was our only Olympian.
Except, now we know, for W.C George and E.E Webb, Orillia’s great curlers at the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics. They even have the Olympic participation medals to prove it!
David Town is an avid local historian and author of several books about Orillia's history.