Considering the upswing in curling's profile on television and through the Olympics, the Zone 12 drop in competitive interest in mainstream events is shocking.
In men's Tankard, Zone 12 (consisting of clubs in Waterloo Region (Kitchener-Waterloo, Cambridge) and Guelph had a dozen to 16 entries from 2000 to 2010. It then nosedived to five or six teams and is at a low of four entries this season.
Women's Hearts — typically a half-dozen teams in zones locally — has just two entries.
The entries are few but it's a tough field with Rob Rumfeldt (Guelph), Damien Villard (Galt Country), Aaron Squires and Bruce McConnell (both K-W Granite) at Galt Country this weekend. Rumfeldt is a perennial provincial contender. Villard often plays out of eastern Ontario, typically making regions but has made provincials before. Squires is the 2013 Ontario junior champ. McConnell has advanced out of men's intermediate zones for four straight years.
In women's, Shannon Kee (Westmount) and Courtney Gilder (K-W) are the entrants.
The talent is no longer watered down. Top players have joined top players. A club team staking a stab at winning doesn't appear to happen any more.
Such as those from Guelph Curling with Rumfeldt, Adam Spencer and Scott Hodgson,or joined rinks representing other areas such as Adam and Craig Fairfull teaming up with Pat Ferris. Teams from Arthur, Ayr and Elmira aren't there any more when they would occasionally have at least one entry.
Veteran rinks such as Axel Larsen in men's are focusing on seniors (50+) and master (60+) levels.
"A lot of teams used to play because everyone could be beat," said Villard, also the icemaker at the Galt and Galt Country Clubs. "Now a team that plays once a week will never beat (Glenn) Howard so why pay the $250 (entry fee) just to donate."
That's the general feeling of other local entrants. McConnell from K-W Granite entered to get some good competition for his team with senior zones coming the following weekend but thought entries would be higher.
"I really can't guess (why entries are low) other than a realization that even a good club team really can't compete with the top teams on the cashspiel circuit," McConnell said.
Squires, not long out of juniors, didn't really want to hazard a guess.
"Only other thing would be the fact that it has typically been a tough zone/region so perhaps teams are avoiding it. No idea though really …" he said.
Rumfeldt, a former Brier competitor, knows that it takes time, money and commitment to be a competitive curler. The team is often built with players from different cities.
"When it comes to identifying which zone to play out of, teams are looking at convenient dates which do not conflict with any tour or other curling event, convenient location for all team members and lastly, ice conditions for the hosting club," Rumfeldt said.
It's not a sudden development, according to Rumfeldt, but the way curling has been evolving over the past 10 to 15 years.
The Ontario Curling Association has seen the entries across the province drop in Tankard from almost 200 in 2001 to 89 last year. There is a slight rise overall this season to 93, still only half of a decade ago.
In the Hearts, it's not as bad. The numbers go up and down from 51 to 71 teams across Ontario until 2013. It dropped to 37 in 2014, then 35 this season.
Westmount's Kerry Lackie, who is coaching the Kee entry in Hearts, finds the trend concerning.
"How are we going to get them out there to find out how much fun Friday night mixed leagues are?" asks Lackie. "From a grassroots perspective the OCA must keep an eye on growing the game."
"The trend has been going down, but does seem to have hit a plateau," said Stephen Chenier, executive director of the association. "I am concerned about the trend and even more concerned as it seems to be affecting our local club bonspiels and events. This downturn has also been seen in golf and other sports."