Bilesky bunch Brier bound
Andrew Bilesky was nine when he first tagged along with his father and brother to the Royal City Curling Club to do what they were doing.
Twenty years later Dad and Mark aren't doing what he is doing this week, although they might tag along to watch. And that is going to the Brier, otherwise known as the Canadian men's curling championship, to play in the sport's biggest event.
The New Westminster resident will be skipping a rookie team against some of the game's biggest names in front of up to 17,000 people at Edmonton's Rexall Place and national television audiences beginning Saturday.
Like many Lower Mainland boys, Bilesky played soccer and baseball growing up. Unlike many Canadian boys, Bilesky wasn't infatuated with hockey or extreme sports. Many of those boys considered curling boring and lacked the adrenalin rush they craved.
He considered it active and a good way to meet people.
"It was fun. I started so young I didn't even know the reputation of the game," he says in between congratulations from several club members as they take the time to shake his hand and offer him good wishes.
It helped to have some early success. At age 11, he was the youngest person at the B.C. Winter Games playing for Mark, who is four years older than Bilesky.
That evolved into playing junior bonspiels all over the place, including two more trips to the B.C. Winter Games, and he loved it.
"When you're a kid winning bonspiels and getting $250, that's not a lot of money, but when you're 14 years old it is, especially when people couldn't believe you could win money. I put it into perspective that if I kept winning I could get to the Brier one day," says Bilesky, "That's the big show, they call it. It's like going to the World Series for curling."
How right he was. But it took a great deal of time and sacrifice to turn the dream into reality. By the time he was 16 he stopped playing soccer and slowed up on his baseball to concentrate on rock throwing,
The hard work paid off with a provincial junior men's championship in 2001. However, there's a huge chasm to cross for curlers to convert junior titles into championships at the men's level.
His post-graduate level education in the science of hurling stones began with Bilesky playing third for three seasons with New Westminster's Brent Pierce, who had won a world championship as the third for Greg MacAulay in 2000.
"It allowed me to move into the men's game and play at the bigger cashspiels and play with the men right off the bat," says Bilesky.
All three years they made it to the provincial championships but didn't do much better than fourth.
Eventually he decided to skip his own team again. It wasn't easy competing at such a high level because it takes money to make it to all the big events across Western Canada.
Life also gets in the way. Something about needing a career.
Bilesky went to BCIT to take avionics and it has paid off in a job with Conair in Abbotsford. He considers himself fortunate to have found an employer right off the bat willing to work competitive curling into his schedule there.
About two years ago, he recruited Stephen Kopf to play third, Derek Errington to be his second and lead Aaron Watson. Kopf and Errington, who lives a few blocks away from Bilesky in Downtown New West, are 24 while Watson is 34.
Right off the bat they won a cashspiel in Kamloops, Bilesky's first victory as a skip on the World Curling Tour. But that didn't translate into a berth in the provincial championship.
"That was hard to take because our basic minimum goal was to be at the provincials," says Bilesky. "To not compete in it, it was hard to look at the positives."
They got over it quickly, though, and sat down to discuss what they could do to be better. The biggest priority, they agreed, was to hire a coach.
Enter Neil Houston, who was worked for the Canadian Curling Association and is a former world champion having played second for legendary Calgary skip Ed Lukowich.
"Probably the best choice we ever came up with," says Errington. "He knows the strategy to the game. He kept us calm during the games. He's a funny guy. He has lots of stories."
Chimes in Bilesky, "He was the missing piece. We were already a good team, we just added a piece to make us that much better."
Houston's help paid immediate dividends with the Bilesky bunch reaching the final of the Westcoast Curling Classic on Royal City ice in October. They lost the final to Olympic champion Kevin Martin after beating another Edmonton skip and world champion, Kevin Koe, in the semifinals.
"You feel that as a team if we play like this we can do well in any tournament," recalls Bilesky of what that result meant to them.
Their journey to a B.C. championship, however, was laden with potholes. Four times this winter they lost a game when a victory would have meant punching their ticket to the provincials in Parksville.
"It's frustrating, but it doesn't take long to say, 'OK, we're a good team, let's focus on some goals for ourselves,' ” recalls Bilesky.
Finally on the fifth, and final try available to them, that positivity paid off with them claiming their coveted berth.
"It's definitely a battle. It would have been nice to win the first one, but we stuck together as a team and we learned about more situations than any other team [at the B.C. championship.]"
When they got to Parksville, former provincial champion Sean Geall told them, "Well, you guys are battle ready."
How right Geall was. The rough ride wasn't over, though. Even in the provincials they took a long route to the final. Despite some setbacks there they persevered because they had nothing to lose.
"It felt like a relief just to get there, and the pressure to get to the provincials was gone," says Bilesky.
The result was the Bilesky boys beating his old mentor, Pierce, in the final.
"There was lots of different emotions—happiness, relief, excited," says Bilesky, whose team has been scrambling to get ready for their Brier debut.
"Two weeks is not a very long time to get all the things done we need to do. I haven't had a lot of time to relax. It's been go, go, go since we won."
Included in that preparation was choosing to take Geall as their spare player, and another former provincial champ, Dean Joanisse as coach because Houston is busy organizing the world men's championship scheduled for early April in Victoria. Their Brier experiences will be invaluable to the first timers because there are so many small details they have to consider they don't normally experience, such as wearing a microphone so everyone in the country can hear them talking strategy during games.
They have a lot of experience to make up for because only one other skip in the field, Saskatchewan's Brad Virtue, hasn't been to a Brier before.
Their start will be challenging. They start Saturday by playing the reigning world champion, Glenn Howard of Ontario, with Martin matchup less than 24 hours later. Other curling heavyweights include Manitoba's Jeff Stoughton, 2006 Olympic champion Brad Gushue of Newfoundland and former Brier winner Jean-Luc Menard of Quebec.
While he'll be playing with the big boys for the first time, Bilesky will look to prove he's not just tagging along for the ride.
B.C.'s Brier schedule
March 2 — Ontario, 5:30 p.m.
March 3 – Northern Ontario, 7:30 a.m.; Alberta, 5:30 p.m.
March 4 – Saskatchewan, 12:30 p.m.
March 5 – Newfoundland, 12:30 p.m.; Quebec, 5:30 p.m.
March 6 – Prince Edward Island, 5:30 p.m.
March 7 – Northwest Territories, 12:30 p.m.; Nova Scotia, 5:30 p.m.
March 8 – New Brunswick, 7:30 a.m.; Manitoba, 5:30 p.m.
March 9 – Tiebreakers, page playoffs
March 10 – Semifinal, final