Hurry hard feelings: Calgary comedian gets to the bottom of 'Broomgate'

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John Cullen calls himself “patient zero” in the biggest scandal to ever rock the world of curling.

It is a little-known fact from what is arguably a little-known scandal, to begin with. But the Calgary comedian and one-time semi-professional curler reckons he inadvertently gave rise to what has been called Broomgate, a 2015 controversy that swept through the otherwise affable world of professional curling with an uncharacteristic fury.

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It was, ultimately, about a broom. It would lead to rule changes for a sport that had been steadily practised for centuries but also to bad feelings that still linger.

Cullen said he was a “tier-2” curler, whose team was in the top 15 to 20 in Canada and top 20 to 30 in the world at one time. Still, as a tier-2 team, it was not easy to get equipment sponsorship. So when he heard about a relatively new company based in Montreal called Hardline Curling, he figured he might be able to get, if not money, then at least some free gear. He eventually began using the company’s IcePad broom during the 2013/2014 curling season. His friend, Canadian curling great Mike McEwen, was ranked in the Top 3 in the world at the time. Cullen suggested he try out the Hardline brooms. McEwen took a liking to them and went on to have the “best curling season that anyone has ever seen” in 2014/2015. And so it began…

“That started the ball rolling down the hill, where teams start to figure out what these brooms can do based on Mike’s success,” says Cullen. “That’s how we end up with the Broomgate year in 2015/2016. So, yeah, I did kind of start it in a weird way. I wouldn’t take credit for all of it, but I am kind of patient zero.”

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Broomgate is the name of Cullen’s new six-part podcast, launched by CBC on Monday. In it, he follows the stranger-than-fiction scandal from its early days to that game-changing Grand Slam of Curling, hosted in Paradise, Nfld., in 2015. Hometown favourite and Olympic gold medalist Brad Gushue, described by Cullen as a “cunning chess master” of curling, became the talk of the sport when he debuted a new technique. He adopted it after losing to two teams, including McEwen’s, who used the IcePad broom. Instead of sweeping using two brooms at the same time, Gushue’s team began using only one – the IcePad – when competing in Paradise. Not long after, every competitive curling team adopted that technique. But it soon became clear that Hardline’s pioneering new equipment was the driving force behind the technique and some suggested the unique makeup of the broom head gave competitors an unfair advantage. A civil war erupted within the ranks of curling, with players divided on whether the brooms should be banned. Oddly, there was nothing in the official rulebook governing such things. It all came to a head in Toronto at a 2015 tournament at High Park and nearly resulted in fisticuffs. Covered in an episode called Rumble at High Park, it eventually forced the World Curling Federation to step in at the end of the season with a “sweeping summit” to scientifically study the matter and set down some fresh guidelines.

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“The curlers almost fight each other and they ended up having to have a secret meeting at the basement locker room of the High Park Curling Club in Toronto,” Cullen says.  

While the tagline of the podcast is “Curling’s biggest scandal has never been told, until now,” it actually got quite a bit of coverage at the time. While no one may have gone as in-depth as Cullen’s podcast, the story became headline news and fodder for late-night comedians.

John Cullen.
Comedian and former curler John Cullen hosts the new CBC podcast, Broomgate: A Curling Scandal. Courtesy CBC. cal

“Stephen Colbert did an entire seven-minute segment on it,” says Cullen, who stopped curling in 2020 and now concentrates on standup comedy. “The New York Times wrote about it, The Washington Post wrote about it, CNN did a little feature on it. It was one of those things that captured the imagination of non-curlers because, let’s face it, it is kind of inherently funny. Curling is a funny sport to start with and you have all these grown, adult people fighting over brooms. That’s funny, right? I think that’s why someone like Stephen Colbert tapped into it because it’s very funny to think ‘Oh, there’s a scandal in curling?’”

Broomgate is co-produced by Vancouver podcast specialists Kelly & Kelly, led by Chris Kelly and Calgary expat Pat Kelly. Given that this is the same team that brought us the popular long-running satirical fake-news CBC Radio series This is That and its subsequent podcast, it’s tempting to assume some licence might have been taken to make this goofy story even goofier. Well, no. Cullen admits the original plan was to take a more broadly comedic approach but everyone involved soon realized it was funny enough without embellishment.

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Cullen also hosts the Way Inside podcast about curling and has worked as a writer with Curling Canada and the Grand Slam of Curling. As a comedian, he has released two albums, Most Likely to be a Comedian and Long Stories for No Reason, and hosts the comedy podcast Blocked Party. Originally from Toronto, he moved to Calgary from Vancouver last September.

While it may seem humorous to outsiders, Broomgate remains a sore subject for many in the sport. It’s been almost a decade since the scandal, but some insiders are still not amused. The wounds run deep.

“There were people who still refused to talk about it for the podcast,” Cullen says. “There were people who were involved in this and they said, ‘No, I don’t want to talk about it. There are way too many hard feelings and I don’t want to talk about it.’ You think about true crimes and people talking about their daughters getting murdered on documentaries and stuff and we still have people who won’t talk about a broom. It makes no sense. But that’s how deep the feelings ran at the time and still run.”

Broomgate: A Curling Scandal is now available on CBC Podcasts.

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