Like many who grew up in Canada, Greg Stremlaw watched his parents curl as part of a recreational league. The strategy-intesive sport, known as “chess on ice,” wasn’t necessarily his favourite growing up, but his involvement in other competitive ventures, including soccer, ice hockey, and track and field, led him into a career in athletics. During stints as the CEO and executive director of the Chicopee Ski & Summer Resort, and as the director of sport services for the Calgary Olympic Development Association, Stremlaw noticed the response curling received at both the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics, and he knew he wanted to play a part in the sport’s expansion. A short time later, as luck would have it, the Canadian Curling Association (CCA) began a search for a new CEO, and Stremlaw nabbed the position in 2007. Here, the CEO discusses his transition into leadership and his work to promote curling both abroad and at home.
Many people grow up with an interest in sports, but few build a career around it. Did you ever consider doing anything outside of athletics?
Sports have always been my passion. I love every type of sport—summer, winter, professional, amateur. I love what sports mean to a culture and what sports can do in terms of health and wellness. My background is actually in business—it’s what I went to school for—but I was able to parlay my business background into sports management. I think a lot of people think about pursuing sports full-time; I was just crazy enough to do it.
Talk about the transition from being a competitive athlete to taking on a leadership role as a CEO. Was it easy or difficult?
All athletes at a certain level consider going pro. The odds are small—and even smaller for high-performance athletes to have a sustainable career. So the transition itself was easy because I knew I would not have a sustainable career as an athlete, but it hurt for a little bit. In the long run, I knew I’d make a bigger impact in a management capacity. I think this career path, at least for me, has been more meaningful. I’m passionate about the CCA, and when I’m very passionate about something, I want to be successful at it.
Talk about your leadership style. How would you describe it?
I hire the best person for each area, and then I trust their judgment and let them do their thing. I don’t look over people’s shoulders. If I’m not getting the results I need, I’ll be more hands-on, but the people I work with are exceptional and don’t require that. This isn’t a dictatorship. I dislike micromanagement and don’t partake in it. I trust the people I work with and use a consultative methodology to ensure regular engagement with our staff.
What is the biggest challenge you face as CEO of the Canadian Curling Association?
It’s sort of a good problem to have: Curling is a sport with millions of fans, and the CCA has a lot of stakeholders, including sponsors, broadcast partners, and funding agents. With so many involved, there are a lot of opinions of how things should be done, and that becomes a very big challenge. We have to find the balance of doing what’s right for the association in order to get the best results and please our many fans. Sometimes the right decision isn’t always the most popular, but we do try to strike a balance as often as possible.
How does the CCA encourage the growth of the sport throughout Canada?
We have a large television contract, and it has a huge impact on the number of people the sport can reach. We also develop spot ads to recruit curlers as part of our startcurling.ca platform. We also encourage viewers to give curling a try through various means such as our mobile clinics that provide lessons. Curling is an iconic sport, so we want to keep the tradition alive and keep it relevant, but it’s also about promoting health and wellness. We also provide “Business of Curling” seminars, with the goal of teaching curling-club managers how to make their clubs more profitable. Rocks & Rings is our school-based gymnasium program that began four years ago. It teaches kids curling techniques, and at the end of the day, they get a certificate and feel more confident trying their skills on the ice. Last year, over 160,000 school children participated in the program. As you can see, we try to take a multidimensional approach to reach as many segments of the population as possible.
Do you envision curling becoming big in the United States or other countries?
Curling is already on the rise internationally. There are more than 50 nations that participate in curling and are members of the World Curling Federation. I believe the US is an untapped market, which shows significant interest every Olympic year as it gets the attention it deserves in that market. I think it’s just a matter of time before it really begins to gain steam in America and elsewhere.