Who is Shorty Jenkins?

The following tribute to Shorty was written before his death on April 11, 2013.


He is known, quite simply, as Shorty and when you are as good at something as Shorty Jenkins is, you really only need one name.  Shorty is the Zen master of ice — curling ice to be precise, something he understands and makes better than anyone else on the planet. “This is the 159th championship I’ve done,” says Shorty standing near six sheets of his creation at the Nokia Cup/Scott Tournament of Hearts provincial championships currently underway in Mississauga. The self-described “fun, crazy guy” began making championship ice in Peterborough back in 1976 and has since been brought in to make the ice for everything from major cashspiels to world championships.  Shorty is probably better known, more popular and more loved than anyone in the sport of curling. Watching him go about his business in Mississauga tells you that. One minute he’s chatting to volunteers in the hallway, next minute he’s got his arm around Olympic silver medalist Mike Harris’s shoulder sharing a laugh — while Harris is currently in the middle of a game. Then he’s offering sage advice to an ice maker from a local curling club there to help and learn.

World-class curlers like Harris, Peter Corner or Wayne Middaugh would have a hard time being recognized by most people, but not Shorty. None of the competitors have ever starred in their own Tim Hortons commercial like Shorty did a few years back and it’s not likely any of the curlers could get away with the rather distinctive attire that Shorty does (pink cowboy hat, pink leather jacket and pink cowboy boots). And he is as much a character as his outfit would suggest.

Ask him how old he is and this is what you would get: “I’m 65 going on 30. But this week I’m 105 because it’s been a bad week,” he answered with a chortle.  But don’t be fooled by the joking and colorful personality, when it comes to curling ice Shorty is all business. A meticulous record keeper, he has charts detailing every sheet of championship ice he has prepared. He also has — by his estimation — 1,400 videotapes sitting at his Trenton home of televised curling matches. “That way I can hear what the curlers and commentators are saying about the ice,” he says. “If you saw all the records I keep at home you’d flip.” Shorty got into ice-making in 1967 at the Trenton Curling Club, but he got serious about it a few years later.  A pretty good curler himself in his own day, Shorty was competing in a provincial championship in 1974 and couldn’t believe how poor the ice was so he decided to do something about it. He started studying the effects humidity, air flow, scraping patterns, temperature, water types and pebbling density have on the curling ice. He also figured out which curling rocks curled which way. “I’ve made it almost a science now,” he says without a hint of self-promotion.

Electronic gadgets and measuring devices monitor all the variables as he aims at making his ice 99 per cent perfect. Why only 99 per cent perfect? “There’s no such thing as perfect ice,” Shorty admits. “Different curlers like different ice and you can’t please them all.” He does admit he aims to create ice and use rocks that have a lot of curl to the as he feels that makes for more entertaining, exciting curling. “You’ve got to keep rocks in play. You’ve got to give everyone their money’s worth.” Shorty has no problem sharing his knowledge. Raised in an orphanage in British Columbia, he promised himself that he would do everything he could to help others as he got older and now he has that opportunity. He holds seminars that attract ice makers from all over the world. At major tournaments he’ll have a handful of people helping him out, watching, doing and learning from the master. Tournaments he can’t fit into his schedule often ask him to recommend someone else. “I don’t recommend the know-it-alls because you can’t know it all,” he says. “At my schools I give everyone a little booklet titled Shorty’s 36 Years of Screw-Ups.”

Curling great Peter Savage once gave Shorty some advice. “He said ‘listen you little buggar, you’d better write a book before you die,'” Shorty laughs. “I might. I figure I’ve got plenty of time.” If and when he does write that book, the smart money says the cover would be pink.

Shorty Jenkins… The King of Swing

Born in Hanna, Alberta in 1935, Shorty was raised in Victoria, B.C. He joined the Royal Canadian Air Force at 17, and after training, he was posted to the Maritimes for his first years of service. In 1955 he was transferred to Zweibrucken, West Germany, where he spent nearly five years in quality control. “I was checking people’s work on F-86 Sabre airplanes and CF-100s all fighter aircraft,” Shorty remembers. In 1959 he was sent to Cold Lake, Alberta, where he worked on the Officers’ Training Unit squadron and the new CF-104 Starfighter aircraft. “In the fall of ’62 they sent me back to Baden Baden, Germany. I was part of the advance party for the CF-104s. We were there to help unload the CF-104s and then we assembled the airplanes on site.” Eventually the work with its high level of stress , put him in the hospital in Ottawa. “I was put back into the weapons branch, CFB Trenton. Then I lost my medical classification to handle the weapons trade, so I had a choice: to remuster to the supply end or get out with a small pension. I chose to get out.” After a brief stint with Sunoco, managing service stations, Shorty decided to change jobs. He took two weeks off to vacation before looking for work again. Those two weeks turned out to be a turning point for him. I went to play golf daily in those two weeks at the Trenton Golf Club. While I was playing they lost their grounds superintendent. I knew I wanted to work outside, so I approached them to see if I could work for the club to learn the field. They said yes, but there was only one small problem they could only pay me one dollar an hour.

Then the fateful event occurred. In the fall of Shorty’s first year they lost their icemaker. Shorty applied, again hoping to learn the job as he went along. “The president of the curling club said no, I was too hyper. I still am.” The two weeks went by and Shorty tried again. “They gave me the same answer but it was getting too close to the curling season, so I said give me a chance, and I you’re not happy or I’m not happy, the deal’s off and the club agreed. “The first year the ice turned out to be fairly acceptable nobody had good ice then,” he explains. “Being a perfectionist, I started to study ice-making deeply.”

He began watching curlers, noticing how results varied from night to night even though he made the ice the same from day to day. After watching race cars on television, Shorty had a brainwave. He decided to time the rocks as they traveled down the ice, much as racing cars are timed in their laps. He bought a stopwatch and began using it at the rink. No one else had thought to time the rocks, and at first other curlers laughed at the idea; but within a year stopwatches began to appear.

The stopwatch is not the only innovation that Shorty has brought to the sport of curling. As well as trying numerous types of water tap, rain, filtered, hot, cold, and so on for pebbling the ice. He tested ice, brine, and even rock temperatures. Over the years he has accumulated over $20,000 worth of equipment. All for the making of the famous Shorty curling ice.

Rocks differ widely in the speed at which they travel down the ice. Shorty claims to be the only icemaker today who knows how to chose and match rocks for major championships. “Since 1984, when I got caught with bad rocks, I refuse to do the ice unless I get to choose the rocks. The past two years alone, I’ve flown to Winnipeg, Scotland, clubs in Quebec and Ontario to repair and match rocks.”

Shorty has been making ice for nearly three decades so it is not surprising that he is starting to be selective about the jobs he takes. Last February was the last time that the Ontario Men’s championship would curl on Shorty’s ice. Curlers and curling fans need not despair however, Shorty means to pass on his know-how and technical expertise, and has already begun by teaching courses and by lending a free hand to smaller, poorer clubs. People have questioned the wisdom of allowing others in on his secrets, but Shorty will have none of it. “I just like to help others,” he says. “That’s what I’m here for.”