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February 2012

Stone Cold

Curling: it's cooler than you think

MY INTRODUCTION TO curling came one January afternoon some years ago when I walked into the living room to find my husband and brother giggling like middle-schoolers. The television was tuned to a local Canadian station (in the northernmost reaches of the Adirondack Park, Canadian channels are considered local). On­­screen, a group of women were playing what looked like shuffleboard on ice. Offscreen, a couple of overgrown adolescents were tittering every time a player yelled, “Hurry, hard, Hard, HARD,” or the an­nouncer ex­claimed that a shot was “nibbling the button.”

By the next weekend the scene was different. Curling was back on, but the boys had moved past the sexual-innuendo-as-entertainment phase. They were engaged, talking strategy, cheering shots. So I cracked a beer and joined them. Since then I’ve no­ticed the sport popping up everywhere—from the slick, highly trained teams at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics to the boisterous, off-the-cuff matches (or bonspiels, as curlers call them) at my local American Le­gion post.

A Sweeping History

Curling—gliding heavy stones down a length of ice to a target (called the house)—dates from the early 16th century. Like other quirky cultural phenomena, there’s a bit of a tiff over its origins. Continentalists point to Flanders as the arctic activity’s birthplace, but purists insist that it’s as Scottish as golf and stuffed sheep bladders. For a painstaking defense of Scotland as the cradle of curling, including a phrase-by-phrase exploration of the pastime’s etymology, check out the 1890 History of Curling by John Kerr on Google Books.

But pinpointing the first person to chuck a boulder down a frozen channel is irrelevant, since it was the Scots who fully embraced and nurtured the sport during their long post-raiding seasons. Original curling stones were plucked from rivers and notched for a thrower’s fingers and thumb; sweepers used corn-straw brooms to clear debris from icy lochs. The proceedings were, presumably, scotch-soaked.

Scottish regiments brought curling to Canada in the 18th century—some say as early as the French and Indian War. The game invaded the Adirondacks near the birth of the 20th, im­ported to Saranac Lake by Tom Smith, a top Ca­nadian curler. At first it was played on Moody Pond and Lake Flower’s Pontiac Bay—sheets were cleared by a horse-drawn Zamboni forerunner—but skaters horned in on the groomed rinks and often wrecked the surfaces. As the Saranac Lake Curling Club grew in popularity, its digs were upgraded to a covered stretch of ice, then a two-sheet in­door rink, then a four-sheet William Distin–de­signed arena. The “Roaring Game,” nicknamed for the sound the stones make as they slide, was demonstrated at the 1932 Winter Olym­pics in Lake Placid.

The one-two punch of the Depression and World War II brought an end to the club, but it was reincarnated—after a brief midcentury interlude as the Sno Birds—in 1981 as the Lake Placid Curling Club. Today the group has 29 members and offers Learning to Curl workshops to spread the good word.

Slide Rules

Although curling retains the genial feel of its freewheeling roots, it’s now a thoroughly modern sport, with a governing body, standard regulations, even strict anti-doping policies. Re­purposed river rocks have morphed into 42 pounds of smooth granite with a top handle and concave base. Stones are still quarried in Great Britain; new sets of 16 cost about $8,000, and that’s be­fore shipping.

Sheets—the lanes of play—are 146 feet long by about 15 feet wide. The surface of the ice, now al­most always indoors, is sprayed with warm water so that tiny pebbles form. These reduce friction on the five-by-¼-inch running surface and, as a stone’s mo­mentum de­creases, encourage shots to curl, or veer from a straight line. Sweeping in front of a stone melts the pebbles, creating a tiny layer of water that promotes longer and straighter flings. Modern curling brooms are available with short, natural bristles or a synthetic pad (imagine a lint brush on a stick). Which type to use is a matter of taste, al­though bristle brooms are better on frosty ice.

The basics of the game are pretty basic. Teams of four take turns skimming stones toward the house, something like an oversize dartboard. Each player launches him- or herself from the hack, curlingese for the starting block, and slides forward on a Teflon-enhanced shoe. The stone must be released before it crosses a designated point, called the hog line, and must pass the far hog line to stay in play.

Meanwhile, teammates sweep frantically—or not so frantically, according to their own judgement or bellowed instructions from their captain, also known as the skip. Strategy is complicated: shots can block access to the house, remove rivals’ stones from the field or head straight for the target’s center circle, called the button. Af­ter 16 shots the score is tallied—the crew with a stone closest to the button gets one point for each of its stones within the house nearer to the center than any of the opposing team’s. But that’s just one end, the equivalent of an inning; there are eight ends in a match, generally spanning two hours.

It’s impossible to say how well behaved early Highland contests were, but modern curling is obsessively polite: no heckling, no backtalking your skip, no booze on the ice (although a post-competition toddy is traditional), no delay of game, no swearing. And re­gardless of who wins, everyone shakes hands afterward with a friendly “good curling.”

Learning Curl

Nothing about curling is as easy as it sounds—especially the no swearing part. To work out the kinks in my style, I signed up for a Lake Placid Curling Club workshop last fall, held on a Sunday night at the Olympic Center. With about 14 other new­bies from an impressive range of ages, I got a primer on the sport’s rules, technique and, of course, etiquette.

Attempting to curl, at least for me, was reminiscent of gym class, the awkwardness of moving my body in completely foreign ways in front of a crowd. Add the unpredictability of ice and a serious lack of coordination and flexibility and you’ll get some idea of the scene. Luckily, my instructor, club president Amber McKernan, was supportive and patient.

We started with sweeping, the most athletic—and some say most important—skill. A swept stone can travel up to 10 feet farther than one that’s left alone. But sweeping both heavy and hard, while careening down a slippery surface, requires dexterity and muscle power. It’s an aer­obic activity performed in tandem, one teammate working just ahead of the other. For nov­ices, knocking brooms is in­evitable, but knocking the rock is a major no-no. It’s called burning the stone and can disqualify a shot. Worse still is burning a stone and not fessing up.

After we master sweeping it’s back to the hack to glide some granite. Since none of us has access to a Teflon-coated shoe—most showed up in sneakers—we slide on a foot-shaped piece of cardboard wrapped in duct tape. Loose-fitting pants are essential: we’re lunging above a rib-cracking projectile, a broom splayed out on the opposite side for balance. Plus, while in mo­tion, a player has to twist the stone to set it curling. My form took some tweaking, but eventually I bent where I should have bent and stretched where I should have stretched, releasing the rock in an almost graceful manner. My shots never got past the far hog line; my body was sore for days.

My fellows fared better. I was grouped with a young couple who were more than passable students and an enthusiastic 20-something who claimed the role of skip based on his extensive barroom shuffleboard experience. I’d like to say we won our matchup with an older set of curling recruits. But we didn’t. Even so, the bonspiel-lite was great fun and well worth a work-night trip to Lake Placid.

Roaring in the Rough

For a less domesticated look at curling, I turned to the all-comers tournament at the West Plattsburgh American Le­gion, a stone’s throw from the Blue Line. Last February, 21 teams—with names like Barn Dogs, Pickled Livers and Hook’s Harem (those were the ones fit to print, anyhow)—met en plein air in what amounted to a spiel-for-all.

Legion members started the tradition three years ago with the help of the Lake Placid club, who came to offer pointers and moral support. The first playing area was a span between the horseshoe courts. Concrete-filled plastic jugs with rebar handles stood in for stones; the brooms were beat-up loaners. Now the group has a set of proper rocks, picked up second-hand, and their frozen pond boasts regulation-size sheets.

But there’s not much else that’s regulation on the pond. The level of decorum that’s usually expected at other curling venues isn’t even sug­gested here. Swearing is prevalent. Trash-talk is encouraged. The proceedings are, without a doubt, scotch-soaked. Proper form isn’t mandatory, either—one of the more popular throwing positions is an all-out belly flop. (Though graceless, it’s surprisingly effective.) And even with pitfalls un­heard-of in an Olympic arena, like buckled ice or slushy puddles, the curling is still plenty good.

The Lake Placid Curling Club offers pre-season Learning to Curl sessions every fall and accepts new members until late October; additional workshops are sometimes scheduled in spring. The group al­so gives demonstrations on Lake Flower during the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival. Visit lakeplacidcurling.com to learn more.

SCHOOL OF ROCK

Biter, also Nibbler: A stone that just touches the outside ring of the house; it can be scored as a point.

Broomstacking: Gathering for a drink with teammates and opponents after a competition.

Blank end: An end that finishes scoreless, with no stones within the house.

Bonspiel: A curling tournament. Matches with significant prizes are sometimes called cashspiels; laid-back events are known as funspiels.

Burn: When a sweeper accidentally nicks a moving stone; a shot is automatically disqualified if the stone is burned between hog lines.

Button: The innermost circle of the house. End: Similar to a baseball inning. Each player throws two stones per end (eight rocks per team); there are eight ends in a game.

Flash: The gutter ball of curling, when a stone passes through the house without hitting a thing.

Guard: A stone placed in front of a teammate’s stone to protect it from being knocked out of play.

Hack: A curler’s starting block, where he or she pushes off to slide forward for a shot.

Hammer: The final stone of an end—a huge advantage often determined by coin toss. If the team without the hammer wins the end it’s called a steal.

Hard! Hurry!: A skip’s command to sweep harder and faster.

Heavy ice: A surface that’s “slow” and will require a harder throw.

Hog line: A line 33 feet from the hack. A curler must release a stone before it crosses the hog line.

Hogged rock, also Hogger: A shot that fails to cross the far hog line and is re­moved from play.

House: The scoring area at either end of the sheet.

Keen ice: A surface that’s “fast,” where stones glide easily.

Nice rock: An appropriate cheer for a well-delivered stone.

Sheet: Field of play.

Skip: Team captain.

Up!, also Off! or Whoa!: A skip’s command to stop sweeping.

Vice skip, also Mate: The player who shoots third; he or she helps the skip with strategy.

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