The Men’s Curling Senior Nationals: Just A Stone’s Throw Away
Broomstones Curling Club is located in Wayland, a leafy (well OK, it will be leafy in a few months) western suburb of Boston. It’s been around for a while – specifically since 1968, and currently boasts an active membership of about 400, a number that pretty much pushes capacity.
There are leagues almost every night of the week, and special events and competitions on most weekends, from October through March. And make no mistake about it – Broomstones is every bit a social club as it is a sporting club. This is not one of those country clubs where you know the people in your regular foursome and that’s it. No – these people interact.
How do I know all this? Sheila Hanley told me.
I met Sheila in the Broomstones parking lot as I was trying to figure out: (a) How a national championship competition came to be held at this somewhat, um…well-hidden venue; and (b) How I could rush the door without a ticket. As soon as I could find the door, that is.
“Come on in with me! Of course spectators are welcome.” And she was right – I was welcome. Which was a fortunate twist of fate, for I had come a very long way to witness the U.S. Men’s Senior Curling Nationals, the pinnacle of competition in this country for curlers 50 and above.
My gracious host gave me a quick tour, offered me a refreshment, and then said cheerfully, “If you have any questions…” Poor, sweet Sheila. When she awoke that morning she had no idea. For in fact, I did have a few. Like “Why do they call it curling?” for starters.
I learned pretty quickly that perhaps more so than any sport other than baseball, curling enthusiasts are knowledgeable and actively engaged in the action. Before and after every “throw” (we’ll get to terminology soon), a running dialogue on strategy ran throughout the gallery. I naturally had nothing to add to the open-ended conversation, but I marveled at the completely different language that I was hearing.
But with the help of Sheila, who quietly and patiently answered my elementary questions, it wasn’t long before I could piece together not only what had just happened, but what I might expect next. Not necessarily well enough to weigh in on the dialogue, but enough to start to enjoy the contest. I was mentally transported back to a September day at the Newport Harbor Lawn Bowling Club, and remembered learning the game of lawn bowls in this exact manner.
Teminology, terminology, terminology…where to start?
Let’s begin with the easy ones. The big round stone that gathers all of the attention is called…a stone. And people “throw” the stone, although in truth the motion involved is more of a push – or for those with well-developed triceps, a back-then-forward motion more akin to rolling an object, as in bowling.
The target that people are fixated on is called the “house”. It is 12 feet wide, and located about 100 feet down the ice “sheet” from the point at which you begin your throw. The center of the house is a one foot wide yellow circle called the “button” – which I’m guessing explains the mystery about the origins of the term “right on the button”. Well, it was mysterious to me, anyway.
Matches are played almost exactly like lawn bowls matches, broken down into “ends”. There are eight ends to a match, with each end consisting of all four players on each team having two throws apiece – for a total of sixteen. Throws are alternated, with the team in possession of the last throw in each end having what’s called the “hammer”, or baseball’s equivalent of the last ups.
Despite its multi-colored concentric rings, it really doesn’t matter specifically where in the house your throw comes to rest. The overall goal is to end the end, so to speak, with one of your team’s stones in the house and closest to the button. That gives you one point, and more importantly, control of the score for that end – your opponent is shut out.
Once you control the score, you can add an additional point for each stone from your team that finishes the end closer to the button than the other team’s best throw. If your team has two stones closer to the button than your opponent’s you score two points; if you’ve got the three closest stones, you score three, and so on.
A team is made up of four players: The Skip, the Vice, the Lead and the Second. As you might imagine, the Skip is the head honcho – in the Nationals in fact, teams were named simply by the surname of the Skip. He calls the shots and works the back end of the house, and takes the last set of throws for his team in each end. The Vice fills in for the Skip when the latter is throwing, but otherwise carries the same responsibilities of the Lead and the Second. That is to say, using their “broom” to sweep the ice like mad just ahead of the path of each teammate’s throw.
As for that sweeping…I have no idea why I thought this was the case, but my impression was that the brooms were used to rough up the surface of the ice in front of the stone, thus causing it to slow down. Wrong. It’s the opposite – the ice on a dedicated curling surface is slightly pebbled, and the material at the end of the brooms is the slightly abrasive texture of your average dishwashing Dobie. Rapidly scrubbing the ice creates enough friction to melt the tiny bumps in the surface, and actually allows the stone to travel further than it normally would. Another of my faulty world views exposed.
While the majority of sweeping is done to extend the glide of the stone forward, well-executed sweeping can also cause slight curves in the overall arc of the throw. Once again, the comparison to lawn bowls. What separates these two sports from their less cerebral cousins is that angles and trajectories come into play, as opposed to simple aiming and rolling from Point A to Point B. And when lines can curve, the possibilities are endless.
Much like any other accuracy and placement sport, there are different styles for executing a curling throw. At the levels of precision at which these particular matches were being played however, any unnecessary movement in the delivery introduces an unacceptable level of imperfection. Therefore, most of the curlers chose to basically lock themselves into a release position – with the stone out in front of them at all times – and generate forward momentum primarily through a powerful push off of the “hack”, a cousin-twice-removed from a set of starter’s blocks in a track sprint event.
When using this method to deliver the stone, the mental image that immediately came to mind was that of golfer Camillo Villegas, who is famous for getting up close and personal with the green surface when lining up a putt. So your elite curler is much more limber than one might initially think.
Lastly there’s the scoreboard, which is unlike any I’ve seen at any other sport. At first glance it looks like a baseball scoreboard, with three sets of horizontal strings stretched across its length. But instead of innings, the numbers 1, 2, 3 etc. represent the potential cumulative points in a match. And that particular string is the middle one. If you, like me, have baseball ingrained in your DNA this just plain looks…odd.
The top and bottom strings represent each team’s actual point accumulation, although it takes some acclimation period (i.e. pestering of Sheila) before you can ascertain the score at a glance. See, if a team scores a point in any given end, the number of that end is what is posted on that team’s string. For example, let’s say my team is playing The Bird’s. Here’s what the scoreboard might look like at the end of the match:
And here’s the subsequent match summary: The Bird’s team scored their first point and went ahead 1-0 after the first end. Nicely done. We Sports Fans countered with one point in the second end and tied it up at 1-1. We then distracted her team by distributing shoe sale circulars and proceeded to score one point in each of next three ends and two points in the sixth end, thus taking a commanding 6-1 lead with just two ends left to play. Leading us of course to engage in our “you can’t touch this” happy dance. Whereupon The Bird’s team scored three points in both the seventh and final ends to win 7-6. Got it?
This of course could never happen. Not The Bird getting the last word – that happens all the time. No, what would never happen would be the “you can’t touch this” happy dance. Curling is a sport of honor, tradition and respect, the depth of which I have only seen in sumo wrestling. You are about as likely to see a taunt during a match as you are to see somebody using an Autoloc Dual Exhaust Flamethrower as a broom.
To be concluded in next post…