Going Curling for the First Time

As the weather turns more spring-like in Calgary, you start hearing unmistakable calls in the air: the robins, the magpies, the geese, the curlers…

“Sweep! SWEEP! Harder! HARDER!”

One of my friends/co-workers, Jim, had declared some time ago that he wanted to try curling before 2014. Why 2014? Got me. But Mia decided that Jim was going to give it a whirl a full decade early, so organized a surprise curling event. She rounded up 14 other people keen to throw heavy objects across an ice rink, and on Saturday, we all headed down to the Calgary Curling Club just off Memorial Drive.

The club was established in 1888. (Curling is very popular in the Canadian prairies. Probably because in the dead of winter, there ain’t much else to do if you don’t ski.) The current building is much newer than that — I’d put it around 1960s, but that’s a bit of a guess. It’s not very large, but has enough room for a curling equipment shop (gotta buy your brooms, rocks, shoes, and snazzy uniforms somewhere, y’know), bar lounge, small cafeteria, and eight rinks.

You’ll never see the Scotts Tournament of Hearts broadcast here. I don’t even think there’s enough room for a single camera to be set up.

The club had a set of rental equipment for those of us unable to bring some of our own. (Don’t laugh — 2/3 of all Canadians have curled. You can bet that a large portion of them have their own equipment.) This amounted to curling brooms and what I can only describe as slippers.

See, when you curl, you spend most of your time on the ice. A curling ice rink, however, is not like an ice hockey rink. That kind of ice is very hard and very slippery. The ice on a curling rink is a little softer (you can just barely see your breath in a curling rink) and is covered with thousands of little bumps, created to help the curling rock move more easily.

This means you can actually walk on a curling rink in sneakers and (unless you have really poor balance) not fall flat on your ass. (Well, I suppose if you’ve had too much to drink, that could certainly lead to problems, but that’s another issue.) However, that also causes a minor problem: being able to sweep the rock. This is where the slipper comes in. Worn on the foot opposite to the one you throw with, this hard-plastic slipper (worn over the shoe) lets you slide across the ice more easily.

Hard-core curlers have special shoes: one slippery, one not.

We entered the rink, took our two sheets of ice, and proceeded to try throwing a rock for the first time. Aside from Reid — whose parents both curl (which means that Reid’s curled a few times) — and James (who hadn’t curled in 10 years), we were all newbies. All I knew from curling I’d learned from TV and the movie “Men With Brooms”. (Which, surprisingly enough, was more than I’d thought.)

After throwing rocks back and forth for about a half hour, we all gathered to divide into teams. We chose our skips (the team captains) from the four women who attended (Mia, Lindsay, Gabrielle, and Jing). They, in turn, chose their teams from the pool of 12 men. Only Jing didn’t choose her significant other, allowing Jiang to be picked by another team.

My team (Jing, Luke, Reid, and myself) went up against Linday’s (including Nathan, Tom, and Steve). A coin toss had us throw the first stone (which, incidentally, is a disadvantage — the last throw, or hammer, is often the decision-maker). Jing would be the first to throw, with Reid and I sweeping. Luke kept house (the target at the opposite end of the rink). We’d then rotate, with Luke shooting, then Reid. I somehow ended up as the anchor, because someone thought I knew what I was doing.

I seem to have knack of convincing people I know things that I don’t know. Wish I knew how I do that.

For those of you who have never curled before, it’s a lot harder than it looks. Even just gliding up and down the rink is a challenge in balance and coordination: your slippered foot glides fairly easily, but you then rest a lot on the one foot, risking balance. Experienced curlers make it look effortless. Your legs get a heck of workout just doing this.

Sweeping is another challenge. You need to move fast enough to stay ahead of the rock, not interfere with the rock or the other sweeper, and not run into anyone else on the other team (although ours at times looked more like a hockey game than a bonspiel). I’ll not mention that your broom is in hard contact with the ice, and you have to sweep back and forth like you’re trying to gouge something out. This while gliding down the ice.

And finally, there’s the “easy” part: shooting. Each stone weighs about 40 lbs and is made out of granite, with a handle embedded in the top. They slide rather nicely across the ice, and make delightful “clonk” sounds when they hit other stones. (They make rather nice “OUCH!” sounds when they hit other players.) The trick is to throw them in such a way that they’ll land on the button (the one-foot diametre centre of the house) — the ideal place to put it — land inside the house, or will set up guards, which block the other team’s ability to knock your stones out.

It takes a bit of practice, and can be murder on your knees (I’ve got bruise just below my right knee from resting it on the ice as I slid across). You need balance. Being right-handed, I had to use my left leg to prop me up, dragging my right leg behind me. Then you have to steer your stone to where you want it to go, and put a spin (if any) on the stone, so you can cause it to curve across the rink.

Despite three newbies, our team fared best out of the four, winning our game 6-2 (playing only six ends of the regular eight). The other two teams were more evenly matched, but took longer to set up and shoot. Our team had surprisingly good accuracy: Jing felt she was underpowered, but proved good; Luke threw the only button in the four teams; Reid had played before, so knew what he was doing; and I attribute my abilities to sheer, dumb luck.

We finished up just after 20:00, which was just as the sixth game in the Vancouver vs. Calgary series was starting. James, Gabrielle, Mia, and Jim headed home, while Lindsay, Tom, Nathan, Scott, and myself headed in the direction of Eau Claire. We figured a couple of beers, a hockey game, and some food were in order. (Reid was supposedly following, but we lost track of him.)

Ending up at the Brewster’s (there were no tables to be found at the Garage), we took up shop, and began our chats amongst the events of the game. I wasn’t too particularly interested in the game (not a Canucks or Flames fan), but I did find the crowd’s reactions interesting.

Like most bars in Calgary, Brewster’s was full of Flames fans. And one Canucks fan, who sat a of couple tables away from us, with his Flames-loving friends. This particular twit was quite happy when the Canucks scored, rising to his feet and yelling “YEAH!” at the top of his lungs — no doubt the whole bar heard him. I was waiting until someone came by to ask him, politely, to shut the hell up. (Never happened.)

For those of you who didn’t watch the game, the Canucks were up 4-0 before the Flames finally scored. The bar erupted. People went nuts. Above it all, I could hear Mr. Canuck: “FOUR to ONE. FOUR to ONE.”

Second goal. Flames fans are louder. Assuming he’d realized he couldn’t broadcast himself over the others, he just shook his head and held up his hands. Four fingers opened in one hand, two in the other.

Third goal. Screams are now heard from various patrons. Mr. Canuck’s friends are standing; he is sitting, arms crossed, shaking his head defiantly.

Fourth goal. Ears start ringing. Mr. Canuck is silent.

I’ll spare you with the rest of the details of the game (‘cuz as you’ve already learned, I didn’t care that much), other than as the overtime periods dragged on, people left. Soon, Scott and I were left at our table, and Mr. Canuck with a couple of his friends remained. He yelled triumphantly when Vancouver finally ended the game, but no-one really cared by that point. It was late.

If only you heard those kinds of reactions for curling. It would make it a lot more interesting.

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