Curling: Special Report

Sean O'Hare is a little nervous as he stares through the windows of the Fort Simpson Curling Club at the action on the ice below. It is clear that he is trying to figure out just what exactly the people are doing with the rocks and brooms.

Curling: Special Report

Sean O'Hare is a little nervous as he stares through the windows of the Fort Simpson Curling Club at the action on the ice below. It is clear that he is trying to figure out just what exactly the people are doing with the rocks and brooms. Which is rather surprising considering that O'Hare is the club president. A native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., the 28-year-old moved to the Northwest Territories last summer to teach at the Fort Simpson high school. Hoping to get involved in his new community, he attended a curling club meeting - and ended up in office. "Everyone gets a kick out of the fact that I don't know anything about the sport I represent," he says. "My first few rocks were dismal - I pretty much wound up on my face." Still, O'Hare says he has found it easier to take up curling in the northern village of 1,200 than he would have in his home town, where most of his friends learned as kids. "The people I knew in the Sault were so competitive that it wasn't like I could start curling with them at 20," he adds. But competition isn't the point, says Fort Simpson fire chief and curler Pat Rowe. "Curling breaks up the winter, that's for sure," he says. "It's nice to get out at least once a week with a group and complain about the cold and hear from everyone how the community is going."

For many curlers, Rowe is no doubt right: cutthroat competition is not the main reason to play - being sociable is. After all, in how many other sports does etiquette suggest teams shake hands before and after a match? Or do the winners buy the first round as the teams relive the game in the clubhouse afterward? Such niceties are part of what makes curling unique - and gives some sports junkies the willies. Curling is just shuffleboard on ice, they jibe, and curlers are hardly athletes. Or so American commentators smirked last month at the Nagano Olympics, where curling made its debut as a medal event - and Canada took home two of them. To the mix of mostly frenetic, high-speed Olympic sports, curling added friendly family fare, with a decidedly Canadian flavor. A bit of irony there: pressure from corporate sponsors and TV networks, as well as improvements in ice-making technology, have in recent years made the game slicker and faster - at least by curling standards.

And curling officials and fans alike are determined to keep up the momentum being generated by what is arguably the sport's biggest year ever. Just six days after curling ended at the Nagano Games, the Canadian women's championship, the Scott Tournament of Hearts, opened in Regina. This week, the men's championship, the Labatt Brier, is under way in Winnipeg. The winners of those two tournaments will then represent Canada at the sport's next opportunity to bask in the international spotlight, the 11-nation Ford world curling championship in Kamloops, B.C., from April 3 to 12.

Despite curling's increasing efforts to go global - or at least wherever there is a patch of ice - it is still predominantly a Canadian game. Although the World Curling Federation (WCF) has 32 member nations, from Belarus to New Zealand, 90 per cent of the world's curlers live in Canada - some 1.2 million of them. Scotland is second with 20,000, followed by the United States with 15,000 - most of them along the Canadian border in Wisconsin and Minnesota. In Canada, curling is more widespread, with members in every province and territory playing at some 1,200 clubs, and with the greatest concentrations in rural areas. One in every 20 Canadians curls at least once a year. That number increases dramatically in the West, where in Saskatchewan, for instance, one in every four residents curls. Even many Canadians who have never picked up a broom are fans. More than six million watched curling on TV in 1997; the single biggest event was the Brier in Calgary, when 1.44 million Canadians saw the final - more than tuned into the NHL playoffs, which peaked at 1.36 million viewers.

Those numbers translate into Canadian dominance of the game. So dominant, in fact, that many Canadians were disappointed when the Mike Harris team of Toronto had to settle for a silver medal in Nagano, losing out to the Swiss squad. Sandra Schmirler's rink from Regina did its national duty, winning gold. In other international competition, Canada holds a record 33 world titles. With the odds stacked so heavily towards one country, it is perhaps perplexing that curling ever made it to the Olympics. But several events conspired in the game's favor. Not only did Canadian officials lobby the International Olympic Committee, but the WCF got in on the act. From 1990 to 1992, it increased its membership to 28 countries from 17, thus meeting the IOC requirement that a sport be played competitively in 25 nations covering at least three continents.

Then in 1988, the IOC expanded the Winter Games to 16 days from 12 - and opened up considerably more time in its TV schedule. Curling admittedly does not have the cool panache of snowboarding or the raw aggression of hockey, but it does have one major factor in its favor: it is TV friendly. "The camera can get some very tight shots, making it a game of faces - and people identify with faces," says Warren Hansen, Vancouver-based director of competitions for the Canadian Curling Association (CCA) who has worked with CBC and TSN on their coverage of the sport. "Second, the players are miked, and you can hear all they say as they discuss strategy. That makes the person at home in their living room part of what's going on."

Such arguments proved persuasive. After appearing as a demonstration sport in Calgary in 1988 and in Albertville, France, in 1992, the IOC voted to award curling medal status - and Japanese officials volunteered to introduce it at Nagano. "That's four years earlier than we expected," says Roy Saintclair, Edinburgh-based vice-president of the WCF, noting curling would otherwise have made its debut as a medal sport at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002. Now, curling, like all Olympic sports, is subject to periodic review.

The Olympic exposure can only help the sport - more than 80 countries carried curling on TV. They apparently liked what they saw in Denmark. Before Helena Blach Lavrsen's team won the women's silver - Denmark's first Winter Olympic medal ever - the nation's 550 curlers had only one sheet of ice and played most of their games on hockey rinks. Now, officials plan to build two four-sheet curling rinks in the greater Copenhagen area, including one in Hvidovre, home of the Lavrsen rink. "Since we returned from Japan, nearly all the clubs have had 100 to 150 calls from people wanting to try curling," says Niels Larsen, a member of the WCF executive committee. That's not all. Two major TV stations, one state and one private, are vying to broadcast the world championships - a first for Danish TV. Says Larsen: "It's marvellous to be a curler in Denmark right now."

Even in Canada, the Olympics have helped move curling more into the limelight. Bernadette McIntyre, president of the host committee of the 1998 Scott Tournament of Hearts in Regina, says people had bought tickets to see Schmirler, the reigning world champion, even before her team won in Nagano. "Enthusiasm skyrocketed after that," adds McIntyre. Schmirler's opening draw on Feb. 22 against Cathy Trowell in an all-Regina matchup drew 7,346 spectators - the largest crowd ever to witness a game at the women's championship. And even though a tired Schmirler team lost in the semifinals, the tournament set attendance records all week. By the time Alberta's Cathy Borst beat Ontario's Anne Merklinger 7-6 in the March 1 final, 154,688 spectators had passed through the Agridome's doors.

Hosting such an event is a lot of work for the 850 volunteers who put in thousands of hours on everything from arena decor to transporting the players. But there is a payoff. McIntyre says proceeds will be divided six ways: one share will go to each of the four clubs on the host committee, another will go to the local curling association, and the sixth share will go to a charitable fund, which was started after the tournament was last held in Regina in 1982, and promotes curling in the city. Curlers are not the only ones who benefit when a bonspiel slides into town. The tournament spun off some $7 million into the local economy, as fans from Alberta to Manitoba checked into Regina hotels, ate in restaurants and bought souvenirs.

Some of the excitement of the Olympics has also trickled down to the club level. In Nova Scotia, for instance, the venerable Halifax Curling Club had fallen on hard times, so last fall it stepped up its recruitment of new members. It supplemented the traditional October open house with one in December timed to coincide with the televised Olympic curling trials in Brandon; a final open house last week capitalized on the interest generated by the Olympics, as well as this week's Brier. Active curling membership at the Halifax club has doubled to over 300 - and general manager Rob Krepps says the Olympic image helped. "The recognition and acceptance of curling as a sport was a major factor," Krepps said. "Some people had questioned that in the past, but when you participate in the Olympics, you are a sport."

The Olympics, however, are just the latest chapter in curling's nearly 500-year history. There is still argument about whether the game originated on the frozen ponds and rivers of the low countries of Europe or in Scotland. The language of curling can be traced back to dialects spoken by the Flemish peoples of what is now Belgium. Rocks, for instance, were originally called "kuting stones," while "bonspiel" is derived from bond for league, and spel, game. The earliest artifacts, however, are from Scotland, where the oldest known stone was found with the year 1511 carved in its side.

Scottish settlers and soldiers who had served under Gen. James Wolfe brought the game to Canada around 1760. When they could not get suitable granite for the stones, they melted cannonballs. (Curlers in Quebec played with "irons," as they were called, up until the 1950s.) The first club in Canada, the Royal Montreal Curling Club, was founded in 1807 by 20 merchants who curled on the St. Lawrence River. From there, the game spread through Ontario to Western Canada, where Prairie farmers with time on their hands in the winter took to it with a passion.

At its core, curling has changed little over the years. Each four-person team - the lead, second, third and skip, or team captain - takes turns alternating with the opposing team. The players deliver two 18-kg stones each towards the house, a bull's-eye-like target painted into the ice. Two sweepers use brooms on the ice in front of the moving stone to control its momentum and direction and help manoeuvre it to where the skip has indicated. A team wins that end by having a stone closest to the centre of the house, where the tee-line and the centre-line intersect. Counting outward, each stone is worth a single point; the counting stops at an opposing team's stone. The team with the highest score after eight ends in club play, or 10 ends in tournament play, wins the game.

Each era, however, has seen major changes in how the game is played. By the 1900s, the cold Canadian winters had driven most clubs to build indoor rinks. That helped eliminate the snow and irregular ice that had made curling more a game of luck than skill. Not that an indoor rink is a guarantee of ideal conditions. The two-sheet Galloway Curling Club, for one, is known throughout the B.C. interior for a notoriously crooked run in its ice. Locals know to "play the hump," which causes a rock to slide close to the button in a position nearly impossible to remove. "We don't have much of a hump this year, but the reputation's there," says club spokesman Gary Mitchell. "It's been there for years and no matter what is done, we can't seem to get rid of it."

The biggest change in the 1960s was the switch from corn-straw brooms to push brooms. While that eliminated a lot of debris dropping on the ice, it also meant an end to the distinctive "thwop" that a leather strop in the middle of the broom made as it slapped the ice. "The game is much quieter now," says 82-year-old Vic Brown of Peterborough, Ont., the last surviving member of the team that won the 1952 British Consols Trophy, as the Ontario men's championship was called.

In the 1990s, the most dramatic change resulted, surprisingly, from a new rule. By the late-1980s, improvements in the ice and the skill level of competitive curlers meant that the takeout game ruled the day. A team would put a rock in the house, the other team would knock it out, and the team with last-rock advantage could win 1-0. Like a no-hitter in baseball, it was the sort of game only a truly dedicated fan could enjoy. And even Canadians are not that dedicated.

To introduce more strategy and finesse shots to the game, WCF officials adapted an innovation developed by Russ Howard of Midland, Ont., one of Canada's winningest skips. In 1991, they instituted a "four-rock, free-guard-zone rule," in which players may bump, but not take out, the first four rocks of a given end if they are played between the hog line and the house. The CCA followed with a slight variation three years later, a three-rock rule. As well, games were sped up with the introduction of a stop clock, as in chess. Each team has 73 minutes to complete a game, and that limit has put an end to some of the seemingly endless debates on how to play a rock. Curling is also moving away from the convention that allowed the losing team to concede at anytime. TV viewers are now guaranteed the full 10 ends of play in the national final.

At the same time, there were changes going on in the packaging of the game. The St. Clair Group, a Toronto-based sports marketing firm, was casting about for opportunities when president Tom Murray learned that although the CBC and TSN had good audiences for curling, they had trouble attracting advertisers. After buying the rights from CCA to most of the major tournaments, the St. Clair Group went to the networks and purchased the airtime. They then had to sign up the event sponsors and television advertisers. But Murray says the $3.5-million gamble was worth it. "Curling is a sleeping giant," he says. "Advertisers already have plenty of options for reaching urban dwellers. Curling, with its rural fan base, is exceptional at reaching the smaller markets."

As with any sport, curling's future lies not only in finding new fans, but finding new players. That has generated a lot of talk - and some action, such as the introduction of half-sized "little rocks" - about how to get young people involved. Ten years ago, Ray Pavlove, principal of a Parry Sound, Ont., elementary school, organized a bonspiel that attracted 24 teams from eight schools. It has grown in the years since as it travelled to various cities throughout Ontario. This year, from Feb. 19 to 22, the tournament returned to Parry Sound. It attracted 350 kids from 80 Ontario elementary schools, who took over the four sheets of ice at the local curling club, as well as six sheets at the Bobby Orr Community Centre, which had been transformed from a hockey haven to a curling rink. Pavlove was ecstatic at the high level of sportsmanship the boys and girls displayed. "They played without interference from adults, coaches, referees," he said. "They were just so caught up in playing the game, they would come off the ice and ask, 'Who won?' "

Of course, it is that very niceness that makes those who prefer their sports more testosterone-charged so dismissive of curling. And image-wise, it doesn't help that some adult curlers work harder at developing a beer belly afterward than they ever work on the ice. In a pre-Olympic magazine article, one U.S. writer declared that curling has a "charisma problem" because it is too Canadian. But curlers are an easygoing lot and they seldom reply aggressively. Instead, they just smile and suggest that anybody who thinks it is easy should just come out and try it. "A lot of people who don't know anything about it think it's kind of ridiculous," says Montreal skip Myrna Southam. "They don't understand the game." Curlers will raise a broom - or a bottle - to that.

Maclean's March 16, 1998