Curling – Whitby, ON

Anything my sister can do, I can do better.

After defending my Mario Kart 64 crown from my sibling’s hands last weekend – despite her semester of practice, nonetheless – it was time to step into her old domain – stone huckin’ on ice, or as the locals call it, curling.

Curling runs shallow in the Gymineer blood line, but it runs. My sister and cousins grew up playing the game, though maybe that’s why I took so long to come around to it. Any sport my sister found before me was pretty well a write-off, I had a reputation to uphold. Such are the consequences of stereotypes.

Really though, it shouldn’t have taken me this long to try a sport that’s played four minutes from my house. I guess it comes down to what I’ll call the first of my Gymineer ideals: it’s not going to happen unless you push yourself – off your ass, out the door, into the action.

Different sports come with different expectations: 400M hurdles – difficult, elephant polo – hard to find, curling – pretty simple. But a 43 lb stone in your hand and a left shoe covered in tape can spice any sport up.

Here’s how it works: Regular curlers have two different soles on their shoes, one slippery, one grippery. The tape they sometimes use on us beginners is a makeshift “slider” sole. You then step onto the ice which is covered in tiny ice bumps – these allow the stones to curve if they’re thrown with a light spin. At each end of the rink there’s concentric circles, imaginatively known as the circles.

In a proper game there’s four members to a team who take turns throwing stones while the others sweep or yell at people to sweep – both equally fun . At the end of every round or end the goal is to have the stone closest to the centre of the circles. This earns you one point, plus a point for every other stone inside your opponent’s closest rock.

The thrower pushes off of a hack, which is basically a sprinting block that somewhat drilled into the ice. I was so concerned about heaving the rock through the other end of the rink that my first throw, well, you can watch the video, but it fell well short of the circles. It’s interesting playing with a group of beginners, because not only am I as the thrower trying to find my distance, but the sweepers are not particularly wise judges of speed – so people end up sweeping stones that are already going way too fast or ignoring stones going too slow. It comes quick enough though (An impressive “leave it!” call by Range on my last throw in the video, and may I say, quite the toss).

There are three basic strategies to look for when you’re throwing, listed in order of sweetness, from apples to maple syrup covered fudge:

  1. The Guard – When your team’s already sitting pretty, you throw up an extra stone as a sacrificial block.

  2. The Bullseye – When it’s open, you go for the glory.

  3. The Banger – When the other team is somewhere you don’t want them to be, you bang it.

    (Note – There probably are more strategies, but that’s what I picked up in an hour. I also took the liberty of naming “The Bullseye” and “The Banger”).

Sweepers try and help the thrower with whatever strategy their Skip, or captain, has decided on. We got a bit caught up in the sweeping as we were practicing. Just remember – sweeping makes the rock speed up, not slow down. Lesson learned.

After years of turning to TSN for sports highlights and being momentarily hypnotized by the Brier, I should have remembered that there is also a defensive element to curling, but I forget things. But yes, it’s true, it’s all true. The back half of the circles is reserved for your opponents when you throw, and there they are allowed to sweep to their hearts’ content to try and guide your stones out the back of the circles.

By now you’re probably thinking “Gymineer, this sounds great, but curling looks really dangerous. What are the risks, and can I wear a helmet?”

Yes, and these are the risks:

  1. The Ice Technician. It was made very clear to us before stepping on the ice that dropping a 43lb weight on the thin sheet of ice, or throwing it through the end of the rink, would make this person very, very upset. For this reason we were told to never lift a rock off the ice, and to sacrifice ourselves if we had to slow down a runaway rock (The ice technician and instructor, Rob, was actually an incredibly helpful and friendly chap. Then again, we heeded his advice, and didn’t break his ice).

  2. The rocks. They weigh 43lbs and slide at you. They’re easy to avoid, mostly.

  3. The ice. It’s slippery. If you step out there taped foot first you’re going down. Wish I caught those on tape.

Now, if you’ve seen the video, you’re probably wondering what’s up. “Hey Gymineer, they let some dude out there in a Don Cherry suit and Queen’s University graduation cap from ’79. Do they let just any schmuck throw those stones around?”

The sad fact is that while Curling acts like a sport that’s open to everyone, this isn’t the case. If you still sleep in a baby crib, or if you are over 40ft tall and can’t fit under an arena ceiling, then curling is not for you. However, if you’re in the remaining minority of people, then count yourself lucky and go check out a local bonspiel (stone huckin’ tourney), or call up the rink in your neighbourhood and say “Hey, I’ve never curled before, but I am interested. You got anything for me?”

Seriously. Go.