In Defense of Curling

Every four years, curling is the punching bag of the Olympics. A night at the Detroit Curling Club, one of the oldest in the U.S., might teach you some respect.

think that anyone who watches hockey is inclined to at least give curling the benefit of the doubt. I remember first encountering curling the way a lot of hockey fans probably first encountered curling: Channel surfing, landing on CBC (back when CBC was a standard offering on basic cable in Michigan), hoping some TV miracle would serve up an unscheduled hockey game even though it wasn’t Hockey Night in Canada, and instead discovering that other sport that Canadians apparently do on ice. The commonality of the ice is what prompts hockey fans to give curling the benefit of the doubt. It’s everything else about the sport that invites ridicule.

Through the TV, the men appeared not at all rugged or macho like hockey players. They wore what people of a certain generation would call “slacks,” probably pleated, and crinkly nylon athletic jackets with tacky prints. The face and general body shape of Rick Steves are what come to mind when I think of my memories of male curlers from the ’80s. One can even almost imagine Rick on a tour of Scotland, curling’s birthplace, joining a few gents for a game, Rick remarking later during the voiceover how tickled he was that the single pair of practical pants he packed had again proved all that he had needed. As for the women, on the hot-or-not scale that runs from Nancy Kerrigan to Tanya Harding, females curlers, to my recollection, were a bunch of Tanyas. And the game itself was nothing like hockey. It looked something like shuffleboard played on ice, but with brooms. And the players were constantly yelling incomprehensible things at each other during the game. You would think all the yelling would have made it feel a little more macho. But it didn’t. Because there was nothing particularly macho about watching a man yell at another man to sweep a broom so hard his face turned red.

Seeing the game in person, however, would likely change your mind. At the Detroit Curling Club, the men do not look like Rick Steves. They drink beer. They have bristly mustaches. Some wear hockey jerseys, as if to silently suggest they are also hip to that other, more socially accepted, ice sport. There are women too, some younger, and some Nancy Kerrigans, with form-fitting snow pants and cute fleece neckwarmers. Both the men and the women are warm, but serious about their sport. So much so that you would feel dumb making fun of them the way everyone seems to during the Olympics. First and foremost, because if you attempted to do what they do, you—not the game—would be the object of ridicule.

I observe their skill first through the glass of the “warm room”—a clubhouse and bar separate from the ice surface that

sort of resembles the seating area at a bowling alley mixed with a Moose Lodge. This is where you would watch the game if curling were a spectator sport, which, at the moment, curling does not appear to be. The people who are here are here to play, and in the warm room, there is only Mike. Mike is the hand-off man. The man you get handed off to when you show up to learn about curling. Mike will be curling later, but for now, Mike is alone in the warm room, waiting his turn, which is two hours from now. No one else is in the warm room waiting for two hours to take his or herturn. Mike is alone tonight in that sense, that he is the only one who apparently thinks watching other people curl is worth showing up for two hours prior to his own scheduled time. But Mike really likes curling. Therefore Mike is a good hand-off man.

We work from the ground up, beginning with the footwear. As with bowling, there are special shoes. Both are slippery on the bottom, but a player slides a rubber slipper onto one shoe to get some traction on the ice. Mike explains this is why curlers look like Gumby when they are getting from one end of the ice to the other. I never watched Gumby so I do not get the reference. But I looked it up later and agree that they do look like Gumby. For people also unfamiliar with the way Gumby walks, I would describe it sort of like skateboarding without a skateboard: You slide on the slippery shoe while you push off with the “gripper.” I’m sure if Gumby curled, he would be a natural.

As for the game itself, it appears at first to require little explanation from Mike. It begins with a player sliding a “stone” down the ice. The stone is literally such—a large 40-pound sphere of granite that has been flattened on the top and bottom and fitted with a handle. At the other end of the rink, a bulls-eye-shaped target lies imprinted in the ice. This is known as “the house,” and the basic object of the game is to try to slide your stones into that bulls eye. Similarly, if the other team has stones in the house, you can knock them out with your own stones. Each team throws eight stones per “end” (which are sort of like innings in baseball), and the team with the most stones closest to the center of the house wins that end. There are seven to 10 ends per game, depending on the format, and whichever team has the most points at the end of the game wins.

There is, of course, more nuance than that. Look closely, Mike says, and you’ll see that just as a player releases the stone from his or her hand, he or she torques the handle, giving the stone a slight rotation. This causes the stone to “curl” from left to right or right to left as it travels down the ice. With a stone en route, the player can then shout directions to his teammates, who flank the sliding stone, brooms at the ready. If the player wants the stone to travel faster or farther, or curl less or more, he shouts at them to sweep the ice just ahead of the stone, which polishes the ice, thus reducing friction. With a good throw and the appropriate amount of yelling, some of the more skilled players can make some impossible-looking shots: Landing a stone slowly and carefully right in the middle of the bullseye from 150 feet away; placing a “guard” stone at a safe distance but directly in front of a stone that is already in scoring position; or more impressive yet, curling around an opponent’s guard stone to smash into the rival’s scoring stone, knocking it out of the house and leaving his or her own stone in its place to scoop up the points. A stylish, dark-complected man with a red-and-white cap and black mustache curled up on the ends makes such a shot. “We call him ‘Hollywood,’’” Mike says. “Hollywood is good.” Hollywood is indeed good. And Mike and I cheer him on through the glass of the warm room. Hollywood, unable to hear our praise, gumbys down the ice to chart his next move.

An appreciation of curling is born from the details, which remain invisible to the casual jokester. The degree of flexibility and balance required causes the men to look at the women with true admiration–and a little jealousy. Handshakes are exchanged before all matches. The strategy involved feels like chess combined with billiards, and what appears to be just a bunch of stones banging into each other at the end of the ice is actually a carefully orchestrated dance between the two dueling captains. The smallest, most sublime details of all are found on the ice. To the casual observer, the ice appears smooth like a hockey rink. But crouch down and you’ll see it has been carefully decorated with tiny bumps, the tops shaved off to provide just the right sliding surface. The stones moving across these tiny “pebbles” produces a soft, grinding noise as they glide from bump to bump, giving curling its nickname: The Roaring Game. The players guard these bumps like a retired man defends his perfectly tended suburban lawn. When an older player leans his gloveless hand on the ice for balance, only seconds pass before shouts from the warm room plead futilely for the pain to end: His 98.6 degrees has melted a few of the tiny bumps. “You can see the burn mark from here!” a barrel-chested man in a Minnesota North Stars jersey yells. It is invisible to me. But in curling, the little things matter.

After the game, the men and women file into the warm room. Tradition takes over: The winners buy the losers a round of drinks to numb any possible hard feelings. Before long, the clubhouse fills with a new kind of roar, and a cute, primped bartender circles the room to ensure everyone is taken care of. Mike, having disappeared half an hour before to stretch for his upcoming match, suddenly reappears. Gone are his street clothes. He’s now donning a favorite Detroit Red Wings sweatshirt and a sharp-looking black chapeau. And a game face. His time has come.

The Detroit Curling Club has been throwing stones since 1840, making it one of the oldest curling clubs in the United States. It is now located in Ferndale. You can find out more at detroitcurlingclub.com. Michigan was also home to the United States’ very first curling club, organized in Orchard Lake in 1831. Above text by Lou Blouin. Photos by Emily Bingham and Lou Blouin.

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