I admit it…I am what’s known as a “couch curler”…I have watched and enjoyed curling every winter for the last 30 years or so (I can’t play because of my bad knees). It all started when I was about eighteen…I was just coming off my Wayne Gretzky crush, when I stumbled on a Junior Curling event on TV. It was 1980, and skip John Kawaja from Northern Ontario won it all. He was gorgeous (Wayne who?)!
John played Third for Ed Werenich's winning 1983 Brier Team...that's John second from the right...photo by Doug Shanks, Canadian Press
Having been made aware of my love for a sport that causes many Americans to scratch their heads and ask “What’s that?”, my friend Todd urged me to do a piece on curling: “Wendy…you really, really, really need to post something about the sport of curling.” The Brier (the Canadian national men’s tournament – the Super Bowl of curling) was just played this past weekend, and I like my readers to be happy, so…here goes…I present “Couch Curling for Dummies”, a fun guide which will allow you to impress your friends with your vast knowledge of a sport that most people south of the 49th Parallel don’t know exists!
The Game Has Ends and is Called a Draw Even When the Score Isn’t Tied
A traditional curling match or draw has ten ends, which aren’t “endings”, but sections of the game, like innings in baseball or quarters in football (a match can be shorter than ten ends, if one team is getting their butts kicked and forfeits!). Each team delivers eight stones for each end. The ends themselves aren’t timed individually, but each team has 73 minutes to throw their stones during the regular game, and the option of taking two 60-second timeouts. If extra ends are required, they get an extra 10 minutes and one timeout per end to play.
The Team Has Ends
Each curling team or rink has afront end: the lead and the second. The lead delivers his two stones, followed by the second, who throws his two. These folks are the main sweepers for the team, usually the muscles of the outfit. The team’s back end is where the brains are, the third (or mate, usually only in the platonic sense) and the skip. The third plays after the second, and offers advice to the skip about team strategy. The third also sweeps when the lead and the second throw their stones. The skip is the boss, and is usually the best player on the team (he almost never sweeps, unless a stone needs “extra help” to get where they want it to go!). He calls the shots…skips need to be both smart and good yellers (see “What the Skip Yells” below). People who curl nearly always have day jobs…curling doesn’t pay the big bucks like hockey, and players usually travel on their own dime! Curlers are people you’d run into when you’re getting groceries or picking up your kids at school. I’ve never heard of a curler using “performance-enhancing” drugs.
The Game is Played on a Sheet With Houses and Hacks at Each End
The sheet is a carefully-prepared patch of ice about 150 feet long by 16.5 feet wide. Small droplets of water are intentionally sprayed on the ice that cause irregularities on the surface (pebble), allowing the rocks to curl (travel in a curved fashion rather than a straight line). At each end of the sheet, there are three concentric rings, a red one measuring 4′, surrounded by a white one measuring 8′, inside a blue one measuring 12′…these are the houses, or the targets that the players are shooting for. In the middle of the house is the button, a one-foot circle which is the bullseye…stones of the same colour closest to the button at the conclusion of an end will score (see “How To Score Points”). Twelve feet behind each button are the hacks, two rubber-lined holes 3″ from the centre line which give the thrower something to push against with his foot when delivering the throw (he would choose the appropriate hole based on which foot he pushes with). There are also horizontal lines on the sheet: the near hog line is closest to the hack…the player must let go of his rock before the stone touches the near hog line, and the rock must cross the far hog line (without crossing the back line or touching the sides) to be in play. The T-line goes through the middle of the house, and is the point where the front end has to stop sweeping once the rock touches it. Only the skip can sweep the rock after it’s crossed the T-line, and this is also the only point at which the other team can sweep a rock.
Curling sheet – CL: Centreline • HOL: Hogline • TL: Teeline • BL: Backline • HA: Hackline with Hacks • FGZ: Free Guard Zone (diagram from Wikipedia.org)
Everybody Has A Broom, Rocks, a Slider and a Gripper
Each team member carries a broom, which is really a long-handled brush used to balance when delivering a rock, clean the ice in front of a stone (sweeping lightly), and sweep a rock, which means really digging into the ice in front of a stone while it’s in motion to make it go faster and straighter (this is where the “muscle” comes in for the front end of the team). The rocks are 38 to 44 lb. polished chunks of granite fitted with coloured handles, usually either red or yellow in tournament play. A narrow 5″ ring on the bottom of the rock is the only part of the stone that actually touches the ice. Sliders are slipped over the toe of one shoe of the curlers on their sliding foot so that they can glide easily down the ice when delivering their shots. The other shoe is their gripper. Some curlers use curling gloves to grip the rock or the broom more easily. Players use stopwatches to track rock speed and make decisions about strategy.
Taking A Shot
To deliver a shot, a player crouches and places his gripper shoe in the hack with the stone in one hand (resting on the ice) and his broom in the other. Aiming toward the skip who is holding his broom where he wants the stone at the other end of the sheet, the player rests his own broom on the ice for balance as he pulls the stone back, then lunges smoothly out from the hack pushing the stone ahead while the slider foot is moved in front of the gripper foot, which trails behind.
The Canadian team taking a shot at the 2006 Olympics (photo by Bjarte Hetland)
Once the rock comes out of the shooter’s hand, it’s up to the sweepers to make sure it gets where it’s supposed to go…the skip tells them what to do.
Types of Shots
Making good shots in curling takes years and years of practice, as well as a steady hand. Good sweepers help too.
A draw shot is one that is simply sent into play without knocking another stone out. A freeze is where a stone is shot so that it lands as close as possible to another stone already in play, and makes it nearly impossible to take out. The draw and the freeze are the precision shots, because they travel much more slowly than the takeout shots, and are harder to control.
A takeout is one where the shooter is removing another stone in play by hitting it with his own: in a peel, the shooter hits the other stone hard enough that the shooter’s stone will also go out of play (if he wants to blank the end – see “How To Score Points”). A raise is where the shooter uses the delivered stone to bump another one forward, and a raise takeout is a shot in which the delivered stone bumps a second stone which in turn knocks a third stone out of play (also called a runback).
What the Skip Yells
1. “Hard” or “Hurry Hard“. Tells the sweepers to sweep harder and faster.
2. ”Off” or “Whoa”. Tells the sweepers to stop sweeping a rock, but not necessarily cleaning it.
3. ”Right Off“. Tells the sweepers not to sweep or clean a rock.
4. “Never“. This lets the sweepers know that the rock needs to curl and that they should stay off of it.
Note: These commands rarely work with children or if one is caught in a traffic jam.
How to Score Points – Slide Softly and Carry a Big Hammer
Points are scored after each end depending on how many rocks a team has closest to the button in the house without an opposing stone intermixed (one point for each rock)…with good players, it is rare to score more than 3 points in a given end (common scores are 1 or 2). The rock closest to the button is called the shot rock, while the next closest one is second shot, and so on. Only one team can score points in each end.
The team who delivers the last rock of the end is said to have the hammer - this is a huge advantage. Who has the hammer in the first end is usually determined by a coin toss…after that, whoever didn’t score in the preceding end has the hammer in the next one. If the end is blanked, the team who has the hammer keeps it for the next end. If a team manages to score in an end where they don’t have the hammer, it’s called a steal (no one is penalized in this case).
After the Game
Once a draw is finished, the players generally shake hands, gather up their stuff, and get off the ice. Later, they may stack the brooms, which means socializing with each other or their opponents, usually over a beer or two. They might also trade curling pins which are often collected by players and spectators alike, and displayed on sweaters, vests and hats.
Pin collectors Roger and Bob compare notes at this year's Brier...photo by Morris Lamont, London Free Press
The next time you’ve got three hours to kill on a winter weekend, flip on a curling game on TSN, and curl up on the couch with some popcorn! I’m looking forward to watching the PVR of The Brier tonight, even though I already know who won. I’ll be yelling “Hurry hard!” at Glen Howard’s Ontario team!