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Canada's Other Pastime Sweeps a Wide Swath

By Charles Trueheart
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 6, 1996; Page D1


Canadians bestride the world once more on the one playing surface they know better than anyone else: ice.

No, not hockey. Curling.

In this venerable pastime of winter peoples, polished pumpkin-shaped rocks are slid toward a target down a long sheet of ice smoothed by vigorous broom-sweeping. Bizarre and even comic as the game may seem to the uninitiated, many in Canada seriously regard curling as their true national sport.

Canadian curlers made believers of the foreign competition gathered last week in this grimy industrial city for the world curling championships. With awesome cool, Canada swept the tournament, besting men's and women's foursomes (called "rinks") from Scotland — curling's ancestral home — and 10 other countries, including the United States.

Such Canadian victories are becoming nearly ho-hum in their regularity. But this is no ordinary time for curling. The game will make its debut as an official sport of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

There, perhaps, the world's eyes will grow accustomed to this peculiar hybrid of hockey's ice and shuffleboard's court, of pool's caroming and archery's bull's-eye, of bobsledding's teamwork and croquet's vengeance. As for the assiduous brushwork that makes first-time spectators giggle, it has no known cousin in sport.

"It's a kind of winter golf," observed W.O. Mitchell, a revered Canadian folklorist and author of "The Black Bonspiel of Willie MacCrimmon," a story about a curler's pact with the Devil. "It's extremely, extremely mental." Many curlers compare it to chess.

Curlers can sound mystical. "It's a touch game," said Jim LeClair, a curling enthusiast from Brantford, Ontario. "It's about making the rock go smooth, and knowing when to let go."

For David Gravelle, another curler from the northern Ontario town of Penetanguishene, the Zen of curling is about "riding the pebble."

He was referring to the surface of a virgin sheet of curling ice, which is "pebbled" with tiny droplets of frozen water. The vigorous brushing of the ice in the path of the 40-pound rock heats and smooths the surface, adding 10 to 20 feet of distance to the slow-moving granite's travel. The smoothed surface also diminishes the rock's "curl," or slow curve, along the 14-by-138-foot sheet.

The old horsehair and hog's-hair brooms, once commandeered from kitchen closets for games on frozen ponds, are slowly giving way to synthetic brushes. Virtually all the stones for competitive curling are quarried from a premium lode of granite in Wales. The only other specialized equipment is the unmatching pair of shoes — a smooth-soled one for gliding, and a tractioned one for locomotion.

The object of the game is to end up with one or more stones closest to the "button," or bull's-eye, at the far end of the sheet. This is accomplished by deft "throwing" (sliding) and, more important, by guarding one's position near the button against "takeouts" (hits from your opponent's stones). The best games are decided by the final, sometimes dazzling multiple carom shots that knock apparent winners out of contention and leave new stones on or near the button.

The Canadians' prowess left an intimidating pall over some of their forthcoming Olympic competitors, especially among young curlers from Japan. One dejected observer visiting from Japan smiled shyly when asked about his country's curling potential in 1998. "We don't expect to win," he said.

"You've got to understand," said LeClair. "Just to win the provincials [tournaments in Canada], you've got to be really exceptional. You've had to curl against a lot of very good people." And the two Canadian national teams are the best of that lot.

Truth to tell, the world championships are a bit of an afterthought to the real curling season in Canada.

The winter-long ladder of competition takes the best foursomes from club-level "bonspiels," or matches, in tiny towns across the vast cold continent and propels them upward through competition in zones and regions to provincial championships. Then come the nationals — the Labatt Brier for men, and the Scott Tournament of Hearts for women.

Curling may be quaint, but not too quaint for corporate sponsorship. (The battle for global bragging rights is the Ford World Curling Championships.) This reflects the buying power of the million-plus Canadians said to curl and the many more who watch the sport on television.

To the glee of many curling boosters — and sour looks from hockey fans — one Saturday night last month more people reportedly watched the women's curling semifinals on TSN, Canada's version of ESPN, than watched the Toronto Maple Leafs play their longtime rivals, the Detroit Red Wings, on Canadian Broadcasting Corp. television.

Still, for all the global ambition and marketing hype, curling remains a sport of dedicated amateurs and a resolutely small-town phenomenon. In many crossroads communities on the vast Canadian prairie, the curling club is the social center, the only notable shape on the village landscape after the silo, the church, the gas station — and the hockey rink.

"If there's a sound that defines winter nights in [Saskatchewan] province's small, isolated hamlets, it's the rhythmic slap of corn brooms, the clack of the granite rocks against each other and the urgent, unintelligible commands of the team skip," or captain, reminisced Murray Campbell in the Globe and Mail newspaper.

People who curl are just "average Joes — they could have been in your science class," said Tina Koonings, who drove an hour from Toronto most nights last week to take in the world championships. "It's Canadiana — white Canadiana, but Canadiana."

"Hockey will be Canada's sport forever. But people get hurt playing hockey. Without your arm or your leg you can't do your job," said Gravelle, who in his spare time helps Ontario curling clubs attract newcomers to the sport. "Young couples especially want to be able to do something together," he added, noting that mixed curling is the fastest-growing segment of the sport.

Curlers can be as committed as Kiwanians. For the week-long world tourney here, an astonishing 2,000 curling club members from southern Ontario volunteered some 80,000 person-hours as ushers, ticket takers, bartenders, hall monitors and such.

The social dimension of curling should not be underestimated — and echoes yet another sport: Canadians curl the way American bowlers do, or did — as families. Most of the curlers on the ice today started when they were about 10.

In some towns the curling club may be the only place with a liquor license. Drinking has long been the lubricant of the curling experience — before, after and even during play. That cozy atmosphere is replicated on the tournament circuit.

Joining an after-game throng in a 2,000-seat beer-and-cigarette zone in Hamilton's Copps Coliseum, Koonings described the process: "You'll get a bunch of other couples to reserve 10 rooms along a hall at a hotel for next year's Brier. You have a few pints, go down to the afternoon draw [match], go back up for a few more pints, and down again for the night draw. You don't go to the morning draws — ever," she said.

"It's a holiday," Koonings explained. "It's like an American tailgate party."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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