SPORTS

Curling: The Sport That'll Knock Your Rocks Off



Despite play that elicits passionate screams of “Hurry Hard…h-a-r-der!….harder!…faster!,” it has taken almost an ice age for curling to get traditional sports fans’ rocks off. Seducing the uninitiated to the 500-year-old sport—including fans of bowling, billiards and other precision-games—requires Sphinx-like patience. The game to many at first, second and even third glance appears to be a glacially-paced Frankenstein-esque amalgam of frozen shuffleboard, croquet and obsessive-compulsive housekeeping.

“You look at the rings and immediately think it’s like darts [where the bullseye is worth a certain amount of points and each ring has a value attributed to it]. You have to explain that it’s closest to the centre that scores the points no matter how many rocks a team has got in the house,” explains TSN’s Vic Rauter who has anchored the network’s curling coverage for over twenty years.

But since curling graduated to full medal status at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, that Kilimanjaro steep learning curve is being leveled into a far less imposing foothill. We’re just another Brad Gushue, Colleen Jones or Anette Norberg away from it being reduced to a mere speed bump. Today with Vancouver 2010 on the horizon, the sport which was supposed to have one foot perpetually stuck in an icy grave, has been reborn as a bonspieling bon vivant.

“The perception of the game even in countries like Sweden and Norway used to be ‘what the hell is this?’ But then they come back with gold medals that add to their totals, they are not winning any more in the sports that they are supposed to, and all of a sudden their eyes are being opened up, ” says Rauter.

ROMANCED BY STONES

The rise of the non-curler curling fan is a key catalyst to curling’s long overdue coming of age. It is a relatively new phenomenon, one that continues to gain traction as the sports’ popularity surges. The swelling ranks of curling’s equivalent of armchair quarterbacks are men and women who’ve never even attempted to push off from a hack but still tune in to curling coverage regularly because they are mesmerized by the geometry of the game and the awesome creativity curlers employ while coaxing rocks into ricochet and carom off each other to their fancy.

As Paul Gross’ Cutter character mediates over a rock filled with his dead coach’s ashes in the seminal curling classic Men With Brooms: “It's forty-two pounds of polished granite, a bevelled underbelly and a handle a human being can hold. And it may have no practical purpose in and of itself but it is a repository of human possibility and if it’s handled just right, it will exact a kind of poetry.”

But what exactly is curling’s poetry?
“It starts off right with the throw and that long slide,” says Rauter. “Then there is that delicate release, and the middle part, the brushing, all the hectic activity of that. And of course the shot. Whether it be a cold draw or it becomes that takeout or hit and roll,” posits Rauter.

Even before you grasp curling’s unique language and learn to tell the difference between an “in-off” and a “wick and roll” you can still appreciate the mastery of the stones on display. “What Curling broadcasting has been able to do unlike other sports is take the viewer right inside the game” continues Rauter. You are sitting at home and suddenly you are right in that foursome talking about that shot and you’re listening to them say ‘we want to play this’. Other sports have mics on players whether it be a hockey or football game but they never take you in live,” says Rauter.

SHOTS THAT ROCK

One stereotype surrounding curling that just won’t croak is that the sports pulse-calming action works as well as Ambien. But if catching zz’s are what you want to do flip the channel because curling is not without its hypodermic moments. When a game is down to the wire and the target area has become such a cluttered maze of granite rocks that you need Google Maps to find your way to the button, many times gasp-worthy miracles are performed.

Manitoba skip Jennifer Jones was faced with such a predicament a couple years back in the final game of the Tournament of Hearts. With one rock to go in the tournament she found herself trailing by two points to Ontario’s Jenn Hanna who was sitting pretty with a well guarded stone on the button. Rather then accept defeat and succumb to the desperation of the situation, Jones went ahead and unleashed a perfectly executed prayer. Her rocket of a shot rebounded off an Ontario stone outside of the target area and proceeded to slide onwards at a perfect angle to collide and takeout Hanna’s button rock. With three other Manitoba stones in the house, the Hail Mary shot was good for four points and the championship. Now if that’s not coming through in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and the bases loaded I don’t know what is.

We’re currently on the cusp of a brand new curling cycle as both men’s and women’s rinks tweak and refine their lineups as they gear up to qualify for the Olympic trials. To earn an automatic spot in the 16 team pool that will face-off in the 2009 Canadian Olympic Curling Trials women’s rinks will have to win a Tournament of Hearts, Canada Cup, or Player’s Championship in 2007, 2008, or 2009. Men’s rinks similarly need a win in either a Brier, a Canada Cup, or a Player’s championship in one of the next three years to secure a berth in the trials. The CTRS (Canadian Team Ranking System) leaders in 06-07, 07-08, and 08-09 also are guaranteed a spot. The remaining available spots are awarded to subsequent CTRS leaders over the three-year time frame using a formula that gives points accrued nearer to 2009 a heavier weight.

An edited Version of this Story Ran in the February Issue of Bell T.V. Magazine

Copyright © Mike Dojc 2007

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