Curling is indelibly connected to Winnipeg for me. As noted in an earlier post, Doug Bruce, Greg Hudalla, and I decided that if we were going to go to Winnipeg, we’d better go for the Curling tournament. In Curling parlance, a tournament is called a “bonspiel.” Our target was to play in the bonspiel in Winnipeg, so we first had to learn how to play. We enlisted a fellow Rotary Club member, Al Zdrazil, to play. His influence on us was instrumental. He was the only person on the team who had ever curled before, so he was our mentor.
The start was not pretty. Al signed us up for a league at the Saint Paul Curling Club. We played once per week for our first season. I think we started in November, so we were able to get a few games under our belt prior to the Winnipeg Bonspiel in February. Al was a great teacher and was our team’s “Skip.” The Skip directs the play, tells us when and how to sweep, and always throws the last stones. A good Skip can make even an awful team somewhat competitive. Al was that for us, but we still lost way more games than we won.
That first year was probably hilarious for others – and a severe test of patience for Al. Unlike most experienced curlers, we all seemed to have a hard time just walking on the ice! I know I took more than my share of spills. Al assigned me as the “third.” That meant that I threw third and stood behind the ice target on the far end of the curling rink when the Skip threw. Greg and Doug threw first and second, respectively. I swept the ice for the first two throws, along with the person who was not currently throwing.
In a sense, curling is a lot like shuffleboard, but just with a whole lot more strategy involved. The game consists of four players per side, who each throw two stones toward an ice target at the opposite end of the rink. The object is to get maximum points by landing stones closest to the middle of the center of the bullseye in the “house.” Each time play goes from one end to the other the score is tallied before play returns back the other way. Each leg down is called, not surprisingly, an “end.” Teams alternate throws and whichever team threw the second stone also throws the last stone, so that team clearly has the advantage. The first advantage is determined by a coin flip at the beginning of the match. The winner of the previous end always throws last in the next end. Teams generally play 10 ends, except for blowouts, where the match can end early. For us, we were subject to that mercy rule more often than not.
Throwing stones is truly and art. This part of the game is a bit more like bowling than shuffleboard. The thrower starts with on foot on a sort of starting block called a “hack.” This is quite necessary in order to get the traction to propel a 40+ pound granite curling stone. All players wear special shoes or a pull-on “slider” on one foot. This allows the non-push-off foot to glide along the ice before the thrower releases the stone. A good curler has the ability to get most throws within the “house.” Like bowling, there are out of bounds areas, like gutters. If a stone hits a side-wall, it is out of play. It also must get beyond a “hog line”that is thirty-three feet from the hack and past the hog line on the other end of the rink. Any stone that falls outside of those boundaries must be removed.
There is quite a bit of strategy involved in the game. Not only does a curler need to be able to throw stones within the house – ideally to the “button” in the very center of the twelve-foot target – but they also must consider guarding stones in the house, lest they be knocked out by the opponent. Good curlers will often remove stone after stone, so it could easily come down to the last throw by the skip with the advantage. As a result, there is a lot of consideration to leaving guarding stones in front of the house. That leads to the stronger curlers (generally the third and the skip) having to navigate a very small path into the house.
I enjoyed the strategy and likened it to chess on ice. I also greatly enjoyed the collegiality of the game. Curling is considered a gentleman’s game. No offense to my female readers, but not sure if there is a modern term for this. Like golf, there are unwritten rules about sportsmanship. Cheating, arguing, or berating the other team are forbidden and greatly frowned upon. The two Skips determine the score by agreement at the conclusion of each end. The loser of each match graciously shakes hands with the winner – and stays on the rink to clean the ice.
Here comes one of the best parts: every rink I’ve ever curled at (including the Saint Paul Curling Club) has an upstairs or adjacent clubroom with large tables to accommodate all eight players. The opposing teams gather after the match at the same table to share a few pitchers of beer (or Scotch!), talk through the game, watch the next round of games, or just shoot the bull. Of course, the losers pay!
By the time we reached Winnipeg that first February, we were a somewhat seasoned team. At least we were very good at cleaning the ice and buying the beer! Though we’d been through most of a season at the Saint Paul Curling Club, we were in no way prepared for our Winnipeg experience. First, the Saint Paul Curling Club, though a fine and well-established club, is in a rather nondescript building in what was at the time a somewhat depressed neighborhood of the city (I must note that both the neighborhood and the club have considerably improved their respective curb appeals!). The Granite Curling Club in Winnipeg is a magnificent edifice that is known as the mother of curling in Western Canada. The Tudor-framed clubhouse, with it’s arching rink to the rear, is the Province of Manitoba’s oldest curling institution and one of the oldest sporting groups in the province. The building is now considered a Heritage Building by the City of Winnipeg.
The second eye-opener for us was the competitiveness of the play. Curling in Canada is like football in Texas. On local television, it is not uncommon to have three separate stations, all with different curling events on air at the same time. Everyone watches and plays and even a novice Canadian was seemingly miles (or should I say kilometers?) above our level! Though the Rotary Goodwill Conference brought a good cross-section of North Americans to the bonspiel, the Canadians were clearly there to defend their turf – especially from their fellow Americans coming from South of the border!
One interesting tidbit I can share is an occasion several years later that seemed to defy the rules of both curling and Rotary. Surprisingly, our team of amateurs ended up in the final match. We were shocked to find that our opponent showed up with a ringer on their team. Someone akin to a professional curler showed up to replace their weakest curler (some strange malady had apparently stricken him). Yes, he was a Rotarian, but it just didn’t seem fair. We felt that the Canadian team was probably strong enough to beat us without the ringer, so it seemed just a bit of a overkill. We thought this was an affront to both the collegial unwritten “gentlemen” rules of curling and Rotary’s Four Way Test. We objected on those grounds, but our Canadian hosts quickly denied the appeal. After a somewhat competitive game, the the Winnipeg Goodwill trophy stayed in Canada.
I look back to the various lessons of curling with fondness. I have always been quite competitive. One of the reasons I have not been able to golf well was my Uber competitiveness. I think curling helped cure that, albeit only slightly. I loved the collegiality and professional demeanor required in curling. Al Zdrazil always insisted and ensured that we keep our cool. I’ve been able to take that to other endeavors, even the golf course, and think I am for the most part a better – and friendlier – competitor. Similarly, curling mandates the after-match camaraderie. The certainly helps to keep civility. We laugh and joke together to embrace our common humanity – as respected competitors. If we could only ensure that same civility in other endeavors of our society, we would live in a better world.