new sports

One Year of Curling

About six months ago, I wrote about my baby-step foray into the fascinating sport of curling. (No really, it’s a sport. We are athletes. It doesn’t matter that it ends with the winner buying beer for the loser.) I’ve continued with it and just passed the one-year anniversary of my Learn-to-Curl workshop. In fact, there was another Learn-to-Curl in February of this year, and at this one, I had fully graduated from student to teacher. I’ve continued to learn about the sport (okay, fine, “activity”) as I’ve grown from fresh-faced newbie to… um, not grizzled old vet… pock-marked adolescent? Sure, let’s go with that.

When I last checked in, I had just finished my first bonspiel, a weekend-long tournament, where I had curled next to Olympians. We had won our first match in the loser’s bracket before losing the last two game, missing out on the coveted “Travolta Cup” by one win. The Travolta Cup is a Red Solo Cup atop a pedestal of four VHS boxes of Travolta movies that gets passed around the four California bonspiels every summer. Much like the Stanley Cup, the winning team gets to write their names on the Cup. This year: that Cup will be ours!

Since then, I suffered through a horrible fall season, causing me to put together my own team of noobs for the winter/spring season. All of these things, both on and off the ice, has inspired a few more a-ha’s, which leads me to:

What I’ve learned about curling in my second six months.

  1. You can always watch curling.

Much like all the writing websites and resources I discovered when I went down that particular rabbit hole, joining the curling community in this day of internet streaming made me realize how much competitive curling is online. Gone are the days of being relegated to NBC’s seventh network once every four years. Much to the chagrin of my wife.

For instance, the World Women’s Championships have been held in Japan over the past week. They are being broadcast on World Curling’s YouTube channel, except for when NBC’s Universal Sports Network is streaming it on their own website. Or TSN, Canada’s equivalent of ESPN, broadcasts the Canadian team, and a recent deal allows espn3.com to mirror any TSN Canadian curling broadcast, so I can choose which country’s team to watch. Spoiler Alert: Canadians are better. To get to the World Championships, both the United States and Canada had their own tournaments a few weeks ago.  All broadcast on espn3.com or usacurl.org. Prior to that, each Canadian province held its own tournament to determine who went to Nationals. Not all of these were streamed, a surprising number of them could still be found.  I’m not ashamed to say I watched the Nova Scotian semi-final.

The men have been going through a similar journey, so I can only assume the World Championships will be coming to an internet site near you soon.  Add in the Juniors, the colleges, the Seniors, and I can pretty much find live curling any day I want. And if I can’t, there’s always old matches on YouTube. It’s not like I already know who won the Scotties matchup between Val Sweeting and Rachel Homan in 2012.

But even when the professionals aren’t engaging in some world  tourney, it’s still not hard to find something streaming live. The Coyotes Curling club in Arizona (yes, Arizona) holds a number of bonspiels every yer, and they stream all of them. TESN.com appears to stream league matches from many eastern and Midwestern states.  All it takes is some dedicated ice and a webcam on their part, and a little bit of research on mine.

  1. Watching the professionals isn’t always a good thing.

I start out watching with the best of intentions. I want to see what sorts of shots the skips call, and I want to see how the very best deliver the rock. Plus when they call the sweepers on and off. One of the nice things about curling broadcasts is that you can often hear the curlers discuss their strategy. You never hear a Tom Brady monologue about progressing through his wide receivers. No catcher is miked up to say he thinks the batter will swing at a low-and-away curveball. But in curling, especially in the last two shots per team, they talk about what they’re going to try to do.

Me and my team? We don’t hit our shots with the 85% accuracy the pros do. Usually our strategy is “throw it in this general area and hope that you don’t knock the other team’s rocks closer to the button.” Whenever I start watching the good curlers, I keep that in mind. “Yeah, There’s no way anyone I know could reliably thread that needle, so I would’ve gone for the outside shot.” But after binge watching on Saturday, I show up to the sheet on Sunday and call ridiculous shots.

It happens to us all. I got in the hack a few weeks ago and my skip called for me to knock the opponent’s stone out then have my stone roll in the opposite direction just enough to go behind a guard stone. The pros do that shit all the time, but at my level we’re concerned with hitting the target, not the precise force and trajectory to influence what happens after it hits. All I could do was look at my sweepers and say, “Does he know there’s no way in hell I’m hitting that?”

  1. Many people don’t know how good they are.

And it’s not always because we’ve just been watching Mike McEwen do shit like this.

No, some people just think they can thread the needle on a whim. And it’s easy to see why. The game isn’t difficult. There are only three things you have to do: throw the rock the correct distance, in the correct direction, and with the correct spin. Anbody who has been curling for more than a month has done that at least once.

But that “correct distance” thing is a matter of hitting a four foot window from 140 feet away. And the right direction might only be an inch or two wider than the stone, to say nothing of the amount of the curl. Imagine how many field goal kickers would get the three points if the uprights were only two feet wide.

The team I was on in the fall league had two players that felt they could not miss. The lesser experienced of the two demanded to be vice-skip, shooting third, and swore she was best at take-outs (knocking the other team’s rocks out of play). She hit less than half of them. Could I do better? Maybe or maybe not. But I wouldn’t be bragging about this alleged ability unless I could at least get a D-. She also would only sweep from one side and chastised me whenever I swept closer to the stone than she. However, when the skip said to start sweeping, I would always have my broom in position, while she would take two or three steps before her broom was on the ice. Hence I would end up closer to the stone than her.

The skip was even more sure of himself. I constantly wondered why he was calling certain shots. Later in the season, after the vice-skip stopped showing up to games, I viced once. The vice acts as the target for the final two shots when the skip is throwing, so I was finally able to see some of his thought process. Sure enough, he assumed he could throw that correct weight and correct distance every single time. So when he had been calling certain shots from me earlier, it was because he assumed he could knock out two opponent stones or raise two of ours.

“Are you sure you want me to put the broom here?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s the right shot because it’ll knock theirs back and we’ll score three points.”

“But if we came in on the open side, we’d at least score one instead of giving them two,” I offered.

“I’m pretty sure I can hit it if you put the broom here.”

“That’s what you said the last time.”

“I’ll hit it this time,” he promised.

He didn’t. Did I mention we only had one win?

  1. The better you get, the more frustrating it becomes.

I’m now fully capable of hitting most shots laid before me. The right distance, direction, and spin? I can nail all three of them about a quarter of the time. And well over half the time, I can at least get close enough to do some damage.

A few weeks ago, taking my penultimate shot as skip, I went around two guards and knocked the opponent’s stone off of the button to sit one point.  The opponent used his final shot to block up the hole I had just gone through, but there was still a little opening. My vice and I decided to try to throw the same shot I did the time before, just at a smaller gap this time. And you know what? I hit it. Precisely. Nothing feels as good as watching my stone hit that gap and curl out of view headed for an extra point.

Then the next end came and I couldn’t hit shit. The first shot doesn’t even make it across the hog line and the next one hits one of our own stones out.  It was like following up a bowling turkey with a couple of gutter balls.

It’s not just me. I was vicing and our skip was hitting every obscure shot I was calling. Then we’re faced with one opponent rock inside a ring of four of ours. All we have to do is knock theirs out and we’ll score four or five. His first shot was too far to the left, so I adjusted the broom and wouldn’t you know, the next shot he’s too far to the right.

I’ve heard golf is similar to this. Although in theory you’re competing against the other people or teams, you’re really competing against yourself. Against the shot you know you can make. Sometimes I know as soon as I leave the hack that it’ll be a bad shot. Sometimes it leaves my hand and I think, “oh yeah, I nailed it.” Most of the time I sit there and watch it slide down the ice, wondering what in the hell it’s going to do.

  1. Chemistry matters as much as talent.

I started this journey at the same time as a friend of mine, and we have played on each other’s team ever since. Both of us loved the first team we were on (shocking, since we went undefeated) and were not fans of our second team. But it wasn’t just the losses. We never really felt on the same wavelength as the other two member of our team. In fact, when the two of them stopped showing up for the last three or four games, we weren’t all that upset. Except for the fact that we had to forfeit. In a forfeit, we still play the game, because there are always people willing to substitute. The first time it was just the two of us, we were playing against a team that also only had two players show up, so we thought the game would count. In that game, I decided to skip, my friend viced, and we had two subs. All of a sudden, it was like we were back in the undefeated season. I was calling a strategy that he understood. We were  paying attention to how both teams played and pulling points whenever we could. It went unspoken until the three-quarter mark, when we were up by one with a few ends left to play, just how much this game meant to the two of us.

“This feels good,” I said, as we watched the other team deliver its stone.

“Yeah,” he responded. “It’s nice not having the two know-it-alls calling stupid shots.”

“I really want to fucking win.”

“Let’s do it. To prove it wasn’t us sucking this whole season.”

We won, even if it didn’t count in the standings.  The beer we paid for tasted sweet.

That conversation cemented what we already knew. Playing with people we liked, and people that communicated throughout the game, was as important as winning. We formed a team with two others in a similar boat. We’re not supposed to form our own teams in the “B league,” but they allowed it since we’ve all been playing less than a year, so it’s not like we were creating an uber-team to screw the level of competition.

We even tried a crazy idea of switching what position we played every week. Eventually we’ll pick what we prefer or are best at. But in the meantime, we’ll learn each other’s tendencies and what the general team strategies. So if I’m lead, I’ll know what the skip is trying to accomplish with his call, and vice versa. Since we’re all still learning the game, we want to learn it all.

And the result? Three wins and three losses, in a tie for third place. Not bad. Are we going to Pyongyang? No. But there are a few 5-and-under tourneys that we might have a shot at in the next three years.

Even better, after every game, we split a pitcher of beer (half of them bought by us, half by our opponents), talk about how the game went and what strategies we’ll use next week when we have a different order. Something that never happened with my last team.

  1. Curlers are as friendly as they are competitive.

The post-match beer is only part of it. In a year of curling, I’ve only run into a handful of people that weren’t overly friendly. If you make a good shot, it’s likely to be the person on the other team who congratulates you first.  If I’m skipping against an experienced skip, I can ask advice, both before and after a shot. I’ve even had one or two say, “They need to sweep that,” then apologize afterward for “interrupting” me, even though their advice put their own team in a worse position. In a pick-up game, we didn’t have enough sweepers, so we swept for our opponents.

Little things make it feel like a family. When someone shows up with shoes for the first time, everybody stops to watch the first delivery with the new shoes. It is often hilarious because those shoes do NOT work the same way as the sliders. It’s like back to square one. Recently I was looking to buy my own broom, and everyone was perfectly willing to let me use theirs for an end, trading with me for the crappy broom-equivalent of bowling alley rental shoes.

None of this is to say we don’t want to win.  We do, but we want the overall level of competition to improve. We don’t want to beat a subpar team, we want that team to get better, then still beat them.

What we want is what we say at the beginning and end of every match: Good Curling.

The Roaring Game

AKA My Introduction to “Good Curling.”

The last few Winter Olympics, I’ve become more interested in curling. You may have seen it buried on USA Network or CNBC After Dark or whatever the 75th network down the NBC depth chart is. It’s the one that looks like shuffleboard on ice with a bulls-eye at the end.

Oh yeah, it also has brooms.

I would watch these games with fascination. What the hell were they doing? Why were they yelling so much? And who the hell sweeps ice? By the time the Vancouver Olympics rolled around, I was starting to understand the basic scoring and resulting strategy. My Italian grandpa had me playing bocce ball since the age of five, so it was easy to convert – one point for every stone of yours that is closer than your opponent’s closest stone.  When Sochi rolled around, I found myself armchair quarterbacking – “Why don’t they just put the stone right there? That seems simple enough.”

I started to wonder how one gets into this crazy Scottish/Canadian creation? The fact that most of the American Olympians hailed from Wisconsin and Minnesota made me assume I’d never find out. But boy, if I ever found myself in a place with tundra as the dominant vegetation, I’d have to check it out. I mean, the Olympians don’t look all that fit, they’re not flying at 50 MPH on ice skates, they’re not cross-country skiing. They’re pushing a little rock and walking alongside it to the other end. I’ve played bocce. I’ve bowled. I’ve even swept a floor once or twice in my life. I know I’m the kid that always got stuck in right field for Little League, but seriously, how hard can curling be?

Turns out, in a few ways I was right. And in many more, I was wrong.

It’s not that difficult to find or get started in a curling club. There are actually six clubs in California alone, and others in such frigid locales as Las Vegas and Phoenix. It’s a sport that most people without knee or hip problems can probably learn and play with some ability after a few hours. But mastery? That takes much more.

Most start with a Learn to Curl class.  It starts with a 20-30 minute preview of how the game works, for those rare few who hadn’t been DVR’ing the Sochi matches from 2:00 AM. Then it goes out onto the ice rink to practice setting up and delivering the stone.

It was at this point, long before I had actually set up “in the hack,” that I realized my early assumptions were a bit off.  The distance to the target is way farther than it looks on TV. I figured it would be about the length of a bowling lane, but it’s double that. It more or less runs the length from one hockey face-off circle to the other.

After a half hour or so of practicing delivery without the rock, then with the rock but without letting go, and of course plenty of sweeping, we finally got to make a legitimate curling shot. I crouched myself down into the hack and looked toward that distant target. You can’t even see the bulls-eye, since it is on the ground. Instead, a person stands at the other end and gives you a target. In this Learn to Curl class, the target was laid down by the instructor.  Go ahead, he was showing me, shoot for the button (that’s the middle of “the house,” or bulls-eye area). I reared back, focusing on the target and remembering all thirty minutes of form practice, and let it fly.

My first shot made it just about to mid-ice. Hey, in my defense, had this been as long as a bowling lane, like I originally thought, that would have been dead on.  It took me three more throws before I could get a stone past the “hog line,” the minimum possible distance for stone to be in play. The hog line is a little bit beyond the blue line in hockey, so I had increased my throw by maybe fifty percent, but the hog line is also still a good twenty feet from the house.

With a half-hour or so to go in our two hour training, and still with only a couple of legal shots to my name, they wanted us to “play a couple of ends to see what that’s like.” We only managed to get in two ends (an end is the equivalent of a baseball inning), and each player throws two stones per end, so I only managed to throw four shots. This is the most common complaint about Learn to Curl classes – by the time you put it all together, you only get to take a handful of real shots. But that’s how they keep you coming back for more, I suppose.

And that’s how it happened to me. My final shot, with some good sweeping by my teammates (more on that in a moment) landed directly on the button.

Oh, Damn! I thought to myself. First time out and I hit the hardest shot in curling? Maybe it’s too late for #Sochi2014, but #Pyongyang2018? Here I come.

Turns out hitting the button with no other stones blocking the way isn’t really all that hard. Maybe not as easy as a free-throw in basketball, but not all that much harder. Maybe like an undefended three-pointer.

“You know what we call that?” another instructor asked when I made a similar shot at a later practice. “A target.”

So here I am, some six months later, having gone through two Learn to Curls, two “advanced trainings” (basically Learn to Curl without the first hour), a six-game league, and a bonspiel. In the league, they paired newbies with veterans, and I benefited from this arrangement to the tune of an undefeated 7-0 (counting the playoffs). In the “bonspiel” (what curlers call their weekend-long tournaments), I played one sheet over from two women who had four Olympic appearances between them. Veterans want newbies nowhere near them at a bonspiel, so we fielded a team where my ten times curling was tied for the most. From both of these experiences, I learned more about how simple, and yet how difficult, this game can be.

Each player on the team throws two rocks in a row, interspersed with the other team.  Each player should, then, have a different forte or strategy. During our season, I was the lead in all but one of the games.  The lead’s job is to intentionally throw the rock short of the house.  These “guards” can either be curled behind or raised into the scoring area later. If the lead were to throw that definitive button shot, like I had in the Learn to Curl, it would likely be knocked right out by the other team, and then we’re either back to square one or else the other team is now in a better position. I’ve actually had a team knock my own rock out of the way, then have their stone ricochet behind a guard, making it very difficult to knock out.

The strategy for the second and third team members (throwing rocks 3-6) varies depending on what the play area looks like after the two leads throw those first four stones. And, at least at the level I usually play, those first four have done some kooky, crazy things.  Rare is the game where there are four perfectly placed guards, or even three guards with a well-placed point behind them. The two basic shots for them  are a takeout, which is exactly what it sounds like, or a draw, which is an attempt to score a point closer to the button than the other team’s stones. The one game I did not play lead was quite an adjustment, as I was trying to throw harder than the lead throws.

Then there is the skip, the captain of the team, who spends the first six shots providing the target at the far end of the sheet before taking the team’s final two shots. I skipped during the bonspiel because of my huge experience advantage of having curled one more time than the rest of my team. Skipping is a very lonely life. All the other curlers hang out with each other, walk back and forth while sweeping, even chitchat with the opposition. The skip stands at the far end, calculating and permutating  the constantly changing game. And particularly with a team of newbies, he must think of what might happen if (nay, when) the shot is missed. What is Plan B? Or Plan G? Or what is the worst possible thing that can happen with this shot?

Then, when the skip gets in the hack to take those final shots, the “what’s the worst that can happen” strategy is much more noticeable. I can’t count the number of times my final shot knocked a couple of my opponent’s stones into the house, raising their score from two to four. The lead is like the kickoff return guy. Can a good kickoff return help the drive? Absolutely. Can he fumble or lose ground? Sure. But most of the time, he’s not going to affect the game much. Set up a guard or return the ball to the 25 and the other players on the team are in position to do their thing. When you’re skipping, you’ve become the kicker attempting a 50-yard field goal to tie or win the game. You’re Dennis Eckersley facing Kirk Gibson. Except I was never Dennis Eckersley. At my best, I was in Byung Hyun Kim territory. I can’t count the number of times I made the long walk toward the hack only to tell my teammates, “Well, if I can draw around those five stones with a perfect button shot, we might be able to salvage one point.”

Why does the skip tell his teammates what he’s aiming for? Because they are the sweepers. When someone first watches curling, the first question is usually about sweeping. What is the purpose of it  and does it really make much of a difference? The simple answer is yes, sweeping matters. In my league team, the other rookie and I didn’t always hit our shots, but we were two of the stronger sweepers.  Our ability to salvage a short shot into a guard, or to raise a guard into the house, made us partly responsible for some of that undefeated season.

The curling ice is not clean like in hockey.  No glassy Zambonied surface here.  Instead, the ice is “pebbled” by tiny droplets of water, delivered like an exterminator spraying for bugs.  The pebbles do two things to the stone – slow it down and cause it to curl.  Sweeping flattens out those pebbles for a short time, allowing the stone to both go farther and straighter.  Sometimes the stone is light and you need to sweep like hell just to get it over the hog line.  Sometimes you need to sweep it straight until it gets past a guard, then you stop to let it curl behind the guard.  What happens if you want it to go farther but also curl? Or if you want it to go straight but slower? Well, then you’re screwed and that’s when everybody is quickly assessing plan B. It might be better to keep it straight so that it misses everything instead of curling into and raising the other team’s guard into the house. If you ever watch curling and hear them alternate between on and off, usually they’re trying to make it go further but curl. Or the skip might say “off, off, off,” then all of a sudden, scream “Yes, Hard, yes.” That means the stone finally curled in the right direction and now it needs to be swept as far as possible. Or it could also be an indecisive skipper, but that’s not likely at the level that is on TV. Plus the indecisive skip will say things like “Off. Shit, no. On. I mean… shit… Hard, I guess?”

The one thing that sweepers can’t do, that nobody can do once the stone leavers your hand, is to slow it down. Imagine if you were bowling and instead of throwing your ball through the pins, you had to make it stop right at the five pin. That’s the finesse part of curling, and that (plus the other team getting in your way) is really what makes it difficult. After the first few throws in a Learn to Curl, pretty much anybody can throw the stone hard enough to get through the house. So what’s constantly on your mind as you throw is to try to “take a little off.” Better to be a little short and have the sweepers get it where it needs to go than to send a meaningless stone flying through into the hockey goal. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been worried about it going too far and end up hogging the stone. And then on the next throw, I over-compensate and sail right through the house.

So while I’m far from a grizzled veteran, I guess I’m no longer a raw rookie. In some ways, my initial thoughts were accurate. It’s a game that can be learned quickly. And after three or four shots, most players can at least line up and play a game. And most of the leagues I’ve encountered or heard of have spots for these new players, and these new players can be competitive. However, there’s also an upper level of competition that takes years to reach. The Olympians that were on the same ice as me never called shots with Plan B or C in mind. They make their shots.

Although sometimes I pity their accuracy – there’s nothing as entertaining as watching an awesome cascade of unintended ricochets that steal some points. In the one game we won in the bonspiel, we were up by three and were playing a very conservative final end. On the other team’s final shot, we had one point on an outer ring, and there were about ten stones of various colors clogging up the area in front of the house. With no other option, she threw a stone at full force up the middle, knocking three of her stones in, one of which knocked mine out. We then had to take one final shot each on an empty sheet, with the closest to the button winning the game. That’s curling for you.

And if you don’t score any points? Still no big thing. After the game comes broomstacking, when  you shake hands, say “good curling,” and grab a drink. Oh, did I mention the winning team buys drinks for the losing team? So that 1-5 record my Team o’ Rookies compiled at the Bonspiel? Hell, we pretty much made our entrance fee back in free libations.

Nothing beats sitting around with the team you just spent two hours competing against and re-hashing the game. Man, I can’t believe you missed that shot by an inch. Did you see when that stone lost its handle? Why’d you call for that one shot? Do you think I called off the sweepers too soon?

                 Followed by the line repeated by curlers everywhere.

“If it was easy, they’d call it hockey.”