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The Varsity

The University of Toronto's
Student Newspaper Since 1880

Tracking the boom of the bonspiel

By Malcolm Johnston
Published: 10:00 am, 28 March 2006
Modified: 5 pm, 11 January 2012
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UPDATED

You’re a sixteenth-century European wandering along the edge of a frozen lake. You pick up a rock and toss it thoughtlessly onto the ice. As it slides away, your brain starts to tinker. And just like that, you’ve invented the most boring sport in the world, curling.

Thanks a lot.

Or so I might have said some months back. Curling, the sport once thought the domain of only those with enough time and patience to actually endure a full game-retirees, generally-seems, strangely, poised to leave its outpost on the fringe of athletics and take up permanent residence among the most popular of sports.

If you must, blame it on the charms of Brad Gushue, who warmed the hearts of a midwinter nation when immediately after winning Olympic gold-the last rock had barely come to a halt-Brad called his Mom, Maureen, at home in Newfoundland, breaking into tears on camera. Maureen had been battling bowel cancer and was released from hospital the morning of the gold-medal match.

Surely, the combo of the team’s win in Torino and Gushue’s stirring story helped raise curling’s profile back home. But Canada was an underground hotbed of all things hurry hard long before the dimpled Newfoundlander came along.

Consider, for instance, that our proud nation is home to some 955,000 registered broom-toters, 94 per cent of the world’s total.

What’s even more baffling is that it’s not just those graying members of society who have gone curling crazy: the young seem to be in on it, too. A recent study by the Ontario Federation of Schools Athletic Association, governing body for high school sport, showed that interest in traditional sports like football and basketball is on the wane, while wrestling and track and field are almost completely off the radar.

And what has filled the void? You guessed it: fringe sports that include, among others, curling.

So, the question is, why would a young person, who has unfettered access to all things full-contact, fast-paced, and high-flying, and for whom osteoporosis is nothing more than an unpleasant word to spell, opt for what amounts to little more than slow-motion bowling?

I figured the best way to get to the bottom of the sudden sensation was to give it a try. So with notepad in one hand, broomstick in the other, I headed out to do some on-ice research.

Part of the allure, I quickly found out, lies in the game’s terminology, a language as colourful and descriptive as they come. Some of the terms are cute (“the button”), some tough (“the hammer,” “the guard”), some daring (“the steal,” “the hit and roll”), and some nasty (“the biter,” “the hack”).

The ice can be keen or heavy, slick or swingy. When you deliver, you can come home or come around, bury or burn, take out or in-turn. And when you’re not sure what you’re doing, do like everyone else and get down low and grunt something indecipherable.

Once you’ve got the terminology down, it’s time to don your “slider,” a slippery galosh worn on one foot that makes staying upright a piece of cake, as long as you’re accustomed to standing with one foot on solid ground and the other on a moving sidewalk.

Try to throw the rock and you’ll find it will inevitably either sail far past the button or come up well short of the hog line. Try to curl it and you’ll end up in the gutter. Sweeping, if you can stay on your feet, won’t come easily since you’ve got to press hard enough to melt the top layer of ice, and any kind of strategy, unless you’re a pool shark and can transfer the skill set, is hopeless.

But here’s the thing: Despite everything going against curling, what’s really baffling is that, well, curling is really fun. It just doesn’t sound right, I know. Maybe it was the air. There isn’t great ventilation in those places, after all.

What’s more likely is that the sport is so fun because it’s so hard. That is, everyone is equally bad when starting out. And what’s better than doing something when there’s no fear of being the worst at it? If everyone’s terrible, suddenly everyone’s the last kid picked for the team. Curling, the great equalizer.

It isn’t particularly physical, either. So unless you’re the type that gets tired sweeping the kitchen floor, there’s no need to get a gym membership. And what’s more, in a frozen nation addicted to hockey, curling offers an alternative for those isolated few who didn’t choose to pick up stick and skates as youngsters.

But it’s also a social sport, bringing friends together over alcohol since its earliest days in Canada, when 20 Montreal merchants who played the sport on the St. Lawrence River behind the Molson brewery established the Montreal Curling Club. Early rules dictated that the loser had to ante up a bowl of whiskey toddy to the winner.

That tradition continues at this rink just off the Danforth, where the lounge-bar upstairs is almost as crowded as the ice surface itself.

Maybe that explains its appeal among the younger set.

Whatever the reason, curling now has not only a handful of retirees in its ranks, but a large and growing number of Canadians young and old-myself included-who’ve finally caught on to sport’s latest craze-curling-fringe favourite no longer.

To get involved in curling at U of T, make sure to visit the U of T Curling Club’s website at http://curling.sa.utoronto.ca. The club holds a free learn-to-curl day each September and invites all-beginners, amateurs, and veterans-to join its recreational league or to try out for one of ten varsity spots.