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Published March 1, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.
Interest in curling — that curious sport in which players chase a huge stone puck with brooms on ice — has surged worldwide over the past few decades thanks to appearances in the Winter Olympics. But who among us really gets it? I mean, what's with all the sweeping? Why all the yelling?
While some areas of the country, especially in the upper Midwest and parts of New York, embraced curling as a pastime more than a century ago, Vermont still lacks a venue built exclusively for the sport. That's despite sharing a border with Québec, where nearly a dozen curling arenas dot the Estrie, the region stretching east from the top of Lake Champlain to a provincial border with Maine.
Vermonters do play curling, though: There's the Equinox Curling Club in Manchester, the Rutland Rocks Curling Club, the Upper Valley Curling Club and the Green Mountain Curling Club. All but the GMCC make their home at skating arenas, vying for precious ice time with figure skaters and hockey leagues.
A skating rink can work for curling, but it's not the same as having a dedicated curling "sheet" of ice. That's why, in the 2013-14 season, after curling at the CREW Arena in Morrisville, some GMCC members began crossing into Québec to play at the Bedford Curling Club. The club is about 13 miles northeast of the Highgate Springs border crossing or roughly 10 miles due north of the Morses Line crossing. The move put GMCC players in the company of Vermont curlers who play in Québec at the Border Curling Club in Stanstead, right across the border at Beebe Plain — and about three miles west of the Derby Line crossing.
A recent visit to these two clubs straightened out a few things I'd been wondering about curling and reacquainted me with our neighbors to the north after what has felt like a long separation.
The object of curling is no mystery: Slide a stone, sometimes called a rock — a roughly 40-pound granite puck with a handle — down the ice so that it comes to rest within the three concentric circles of the target, known as the "house." Earn a point for every stone in the house closer to the center, the "button," than your opponents' stones. (The rings' colors, usually blue and red, have no bearing on the points scored.)
A typical two-hour match consists of 10 "ends" — akin to a baseball inning, in which each team has had a turn. Teams have four members who throw two stones each. One player, the "skip," acts as the team's captain and chief strategist in this game dubbed "chess on ice." The Bedford and Border clubs also host doubles events.
Curling's deepest secret was revealed to me shortly after I arrived at the Bedford club on a recent Friday evening. Under the guidance of GMCC president and Bedford club board member Bill Germer, I was just in time to watch a member of the ice crew prepare the club's two sheets for competition. The key to understanding curling, it turns out, is buried in the ice — literally.
Consider this: A heavy, circular curling stone would generate too much friction to move optimally across completely flat ice. So the ice sheet, typically 146 to 150 feet long, is leveled with a wide blade and then "pebbled," or sprayed with water droplets. The tops of the pebbles are then "nipped" with another device. The result is an even surface textured with tiny bumps meant, for all the precision that goes into preparing the sheet, to simulate the snow and ice on the ponds and lochs of 16th-century Scotland, where curling was invented.
This, in turn, explains curling's signature action: sweeping. By sweeping the pebbles in front of a moving stone, using a lightweight brush roughly four feet long with a head commonly made of nylon cordura, sweepers reduce the friction even more, allowing the stone to glide farther. Sweepers don't touch the stones. That's a foul. The stone's path — the "curl" from which the sport gets its name — is determined mainly by the rotation the thrower gives the stone upon release. Sweepers can, however, accelerate the stone's rotation and alter the length of its arc.
Germer, a Burlington resident, caught the curling bug after watching the annual Howard Center Curling Classic fundraiser in 2010. The 2023 event will be held on March 18 at C. Douglas Cairns Recreation Arena in South Burlington.
He went on to receive curling training in Toronto and now organizes three Bedford leagues and the juniors program. He and co-instructor Heather Bilodeau of Philipsburg, Québec, were running a coed juniors session when I returned to Bedford on a Saturday morning. One youth's parent, Pierre Venneman of Noyen, Québec, described curling as a "calming sport" for his 13-year-old son, Nathan. He also praised Germer: "They say he gets along with the kids because he's a big kid."
After the youths' ice time, Germer gave me a curling lesson. I slipped a "slider" beneath the sneaker sole on my nondominant foot and a rubber "gripper" over the sneaker on my dominant foot — standard curling gear. I learned right away that getting a good push off the "hack," or rubber foothold, is key. The power in a curling throw comes from the legs, not the arms or the hand.
Skillful throwers simply release the rock at the "hog line," which is like a foul line in bowling, letting their own momentum start the stone down ice. For me, throwing the stone was like a blend of yoga and slow-motion fencing — a deep, sustained, ungainly lunge.
On my first try, I glided just a few feet before coming to a humiliating halt. "That lunge that you see on TV," Germer said, "80 to 90 percent of teaching people to learn to curl is teaching them how to do that delivery."
On my second throw, I lost my balance after releasing the stone and toppled over. I was eventually able to send stones as far as the house at the other end of the sheet. Germer ended my lesson with some tips on how to put the proper rotation on the stone during release to make it curl.
Germer and GMCC offer Learn to Curl Clinics at the Bedford Curling Club on the first Sunday of every month during curling season; the last two sessions of the current season will be held on March 5 and April 2 from noon to 2:30 p.m. The cost is $25.
By the time I visited the Border Curling Club in Stanstead, I had a decent grasp of curling basics. This gave me the chance to watch the bonspiel — tournament, in curling parlance — and meet some players.
The Border Curling Club has first- and second-floor viewing areas that look onto the club's two meticulously maintained sheets flanked by international flags. The club is unique for many reasons, among them the fact that it was founded in 1955 as an expressly international club, with governance shared among U.S. and Canadian members. Striking that balance has not been easy, club president David Edgell said, but he added with a note of pride that "we are a functionally bilingual club."
According to membership director Mary Pat Goulding, the club historically has also maintained a pretty even membership split among U.S. and Canadian citizens. Tightened border restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic diminished membership numbers from the U.S., but Goulding remains hopeful that the club will rebound.
The players for the day's bonspiel showed the sport's multigenerational and multifaceted appeal. Newport curler Renee Fuller played in Minnesota before moving to Vermont. A public health nurse, she sees a range of benefits in curling. "I like curling because it's physical, and it has that strategic piece," she said. "It's a team sport but doesn't have that aggressive side."
Erik Townsend, who travels from Westmore to play, also appreciates the combination of exercise and strategy. "It's a challenging thing to do," he said, likening the precision in the game to golf.
Curling competition can be intense, to be sure — the arena reverberates with the skips' exhortations to "Hurry" or sweep "Hard," all of it punctuated by granite rocks knocking together and sliding across pebbled ice. Still, a sense of camaraderie may trump all other aspects, especially postgame.
"The social aspect is part of the tradition," Germer said. "You'll hear people say, 'Winners buy the first round, losers buy the second.' It's good form to stay around and buy the second round."
On my way out the door at the Border Curling Club, Goulding was talking up the "donut league." That sounds about my speed.
I now see curling from a new angle. It's the poutine of winter sports: a Canadian cultural practice that more Vermonters would probably take up if we could just get our hands on it.
The original print version of this article was headlined "A Stone's Throw | Vermonters sweep into Québec's curling scene"
Tags: Outdoors & Recreation, curling, curling clubs, Border Curling Club, Bedford Curling Club, Green Mountain Curling Club
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