Late-night television has helped curling sweep the nation. All puns aside, the sport on ice with brooms and stones that’s all the rage in Minnesota and Wisconsin continues to grow in Colorado.
Lucky for me, I didn’t have to go far to learn how to play a sport that hooked me many years ago during late-night televised sessions of the Winter Olympics on an obscure cable channel, which is how many people get drawn in. A strategy-heavy game that involves sliding stones down ice sheets to get closest to a target using sweeping to vary the speed and trajectory, curling can be mesmerizing, especially in the wee hours of the morning.
The Denver Curling Club is one of the biggest pushers locally and is gaining the momentum it needs to build its own dedicated curling facility — which could happen in January — but currently operates on ice sheets at Littleton’s Ice Ranch. Only late Friday and Saturday night slots are there for the club to get its game on, and players from Aurora, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs and as far away as Ogallala, Neb., take advantage of whatever ice time they can get.
I’d seen curling up close in 2009 when the weeklong U.S. Olympic Curling Trials slid through Broomfield’s 1stBank Center. I munched on fresh-fried mini-donuts and sat just a few rows up with friends as we watched men’s and women’s teams compete. Witnessing the strategy and finesse in person further drew me to curling.
It looked so easy then, and again on a recent Friday night when I walked into the Ice Ranch, which sounded like a bowling alley as stones thundered back and forth across the ice surface. Players released 42-pound stones and effortlessly glided down the ice behind them, hunched low and constantly evaluating the path of each lump. Teammates used brooms — hollow fiberglass handles equipped with fabric heads — to speed the stone up or slow it down as it neared the “house,” basically a giant dartboard laid flat on the ice.
The premise of curling is the same as one of my favorite games, bocce: Slide, or curl, your stones closer to the center target (button) than your opponent. The name, curling, comes from the action put on a stone to make it move around other stones placed as blockers.
Denver Curling Club president Pam Finch promised me a hands-on introduction to the game. She demurred about her age, but began playing when she was 18 and appeared in three women’s national events and a slew of others along the way. Finch has hung up her competitive broom in favor of teaching and growing the sport. She definitely knows it well and terms from the nuanced sport’s dialect flowed from her mouth. Hack. Hog line. Bonspiel. Say what?
Once I’d somewhat mastered the terminology, it was onto the ice, where ends (games) rolled on between four-player co-ed teams in a variety of age ranges.
Ice is an element of many of my nightmares, which I trace back to painful skating attempts from my childhood. A 40-minute process that gives the ice surface a textured, pebble-like covering made this ice easy to trod on, however. Surely I was safe.
First up was learning how to throw the stone, an extraordinary piece of equipment. Each stone is fashioned from blue hone granite harvested only in Ailsa Craig, an uninhabited island off the coast of Scotland. Its surface is ideal to glide straight down the 146-foot-long sheet of ice and tough enough to withstand frequent high-speed contact with other stones. Some stones the club uses are more than 50 years old.
I cautiously planted my left foot on a shoe-shaped slider and learned to tuck the broom tightly under my left arm at a 45-degree angle, which helps balance for a throw. I pushed off the rink wall with my right foot to test the maneuver a few times before two teams paused in the middle of their end to let me throw.
Finch directed me to the hack — so that’s what that means! — which looks like a track starting block and is used to push off for a throw. I pulled the stone back with my right hand and slid forward, wobbling for five feet before I released it in front of the hog line (where a throw must be released for it to be legal). Nobody swept for my stone, which could have improved my distance, and it meekly stopped halfway down the ice. Clearly, I needed to step my game up.
Embarrassed, but motivated, I got in the hack once more and performed a pre-flight check. This time, I slid farther and with more power until I released the stone, only to have my left foot turn out at the wrong time. I crashed unceremoniously to the ice. The stone, however, kept going and going toward the house and slid through the 12-foot ring, the 8-foot ring and finally the 4-foot ring in front of the button. A kind soul with a broom made it stop, but my throw had been heavy, or too hard.
The skip — the captain and strategist of a team — gave me encouraging words on my throw, then went back to an end he and his team dominated.
No sweeping for me this time, that’s far too strenuous for a first-timer like me. Finch said U.S. Curling estimates players sweep the equivalent of 2 1/2 miles during a full game.
I got just a taste, but I’ll be watching in the late hours when the world’s finest take the ice in Sochi in 2014, hoping to pick up a few more tips.