THAT ROARIN' GAME
Over 40,000 Canadians have found an ideal antidote for war strain, overwork, and income tax blues...Prescription: CURLING
ON A bitter night in the 1820’s, Fergus MacDonald banged thunderously at the door of his nearest neighbor in the Huron Land Tract wilderness. Cradled in his arms was a pair of headsized hardwood knots, smoothed till they glimmered in the firelight., and made even heavier by musket-ball lead poured into their augered tops. Fergus, normally a dour man, grinned from ear to ear as he extended them. His neighbor gawked at him, while the neighbor’s wife murmured apprehensively, “Save us, it’s happened! The mon’s fou’.”
“What have ye there, Fergus?” the neighbor enquired, half-sharing his wife’s opinion that their visitor had lost his wits.
“Stanes, ye gommeril!” Fergus shouted, “curlin’ stanes!”
The neighbor bent to peer more closely at the flattened spheres. They were odd but somehow familiar; and when he straightened he too was grinning. “Losh me . . . Why did we no’ think o’ that before? Wi’ the lads on the back sections and them at the tavern crossing, we hae the makin’s o’ half a dozen rinks.”
“Curl if ye must,” snapped his wife, who saw too clearly the lone evenings ahead while her husband and his fellows set foot in hack and merrily drew to a tee on the pond ice, “but ye’ll no’ be takin’ my birchtwig besom for the game. If ye want my thought, I’d say the pair of ye were witless as loons!”
The good woman was wrong, of course. Quite the opposite was true. It is a matter of record that the grand Caledonian sport of curling was credited by many a Scottish pioneer with preserving his sanity
during his first grim and lonely winter in the frostbound woods of Upper Canada.
Today less startling but equally glowing tribute is paid to the royal and ancient game by an estimated 40,000 devotees from Prince Edward Island to British Columbia. In this most sociable of all pastimes they claim to have found the perfect antidote for war strain, overwork and income tax worries. They don’t use hardwood knots any more—-or the hubs of artillery limber wheels or iron kettles loaded with sand— but they curl by rules only slightly changed in the past century.
Of the 40,000 enthusiasts, some 28,000 are members of registered clubs in every province of Canada, whose affiliation extends, by way of their provincial curling associations and the Dominion Curling Association, to the Royal Caledonian Curling Club of Scotland with headquarters in Edinburgh.
Don’t run away with the idea that Edinburgh is curling’s world capital, though. Curlers of both Winnipeg and Toronto would shake a wrathful corn broom at any such claim. And on this point curlers of each city agree—Canada has unquestionably ousted Scotland as the world’s number one curling country.
Women as well as men have turned to the sport. Ontario Curling Association has 14 women’s clubs on its roster, and slack-clad girls turn an expert hand to stone and broom in every other province.
War with its fatter pay cheques and its strictures on automotive travel has boomed curling to an all-time Dominion high in popularity, whether in Montreal, where they send “irons” swishing down the rinks instead of “granites,” or on the west coast, where the
stalwarts of Vancouver Curling Club strive for a “dead draw shoot” on artificial ice. In Ontario, where a number of 100-year-old clubs boast well over 5,000 members, the sport of “stane and besom” has won a degree of popularity at least as high as it enjoyed when our grandfathers were bursting the knees out of their first breeches.
Sweeping the Country
THIS renewed favor follows a pre-war falling away in the East, a decline that began when the introduction of artificial ice upped the cost of curling to a point where it was no longer within the reach of those whose wallets didn’t carry a fairly ample padding of beaverskins. Expensive brine piping, special lighting fixtures, and club layouts that sometimes bordered on the palatial, ran up bills which could only be met through increased membership dues. This in turn meant fewer members. There was also a move toward centralization of the sport in the larger cities and towns with their artificial ice-making facilities. The country rink still retained its faithful devotees, but the true democratic bonspiel, with its jollity, its warm hospitality and keen but good-humored competitive play, seemed to be in danger of passing. Curling, in the eastern centres at least, was no longer a relaxation for a Cotter’s Saturday Night unless the cotter had 30, 40, perhaps 50 dollars to blow on a season’s fees.
It was war money that changed the picture. At present Toronto’s 25 sheets of artificial curling ice
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can’t, begin to accomodate the horde of would-be players. All the clubs are oversubscribed, and each has a lengthy waiting list of prospective members. This situation prevails in most Dominion cities. More junketting from one bonspiel, or tournament, to another is also being done. At a conservative estimate, taking in train fare and hotel bills, a visit to a big-city bonspiel costs each curler a minimum of $100.
Whether the return to peacetime will bring another slump in curling interest is a question to which eastern lovers of the game are giving considerable attention these days. They sincerely hope not; and some of them are already advancing ideas which they feel would broaden participation even more if adopted. Most radical suggestion calls for a turning away from the costly artificial ice wherever weather conditions permit.
Although curling has its sideline fans, it, doesn’t rank high as a spectator sport. For one thing it’s a precision game, akin in this respect to billiards, bowling, and that other great Scottish recreation, golf. Tt has its moments of tingling tension, its upsets and lastminute rallies, but perhaps because it is team play carried to the highest degree, t he casual spectator is more likely to be concerned with his chilly feet than with what transpires on the ice.
The season, on artificial ice, commences in November and extends well into April. On natural ice, play isn’t usually in full swing before Christmas, at least in eastern Canada, and is strictly governed by the weather with its vagaries of thaw and freeze-up. Rules of the game, standardized by the Royal Caledonian Curling Club of Scotland, are detailed and rigorous.
Each rink or team consists of four players, of whom the leader is called the skip. The title, believed to be a contraction of “skipper,” is a fit one. No ship’s master on the high seas ever ruled with a power more absolute. The skip, if not always the best curler in his rink, is certainly the top strategist, the coolest performer under stress, and the man with the strongest qualities of leadership. His henchmen, whether they play first, second or third place, make their shots exactly as he directs, and the luckless lad whose stone hangs on the wrong side of the hog-score line or misses the skip’s directing broom might well wish for the ice to open beneath him. Skips may win glory in this all-amateur sport, but there is no place for the grandstander or solo player. A skip more concerned with a spectacular than a sound game won’t hold his coveted position long, and the team member who attempts to “show the Old Man how to do it” will shortly be looking for a berth in some other rink.
Whether it’s in Toronto’s swanky Granite Club or in some prairie town, the basics of the game don’t differ by a hair. At each end of the rink—the name applies both to ice sheet and team—is a “target” of four colored circles. The inner circle has a radius of six feet, and its bull’s-eye centre forms the tee or “button.” Tees are 38 yards apart, measured from centre to centre. A further four yards behind each tee is a foot-score line with two “hacks” cut in the ice. Right or left foot in a hack, stone held by its gooseneck handle, the player launches his 40-pound granite with backswing, forward swing nicely calculated as to timing and weight, and follow-through. This last is no less vital than its golfing equivalent. The stone glides down the ice on its convex
sliding surface with the soft, swishing roar which is the dearest of all sounds to a curler’s frost-nipped ears.
Tf the man who made the shot is sufficiently skilled, his stone will execute three-and-a-half to four complete turns, or “twiddles,” during its course, a number which has been found to produce the maximum amount of distance as well as curl or curve. Tt will also end its career exactly where the lynx-eyed skip figured it should, whether the intention was to eliminate an opponent’s stone from the count or simply to place in scoring territory.
But perhaps it loafs on the way; and here one learns why the broom and the stone are spoken of in the same breath. At a word or a nod from that old tyrant the skip, a rink mate hustles out from the side and with his specially made broom begins a rhythmic heavy sweeping across the path of the faltering stone. Easterners - say Westerners —have never properly mastered the art of sweeping, which by polishing the ice to greater slickness may lengthen its run by 10 or even 12 feet. Often that extra footage means the difference between an end lost or won, hence plenty of skips choose a player with more of an eye to his sweeping know-how than his prowess at the hacks.
Each curler plays two stones down the 14-foot-wide ice sheet, delivering them turnabout with his opponent of the competing rink. After all eight players have stepped twice to the foot lineafter the skips have called their orders and the sweepers have “sooped” their darnedest—comes the always anxious and sometimes harrowing business of measuring the closeness to the tee of the stones that lie within the six-foot circle. A rink scores one shot for every stone which is closer to the tee than the nearest stone of the rival rink. The two vice-skips determine any disputed shots, this task being beneath the dignity of the skips themselves. If they can’t agree, the umpire steps in, or, in the absence of an umpire, some neutral curler. Measuring is usually done with a broom handle, although for very close shots a measuring rod is used.
Score tallied, both rinks repeat the process, shooting for the opposite tee, with the winner of the previous end playing first. Games may be regulated by number of shots or length of play, but the customary game is for 12 ends. The average end consumes something under 15 minutes.
Sounds short and easy, doesn’t it? Well, the old-timers still talk of such jousts as the one at St. Thomas, Ont., in 1914, when a Southampton rink curled for 25 hours continuously to win seven out of eight games played and to hang up a bonspiel endurance record.
Equipment, apart from the longstrawed broom, consists of a pair of stones. When available, which they won’t be again until after the war, stones cost about $45 the pair. Present inability to buy them needn’t stop the man who wants to curl, however, if he can weasel his way into one of the clubs. Many clubs, especially those of the larger cities, own their standardized stones as a communal enterprise.
As might be expected, no common rock goes to the making of curling stones. Whether their rinks are in Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand,China or any other of the lands to which homesick Scots have introduced the game, curlers use stones out of one Scottish quarry, shaped to rigid specifications by any of three firms in Scotland. Each weighs 40 pounds minus its pound-and-a-half handle. Circumference is 36 inches, and
tolerances permitted are only four ounces and one-sixteenth inch. The stone itself is not a true granite but a more porous rock that gives the resiliency necessary for a sharp angle of rebound when stones collide.
If delivered so that only striking surfaces meet when the skip calls for a shot aimed at crowding an opponent’s missile away from the circle, these highly polished grey rounds are good For a player’s lifetime and his son’s after him. Send them down rocking on their undersurfaces, however, and the curler may be left wringing his hands over the tragedy of a chipped stone.
No such concern was felt by the rude forefathers of the “roaring game” when they sent their water-worn boulders careening down the surface of some frozen loch to splinter upon those of an adversary. Stones came from the nearest burn bed, the rules were rough and ready, and one gathers that a rink consisted of as many players as could crowd upon the ice.
Even Scots admit that while they lay proud claim to curling, along with golf, they have fathered the former sport by adoption only. Its origin is shrouded in obscurity upon which savant and researcher have been able to shed little light. The name itself is matter for puzzlement. One thing certain—it does not derive from the “curl,” the inside or outside curve of the stone as it glides toward the tee. Some theorize that it is a corruption of the German “kurtling” or the Flemish “quoiting,” but nobody can back the view with authority absolute.
“Bonspiel,” for a meeting of curlers, isacombinationof French and German; and in the word is a fairly substantial clue as to how curling reached Scotland. Thistle and fleur-de-lis nodded close together in the time of the Stuarts, and well before that romantic age Scottish soldiers of fortune wielded claymore in the wars of France, the Low Countries, and the brawling hodgepodge of Germanic states. Also Fleming immigrants to Scotland—and there were plenty— are reputed to have introduced the game.
Origins really matter little, because once adopted the game assumed its distinctive Scottish flavor—a tang reflected in the curler’s vocabulary.
Speaking of language, there’s the “hog-score,” which has assuredly inspired its full and sulphurous share. To Scottish shepherds the sheep that lagged behind the flock was a “hogg,” hence the name applied to that 24-yard stretch of ice on which no stone may end its run under penalty of being removed from play. On the hog-score lines today is the likeness of a cavorting pig, in water paints. Curlers, sweeping frantically to urge their stones into safer territory, swear the gaily colored porteer leers at them as they whisk by.
Curling didn’t begin to acquire a fully documented history until the Caledonian Curling Club was established in 1838 to become a mother organization for curling groups everywhere. Four years later young Queen Victoria bestowed her patronage on the club, which promptly and proudly clapped a “Royal” to its title.
In 1876, however, with the burden of Empire heavy upon her ageing shoulders, Victoria executed an aboutface. The Pall Mall Gazette reports the Queen’s changed attitude as follows:
“The Balmoral Curling Club, which only played its maiden game last winter, has ceased to exist, orders having been sent to all members of the club on the Royal estates to discontinue the game. Her Majesty is understood
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to have said that she did not see much amusement in the game of curling, but that she was afraid it tended to encourage a love of malt liquor. That the popular sport should be regarded with disfavor by Royalty has caused regret among the keen curlers of the Deeside.”
But long before the Royal Caledonian was formed curling had a triumphant entry into the North American colonies, introduced by those same doughty Highlanders who fought the redskins and later accompanied Wolfe to Quebec. From a garrison recreation it spread to win civilian favor. Iron artillery hubs were the soldiers’ substitute for stones, and 65-pound irons, not granites, are still the recognized tool of the curler on the ice of Montreal and the Ottawa Valley.
The Scottish pioneers who pushed on to Upper Canada brought the game with them; and as a later generation trekked from the East to open the Middle West later in the last century, curling made its debut on the prairies. With uniform winter cold assuring a long season, the transplanted sport flourished anew, and it kept right on flourishing until it had made Manitoba and Saskatchewan one of its chief stamping grounds.
Westerners have not only added to the liveliness of curling by introducing a brisker style of play, but have converted a non-Scottish multitude to its pleasures. Many of the finest curlers of recent years, victors at bonspiels where Canada’s top talent competes, have been Manitoba Icelanders. Naming only one, there’s Leo Johnson of Winnipeg regarded asthe most polished exponent of the modern swing delivery. Observe, too, that it was a Manitoba rink which defeated all opponents on
Lake Placid in the Olympic Games of 1932, and that Westerners have practically monopolized Dominion Champpionship events of the past 15 years.
The game has had its ups and downs in the United States. New York of the 70’s boasted 14 outdoor rinks, but something of a decline set in with the advent of the covered rink. At present it rides high again, and when the big Ontario Bonspiel opens in Toronto on Feb. 19, at least 20 American rinks will compete.
But while top-flight rinks soop and draw for coveted championship trophies, boys, fathers and spry grandfathers will be having themselves just as happy a time wherever ice can be found or manufactured. At Flin Flon, where miners off shift keep the rinks in use 24 hours a day—in the rinks of Saskatchewan towns or even in baledhay enclosures on the black surfaces of sloughs in the mining towns of northern Ontario—the royal game goes on.
Distance and bitter weather have never yet kept curlers from their fun. It is no uncommon thing for the northland curlers to load their stones into a bush pilot’s flying boxcar and roar across the hinterland for an old-time bonspiel with their comrades of stone and broom.
As pointed out earlier, pyramiding expenses are seen as the most serious threat to the game’s continued popularity among the less amply-heeled. With this in mind some farsighted association leaders, who have no wish to see curling become an overexclusive sport point to the lead given by Scotland, where “ice palaces,” operated as commercial ventures in very much the same way as public golf courses, are doing a rousing business and at the same time are adding new followers to the pastime.