Rocks of All Ages
Pappy Wood’s family: curling through three generations
What actually qualifies as Canada’s National Sport won’t be settled in these pages, though the evidence is certainly all here. Lacrosse can claim the statute books; hockey has the fan power. But to be honest with a sport it should be the participants who matter most. Curling claims to have 800,000 — that’s one in every 27 Canadians. Its popularity is still growing but even now it probably comes closest to being our true national sport. In this article, novelist Jack Ludwig analyzes the lifestyles, personalities and drama of this game for all ages. On pages 28 and 29, curling’s great master, Ernie Richardson, discusses strategy and the secrets of building and maintaining a winning rink.
At the other end of the ice sheet the slim erect man in the green coatsweater tapped a curling stone with his broom, then carefully set the broom as a target for his “third” at my end. Barely stooping, the “third” released his rock in an old-fashioned short slide. On another sheet, not part of the day’s draw, a boy of about 17, in a regally purple pullover-sweater, with hair longer than a 17th-century king’s, sent practice rocks the length of the ice. He started erect, but then, before release, fanned out his broom hand, stretched almost full length, his face close to the ice. When he let his rock go he continued to slide in that first-baseman’s last-gasp stretch pose, up to, and past, the hog line. Just before standing up he looked as if he were trying to imitate a glider plane. When he had delivered his last practice rock he stood up and slid the length of the ice on one foot, paddling with the other as if he were on a skateboard. On two or three other sheets, young men differentiated
themselves from the older in equally distinctive ways.
Thirty-five was the breakpoint, roughly. Those under 35 released their rocks with the flashy slide of the young man in purple; they chased after their rocks to attend a shot’s fate, and moved with that same scooter paddling propelling motion used by the younger boy. Their curling brooms were different from the older men’s, not the demurely skirted corn broom that looked like a headless, unfinished Haitian straw doll, but synthetic pads known as “rink rats,” abstract imitations of brooms that boomed and slapslopped the ice in distinction from the corn broom that no matter how hard it struck never could hide the soft shushing, its signature.
The slim erect man who had been directing his third’s shot shuffled on toe rubbers toward my end to deliver his last rocks. His third — his vice-skip — patted the opposition’s shot rock to remind the skip what had to be done. The opposition was lying three. The skip would have to draw into the house behind the opposition shot rock, and use the shot rock as its own guard. Painfully stooping over, the skip picked up his 40pound stone, carefully brushed its nether side with his corn broom, waved at his third to give him more ice, waited for the broom target to pat itself into the exactly right position, then took off his left toe rubber, and stepped into the hack.
Just slightly bent over he drew back his stone and launched it, himself, and his propping broom toward the target. He let the stone go long before reaching the hog line. His short slide stopped well on the fair side of the hog. He straightened up immediately, took off in a limping shuffle halfway to the house, peering through slightly steamed glasses at his shot’s
smooth glide. Evenly, as if curving gently on a steel track, his out-turn crept in closer closer to the other side’s standing three. He held his hand up to make sure his side did no sweeping. At the last second, he and his third called for a little broom, the third sweeping close to the shot rock, the “second” warming a path for the moving stone. Suddenly the sweeping was called off. The stone, barely moving, curled a gentle counterclockwise turn, like a sundial its handle inscribing the change from 3 p.m. to about 1 p.m.
It was a pefect shot. About a quarter inch of stone showed from behind what had once been the shot rock. Behind the new shot rock was another stone, which meant that a raise, or a takeout shot, was useless. Only a perfectly placed nick could do the job. Once the other side tried, and slid right through the house. This gave the slim erect man a chance to lay another guard seven feet in front of the house, blocking the only path to his shot rock. The opposing skip tried to get by, but hit the guard which slammed into the house, knocking out two of his own rocks, but not disturbing the winning stone.
If this had been a Brier final, or the last end of the silly pretender to the World’s Curling Championship, the Silver Broom, a crowd of thousands would have been on its feet to salute the great shot with curling handclaps, once as polite as tennis applause. The slim erect man had heard such applause thousands of times in his curling life. But this was no Brier. It wasn’t even a real league match. It was rather an informal Saturday afternoon set between two rinks from Winnipeg’s Granite Club. I watched the man curl, joined, for his two great shots, by the boy with long hair.
Earlier in the week the slim erect man had received a telegram from the Guinness Book of Records people. They had wanted every bit of information he could provide about his curling — starting, of course, with the astonishing string of 65 consecutive championship bonspiels he had participated in. A year ago, Manitoba’s Lieutenant-Governor, W. John McKeag, had thrown a huge reception to honor this man. In Winnipeg he was known as Pappy Wood. In the Guinness Book of Records his more formal name was registered, Howard Wood, Sr. And the boy with the long hair who stood beside me, watching the expert delivery, was also a Wood, Kenny, Pappy’s grandson. Later that afternoon, Howard Jr., another outstanding curler, turned up at the Granite Club. He came from attending a funeral. His “third,” unnamed, had died. His son, Howard III, was out on the coast, but still curling, playing third on a rink skipped by a doctor, Ronnie Braunstein, whose flashy delivery Kenny Wood was consciously, or unconsciously, following in his practice shots.
In 15, perhaps 20, years, curling had gone through a great revolution which the disparate styles, moves and equipment of the two generations — three, four almost — dramatized. Once curling had been a sport on a par with lawn bowling.
Affluence, and artificial ice surfaces, made curling the sport that came in out of the cold. Players no longer had to mush through huge snowdrifts, dig out around the entrance to the only covered curling club. No longer did one have to risk freezing hands, feet, noses, cheeks — to mention the most obvious vulnerabilities — or run between ends to huddle around the one potbellied stove valiantly trying to throw heat into a small uninsulated clubhouse. Highways changed curling too. Roads now left natural-ice clubs isolated, abandoned by players who could drive an hour or two on fairly clear paved surfaces to the nearest artificial-ice town and fancy cocktail bar. Like the concept of a central school district, the artificial ice surface became the servicer of greater and greater concentrations of rural population.
Competition sharpened. Regional champions were more easily and more quickly decided. Before long the Brier, sole championship competition before the war, had rivals. The winning of the Brier was still Canada’s greatest prize (the international Silver Broom, from the viewpoint of insiders, was simply an anticlimax), but cash prizes and car prizes and cruise prizes, trip prizes, TV prizes, Grey Cup prizes turned up all over the country — and in the U.S.A. and in Europe.
Lawn bowling was left far behind. One couldn’t conceive of Kenny Wood playing a game of bowls. Nor any of the other under-35s I saw at the Granite Club that Saturday afternoon in October.
The commercial explosion of curling was no better illustrated than in the proliferation of equipment and uniforms I could see in the rink. The older generation were dressed much like Pappy Wood — in jumbo-knit coatsweaters, suit trousers, tarns, toe rubbers. Almost everything could be worn on the street — even the red-trimmed green Granite Club sweaters covered with badges and crests. But the younger players wore sweaters and shoes as unfit for street wear as hockey uniforms or skate boots. To be stylish, and a recognized curling swinger, one had to put even more money into dress and costume. Cash spiels and car spiels demand a certain showmanship, and, as everyone knows, showmanship to squares is translated as matching blazers, marching, and banners. To most promoters the ideal pageant is the Olympic parade. Curlers now are being pushed by promoters of limited imagination. Which means contending teams must march out onto the ice carrying
flags and club banners, wearing
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crested blazers, flannel slacks or flannel skirts, matching shoes, hats, undersweaters, and white gloves. TV announcers can work themselves up to the proper high manic pitch by shouting, “Let the parade of the rinks begin!”
Everything — with the possible exception of the undersweater — is extraneous to curling. But then the Olympic weight lifter doesn’t wear his blazer and flannels to heft in, nor does the Olympic woman gymnast do her rungs fully flannelskirted. The pageant garb can run up as high as $250 per curler, depending on the quality of the stuff worn.
I tell you this to indicate how curling, like every other commercially exploited sport, has become show business. But the proliferation of prizes has done more: it is now possible for one to become a curling bum. A tennis bum or a ski bum is well known as an international phenomenon, someone who follows the weather or the prize money, who travels all over the world, eating, drinking, sleeping, swinging, in search of cash and not trophies, with equipment manufacturers acting as sponsors. The equipment people foot the bills much as the patron supported artists and writers in earlier times. Except that, of course, manufacturers don’t want secrecy. They want their trade name flaunted internationally. Thus the itinerant trade-name-dropper.
Curling is just moving into the age of the curling bum. Another development connected with commercial exploitation is the newest rage, mixed curling. Two men and two women make up a rink, with rather sexist determination. In mixed curling the skip must always be a man, the third a woman, the second a man, and the lead a woman. When I spoke to some women curlers about the fixity of the arrangement they showed no women’s lib predisposition to challenge the setup.
“The guys are better than we are,” one woman told me.
“In what way?”
“They can beat us.”
“All guys can beat all women?” I said, and craftily eluded any follow-on mention of the century’s ur-bore, Bobby Riggs.
“They sweep harder,” another woman chimed in.
“They handle those heavy rocks more easily,” said a third.
“They’ve had more experience,” the first woman said.
“Aren’t there any women with a lot of curling experience? Isn’t there any woman skip who could handle a mixed rink?”
“I’m a good skip, but I wouldn’t want to skip a mixed rink. I would know it was phony.”
A woman curler I spoke to, who had won a number of trophies at thé na-
tional championship level, confessed that though she curled eight to 10 times a week she didn’t particularly like the game. What she loved was curling’s other benefit, boozing.
“Sometimes we’re up five or six after four ends and I keep hoping the other side will give up so I can get down to the real serious side of the game, drinking.”
The gallery of most new curling rinks is a cocktail bar, a country club. People in the curling claque can watch the game and get soused at the same time. So can curlers watch, play and drink up.
Some western Canadian curling scholars will tell you that curling began its spectacular rise not after World War II but during World War I, and these same observers will give women most of the credit for curling’s sharp increase in adherents. During World War I the novelty bonspiel made its appearance — the Red Cross Bonspiel, the War Bond Bonspiel, and so on. As Howard Wood and his wife remember it, the rules stipulated at least two women to a rink (as far as I’ve been able to discover, there was no fixed placing of either women or men in the novelty bonspiel rinks). Curling historians say that these women soon involved their husbands and their children in curling. Cities such as Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, have, among them, a good 100 artificial ice surfaces: no decent-sized town in Western Canada is without its artificial-ice curling rink. And the growth that began during World War I exploded during the Fifties and Sixties.
Most curling clubs have a junior league that takes care of boys and girls from the ages of 10 through 15, while others have intermediate, curling for young women and young men between 16 and 21, though this league, like the raiding of junior hockey leagues by the WHA, is scoured by the competitive rinks at the big-time bonspiel level. Curling has no pro-amateur distinction. Even the winners of cash spiels and car spiels remain forever curling amateurs.
Still another development of curling’s popularity which will certainly contribute to curling’s future growth is the curling “school.” One of the best known is champion curler Don Duguid’s Curling School, a traveling show that hits the big towns and big cities, gets a lot of newspaper, radio and TV coverage. People such as Duguid, Roy Turnbull, Wally Ursuluk offer curling seminars, a seemingly intensive three-day blow during which the “students” spend 2Vi hours per day and a total of 25 bucks picking up pointers. Duguid has taken his school through the United States and early this winter carried his seminars into France.
I thought of him and of curling’s gimmick turns when I went to spend some time with Mr. and Mrs. Howard Wood
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Sr., first at their house (or assorted trophy rooms), and then at the Winnipeg Granite Club. The Fink rink, which was made up of Don Duguid’s 1972 skilled side, had shifted to Deer Lodge in Winnipeg: Duguid’s present rink was made up of left-handers who wore black sweaters with the left arm all white. Someday soon, I expect, someone in search of a better gimmick will duplicate the outfit worn by Howard Wood Sr.’s rink when it won the British Consols (then the highest prize) in 1925. The men wore matching white coatsweaters, matching jodhpurs, matching tartan kneesox, matching high boots. And matching homburgs.
At Pappy Wood’s I found something not surprising to a Winnipegger — that the curling champions of Winnipeg were called, as late as the 1920s, champions of the world. Wood won his first real national championship, the Brier, in 1930, and then once more. Winnipeg’s Ken Watson won the Brier three times. Ab Gowanlock was a Brier winner, Billy Walsh, Leo Johnson, and the young Terry Braunstein. In the 1930s Alberta and Ontario moved in on Manitoba’s dominance. Recently Ernie Richardson’s Saskatchewan curling family has vied with the Wood family for national family curling honors.
Soon, of course, other provinces, or, in the case of Northern Ontario, parts of provinces, began to challenge the preeminence of the West. The West has a tremendous edge over the rest of the country in Briers, but championship curling tells only one small part of curling’s amazing tale. Looking through Pappy Wood’s collection of pins and rings and clippings and memorabilia, seeing feature stories on him and his counterparts in all 10 provinces, and knowing that for every championship rink that competed at the Brier level there were 10,000 rinks at the level of club curling, club bonspiel, pick-up draws. It’s estimated that 800,000 Canadians curl.
In fact, it doesn’t take long before one recognizes what is surely one of Canada’s best-kept secrets, that its national adult participation game is not hockey but curling. The overwhelming commitment of Canadian hockey players to American teams — NHL, WHA, minor league, and college — has shifted the hockey concentration from this country to the U.S.A. On the amateur level one has to recognize the superiority of the hockey played in Eastern Europe, even if one doesn’t want to start in on the pointless debate between the USSR and the NHL brands of hockey.
Hockey is perhaps Canada’s number one spectator sport. But curling is, quite obviously, Canada’s number one participation sport. In the stands watching an NHL, WHA, or Junior hockey game are
men who have played hockey, but play it no more. In those stands, too, are women. Yet a good half of any hockey crowd — and I’m being conservative — could be made up of curlers. Hockey is for males. It’s for skaters. And not all men are skaters. To play hockey at a participant level one must be fairly good. To curl one has to turn up with a broom and get ice time. The poorest curler ever born can find some rink he can play lead on. The curling hierarchy almost assumes the lead in anything but highly competitive play is a flubber who gives his rock too little weight, or too much, who waddles his stone so that it heads for the sidelines like a duffer’s bowling ball waggling into a gutter.
Even the world’s worst curler can be taught to get his rock the hell out of the way, so that the second, third and skip don’t have unnecessary obstacles between them and the scoring house. Someone who can’t hit, catch, throw, will be barred from a baseball game.
There’s no way he can do no damage. Curling and, of course, lawn bowling assume that to be in the game is at least as important as competing.
That slim erect man I described delivering a perfect draw shot is, I must tell you, 85 years old. His third for that Saturday morning draw was in his late seventies. A day earlier I had visited some other curling rinks in Manitoba and found women curling. Several women were in their seventies, a great number were in their sixties. The majority seemed to be in their forties and fifties with a scattering of younger women on the various rinks. With the women as with the men, style of delivery gapped the generations. With the younger women as with the younger men, equipment was up-to-date, and flashy. In some of the clubs I found couples curling on dates.
When natural ice and cold buildings were part of curling’s givens the game still thrived. There’s grade-school curling, high-school curling, Boy Scout curling. But not only is curling a sport for all ages and both sexes, it defies hierarchies. When I attended St. John’s High in
Winnipeg I curled on the same team as the high-school principal, my classroom teacher, and a classmate. In darkest January late afternoon we would, all four of us, rush out of school, flush with curling’s boon, equality. The Maple Leaf Curling Club was only a short block away, but it had to be reached through snowfall and snowdrift, at the price of a whitened cheek, a nose, an ear. Thirty below — or 40 — wasn’t sufficient cause to cancel a draw.
The ice sheet was always newly watered. Summer’s grounds keeper was frequently winter’s ice master. Flooding was done by hand-held hose. The concentric circles were skillfully stained into the ice several times a season. The way I curled as a student is the way thousands of people in the smallest Canadian winter towns still curl today. Curling is their game. Their pastime. Their social hours. Their exercise. The small rinks all over the country do not act as feeders for the big-time Brier competition. In the far reaches of the country, curling requires a warm sweater, warm underwear, warm gloves, a broom and one shoe that allows for easy sliding.
The curling that thrived with natural ice thrives even better with the longer season artificial ice allows. Artificial ice has almost done away with the great curling myth of the Bonspiel Thaw (that sudden warming that turned up around Brier time). Sometimes the game is played on soft ice, but that’s because arenas and stadiums with dozens of sheets of ice can attract thousands to what has become a major spectator sport in recent years. I would guess that the overwhelming majority of spectators for curling’s spectaculars also curl. That is what makes curling Canada’s national game. In this game, 85-year-old men like Pappy Wood are not out of place. Old curlers, that is, never fade away. ■
There’s more to the “style” of curling than rock delivery and sweeping technique. It’s how a curler looks, both on and off the ice. You simply must have a curling sweater ($25) and that means a pullover, never a coatsweater. A lighter undersweater will go around $12.50, and a tasteful pair of curling pants for $20. Thermal underwear is a necessity ($20), as are the proper gloves ($14) and socks ($3). A hat is more necessity than optional and starts at around $10. The real necessities, however, are broom and footwear. A rink rat broom runs $15.50, whereas the old standby, the cornbroom, runs $9 and won’t last as long. Shoes, very colorful with bright laces and contrasting stripes of leather on the felt tops, go from $22.50 to $35. For optimum delivery, a “slider” for the one shoe ups that price another $4, and a kneepad for the opposite leg runs about the same.