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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Curling Etiquette Teaches Rules for Life

DSC_0110 A few years ago, my essay about curling etiquette was published in The Globe and Mail.  Since then, I’ve noticed it posted on the Internet periodically (without my permission, but that’s ok).  People sometimes ask for permission to use it at their club, in a program for a bonspiel or for their club championships. So I figured, why not? Here it is again.  Curling has changed a bit since this piece was first published, but the essence is still the same: curling etiquette really does teach rules for life.


I am a curler. Ok, you can stop laughing now.

Yes, I’ve heard all the jokes about fat, out-of-shape old guys. I’ve explained to my fashion-conscious friends that we don’t wear those handknit sweaters anymore (although CBC radio host Bill Richardson recently caused a near-riot on his show when he refused to return one of those classic sweaters, bought in a thrift shop in Saskatchewan, to its original owner). I’ve patiently outlined the strategy of the game, which has more to do with chess than shuffleboard. I’ve tried to convince the cross-training, weight-lifting, aerobics set that 10 ends of sweeping draw shots into the eight-foot around a centre guard most certainly provides a more than adequate workout for the cardiovascular and muscular systems. I’ve dared detractors of the roaring game to get down in the hack and throw a perfect draw to the button – to which most reply, “Why would I want to?”

Yes, I’ve heard it all. But you will never convince me that curling isn’t one of the greatest games on earth, and it’s all because of etiquette.

I took up curling at the old age of 35. My childhood had been spent in curling clubs watching my parents indulge their passion for the sport. Toronto’s CFB Downsview was their home club, and it was a drab, boring place for a little girl to spend countless Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Sometimes I stayed home with my older brothers while my parents went off to bonspiels and competitions. One of my older brothers once wrote a school essay entitled “I Am A Curling Orphan.” We all hated the game that our parents loved so much. None of us took it up.

But of course things change. My husband and I moved, with our daughter, to a small town in eastern Ontario where my mother was living and where I had some other family connections. Vankleek Hill boasts a population of 1800 and sits on top of a hill surrounded by farmland in all directions. Ottawa is an hour away in one direction, and Montreal is an hour in the other direction. There isn’t much to do in the winter, apart from shoveling vast amounts of snow, and we wanted to find a way to meet and socialize with our new neighbours, so on the advice of my still curling-mad mom (now a spectator rather than a player), we joined the local curling club. It changed my life.

For one thing, I found out I was good at it. After the first awkward games, I started to get the feel for the ice, for throwing a rock with the right weight and the right turn. I discovered that I was a pretty good sweeper too. My mom would come to watch my games and I would see her there, beer and cigarette in hand, behind the glass. She never said it, but the “I told you so” was glowing in an invisible speech bubble right over her head.

Right from the start, my curling colleagues started teaching me about perhaps the most important part of the game: curling etiquette. Shake hands before - and after - the game.

Stand still when the other team is throwing. Admit it if you touch a rock with your broom, even though that rock must be removed from play (often to your own team’s disadvantage). Don’t jump in the air and celebrate when the other team misses a shot. Compliment good shots, no matter which team makes them. Respect your opponent.

Curling in a small town, in a two-sheet club, brings you into contact with all sorts of people. My first skip was a farmer (who missed the first game of the season because he was in Toronto showing cows at the Royal Winter Fair). The highschool principal was a teammate, as were, at various times throughout my years in Vankleek Hill, a nurse, lots of teachers, a labour relations negotiator, the town lawyer, the bank manager, the lady who ran the dress shop on Main Street, various highschool students, stay-at-home moms, retired seniors and many farmers, who often arrived late for the first game of the evening because they had to finish milking. Out on the ice, it didn’t matter who you were outside the walls of the club: young or old, male or female, employed or not, English or French. It didn’t even matter if you were a good curler. We played our games, shook hands, and sat down in the lounge while the winners bought the losers a drink – another example of curling etiquette.

Yes, it may look like a funny game, but the lessons learned from curling can take a person a long way. Or not. I was helping out for the first time in a Sunday afternoon junior program recently. A young curler was breaking some basic rules and I stopped to correct him, at which point he became rude and aggressive. He was surly to his teammates and to me. I asked one of the organizers how much curling etiquette they had been teaching, and the man shrugged and said not much, since the kids have so much to think about while trying to get that rock down the ice.

I looked at that young boy, maybe 10 or 11 years old, and thought to myself, “Young man, you’re not going to get too far in this game.”

And he won’t get too far in life either, with attitude like that. Imagine if everyone respected their teammates and opponents in life, shook hands after every confrontation and bought each other a drink. Imagine if we all stood still while others were concentrating on their life’s work, offering encouragement not distraction. Imagine if we celebrated our opponents’, as well as our own, accomplishments.

No, it’s not a perfect world, but it could be. And it is – on a sheet of curling ice.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Why curling doesn’t need referees

Hand Of God by BalakovThe front page and sports section of today’s Globe and Mail report on French soccer star’s Thierry Henry’s controversial handball (touching the ball – strictly against the rules) that led to France’s winning goal in their victory over Ireland in a World Cup qualifying match.

Controversial doesn’t even begin to describe it.  Players saw the infraction.  Henry himself admits to the infraction, but because the referee didn’t call it, play continued.  “Yes, there was a hand,” admits Henry.  “But I’m not the referee.  Of course I kept playing.”

In other words: Yes, I cheated.  So?

In Thursday night’s NHL game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Carolina Hurricanes, Ian White was slapped with a double minor for highsticking and drawing blood.  Viewers could clearly see White protesting to the referee that “it wasn’t me.”  And he was right.  The stick that drew blood belonged to a Carolina player. And to make things worse, the Hurricanes scored the tying goal on the ensuing power play.  What’s with that?

Fortunately for curlers, we are our own referees. We rarely have to rely on outside decisions to control the outcome of a game.  Measurements are witnessed and agreed upon by both vices.  In club play, vices do the measuring themselves.  If someone kicks a rock and touches it with the brush, it’s reported and dealt with.  We’ve all seen situations of burned rocks where the non-offending skip simply waved a hand and said “No problem.”  It would be easy not to admit that little contact between a guard and a badly placed foot – contact that made no difference at all to the position of the rock or the outcome of the shot.  But we acknowledge the contact anyway. 

And sometimes the results are catastrophic.  Ask Kerry Burtnyk, whose Olympic dream disappeared with a burned rock in the last end of his quarterfinal game against Jason Gunnlaugson at the Road to the Roar.  Would that draw have scored a winning point if a sweeper hadn’t touched it on the way?  It doesn’t matter. The rock was burned, the culprit admitted it, and the rock was removed.  It was the right thing to do.  Nobody needed a referee to tell them so.

And yet – let’s ask Marie France Larouche about “referees” of the technological kind.  I’m talking about theRock by mgroves sensors in her rock that indicated a hog-line violation during the second end of her game against Amber Holland.  Replays made it very difficult to see, and Larouche was clearly upset by the official’s decision that the sensors were functioning.  The rock was removed.  Was it a hog-line violation?  Did she retouch the rock after letting it go?

“I don't remember a time when I had a hogline violation, but that happened here,” said Larouche after the game, taking  full responsibility.  “I'm the only person to blame for it. We were not able to come around after that. They played well and they deserve it.”

Exactly the kind of response you would expect from a curler.  We don’t cheat, and we don’t need referees to keep us in line. Maybe other more high-paying and high-profile sports could learn something from us.

(Photo of Lego soccer by balakov; photo of rock by mgroves: Creative Commons licence)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Curling in North Carolina


NC curling picCheck out this article from an online Raleigh newspaper (The News & Observer) about how “cool'” curling is.  The author was apparently too nervous to step out onto the ice herself (she was training for a marathon and had been warned about the dangers of slipping), but she gives an entertaining account of watching the brave souls who did take the plunge, so to speak.  My favourite part: when she refers to the “pitchers” sending rocks down the ice. 

This picture, from the Triangle Curling Club website in Raleigh, shows curlers out on what sure looks like a hockey rink.  Isn’t that the blue line?  And boards?  Determined curlers will obviously find ice wherever they can, and who can blame them?  Way to go, Triangle Curling!

Next stop: checking in with some curlers in California.  Yes, you heard me!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Curling Clubs: Not just ice and rocks

Check out Danny Lamoureux’s most recent Business of Curling blog at the Canadian Curling Association for an amazing article written by the University of Waterloo’s Heather Mair on the role of curling clubs in their communities.

Curling clubMost curlers know that the club is more than just a building with a few sheets of ice, a bar, a kitchen and a club room. It’s the place where wedding receptions and funeral wakes are held, where Stag and Doe parties, bridge parties, and family gatherings take place. Curling clubs – especially in smaller communities across the country – are often the hub around which the local social scene turns.

Dr. Mair has been travelling across the country visiting clubs and talking to the people who use them. Her research seems to indicate that in Canada, curling is more than a sport; it’s a culture. We knew that. And it’s a culture worth examining.

(Photo: jhembach Creative Commons)

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Dominion Curling Club Championships

51 - DSC_0647 Coming to St. George’s Golf and Country Club in west Toronto the first week of November, The Dominion is the first-ever national championship for club curlers – yes, regular league curlers, not the teams that make it through zones and regionals to the provincials and beyond.  Eligibility rules allow each team to include one player with recent national or Grand Slam experience, but the intent is to give ordinary curlers an opportunity to taste the big time.

We’re talking about club teams from every province and territory in Canada that dominate the league, triumph at the end-of-season championship, or win the big club prize.  Gander’s Scott Davidge will be there.  So will Whitehorse’s Helen StrongBC teams are on their way.  Ontario will finalize its provincial winners at the end of October. 

The CCA will have end-by-end scoring for those fans who want to follow their team.  Check out The Dominion championship – a new way to celebrate grassroots curling at its best.


Thursday, October 1, 2009

Handshakes on the way out?

Today’s Globe and Mail reports that athletes at the Vancouver Olympic Games will be advised to avoid touching other athletes, especially shaking hands or giving high fives. The picture accompanying the article showed Shannon Kleibrink high-fiving one of her teammates, but even the recreational curlers (at left) know the drill.

This non-contact initiative is an effort to combat the spread of flu. Makes sense, but…

Since every game starts and ends with handshakes, are curlers going to be the first ones to defy the “rules” and opt for the standard sign of respect in our sport? Just wondering.

(Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Fergus Kicks Off Its 175th Anniversary Season

The Fergus CurlinThe Fergus Curling Club Celebrates 175 Years 1834-2009 Front Coverg Club kicks off its 175th Anniversary season on September 26 with a fun spiel at the club followed by a dinner at the Fergus Legion. Sixteen 3-person teams will be joined by an invited “rock star” – one of whom is Guy Hemmings, the club’s guest for the day and after-dinner speaker later that night.

Among other initiatives the club has undertaken to celebrate this remarkable milestone is the publication of a book, The Fergus Curling Club Celebrates 175 Years, written by…wait for it…ME. Yes, as a writer and curler, I had the chops needed to pull this project together, and the resulting 48-page illustrated history will be on sale by the club throughout the season.

Imagine my surprise when bonspiel convenor Cheryl Bennett invited me to attend – as a “rock star”! I’m off to pick up some new apparel. Something tells me there will be photographers hanging around the Fergus ice that day...

More on the Fergus celebrations as they unfold. Be sure to check out the club website for more details and stay tuned for my report on the life of a “rock star”.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

New Season: Time for a change

Curling - 1890 on Beaver Meadow

Sometimes when I step on the ice, I feel as if I’m heaving a rock through the snow, just like the guys in this picture (taken around 1890 in Fergus, Ontario).

Last season, our club team won less than half of its games. We struggled with our weight – on what is admittedly pretty inconsistent ice – our sweeping calls, even our strategy at times.  We were being beaten by teams that we should have walked over.  As vice, I couldn’t believe how many times I kicked the rocks back to the boards at the conclusion of an end while watching my opponent put up the score – end, after end, after end.

And then, suddenly and unpredictably, we’d have a great game.  Solid deliveries, perfect calls, stolen ends galore.  Unfortunately those nights were few and far between. The really frustrating part of it all was not knowing why we were doing so poorly.  Previous years we’d been in the playoffs, were a team to be reckoned with.

What happened?

I think we were just stale.  My skip decided to take this season off to focus on hockey, so I decided it was time for a change too.  Not a year off, but a move.  Across town to a ladies’ league in a larger club. 

Yes, it will be a big change.  For one thing, I’m used to competing and socializing with the boys.  And I’m also used to the relaxed, small-town feel of our little 4-sheeter. This is the big time: 8 sheets of ice in a club that has turned out provincial champions (not that the Business Womens’ Monday Night Social League will include a full roster of elite curlers, of course!).  It will be a different environment, a different feel. A change.

And I’m a firm believer that a change can provide a much-needed jolt. New faces, new ice, new feel – new curling experiences. That’s exactly what I hope will rejuvenate my game.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

You know you’re a curler when…

…you’re on holiday at the cottage in Nova Scotia, visiting with your cousin next door. He’s a retired RCMP officer from Saskatchewan, and you’re catching up on local gossip and family news from the past year. Eventually, however, the conversation rolls around to – what else? – that eight-ender scored against him in a game thirty years ago.

Real curlers talk curling – anywhere, anytime.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Throwing Stones, Part Two: Now we know why the CBC didn't pick up this show

If the pilot of "Throwing Stones", broadcast last night on CBC, was supposed to reflect the experience of grassroots curlers, it hogged. Badly.

First, it was silly. Enough said.

Second, it's hard to believe that the supposed club champions could have such lousy deliveries and sweeping technique. (And I'm sure that hair brush burned the rock in one shot...)

Third, a winning team that celebrates by taunting the losers and marching off the ice without shaking hands or sitting with their opponents to share a drink after the game would be drummed out of any club in the country. And that includes the losing team member who threw her gloves on the ice and stomped off in anger.

OK, this show may have been juiced up for television, but it was hard to watch.Which is too bad.

But way to go, CBC: you made a good call.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Throwing Stones: More drama on the ice

It's long overdue: a television show about people who curl. Not elite curlers, not famous curlers, not crazy male curlers (think Men With Brooms). With the huge numbers of Canadians who curl, watch curling, and attend curling events every year, it's amazing that it's taken this long.

Unfortunately, the show was turned down by the CBC (send letters!) but at least curling fans get to see the pilot on Wed July 15. It stars Patty Duke (yes, that Patty Duke), Canadians Lolita Davidovich and Caroline Neron, as well as curling extras from the Winnipeg scene. Connie Laliberte served as a curling advisor for the series.

Canadian champion curler Jill Officer writes about her experiences as an extra on the show for The Curling News , which is worth a look, especially the part about trying to find curling clothes that are not black, red, white or adorned with logos.

Although the show was not picked up by the CBC, at least there's an effort being made by artists in Canada to let curling expand beyond the rink and into our culture. Men With Brooms was entertaining - pretty silly and unrealistic, of course, but entertaining. Curling kids in Canada and the United States have been reading my novel, Abby and the Curling Chicks. And a recent festival of short films in Toronto promoted the on-ice zombie feature, Deadspiel.

Let's hope the winds of change are blowing curling into the cultural - not just the sporting - landscape of Canada.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Fergus Curling Club Celebrates 175 Years

The 2009-2010 curling season marks the 175th anniversary of the Fergus Curling Club - the longest continuously-operating club in Ontario.

To mark the occasion, the club is producing a commemorative book that captures snapshots of its remarkable history. Including archival material, selections from club albums, newspaper clippings - some dating back to the 1800s - and photographs of more recent club events, The Fergus Curling Club Celebrates 175 Years illuminates the club's long and active history. Here's a preview:

"Where does the story of the Fergus Curling Club begin? With the first heave of a weighty stone across some patch of ice in seventeenth century Scotland? With the purchase of thousands of acres of Upper Canadian wilderness on the Grand River by Scottish settler Adam Fergusson in 1833? Perhaps it really begins when Hugh Black leaves Perthshire, Scotland and arrives in Upper Canada with his family late in the summer of 1834. There, overlooking the river, Mr. Black builds a tavern at the corner of what is now St. Andrew and Tower Streets, and this establishment becomes the small settlement’s hub of activity.

Picture the scene as autumn 1834 turns to winter – a long cold winter that year, according to historians – and the landscape freezes over, including the rough road outside the tavern. Mr. Black eyes the stretch of ice extending for some length, dotted with the stumps of felled trees. He’s seen stretches of ice before – on the rivers and ponds of his Scottish home: ice means curling, a game that Mr. Black knows.

In fact, most of his neighbours are Scots as well, familiar with the sport of curling from their homeland. What better place, Mr. Black thinks, to combine vigorous outdoor activity with an entertaining way to pass the long winter than the stretch of ice in front of his tavern. The curlers can play a few ends, retreat to the tavern for refreshment and warmth, then resume their play until cold, darkness or a solid take-out ends the game.

There, throwing wooden blocks fixed with handles and sometimes loaded with iron for extra weight, the first Fergus curlers – Hugh Black Sr., his four sons, Hugh Jr., William, James and Robert, his sons-in-law James Perry and Robert Garvin, and neighbours James Dinwoodie, James and Thomas Webster, and William Buist – would have had no idea that one hundred and seventy-five years later, curlers would continue to throw stones down the ice, now in the comfort of the Fergus Curling Club, enjoying this sport that combines physical skill with mental ability and an inherent respect for the opponent."

The book will be available at the start of the 2009-2010 curling season - part of a busy Anniversary Year for Ontario's longest-running curling club. Watch for news of further anniversary celebrations from Fergus, Ontario - where they've been curling every year since 1834!
(Photograph courtesy of the Wellington Museum and Archives)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Grassroots Curling: What is it?

When were you introduced to curling?

CFB Downsview, the sixties. Sitting, bored and cranky, behind the glass watching my parents indulge in the sport they were passionate about. Another weekend at the club, another waste of time. There was no junior curling at this club, so we kids basically babysat ourselves. We were curling orphans.

"I will never, ever play this stupid sport," I vowed, images of endless afternoons and inattentive parents stamped in my memory.

Fast forward thirty years, to a young family moving to a new town. It's in the Ottawa Valley where winter comes early and lasts for month after cold, snowy month. How do people pass the time? They curl. Every town has its two-sheeter, or four-sheeter, or something bigger and fancier. Bonspiels abound every weekend from Halloween to Easter, and beyond. And there are two draws every night during the week (with games sometimes starting a bit late because we have to wait for the farmers to get in from milking). Winter passes in a flurry of social events, bonspiels, challenges for trophies and prizes - and the realization that my parents weren't crazy after all.

Curling. Most of us will never make it to the Brier or the Hearts or the World Championships or the Olympics. But who cares? We're all curlers, no matter what level we achieve. Every one of those champions - Canadian or international - started playing the game at the same place we did: the grassroots.

My grassroots curling was a friendly, competitive two-sheet club in a small Ottawa Valley town. What's yours?