Burning down the House

MANCHESTER - Putting the curl in curling isn't quite as simple as it looks.

If the closest you've come to experiencing the sport of curling has been watching it on television, perhaps during the Olympics, you could be forgiven for wondering how it got the name. Much like baseball, it's all in the wrists.

Well, not quite. But if you want your rock or "stone" to curl - that's the 42 and 1 /2 pound granite object that looks a bit like a tea kettle that one member of the four players who make up a curling team hurls down the ice - you have to hold the handle in the right way, and release it with a slight twist or turn. It could be a clockwise twist, or counterclockwise, depending on where you want your rock to land up, way down the ice in the "house," the bulls-eye shaped scoring zone at the other end.

"What that does is put a little gentle spin on it, so the stone will no longer just go with the vagaries of the ice, it actually has a direction you've given it," said Jacki Lappen, the Equinox Curling Club's current president, to an audience of 15 or so beginners during a clinic the club hosted two weeks ago at Riley Rink. As the stone travels the length of the ice, it will rotate about two or three times, and the object is to have it end up in the right spot - if not in the bulls-eye or "button" as the red center dot is referred to, then knocking out an opponent's rock (a "strike"), or protecting a stone cast earlier in the round (a "guard").

There's more to this game, apparently, than frantically sweeping the ice in front of the stone. There's actually a lot of strategy that goes into scoring, and high hopes of running up the numbers can easily be dashed if your opponents knock your rock out of the house. But just getting the rock in the house isn't all that easy either. More on that in a moment.

The Equinox Curling Club was founded about three years ago, when, according to the club's Web site, Susan Marmer, then the rink's executive director, invited members of the Rutland Rocks Curling Club to come down to Manchester to teach the finer points of the game. When more than 150 people turned out for the sessions, the local curling club was formed, and now counts about 30 players from Manchester and several surrounding towns. They gather at the rink Sunday mornings to practice and play, and are planning to send two teams up to Rutland next Saturday for the curling competition known as a Bonspiel - but since this is Vermont it's a Ver-spiel - and are also holding a major fund-raising curling event at Riley Rink on Saturday, March 2, starting at 5:30 p.m., Lappen said.

That is just about the time that the municipal portion of Manchester's town meeting will be ending down at MEMS, so if a vote or two didn't go your way, here's a chance to vent the steam.

Starting a curling club in Manchester may have been a "leap of faith," she said, but it was one winter sport that didn't have a presence before then in Manchester, and the rink was willing to help.

"So we decided to see if we could get something going, and it's taken off," Lappen said.

The fund-raiser will be a six-team competition. Groups or organizations wishing to form or sponsor teams will pay $55 per person to get a "learn-to-curl" tutorial, then play games against each other.

A portion of the proceeds from the event of March 2 will also go to support the summer camp program of the local Cub Scout Pack 333, according to the club's website.

One of the nice things about curling is that almost anyone can play and enjoy, said Diane Pouliot, the incoming club president-elect.

Even with one knee that's a bit gimpy, it's a sport within her grasp, she said.

When she makes her delivery of the stone, she stands and delivers with a device known as a "curler's cue" or "delivery stick" because of her knee, and that's perfectly within the rules, she said.

"It's an easy to learn game - you can learn and play immediately," she said. "It's something anyone can do, at any age, or any stage in life."

But like any sport, doing it is one thing - doing it well is another. Like anything else, it takes practice.

Take that starting point, the delivery, for example.

It may look like the deliverer is just giving the stone a push down the ice, but really, the stone's momentum is derived from the push off from the "hack," a small platform that the deliverer launches from and then slides away from. Ideally, as you approach what is known as the "hog" line, you release and let the stone go, curling it as needed. Amazingly, that heavy rock can travel a substantial distance without a real push directly from the arm. It's easy to look awkward and a graceful slide to the hog line takes some work. But neither is it like many other sports, which require hours, if not years of dedicated practice to become proficient at it.

As the stone travels down the "pebbled" ice - the sheet has been sprayed with droplets of water to provide some traction for it - two sweepers watch its progress. When the fourth member of the team, known as the "skip" - basically the team's quarterback - calls on the sweepers to get into action, they sweep the ice in front of the stone to help it travel faster by reducing the friction or induce it to curl in a certain direction. Ideally, it will land in the center of the house, or knock an opponent's stone out of the house.

After each delivery, the teams rotate. The deliverer becomes one of the sweepers; one of the sweepers becomes the skip. The skip becomes the deliverer. And around it goes, at a quick pace, until each "end" or inning is played. The game has 10 ends, and the team with the most points wins.

Simple, right? Not so much. There's a lot of strategy that goes into the game. Skill levels, conditions of the ice and who has the last throw (or "hammer") all factor in. Aggressive or defensive? There are rewards and risks to both approaches. You can try to clog up the lanes to the center of the bulls-eye, or knock the other teams stones out. It all depends. There's something of a chess-like quality to the game.

It's not a physically demanding sport, but the sweepers do get in some aerobic activity monitoring the stones and the pace of the game is not deliberate. You have to be on your toes and pay attention to what's going on.

Scotland is generally credited with being where the sport was first played, beginning in the 16th century. It's very popular in Canada, and Canadian teams have done well in Olympic play since it became an official Olympic sport permanently in 1998. The first curling club in the U.S. was formed in 1830 at Orchard Lake, Mich., near Detroit.

Those interested in learning more about curling, or the Equinox Curling Club, or forming a team for the March 2 event, can visit the club's website at equinoxcurlingclub.org for more information.

"It's fun, and it's not dangerous," Lappen said. "It opens up possibilities. It's a sport most people can participate in."


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