Curlers from team Alberta North compete in the 2004 Arctic Winter Games in Fort McMurray, Alberta. The sport is new to the Kenai Peninsula but has a long history elsewhere in the state.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Last year, when Homer was selected as the site of the curling competition for the 2006 Arctic Winter Games, most folks around town were asking themselves the same question: What in the heck is curling?
Few Alaskans have watched a curling tournament called a bonspiel and even fewer have played the sport.
Coverage of curling events on U.S. television so far has ranged from satirical (what will those funny Canadians think up next?) to nearly nonexistent.
But to the 40 athletes coming to Homer to compete for five days beginning March 6, curling is more than some obscure northern pastime.
Curling is played in more than 20 countries in Europe, Asia, North America and Australia. It is an Olympic sport. In Alaska, there are curling clubs in Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Curling, which is played on ice, is a team sport that likely originated in 16th century Scotland, not Canada, although the sport is popular there. Like many Scottish games read golf what looks simple at first glance, later reveals deeper and deeper levels of minutia.
The object is for two teams of four players to slide 42-pound granite circular stones called rocks down a sheet of ice 130 feet long by 15 feet wide, aiming for an archery-like target called the house at the other end.
Each team takes turns “throwing” or sliding their rocks toward the target until all 16 rocks two from each player have been thrown.
Curling got its name from the rock’s tendency to curve or curl down the ice, depending on the motion of the throw and ice conditions.
After all the rocks are thrown, teams score one point for each rock closest to the center of the house called the button.
The game is scored similarly to bar room shuffleboard games, but in each round or “end,” only one team can score. Competitions usually consist of eight to 10 ends.
One interesting, though often joked about, aspect of curling is the sweepers. In a game not known for speed, sweepers add excitement as they vigorously sweep the ice in front of the stone to keep it moving, make it travel further or make it travel straighter.
Before the match, water is sprayed on the surface of the ice to create small ice pebbles, like the salt on bar room shuffleboard games.
The stones slide on these pebbles, creating lanes that must be accounted for during competition, said Homer resident and former curler Scot Wheat.
“For me, it was kind of like chess,” Wheat said. Although the game also resembles a combination of billiards and bowling, he said.
“You really have to pay attention to what each stone does. You have to constantly adjust your strategy.”
Wheat began curling at the age of 12 and played consistently in Fairbanks before moving to Homer in 1990.
There are essentially two types of throws in curling “draws” that finish within the house, and “hits” designed to knock opponents’ stones out of play, Wheat said.
Sometimes teams use a combination of both, skillfully bouncing their stones off other stones, setting up defensive blockers, or curling them around the defense.
That strategy is what makes the game interesting, said Games General Manager Tim Dillon.
“It combines the athleticism and the thinking man’s game, as far as the chess side of it,” Dillon said. “That and communication. If the teammates aren’t communicating, they won’t be successful.”
Like in most sports, technology has played a significant role in changing the game.
The rocks have transformed from an irregular stone found in Scottish ponds to a uniform circular piece of granite affixed with a handle.
The bottom of the stone is convex, allowing the stone to spin better and curl sideways nearly a foot off line.
According to the Anchorage Curling Club, most granite for curling stones still comes from Ailsa Craig in Scotland. But today, Wales and Canada also produce stones.
Brooms or sweepers also have evolved from household items to curling-specific instruments. Some available on the market today have carbon fiber shafts and synthetic bristles.
Shoes are now made with friction-resistant inserts that can be placed over the soles when tossing, and then removed to allow more grip while sweeping.
With increased exposure to the sport, dozens of curling clubs have cropped up throughout the United States. What used to be considered a humorous sideshow at the Winter Olympic Games has become increasingly covered.
For instance, the stations of NBC plan on covering 26 curling matches during this year’s Olympics in Turin, Italy, in February including live broadcasts of 15 matches, according to recent reports.
That should give Kenai Peninsula residents just enough time to figure out what curling is all about, before curling athletes take over the Homer Ice Arena beginning March 6.
Opening ceremonies for the Games begin March 5 at the Soldotna Sports Center. Curlers travel to Homer on March 5 for practice and start competition at 5 p.m. March 6. Competition continues March 7 and March 9 from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. with a two-hour break in the middle.
On March 8 competition runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a break.
The semifinals are March 10 from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. with the finals beginning at 3:30 p.m.
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