A Yankee's enjoyable brush with the Canadian sport of curling

THE BALTIMORE SUN

To those of us bred on baseball, football and basketball, curling would seem to be something best done with the hair. But in Canada, where people and ice seem to have a natural affinity, the sport of curling is a national mania enjoyed by more than 1 million people.

Though only a small fraction of Yankees play the game, the majority of us at least have a vague idea of what it looks like, thanks to programs such as "Wide World of Sports" and the Winter Olympics telecast of curling as a demonstration sport. We know that curling is the sport where they sweep the ice with brooms.

At the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, athletes sweeping the ice will be competing for medals. The sport is moving up in the world. The object of curling is for a team of four players to get a thick disk of stone or iron to slide toward a target. One player "throws" the disk while the others "sweep" the ice clear of particles and debris so the stone has a better chance of reaching the target.

To a non-curler, it might seem strange, or weird, or funny. This is understandable. If you've never curled, sliding a 44-pound stone down a 120-foot sheet of ice and then maniacally sweeping everything in its path as if you were a housekeeper on amphetamines could very well qualify as weird.

On a recent trip to Calgary, where curling was a demonstration sport in the 1988 Olympics, I discovered that going curling is a lot like going bowling in the United States (except you fall down more). You can phone ahead for information or, upon arrival at your Canadian destination, simply open the Yellow Pages to "Curling," where you'll find a listing of clubs open to the public. (There are 1,250 venues across Canada; Calgary's phone book had nine.) Call the club's manager and see if he has any "free ice" not booked by leagues or private parties -- the best times are Saturday evening, Sunday afternoon and Friday morning -- and get ready to toss some rocks, as they say.

You'll need a clean pair of running shoes, a sweat suit or something similarly stretchy, and, if temperatures that hover near 40 degrees chill you, a hat and gloves.

Instead of renting a lane, you get a "sheet," as in a sheet of ice. The club provides the stone, $500-a-piece granite disks with metal handles on top, and the "hacks," starting blocks built into the ice from which players make a mighty push-off. Traditional corn brooms or the increasingly popular horsehair brushes, which look like vacuum attachments on a stick, can be rented for a couple of dollars. "Sliders" and "grippers," plastic and rubber shoe accessories that facilitate locomotion across the ice (or, in my case, something vaguely resembling locomotion), are on sale for around $14 at most curling-club pro shops -- though they'll lend them for free to out-of-towners.

The cost for a two-hour game is normally about $38, but curious visitors from down south are often given a discount. Even at the regular rate, it's a terrific value, because the cost is split among eight people. Curling is played four against four. If you are traveling alone or have a group smaller than a quartet, most club managers will gladly arrange a complementary number of players to round out your squad.

And you can expect that they will be preternaturally amiable toward you, especially if it is your first time trying the sport. Curlers are big on honor and good fellowship, and no matter how inept you may initially be, they will try very hard not to laugh.

My introduction to curling was conducted by a friendly 26-year-old Calgarian named Greg Northcott, the son of a three-time World Champion curler. He demonstrated the proper technique for propelling the stones, a balletic, graceful lunge that is supposed to send you (and your rock) on a sublime slide toward the boundary line, where you release the stone so it can continue down the sheet without you. During its approximately 15-second journey from end to end, traveling about 5 mph, the stone produces a muffled roar.

It's a lovely moment: The player slides, the stone roars, the target looms. Mr. Northcott -- and every other curler I watched that day at the Calgary Curling Club -- made it look easy, never once toppling over like a broken music stand, or a dilettante writer.

He also explained what to many Americans is the game's elemental mystery: What's the deal with the brooms?

Giving the ice in front of a sliding stone a vigorous polish reduces friction, so the stone travels farther and curls less -- thus the game's name. Two people furiously sweeping the playing surface can significantly affect the rock's final resting place. Good brushwork often determines the outcome of a match.

Accomplished curlers not only throw and sweep well, they can also "read" ice conditions the way a bowler reads the boards or a golfer reads the greens. You'll often see curlers with a stopwatch clipped to their belt. They actually time the ice. Though all the ice looked basically the same to me -- white, smooth, slippery, Mr. Northcott insisted that every sheet had characteristics ranging from "pebbled" (bumpy) to "keen" (smoothly worn), and identifying those peculiarities was one of the skills that separated the good players from the great ones.

The weekend I visited, the Calgary Curling Club was sponsoring a bonspiel, a tournament that attracted female teams from all over Canada and Europe. Watching them expertly place their rocks at just about any spot they wanted, I realized that when played correctly, the game is like shuffleboard on ice, the object being to slide your rocks closer to the "tee" (center) of the "house" (a bull's-eye-like series of rings) than your opponent, whose rocks you simultaneously attempt to "take off" (crash into) with "heavy" (quickly moving) throws. Of course, when the game is played incorrectly, none of this happens.

To those cynics who contend curling is easily one of the world's silliest sports -- or, at least, silliest-looking -- I say . . . Yes, it might look that way, but wait until you try it.

IF YOU GO . . .

Curlers typically wear sweat pants and sneakers. All other paraphernalia can be rented or bought at ice rinks where the sport is played. For details, call the Canadian Curling Association at (613) 748-5628. The following organizations provide information on public curling facilities in their area:

* Curl BC 1367 Broadway, Vancouver, BC V6H 4A9; (604) 737-3040.

* Nova Scotia Curling Office, Box 3010, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3J 3G6; (902) 425-5450.

* Ontario Curling Federation, 1220 Ave. E, Willowdale, Ontario M2K 2X1; (416) 426-7211.

* Royal Caledonian Curling Club, 5 Montgomery Ave., Montreal, Quebec H3R 2B2; (514) 735-2672.

* Southern Alberta Curling Association, 2408 10th Ave. SW, Calgary, Alberta, T3C 0K6; (403) 246-9300.

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