LOWELL -- Over the years, I’ve gotten used to esteemed Boston.com news editor John Burke’s espousing on the technicalities and attraction of curling, a game of which he is admittedly an advocate. That’s why I was surprised I was unable to spot him out Saturday among the dozens of people at the Tsongas Arena.
They’re holding the 2006 Men’s World Curling Championships in the City of Spindles this week, which is sort of like hosting the annual Nathan’s Fourth of July hot dog eating contest just north of Saskatchewan. Face it, Massachusetts is not exactly the curling capital of the world. We like to see people stuff their face with an unhealthy amount of fat calories to celebrate our independence though, something our neighbors to the north might find a bit disturbing.
Curling reaches us here in New England at quite the opposite end of the spectrum. It was one of the better rated events of this past Turin Winter Games for a reason. First, it was one of two sports NBC realized they could televise live in the 21st century. But watching a curling match is like being stung with a tranquilizer and not being able to get enough of a Spanish soap opera. You don’t have the faintest as to what’s going on, but you’re engrossed in the very fact of not being able to comprehend.
I come across curling while flipping through with the remote, and I stop instantly. I just do. If you’re looking for a reason, I’d like the answer when you find it.
Media credentialing for the event was daunting, as you might imagine. OK, that’s a lie. But a WBZ-TV cameraman did have to listen to a lecture about how he couldn’t roam inside the boards, a space that reserved for rightsholders. Yes, rightsholders. As in CurlTV. Don’t bother calling Comcast, I’m already on it.
In fact, TV coverage is a touchy subject in Canada this week. While CurlTV does indeed carry the games on the Internet, CBC will only be broadcasting this weekend's finals and semifinals, and TSN, which in the past has carried the round robin games, elected not to do so this year with a heavy slate of NHL and Masters action. In America, ESPN has to give Skip Bayless a forum for some reason, so no dice there, either.
There were four separate matches going on when I arrived last Saturday, the Opening Day of the event. I decided to follow the Canada-Sweden showdown because it was the match with the most fans on hand following the moves of their curling heroes. By most, I mean 50, give or take 10. Mostly take. During a particularly engrossing sequence, the Canadian skip gave the stone an out-turn on the swingy ice and nearly settled it directly in the button of the house, this of course following a nasty chip-and-roll. I don’t know if that makes any sense, mind you. I’m just trying to utilize the vocabulary I found in the rear of my program.
Here is what I know about curling: It’s like pool. Sort of. And the Swedish women’s team has a player named Ulrika Bergman who I followed back in February only because my open jaw made her required viewing. I know you toss rocks down the ice, and the “hammer” (the last stone thrown) acts as an eight ball of sorts. The brooms, well come over and see my kitchen floor and notice how much I can tell you about that.
According to the Lowell Sun, the matches over the weekend averaged about 1,500 per draw. Last year, the championship games held in British Columbia sold 120,000 tickets. The men’s championship is right back here in the States in just a couple of years, when Grand Forks, N.D., hosts the 2008 men’s tournament. Something like two-thirds of all American curlers originate from our country’s upper Midwest, including Pete Fenson, the bronze-medal-winning skip of the American team in Turin, who is whipping through this week -- 6-1 through yesterday. Fenson is the face of these games, his likeness plastered throughout much of downtown Lowell. A fan held up a sign during Saturday’s opening ceremonies that read, “Pete Fenson Rocks.” Rocks. Get it? That’s some curling humor for you.
I spotted John Wilson two sections over from where I was seated, off to the left of a Swedish fan who was just finishing his first pre-noon Carlsberg of the day. Of course, I could spot an amoeba circus there from two sections away, but Wilson makes it all too easy with his oversized Leprechaun hat. I walked over and introduced myself and asked him what part of Ireland he was from. Except, the boy’s not Irish. He’s Scottish. So is his father, Peter Wilson, a member of Team Ireland, which in fact employs no Ireland natives.
Curling is non-existent in Ireland, he explains, so they recruit the Scottish, the originators of the game, to come play for them. And they’re not the only ones with ringers. Team Australia boasts three Canadians and a Scotsman on its roster, but that might just be an evasive measure as to not to subject the audience to a string of expletives when things go wrong.
Following the opening ceremonies, hosted by Gord Kluzak, who was thisclose to being booed by the Canadian majority in attendance after it was announced he was a former Bruin, I strolled into the Rock Garden (otherwise known as the food court) set up in a tent outside. There I ran into Brian Martin, a Scotland native who creates curling jewelry from stone he collects in his boat at Ailsa Craig, the Scottish quarry from which all curling stones are made. His samples, however, were non-existent. Customs in New Jersey commandeered the entire stock he brought with him from Scotland, due to some Mother of Pearl restrictions in the country. How’s that for a kick? If the poor guy can’t sell curling jewelry at the curling championships, then just where can he?
“With all due modesty I think it’s the most beautiful curling jewelry in the world,” he said, I guess suggesting it wasn’t the only curling jewelry in the world. “Nobody else is daft enough to make a diamond curling stone. There’s nothing to compare with mine, to be honest.”
I asked him what sales were like, and most expectedly he said they have been much better since the dawn of the Internet. I thought of suggesting that so have sales of grilled cheese sandwiches with traces of Jerry Garcia’s face burned into the bread, but respectfully declined.
“We started the game,” he said. “We invented golf for the summer and then folks said, ‘What can we do in the winter?’ So we invented curling. And it was about 200 years later before we invented television to keep us busy when we weren’t playing games.”
That’s true. John Logie Baird, a Scottish engineer-inventor is widely credited with having a great deal to do with the advent of the TV, which paired with golf, make up perhaps the quintessential Saturday afternoon for many Americans. Curling, meanwhile, remains an enigma, a game that seems too close to shuffleboard to be taken too seriously in the American sporting culture.
Martin guessed there were about 600 curling clubs in Scotland. I know of maybe nine in Massachusetts, where the world championships are being held this week. It’s a little out of place, perhaps, particularly for Canadian fans who have to wonder where the crowds are.
Not to sound all Terrence Mann, but I have an idea. Send Ulrika Bergman to Lowell. People will come. People most definitely will come.
Gallery: Lowell ... a curling mecca?