Curling, ‘a game about honesty and respect,’ is taking hold

While curling is gaining popularity nationwide, the Commonwealth really is a hub.

The author (who describes herself as unathletic, nervous, and winter-hating) tried curling at Blackstone Valley Curling Club in Hopedale, Mass. It was more fun — and difficult — than she expected.
The author (who describes herself as unathletic, nervous, and winter-hating) tried curling at Blackstone Valley Curling Club in Hopedale, Mass. It was more fun — and difficult — than she expected. –MEKAE HYDE FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

A decade ago, most of us thought curling was something you did to your hair, not an Olympic sport. But in this year’s Winter Olympics, the US men’s curling team won the gold, and, suddenly, curling has become nearly as common a spectator sport as skiing, snowboarding, or hockey.

What many of us don’t know, though, is that curling is becoming wildly popular to play, too. All over the country, curling clubs are cropping up — especially in Massachusetts, which has about 14 clubs from Boston to the Berkshires.

“It is the most decent sport I’ve ever played,’’ says Russ Lemcke, known as Johnny Curlingseed for his work starting upward of 13 curling clubs from Maine to California. “It’s a wonderful team sport, and there’s a level of respect for your opponents that’s hard to find.’’

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While curling is gaining popularity nationwide, the Commonwealth really is a hub. Massachusetts is part of the Grand National Curling Committee (GNCC), the largest and oldest curling organization in the country, extending from Maine to Florida. Massachusetts has more curling clubs than any state in the GNCC, boasting nearly 20 percent of the 69 clubs.

Gwen Krailo, two-time GNCC president, says that might be because “the Northeast and New England have the oldest clubs and the highest concentration.’’ Not to mention the long, cold winters that have notoriously made skiers and snowboarders of locals.

As for me, I’m a native Mainer who neither skis nor snowboards and des­pises cold weather. My athletic prowess is lacking, but Krailo swore to me that curling is “a game of finesse, not a game of brute strength — despite the fact the stones are 42 pounds by regulation, and you have to get them 146 feet down the ice.’’

Ugh. Against my better judgment, I tried the 16th-century Scottish sport. Here’s what I learned.

Everything you need to know

“Curling, first and foremost, is a game about honesty and respect,’’ says Paul Aronofsky, vice president of the North End Curling Club. “We start and end each game with a handshake, and the winner buys the loser a drink after.’’

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As a bigger fan of après-ski than the actual sport, this tradition called “broomstacking’’ immediately appealed to me: an after party where “curlers hang around and socialize with each other,’’ says Krailo. “We are a brotherhood of very friendly, wonderful people.’’ (Would I fit in after all?)

To play the game, two teams, each with four players, take turns sliding heavy, granite stones down a sheet of ice with the goal of landing them on a bull’s-eye-shaped target called the “house.’’ Like darts, the closer you get to the center of that bull’s-eye, the better.

It may sound straightforward, but it’s anything but — quite literally.

“The stone curls as it travels down the ice,’’ says Al Ayotte, founder of Blackstone Valley Curling Club in Hopedale. That namesake rotation of the stone, as I learned, takes a lot of practice to master.

To start, the “lead’’ or first teammate glides out onto the ice and “throws’’ (really more of a strong push) the stone toward the house. Then, two other teammates called the second and third (or vice-skip) lead the stone’s trajectory down the ice by sweeping in front of it to control its speed and direction.

“Sweeping creates just enough friction to melt the ice a little, making it easier for the stone to move further toward the house,’’ Matt Buczek, president of Blackstone Valley Curling Club, explains to me and eight other newbies at the weekly Learn to Curl event. It’s an uncharacteristically chilly October day, but inside the arena, it feels like February. We press on.

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Down at the other end of the ice is the fourth teammate, called the skip. This player acts as a surrogate team captain and game strategist by standing at the house, making the calls for where—and how — his or her teammates should aim their stones and sweep.

Beyond aiming for the center (or “button’’) of the house, you can strategically try and block the house, or you can aim for your opponent’s well-placed stones, like a big, icy game of bocce ball. All players take turns, throwing two stones each and sweeping the rest of the time.

After the last of 16 stones has been thrown, the first round, or “end,’’ concludes and it’s time to tally up points by measuring which stones are closest to the button. Then, rinse and repeat: a typical game has eight or 10 ends.

What it’s like to curl for the first time

At Blackstone, Buczek presents us with a bucket of brooms — not the bristled kind you have at home, these look more like long-handled squeegees covered in fabric.

With special rubber grippers hugging the soles of our shoes, our group shuffles onto the ice, dappled with what Buczek calls an “orange peel effect.’’ Part of the difference between curling ice, and, say, hockey ice, are the “little droplets of water [to create] little pebbles that the rock runs on,’’ says Lemcke.

Those roughened pebbles also, not unimportantly, make it possible for me and other curlers to make it onto the ice without nose-diving.

As any good curler knows, the first thing you have to master is pushing off from the hack, a foothold secured to the ice where you — and the stone — start off. Like a sprinter on a block, I place one foot back on the hack and the other on a Teflon sheet. “This piece of Teflon makes it easier to glide on the ice,’’ Buczek explains. It also makes it easier to fall: I can’t help but notice that it feels dangerously similar to wearing skates on black ice.

Meanwhile, I crunch into an awkward half-squat, half-lunge, gripping the stone’s handle in one hand and a plastic stabilizer in the other. This stabilizer is (hopefully) what will protect me from toppling over once I deliver the stone down the sheet. The pros just place an edge of their brooms on the ice for balance. (Showoffs.)

After more than a few beats of hesitation, I shove off from the hack. It takes balance to stay upright and mental energy to remember to keep my foot out for balance, hips square, and my weight largely on my leading foot — but I’ve successfully done it without falling. My peers all do similarly well, and I think: Maybe this won’t be so difficult after all.

Then, I try and deliver the stone all the way down the ice, which requires more force and coordination. Now I topple over. My poor stone doesn’t even make it halfway to the house. It’s not as easy as they make it look, but not as painful as I expected it to be.

As for the sweeping, it requires a lot of stamina. Lemcke warned me beforehand that curling is “great cardiovascular exercise,’’ and a Blackstone member tells me that an average game will run you up to 2½ half miles of cardio. “If you do this right, you’ll be sore tomorrow,’’ Buczek yells after us as we sweep. And I was, in my arms, quads, and shoulders.

As the game progresses, we all forget the subzero temperature and start to sweat. It’s a lot of work to keep up with the stone, avoid hitting it (or your teammate) with the broom, and sweep hard. “Invariably, when people come off the ice after their first experience, they say, ‘Wow, that’s more difficult than I realized,’ ’’ says Lemcke. “They also invariably say, ‘What a load of fun.’ ’’

I’m here to confirm both claims. After a few ends, I wished my teammates and opponents good curling and we headed around the corner for a well-earned broomstack. En route home, I researched the closest curling club to my town. Curling may have officially converted me to a winter sports gal.

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