A white-haired man in a kilt is hustling around the tunnels of Maurice Richard Arena, right next door to Olympic Stadium in Montreal, trying to get organized. "Come on, ladies!" he shouts, at nobody in particular. "We've got four minutes and we're on!"
Two crews from The Sports Network, Canada's equivalent of ESPN, clean their lenses and set up their tripods. Fans are filing into the dim and spacious concrete dome—1,825 of them, all told, mostly families and older couples on dates. Though excited to be there, nobody seems eager to sit down: The building's 4,750 seats are wooden, unforgiving, and lacking armrests. One middle-aged attendee strolls along the concourse, red cowbell in hand, looking for his section. He's wearing baggy blue jeans, a Raggedy Andy wig, and a Canadian-themed hoodie. When he turns around, I can see a bright red stripe painted down the middle of his Santa-like beard. These people are ready for the nine-day Scotties Tournament of Hearts, Canada's national women's curling championship, held every year in February. They're ready to watch the rare spectacle of big-time curling.
At 7 p.m. sharp, a bagpipe player near the players' entrance blows a few squeaky notes and the teams—representing 10 provinces and two territories—parade onto the rink behind him, flags in tow. They're joined by the tournament mascot, a dead-eyed white cotton ball that resembles Otto the Orange if Otto had been left to rot on the Syracuse quad. The crowd is applauding and whistling, the athletes are clapping and waving to their families and fans. Team Homan, from Ottawa, emerges near the back, walking beneath a giant maple leaf. (As defending champs, they get to play under the banner of "Team Canada.") All four women are fairly tall, thin, fit, and in their mid-20s. Emma Miskew, Alison Kreviazuk, and Lisa Weagle wear tight ponytails, while their skip, 24-year-old Rachel Homan, leaves her straight brown hair down, her bangs hanging loosely over her right eye. None of them cracks so much as a smile or sly smirk. Team Homan looks stoic and determined, out to inflict some damage.
Though three of the four members have played together since they were pre-teens, racking up junior titles and big match experience, this past season was Team Homan's coming-out party. In just their second appearance, they rolled through the 2013 Scotties, winning 12 of 13 games—including the finals, against four-time champs Team Jennifer Jones—and tying the tournament record for most victories. At the subsequent 2013 World Championships, they claimed bronze, dropping a razor-thin 8-7 semifinal contest against Great Britain's Olympic representative, Team Eve Muirhead. They struggled uncharacteristically at their first Olympic trials this past December, finishing in third behind Jones, but more opportunities will undoubtedly come. Young, photogenic, and talented as hell, Team Homan—ranked third in the world, the best team stuck at home for the Sochi Games—is in many ways the future of female curling. By virtue of their birthplace, this makes them unassuming national celebrities. The past 12 months, Kreviazuk told me earlier in the day, "have been pretty surreal, for sure."
Curling is a sport the vast majority of the world ignores for all but 20 days each decade. In Canada, one million people play regularly, and millions more watch major tournaments (or "bonspiels") on television. Forty-six percent of the population tuned in at least once last season, by one count. As the Olympics approached this winter, I spent some time trying, as best as I could, to understand this dichotomy. Why are Canadians, and only Canadians, so bonkers about curling? Are they in space, or are they onto something?
The Scotties was a good place to dig for clues. Founded in 1961, the tournament is prestigious and perennially competitive; of the top 13 rated teams in the world, there were nearly as many at the Scotties (four) as will throw rocks this week in Russia (five). Team Homan's first game, against 29-year-old skip Chelsea Carey from Manitoba, who finished fifth at December's Olympic trials, would be a difficult early test. A win at the Scotties would secure them a return trip to the world championships, in Scotland.
A quick primer for the uninitiated: In curling, each team has four players, and each player throws two 44-pound rocks at a target, known as "the house," in each round. The team with the rock closest to the center of the house (the button) wins that round, which curlers call "an end." How many points the winners get depends on how many rocks that team lands closer to the button than their opponent. Sneak two in tight, in other words, and you finish the end with a 2-0 advantage. In tournament play, the team with the highest score after 10 ends wins the game. Sweeping, by melting the ice through modest friction, can both straighten and lengthen a shot, sometimes by as much as 15 feet.
Like a player-coach, the skip stands by herself near the target and plans out her team's shifting strategy. Homan's style is intense but understated: There's very little barking or histrionics, and palpable trust between she and her teammates. When in rhythm, she looks relaxed, as if she were casually pulling rocks toward her on a string. The skip also throws the last two shots of each end, and this is where Homan really shines. She'll bend down, wipe excess ice off the base of the rock, fix her eyes on the target, lift her hips, and push out of the hack gracefully into a deep lunge before releasing the rock gently. More often than not, when she kicks both legs into a crouch to follow its path down the sheet, that rock stops on a dime where it needs to land, with minimal need for sweeping, slipping in through tight cracks or blasting opposing stones out of contention. Team Homan will celebrate respectfully with quiet low-fives or fist bumps. Then they'll refocus.
In the stadium, there's no commentary and no music. (There's no beer for sale, either.) The electronic scoreboard is unplugged. The only real noise is the swish of the sponge-like brooms on the pebbled ice and the skips' directives—line's good, keep your brooms down, yep, HARD... GOGOGOGOGO! The rocks glide gingerly as if they have nowhere important to be. The time in between shots and the relative silence create legitimate tension. It's like a PGA major, but slippery, and with teammates and fewer assholes.
Team Homan stakes out an early 3-0 lead against Manitoba, and dodges a bullet in the third end, when Chelsea Carey comes up centimeters short with a last-rock draw attempt, missing out on chance to steal two points. This is a common theme in their matches: Homan's crew grinds you down with accuracy and poise, and takes ruthless advantage of any and all unforced errors. (In this draw, they'll convert 92 percent of their shots to Manitoba's 79 percent.) They're the big sister, holding the top of your head as you punch aimlessly into the air.
A few ends later, just when it feels like Manitoba might claw its way back, Miskew and Homan finish off their rivals in style, picking up four rocks and the victory with four consecutive stunning shots. (The first—in which Miskew crushed two close Manitoba rocks out of the house while deadening hers right near the button—might have been the most impressive.) A small cheering section of male admirers has formed in one corner of the arena, and they take the opportunity to make their affections widely known: one screams the digits of his phone number while another improvises a Homan-inspired rendition on "Mambo #5." Homan hears them clearly, and finally lets escape a wide grin.
To train for the Olympic trials and the Scotties, Weagle—Team Homan's lead and, at 28, its elder stateswoman—took time off from her job with Sport Canada, a government agency that develops federal sports policy. When I ask her how long she hopes to curl competitively with this group, she shrugs. "We're all young women and things eventually will happen—children, jobs, other priorities. We can't sustain ourselves as curlers forever," she says. "But we're going to enjoy the ride while we can."
Broadly speaking, there are two types of curlers. Team Homan counts itself among the professional set, men and women who commit fully to the sport, compete at elite bonspiels, and dream about the Olympics, which added curling as a medal sport 16 years ago. They'll bend the ears of sports psychologists and nutritionists and physiologists. They'll burn through vacation days or line up sponsors to help underwrite the cost of training and travel. (Team Homan has backing from a poultry company named Pinty's and the Ottawa Police Association, among others.) They'll curl as long as they can, whenever they can.
The rest of Canada is content to curl recreationally, which they've done, frigid winter after frigid winter, since the middle of the 18th century. Scottish immigrants brought the game to the New World; in his book Curling: The History, The Players, The Game, Warren Hansen speculates that the name of the sport derives from the Scottish verb "curr," to make a low or hoarse murmuring sound, like the noise a rock makes as it rumbles down the ice. It was in the True North, however, where the sport realized its full potential. They started sweeping on the country's vast supply of frozen water before moving under sheds and eventually indoors, where cold snaps and the setting sun couldn't interrupt play. Prairie farmers with months of time to kill after the harvest took to it with passion. Small towns from coast to coast set up their own clubs, with dedicated ice and a place to chat and relax (and yes, imbibe) after matches. By most estimates, Canadians still account for three-quarters of the world's curling population.
The Royal Montreal Curling Club (RMCC) was the first such institution in Canada, and it's now the oldest active sporting club of any type in North America. The two-story brick building and shed sits discretely on De Maisonneuve Boulevard, a busy street near downtown, 25 minutes on the Metro from Maurice Richard. Twenty merchants connected to the fur trade—conservative, patriotic, upwardly mobile—founded the club in 1807. Dr. J.S.S. Armour, an honorary life chaplain at RMCC, explains that the club's motto—"How Social a Game and How Manly"—was meant to distinguish curling from less humane endeavors like cockfighting and bearbaiting. Members originally shot on the St. Lawrence River. Their predecessors built an ice shed in the mid-19th century (rumored to be the first of its kind) and constructed the existing clubhouse in 1892.
Of the 140 or so Montrealers who still curl within those walls, Doug Brown is the longest tenured active member. At 79, short and trim, Brown looks a bit like baseball manager Jim Leyland if Leyland had quit smoking three decades ago. On the Wednesday morning we meet, he's wearing glasses, a white and navy RMCC track jacket, and a matching ball cap; a stopwatch hangs from his neck. A Winnipeg native whose father and grandfather both curled, Brown joined the club as a college student, on his 21st birthday, in 1956. "I can sleep here and feel at home, I've been here so long," he says. "I'm a piece of the furniture."
I like Brown immediately. He's gracious, funny, and also a little cocky. At one point during my visit, we stop in front of a trophy case. Without saying a word, he points down at the massive club championship plaque on the bottom shelf—they've named it in his honor. Brown says he would have loved to make a run at the Brier, the men's equivalent to the Scotties, when he was in his prime, but his work as an accountant always got in the way; tax season overlaps almost identically with the good curling, and "earning a living seemed more important." Now retired, he plays five or six times a week. For balance when shooting, the skip still leans on a corn broom, a habit from childhood he never quite outgrew.
RMCC has made a few cosmetic changes to its shed over the years—swapping out windows for improved lighting, exchanging ashtrays for Kleenex boxes—but the gorgeous space looks largely as it did 121 years ago. Ribbed like an airplane hanger, with laminated-wood arches overhead and flags adorning the outer walls, it has the feel of a tiny, chilly Hinkle Fieldhouse. Brown's team is playing in the weekly old-timer's league: 20 men and four women, all of them over 50. He chuckles hard when I ask about the caliber of play, answering flatly that "it's low." The retirees manage a few flashes of brilliance; Brown admits that 69 years of practice will improve one's touch. His side wins in a runaway and is already looking ahead to its showdown with the other undefeated team in the division, scheduled for the following week. The chatter in the locker room is that the opposing skip might be out of town.
The games end around 1 p.m. Brown changes into a jacket and tie and leads me upstairs, over parquet floors and into the club's dinning room, where we will eat roasted chicken and pork hearts and listen to a lecture. We pass the original minutes from the founders' first meeting, hung on a blue wall underneath white crown molding. On the landing of the stairs sits a giant ram's head snuff mull, presented to RMCC by Scottish curlers in 1907 to commemorate its centennial. A specialized stained glass window designed with four curling brooms and two rocks bathes the ornamental animal in warm light. It's all so elegant and old-fashioned.
It makes sense that RMCC functions as a tiny country club: for the casually competitive set, the appeal of curling is largely social. Etiquette is important, respect for the rules and your competitors paramount. It's a tense and tactical game that requires hand-eye coordination and concentration, but it always ends with the losing team buying the winning team a round, and the winning team reciprocating. Canadian winters are often brutal. Curling eases the pain. Dick Macklem, one of Brown's chief rivals on the ice, puts it best: "I just enjoy the fun and the competition and the company. You've got to do something to get out there."
"You have to get on the ice." I heard that tip, over and over, from both curling evangelists north of the border and enthusiasts in the States. It's impossible to appreciate fully the game's subtlety from the stands or the couch, they warned. Brown reiterated the point before I left RMCC, telling me firmly that novices "can't learn curling from a book." He struck me as a sensible man, so when I got back home, I dutifully signed up for a training seminar at the Chicago Curling Club (CCC), in the city's tony northern suburbs.
There are roughly 16,000 dedicated American curlers, who play at the 165 U.S. curling clubs. Though not as formal as Brown's outpost, CCC is one of the country's nicer facilities. There's thick plaid carpet, wood paneling, a brick fireplace, and a long bar with local craft beers on tap. Curling trophies and tchotchkes line the walls. A room on the east end of the building houses the "American Curling History Museum," which is just as tiny as you'd imagine. The cozy club, founded in 1948, boasts 315 dues-paying members. "It's not like a bowling alley," membership chair Karrie Gottschild tells us.
The 32 people in attendance on one Saturday morning range from 20-something Midwestern yuppies to 50-something Midwestern yuppies; there are lots of Big Ten sweatshirts, North Face vests, and Blackhawks hats. Most of us had little clue what we were doing. I even had to search the Internet for sartorial suggestions before I got in my car. (Layer properly with loose-fitting clothing, the Internet says, and don't wear tight jeans.) "This is one of the more surreal moments of my life," one middle-aged woman joked to her friends as she walked through the door.
Our instructor is a man named Stan Slabas—6'3", 230 pounds, and bald, the 64-year-old looks like Mr. Clean's distinguished uncle. He's been a member of CCC for a dozen years, having joined at the behest of a golfing buddy, and likes to pitch in at workshops, which he says are "the club's only real recruiting tools." After we watch a short movie produced by the United States Curling Association—narrated, naturally, by a Scotsman—Slabas conducts a few insufficient seconds of hamstring stretches and then leads us onto the sheets. A series of drills follow. We push out of the hack, which is not intuitive, and unexpectedly thrilling. (You're low to the ice, and feel like you're moving faster than you really are.) We play catch with the rocks, learning how they feel and spin. We sweep, which is fun and exhilarating and, at times, exhausting. Slabas peppers in the occasional baseball or basketball metaphor to help us better understand the principles.
At the risk of sounding vain, I'm pretty athletic and fairly competitive, and was loath to try a new sport and fail miserably at it. The week before, in search of analytic advantage, I ignored Brown's advice and picked up Ken Watson on Curling, an instructional guide published in 1951 by the three-time Canadian national champ, a high school teacher who was said to have developed the now-standard long, sliding delivery. At just 177 pages, Watson's book is deceptively detailed and surprisingly well written. (It also features dozens of demonstration photos of post-war Canadians in goofy hats.) Before the lesson, I tried to memorize his four mechanical pointers: perfect balance; a grooved swing "similar to the goal of every ardent golfer"; lack of muscular tension; and "getting the broom," which is to say proper aim at your target.
I wouldn't consider my first curling experience an utter disaster, though it's safe to say I have room to improve. Shooting well requires a long series of intricate movements; get the tiniest bit out of sequence and the entire production falls apart. The weight of the rock is delicate, too. My frustration at my own inadequacy is obvious, I'm sure. And yet, after a few ends, which include a stirring three-point comeback to which I contribute some spirited sweeping, all I wanted to do was stay on the ice. "That desire to play that perfect game," says Ann Swisshelm, lead for the U.S. Olympic team, "to think through it and execute it physically, is incredibly addicting." Adds Gottschild: "We are some of the strangest people because we can't wait for October and the whole thing to freeze over."
I fell pretty hard for curling: the strategy and the drama, the sociability and the jargon, that it can be learned quickly and doesn't require genealogical gifts to play well. Matt Sussman, a Toledo-based curler and curling writer, has called it "the most complete, well-rounded sport we have." And while that may be true, there are significant barriers preventing curling from penetrating mainstream sporting culture. Access is the primary culprit. "The ice you need is difficult to get, the rocks are expensive, and it really does take a community to get a club off the ground," says Sussman. George Karrys, a silver medalist at the 1998 Olympics for Team Canada and the owner and publisher of The Curling News, agrees. "Brick and mortar is needed, but brick and mortar is expensive as all hell," he says. "You have to replace a compressor, that's hundreds of thousands of dollars. And then you've got outrageous electric bills in the modern age. It's a real challenge."
For clubs with deep roots, convincing potential players to pay membership fees and commit to leagues is no easy sell, either. Call it the Robert Putnam problem.
"People are less inclined in our society to play once per week, every night, at the same time. There's much more competition than there was in the past," says Marco Ferraro, executive director of Curling Québec. "Back when I was in my 20s and 30s, there was hockey and curling. Today, there are 55 different things to do." At RMCC, my appearance—as both an American writer and a guy in his late-20s—seemed notable. (I figured this out because elderly people don't always realize how loud they are talking.) "Too many senior curlers, not enough members," former RMCC president Tom Hodgson told one of his friends while watching the action. "Just like church," she answered.
The Olympics are usually helpful in drumming up interest, but even capitalizing on the five-ringed global exposure requires hard work and creativity from club volunteers. The curling season traditionally ends in April, just six or eight weeks after the games wrap up, and doesn't start again until the fall, leaving precious few days for introductory crash courses. Yes, new clubs are emerging in unexpected places—Austin, Atlanta, and Scottsdale, to name a few. Still, it's easy to imagine a world in which curling participation plateaus or sinks. There would exist a chunk of athletes, especially in the Great White North, for whom curling remains the greatest winter sport ever invented, while everyone else continues to experience it only as a quadrennial novelty or, worse, a periodic SportsCenter punch line.
That would be shame for elite curlers, who deserve the notoriety and cash that, in other contexts, accompany athletic virtuosity. Before the Scotties officially started, I attended Ford Hot Shots, a pre-bonspiel exhibition akin to the skills challenge on the weekend of the NBA All-Star Game. The winner, a skip from Newfoundland and Labrador named Heather Strong, was awarded a two-year lease on a Ford Fusion. Rachel Homan took home the prize last year, and, ostensibly, must return her vehicle in 2015.
For regular Canadian curlers, though? They've adopted a game that sits in the absolute sweet spot of athletic fandom. While widening slightly, the gap between the recreationally skilled and the athletes who've mastered curling is comparatively narrow; it's not outrageous to imagine shuffling down the ice in Montreal or Sochi, sweeping when the skip demands it. And high-profile events like the Scotties feel accessible, even intimate, despite the television cameras and corporate advertising and very real stakes. These two curling worlds, that of world-class competitor and of the weekend warrior, bump up against each other in a way few sports still allow.
A few days after Team Homan's first win, I returned to Maurice Richard Arena to watch their match against the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Team Homan were just as clinical as I'd seen them before, waxing their opponent 9-3 without building up a sweat. (They'd finish round robin play undefeated, at 11-0, and go on to win the Scotties, 8-6, over Alberta, ending the week undefeated and repeating as champions.) As I marveled at their shot making, I turned to the section next to mine and saw two separate women, in two separate rows, knitting. Then I heard some hubbub from across the way, near the sheet where Nova Scotia was battling Manitoba. The skip of the former had just snagged a lead, information I pieced together when 10 people in yellow fisherman's hats started bellowing a chant I'd never heard before: NOVA SCOTIA! clap-clap clap-clap-clap NOVA SCOTIA! clap-clap clap-clap-clap.
Maniac fishermen, knitting Canucks, and prospective Olympians, all in the same building? Good luck and good curling.
Adam Doster is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His work about sports and sporting culture has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, The Classical, and the New York Times, among other publications.