Rocking the Ice Dome
An obscure sport to many, but a passion to some on the Hi-Line
December 13, 2013
On a Friday night in late November Eric McLain is out on the frozen rink of the Havre Ice Dome setting up for what has to be one of the area's most obscure sports: curling.
Though curling is most notably seen on U.S. television during the winter Olympics, the Ice Dome has had an adult league with about 10 teams for two season, McLain said, and is heading into the third with possibly more teams.
McLain, who says he grew up at the rink playing hockey and now referees the sport and plays in an adult league, works on the ice with measured ease, setting up foot blocks, called hacks, on each end of three lanes that fit into the rink. He is preparing the rink for a preseason curling practice.
He wrangles into place at the ends of two lanes 32 rocks, the smooth granite stones that curlers slide from one end of the lane to the other trying to get closest to the center of the target-like rings, called the house, or to knock an opponent's rock out of position. Each rock weighs 38 to 42 pounds and, he says, he doesn't anticipate a full rink tonight, so he has only brought out enough for two lanes.
Then he walks the lanes with type of sprayer that scatters a coarse spray of water on the ice.
Smooth ice is nice, he says, but it's the pebbles, or frozen droplets of spray, that really make the rocks slide down the lane. The pebbles have less surface area creating friction.
Later, when practice begins the sweepers - team members wielding brooms that look like cloth-covered sponge mops - will scrub their brooms across the pebbles, creating enought friction to melt the ice pebbles slightly, making them slicker and helping the rocks travel farther down the ice.
As veteran and new curlers file into the Ice Dome, some toting six-packs, they each grab a broom and a slider, which looks like a plastic flip-flop that slips on over the curler's shoe to help that foot glide across the ice. In the bantering and jibing between players, everyone is fitted with the needed tools and assured that being a novice won't be a big detriment.
"Hey, that's what Eric sold us on. We don't have to know anything," says Brian Simonson, a second-year curler on the Montana State University-Northern team, causing a few snorts of laughter. Someone in the crowd says he came for the beer, raising a round of agreement.
Teams consist of four people, but generally have extra members to fill in during scheduling conflicts, says McLain.
A contingent of six players from the U.S. Border Patrol is there, some returning players and a few possible recruits. They say they are hoping to get eight members for their team because of their work schedules.
Out on the ice, McLain demonstrates the technique for sending the rock down the ice.
The throwing technique for right-handers would be: in a half-crouched position, to grasp the rock's handle with their right hand and use their left to hold their broom as a kind of crutch to balance themselves; their right foot is braced against the hack and their left foot, clad in the slider, is under them. The curler pushes off from the hack, glides forward on the ice with their weight balanced on the slider, their pushing leg back or tucked under them and releases the rock.
"The key," says McLain, "is to push off hard with your leg - you get all your power from the leg - and release the rock at the peak of the momentum of your slide across the ice."
The first round of practice throws show some successes - and a lot of what not to do, with some people tipping onto their sides, some pushing off at an angle or with a spin to their momentum, most with too little power from their legs and using arm strength to fling the rock with more force.
Encouragingly, subsequent practice throws show increasing improvement.
"Nothing really gives you practice for curling except actually doing it," says McLain.
The 12 people at this Friday-night practice divide up into four three-player teams, two to a lane, and practice a game.
A game consists of eight ends, which literally means that eight times both teams start at one end of a lane and alternate sliding their rocks down the ice. Each team member gets to throw two rocks. Which ever team members aren't throwing are sweeping, and one player acts as the skip, or the person who tells the thrower where to aim their rock.
The sweeping will help increase the distance of a throw and it will keep a rock traveling straight, said McLain, but it won't help the rock curve around to another direction.
The point is to get a rock from your team the closest to the center of the rings, said McLain, and the team with the closest rock gets to count points for all their rocks that are closer to the center.
The game can be played, like in Havre's curling league, as a casual sport, or more seriously, with some curling teams traveling to other cities, states and countries to participate in tournaments, called bonspiels and, of course, as an Olympic sport.
The atmosphere at the practice this night at the Ice Dome is casual, with plenty of laughter over slips on the ice, throws that hit the mark and those that miss. The camaraderie between the players is obvious, as is the undercurrent of intensity as players strive to hit that throwing groove that brings together the intense focus on the target, the power of the push-off, the delicate effort of balancing in the slide across the ice and that quiet letting go of the rock to make it's way to its end, with the help of furious sweeping or not.
Curling league begins in Havre Friday, Dec. 20. Anyone interested in joining can contact McLain at 390-1977.