For local players, Olympic Games bring curling into the spotlight

For a small but tight-knit community of local curlers, the arrival of the Winter Olympics every four years is not just a chance to watch a lot of curling.

There’s no better way to promote the sport.

Since curling became an Olympic sport in 1998, the games have introduced the game to viewers around the world, and this has in turn motivated people to give it a try.

The number of curlers in the United States has doubled in the 20 years since the sport was reintroduced to the Olympics.

“People see it on TV and want to try it,” said Jack Miller of Wilton, one of many local curlers who are members of the Nutmeg Curling Club in Bridgeport. “We always get a surge in interest in Olympic years.”

Miller, who has been playing the sport for just over 10 years, has even written a viewer’s guide to watching curling at the Olympics, titled Spectator’s Guide to Olympic Curling 2018. It describes the fundamentals of the sport and explains the terminology and jargon viewers may hear while watching but might not understand.

Other Wilton residents who are part of the Nutmeg club include Tony and Alexis Boccanfuso, Pat Helbach, Phil Stevens, and Bill and Nancy Brautigam.

Chess on ice

The sport of curling to the uninitiated appears fairly simple. Competitors slide 42-pound circular granite rocks called “stones” down a 100-foot lane of ice that has a bull’s-eye circle (the “house”) at the other end.

Each team of four players throws eight stones per “end,” or inning. As in bocce, the winning team scores points for the number of stones closer to the center than the opponent’s closest stone.

The sport is probably best known for the odd spectacle of two sweepers accompanying the stone down the ice, frantically clearing the surface ahead of the stone with broom-like tools.

Curling is actually more complicated and difficult than that, requiring a degree of precision, strategy and teamwork that many viewers don’t appreciate because they haven’t played it.

“It’s a thinking game. There’s a lot of strategy. People call it chess on ice,” said Miller. “If you want to get your knight to a particular space, it gets there. In curling, you’re not alway sure. It’s physically and athletically challenging. The amount of precision that goes into it is really amazing. It looks easy.”

It generally takes a few years of experience to develop the skill and knowledge to compete at the basic level.

“It’s a gradual progression. By some time your second year, you’re able to play a game and have some fun,” said Miller.

Gaining popularity

The sport of curling has grown in popularity since becoming an Olympic sport 20 years ago.

Nutmeg Curling Club, which has 141 members from Connecticut and New York, is one of only two curling clubs in the state. The club offers curling opportunities for all ages and skill levels. It has Learn to Curl open houses for those curious about the sport (the next one is Wednesday, Feb. 21, from 6 to 10 p.m.) along with a youth program and leagues every day for every level. Nutmeg is also the home ice for the Yale University curling team.

According to the United States Curling Association, there are 165 curling clubs in 40 states, and about 20,000 curlers registered with the USCA, which is double what it was 15 years ago.

The viewing opportunities have reflected this growth in the sport. There is extensive coverage of curling at the Pyeongchang Olympic Games, and NBCSN’s Curling Night America just finished its fourth season.

There is a strong sense of tradition in curling, which dates back to Scotland in the 15th or 16th century, and it is a game known for its sportsmanship. Curling has been a family tradition handed down from generation to generation, but these days people are also drawn in after seeing it on TV.

Lifelong passion

That was the case for Miller, who got his first taste of the sport during business trips to Canada, where curling is a extremely popular sport on TV.

I watched a lot of curling on TV. I was just fascinated by it,” he said. “I really had to try it. When I did, I was hooked. When I was a kid I played pool. I liked the angles and caroms, and this is the same thing, only on a bigger scale.”

The challenge of the sport is just one of the things that make curling a lifelong passion for people, he said.

“It’s athletically and mentally challenging. For many it’s a social outlet. Everybody knows everyone else, and at some point will play with or against everyone else,” said Miller. “Everybody likes some combination of those three things.”

During the week at Nutmeg, there are mixed leagues, youth leagues, competitive leagues, and a Friday night social league. Alexis Boccanfuso of Wilton runs the club’s youth program.

A curling match usually features anywhere between six and 10 “ends,” or innings, and lasts about two hours (Olympic men’s and women’s matches go 10 ends). Curlers walk an average of two miles per match, and burn an average of 149 calories per half-hour.

There is a strong sense of tradition in curling, which dates back to Scotland in the 15th or 16th Century. Events are called bonspiels, the Scottish term for a tournament, and before a bonspiel, competitors are led onto the ice by a bagpipe player.

"Skips" and "stones"

The most well-known part of the game is the sweeping. Instead of the brooms of yore, competitors these days used Swiffer-like pads to sweep the ice ahead of the moving stone.

Before one member delivers the stone, the team’s “skip” sets a target on the other end. Getting to its destination depends on how much the stone curls and its “weight,” or speed.

The sweepers help adjust the path and speed by sweeping the ice directly in front of the moving stone, which temporarily melts the ice — reducing the friction. The result is that the stone “slows down less” and curls less.

Knowing when to sweep and when not to sweep is something that can take years to learn — and can prove the difference between winning and losing.

Judging the speed of the rock is one of the hardest things. I’m still not good at it,” said Miller, noting that each 10th of second of speed equates to six feet of ice. There’s little room for error.

“You develop a sense of how fast you’re moving with the rock. That takes a lot of experience. There’s a lot of communication,” he said. “It’s more physical than people realize. They’re traveling about 100 feet with the rock and sweeping as hard as they can. They’re out of breath at the end.”

The four members of a team take turns delivering stones. The skip, when not delivering, sets the goal with a broomstick. The other three team members handle the sweeping when not delivering.

“All four players have roles on every shot if you’re doing it right,” said Miller. “The skip makes the big shots.”

Click here for more information on the Nutmeg Curling Club.

Notes: Curling fans will have a feast of Olympic coverage, with matches every day through Feb. 25, when the women’s gold medal game will be played. The men’s gold medal game will be Feb. 24.

Mixed doubles competition was added to the game this year. The gold-medal match took place on Tuesda, with Canada winning the gold medal.

All curling matches can be live-streamed here

For upcoming TV coverage, go to here.