On the outside, curling does not seem that hard. Unlike other sports, it does not appear to require intense physical exertion or a killer playbook. To the untrained eye, curlers just throw stones down a sheet of ice in an attempt to earn points.
But the sport is much more than that and not only requires peak athletic ability at its highest levels but also a keen knowledge of angles, weight and the ice surface itself.
Curling ice is not your average ice, using it requires a high level of precision in order to make an accurate shot.
Curling ice versus hockey ice
Hockey ice is just like any other ice. It’s flat, slippery and anything pushed along it slides effortlessly.
Curling ice, however, is pebbled, less slick and not everything moves along it in the same way.
On both surfaces, it is common for the ice to wear down, whether it’s an outdoor hockey rink with worn-in grooves and slushy patches, or knee holes and scratches on curling sheets.
The effect, however, can be detrimental. Any unevenness or marks on curling ice can dramatically impact the way the stone moves, causing it to slow down or move in the wrong direction.
The ice-making process
Maleah Blair, head ice technician at the Inglewood Golf and Curling Club, said she entered the world of curling after working for the organization during the summer.
“I just learned as I went,” Blair said. “You ask questions and you make a few mistakes along the way, but try to just keep getting better.”
Blair says the first step in the process is to identify areas that need fixing, whether it’s broken hacks or divots and grooves from previous games.
“We just try and tidy those up a bit before we get going and then we kind of scrape off yesterday’s pebble,” Blair said.
Scraping involves shaving down the ice surface to get it as level as possible, ensuring there is a consistent base to build upon.
The next step is to pebble the ice, which Blair does with a sprinkler-like hose, using various tip sizes to spray water droplets onto the surface which freeze and form the pebble.
Without pebbling, the stone could not glide down the sheet, as there would be too much friction. The concave base of a curling rock combined with the tiny pebbles, helps to elevate the rock off the ice so the stone slides smoothly.
“If you don’t have the pebble, you have too much surface area,” Blair said. “[Pebbling] reduces that and gives it a gliding surface.”
Scraping and pebbling are then repeated until Blair and her team achieve a perfectly level, hole-free surface.
Consistency matters, as Blair explains that unpredictability can impact curlers’ ability to strategize and make their shots.
“It’s hard to play with any strategy because the rock will do whatever it wants to do if your ice is inconsistent,” Blair said.
Lyn McKeeman, who has curled for over 40 years, agrees, explaining how the game has evolved into “more of a feel sport,” where “reading the ice is a big part of curling.”
Beyond the ice
Manufacturing curling ice is a science and an art form all rolled into one, but the payoff from the laborious process comes in the joy the players experience.
“You’re always doing something, you’re always learning,” said McKeeman.
According to Maleah Blair, Inglewood is starting “a bunch of renovations” to ensure “curling is a very active sport for the club and for the city” in the future.
Blair adds that she hopes people will “come and try it” and experience the “camaraderie” the sport offers.