Broomgate Part 1-How Did We Get Into This Mess?


Originally I had hoped to neatly sum up this ridiculous mess called Broomgate in one blog. Unfortunately, there’s detail and depth YOU need to know to truly understand what’s transpired.  And it has to start with what I hope will be a brief (because I’ve edited the hell out of this thing all summer) and enjoyable history lesson.  So sit back and enjoy the first segment of a (hopefully) short series on Broomgate…

A Spanish Philosopher, Drunk Scotsmen and this is all Paul Gowsell’s fault…

‘…those who ignore the lessons of history are fated to repeat them…’ Georges Santiago, 20th Century Spanish Philosopher

What? You thought this blog was about curling? It is.  Santiago is a hero of mine.  I first heard this quote while zoning out in a Grade 8 Social Studies class (for you Americans in the audience, that’s Canadian for History Class).  Basically, my teacher was explaining to us how we continue to ignore events of the past and then repeat them, over and over. I immediately came to attention and began to listen-because the old guy was right. The world is full of examples of the human race committing the same mistakes made thousands of years of years ago.  Look around you, it’s true.

That was pretty heady stuff for a 13-year-old who’s main literary obsession back then was Penthouse magazine and the latest issue of Spiderman. I hadn’t even started curling.

What does this have to do with curling? Well unless you’ve lived under a rock (pun intended) the past year, you know about Broomgate (or Broomhaha).  But what you don’t know is how we got to this point. And the maddening thing is we’ve already gone through this once.  So hang on and listen closely as you get Sweeping History 101.

Originally it was just something for drunk, bored Scotsmen to do besides chasing drunk, bored Scotswomen (or perhaps sheep). Hey, Angus! let’s see how far you can slide a rock on a frozen pond. But then a need arose-it was hard to play when it was snowing, rocks tended to come to a screaming halt when one hit a small accumulation of white stuff.  Then one fateful day, someone had a brainstorm, grabbed a leafy branch off a nearby bush, ran along beside the stone and brushed away the snow.  It was a grand success.  Now you could still play if it was snowing!  Now you also had something else to do while waiting for your turn to throw!  And thus did sweeping make its arrival into the game.

Okay, I’m taking a bit of poetic license here but you get the picture (because it’s pretty likely that this is how it happened). Now, let’s flash forward to the 20th century.  We evolved to artificial ice, regulated rock size and a set of rules to play by.  Sweeping evolved as well.

Branches became corn brooms and they did more than just keep snow out of the way. Used properly, two sweepers could drag a stone an extra 10-15 feet (based on the limited science of the day) and hold it straighter to help make more shots, much to the delight of player and spectator alike.  It also kept the ice clean from all sorts of junk; clothing fibers, dirt from shoes, ashes from pipes or cigarettes, tobacco spit (true! I still saw guys spitting chaw on the ice in the 1980’s for gawdssakes), corn broom chaff and other things.  Ice was not the sterile, pristine and damn near virginable surface it is today.

The corn broom evolved from the one you used on your kitchen floor to something that more resembled an oar. And there is still something beautiful about two corn brooms sweeping back and forth in perfect synchronization and making a thunderous slap with every stroke-check out old videos if you don’t believe me.

You had to be strong with stamina to swing corn for 12 end games (until the 70’s when we went to 10). Your wrists, forearms and biceps took a pounding.  And it wasn’t easy to get the motion down right.  A lot of front end players on top teams were chosen for their sweeping ability less than their shooting. How do I know this? because I used the damn things all through juniors until my last year in 1979-80.

It was a different story in Europe. Over there, sweeping evolved from the bush to the brush.  We snickered at the tiny brushes the Euros used.  We were triumphant with our corn, winning repeated World Championships, smugly secure that ours was the better and only way.

Until Paul Gowsell ripped that theory to shreds.

Curling’s original enfant terrible.  He’s an entire blog post-hell, a book-on his own. But I want to focus on how his junior team killed corn and made the brush king.

Somewhere along the line these teens put down the corn, risked ridicule and went with the brush. History proves it was the right decision. Gowsell and crew won two World Jr. championships in the late 1970’s, grossed over $100,000.00 dollars in a single season-a mark that’s still difficult to hit today-and changed the game forever. They inspired Jr’s around the world. Kids began to emulate him-myself included-and brushes began popping up on Jr. teams all across North America.

And then Ed Lukowich put the final nail in corn’s coffin by winning the 1978 Brier in Vancouver-using the brush.

1970’s Alberta was a tough nut to crack. Lukowich was no fool.  He saw Gowsell’s teens could hold their own against any team using corn. He also convinced his teammates to switch and in 1978 they were the first all-brush team to win the Alberta Men’s Championship and then the Brier, both in convincing fashion.  I sat in the stands of the Pacific Coliseum for many of those games and any lingering doubts I might have had about brushes were washed away. I had seen the future, twice, and it was the push broom.

Corn didn’t disappear instantly or quietly. But like a chicken running around after its been decapitated, it just didn’t know it was dead.

By 1980 brushes were everywhere in Canada. People were quick to try them out and why not? They were easier to use than corn, cheaper, lasted longer, cleaner, less punishing on the body and they even provided better support in a sliding delivery. Players who threw well but were ineffectual sweepers with corn suddenly were in demand because of the brush.  I can remember watching teams, new to brushes, suddenly start beating corn broom teams that they’d never triumphed over before.

Seriously, what wasn’t there to like?

The brush was a total game changer. And it was a good thing.  True, we lost some of the colour, but the trade offs were far more beneficial in the long run.  So slowly but surely, the brush took over and corn began to vanish.

And then a strange thing happened that took us almost two decades to figure out.  But that’s Part Two of the history lesson…


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