Broomgate-History Part 2: WTF Happened to The Curl?

(Warning: Part 2 of contains some technical stuff that no matter how you dress it up might be boring. But it’s important. So go get a coffee and try to keep your eyes open)

During the 1980’s a strange happened. Ice gradually began to become straighter and faster. Rocks were curling less and in some cases not at all-even going backwards (or ‘falling’)-and slow ice suddenly became lightning quick. Now quick ice wasn’t really considered a problem. But ice where rocks wouldn’t move? With curl disappearing, you couldn’t draw around a guard to hide your stone and force a miss from your opponent.

That is, IF you could get a guard in play. (Remember; all this history took place before the creation of the Free Guard Zone). Straighter ice meant you could peel guards easily, resulting in far fewer guards in play. And fewer guards meant fewer points scored per end and per game. It became common to see 3-2 or 4-3 scores with mostly single points scored. Getting two became difficult and ends higher than that were rare. If you could get a guard up about the only way to get behind it was to hit and roll there-because draws wouldn’t curl enough to bury.

Comebacks became difficult. Behind by one you still had a chance to tie the game but get down two or more? It was pretty much game over. I can recall scoring 3 in the first end of a game and then peeling out the next 4 ends until my opponent finally missed a blank attempt (which was also easier with straight ice) in the 6th end and took a point. We then blanked the last 4 ends to win 3-1.

Don’t get me wrong, it was well played curling. No shot was guaranteed just because the ice was straight (a positive release and rotation was often death). But it was easier to make defensive shots and the takeout became king. Hell, ask Pat Ryan. He won 2 Briers playing hit after hit and they were good. But, overall the game became boring.

The head scratching began. Where had the curl gone? No one really understood what had happened. We had this nice, clean surface with lots of speed but little or no movement. We could change the rules with the Free Guard Zone, but what good was a rule that created guards if you couldn’t draw around them?

Now here’s the boring technical part that I’m trying to keep mercifully brief.

On the bottom of a curling stone is the cup-a small, thin ring on the bottom of the rock. This is the only part of a rock that’s in contact with the ice. Run your finger around it. It’s meant to be rough (called ‘sharp’), and this is what causes most of a stones movement as it grabs the pebble while travelling down the ice. Smooth, or dull, cups tend to curl less (or not at all) than sharp ones although speed is generally not affected much. To keep the amount of movement and speed consistent, your ice-maker gently sands that cup 1-2 times/season.

Back in the bad old days we didn’t paper stones. Why? because we had no real idea why rocks curled. Back then sharpening stones was a last resort-usually ending in terrible results. You didn’t sharpen stones except as an alternative to buying new ones. There was also another reason to forgo sharpening; rocks used to curl just fine, so they didn’t need it.

So you can see the conundrum. If the rocks were supposedly good and the ice faster and cleaner-thanks to brushes-why wasn’t the fucking stuff curling? Well, we didn’t understand the science behind the cups just yet, although by the late 80’s a few ice makers were experimenting with scrapers and then papering stones. But the real and immediate culprit?

Clean ice.

Back in Part One I described the crap that used to make its way on to the ice. Well, corn brooms were good at removing a lot of it, but they have a drawback. They’re made from straw, a natural product. Considering the pounding it took on every shot, the stuff was amazingly resilient. However, it would break down with use and/or just plain age related decay. Sometimes in big spaghetti-like chunks, but mostly it was tiny, unseen, almost microscopic bits-called chaff-which broke off. And no matter how good a sweeper you were, you could never remove all the chaff.

Which was a good thing, because it was chaff, when it got into the cup of the rock, which created most of the curl. True, there was other shit on the ice, but far and away it was the chaff which made rocks move. And it was always present. The mere act of sweeping one shot meant you were leaving chaff for the next shot-perpetuating the situation. So, once again, no need for sharpening because the movement always had an appearance of relative consistency.

Then along comes the brush. It doesn’t leave behind anything and it removes the other crap I mentioned.

Can you see where I’m going here? As corn brooms were replaced by brushes there was cleaner ice with less of that good stuff that made the rocks curl. And until Shorty Jenkins began to experiment with sanding stones and contoured ice scraping no one had a solution.

The real shocker here is that it took us so long to figure out it was the lack of corn. Because we had a glimpse of this years before brushes took off in popularity (cue the Georges Santiago quote about history repeating itself).

I am referring, of course, to the Synthetic Corn Broom.

Essentially a piece of flexible plastic, covered in thick foam, wrapped in fabric in the shape of a corn broom and attached to a wooden handle. They could be used just like a corn broom with the added benefits (like a brush) of lasting longer and leaving little or no debris. And dear God they were loud. You had to scream to be heard.   You could hear them out in the club parking lot and there were few things more excruciating when hungover and playing an 8am game on a Sunday morning in a bonspiel.

But they were the harbinger of things to come. Just like brushes, if you had two synthetic teams playing against each other the ice would get faster and straighter. There was no corn chaff and the fabric would pick up other debris quite nicely. Maybe it’s because the synthetic just came into popularity when brushes broke out, but we got a glimpse of the future and didn’t pay attention.

So in typical curling style we stumbled along, ignoring history, not employing science to study the issue and instead throwing out rules-willy/nilly-in an effort to find a solution to straight ice. We literally threw shit at the wall and hoped it would stick. Keep this passage in mind folks. It’s going to sound real familiar later on. In the end we found the cause and solution, but because we failed to heed Santiago it took longer than it needed to.

Back to the brush for a second. Before corn disappeared, we began to figure out ways that a brush could impart greater influence on the movement and speed of a stone. We all emulated the style of Gowsell and Lukowich’s sweepers-most notably the lead for Gowsell; the late Kelly Stearne. The motion was essentially a north/south motion in line with, not across, the path the stone was taking. It was a plowing motion and was named, not surprisingly, snow-plowing. Today we call it ‘Directional Sweeping’.

Sweepers found that if they leaned their weight against either side of the brush they could make the rock curl more or less-depending upon what was required. The technique was called cornering. You could, if the rotation on the stone was really slow,  even make a rock change turns.

Draw weight a little heavy as you near the rings? no problem. Simply let up on the downward pressure, or lift the brush straight up, and frost or debris get in the cup and stop the stone where you want. This earned the name ‘dumping’. There were even people who would ‘finger’ a stone to slow its pace. All you did was get real close to the rock with your broom and quickly touch the stone with a finger of your bottom hand. It was cheating, of course, but hard to spot unless you walked down the sheet beside your opponent’s stone-a true faux pas in curling etiquette.

Corn broom sweepers raised hell. Their argument, correct at the time, was cornering, dumping and fingering-resulting from snowplowing-were contrary to the rules and spirit of the game. The dominant factor in shot making should be the skill of the thrower. Where was the skill if you could throw any weight for a draw, miss the broom by a country mile and have the shot made because a sweeper either dumped debris in the path, fingered a stone or cornered a badly thrown stone to alter its path?

Imagine a pitcher launching a ball out of the strike zone for a certain ball and the catcher having a little remote to move that pitch back into the sweet spot for strike three. That’s what was beginning to happen.

Any of this sounding remotely and recently familiar folks? If you need a hint it starts with the letter ‘B’.

You really couldn’t pull off those stunts with a corn broom because the motion was side-to-side, across the running path and the cup of the stone. Your last stroke with corn finished away from the stone and not directly in its path. So, even though a small amount of chaff was left on the ice there was no way to leave the kind of rock stopping debris a brush could.

The CCA, still the dominant political player due to sheer size, ruled (again correctly) in favor of the corn broom sweepers. Skill should remain primarily with the thrower and sweeping, while integral, should not be the main reason why shots are made.

Essentially two rules were created. First (and I’m paraphrasing here), the sweeping motion had to be across the running surface (cup) of the stone with the last motion finishing away from the stone. This eliminated the snowplowing with some leeway for a less than 90-degree motion-so long as your stroke completely crossed the cup. Forcing the last motion to be away also reduced the chance of dumping debris-accidently or deliberately.

Second-and this would actually come back to bite corn broom sweepers in the ass (thanks Kevin Martin)-a rule was put in place that made it illegal to deliberately deposit debris in front of the travelling stone.

Both rules worked. They were clear and simple with a necessary amount of wiggle room to account for differences in techniques and styles. All that remained was the issue of straight ice but even so, the game carried on and grew. Hitting the Olympic stage in 1988 in Calgary and soon thereafter the foundations for an organized curling tour were laid. And by the mid 90’s the Free Guard Zone rules and the return of swingy rocks/ice put a halt in the low scoring, hit dominated games. The future was a bright one for the roaring game.

But before that, a funny thing happened in the late 80’s. Corn brooms made a comeback which would help people understand the science behind the lack of curl. But they didn’t return as a replacement for the brush.

They came back as a weapon against the brush-and I was there, somewhat in the thick of it of all…

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