Broomgate Part Three

Remove the Wrapper and all Hell Breaks Loose…

Wait just a doggone moment, you’re saying, he’s back on this Broomgate thing?

Sure. Of course I am. Broomgate isn’t over. Buried on a back burner maybe, but still simmering away and possibly building again to a full on, frothing boil.

There were just a few more interesting things to report before bringing you back here. And, quite frankly, once I knew we were playing in a Slam I thought it best to hang back and observe just how Broomgate, and its offspring the Sweeping Summit, was impacting the so-called big boys.

So when last we left Broomgate we were just about to see the return of corn as a weapon. Ah, yes. I remember it well…

I’m not sure who, when or how the idea was hit on. But somehow, in some game somewhere during the mid-80’s, someone (probably behind in the game and just messing around) whipped out an old, worn out, dry corn broom and swept their stone end to end. They likely laughed and told a teammate. “That’s how we used to do things”.

And then all hell broke loose.

Their opposition threw the next stone-likely a hit-and watched in horror as their stone suddenly, inexplicably curled instead of running dead straight and they missed the shot by a foot. Big light bulbs must have gone off in the other team’s heads when they saw that.

Did they put the corn away? Hell no. The other 3 guys probably grabbed any piece of crap they could find and turned that sheet into a hayfield. And it doesn’t matter if they came back to win or not. Something far more valuable had been learned.

Corn equaled curl. And curl, against a brush team, was a weapon.

It was early enough in the 1980’s that pretty much everyone had used corn before they switched to brushes. So it wasn’t a new skill to learn. Suddenly, team broom bags begin to bulge with the addition of corn brooms, just waiting for the moment when they’d be needed. Sometimes it worked and others it didn’t. But you didn’t care because you whipped out those suckers when you were behind-you had nothing to lose. You see, it wasn’t just to change the ice conditions suddenly-which certainly helped-it was also to drive the other team completely batshit.

Consider the mental impact on a team that’s up 3 points after 6 ends and in cruise control, throwing peel after peel on straight ice. These guys are still focused, but in their minds, the game is over. They just have to go through the motions for the next few ends.

Then out comes corn and everything goes sideways. Hell, the tactic almost won us a Brier in 1987.

You’ll note I said almost.

Cheater! you cry. Au contraire mon ami. Switching brooms was completely acceptable and legal under the rules of the day. You just had to be sweeping the path of the running stone. Which we and others did. It’s just that by doing so you left chaff everywhere else on the sheet. And by the 1987 Brier almost everyone was doing it.

It all came to a head a decade later when Kevin Martin-trailing Scotland in the Final of the Worlds-whipped out a brand new rag and began to throw chaff everywhere. He was technically within the rules as he was sweeping along its intended path. It’s just that he was doing so about 20 feet or so ahead of the rock.

The Scots, sticklers for the rules, etiquette and spirit of the game, went apeshit. A fair bit of yelling, cursing and name calling ensued. More than a few fans booed Team Canada and the ploy backfired. The Scots slowed the game to a crawl, swept every path before a shot was thrown and held on to win.

This was the final nail in corn’s coffin. Shortly afterwards the World governing body passed rules which outlawed switching broom types mid game. You had to choose your weapon at the start of the game and not change. Want to use corn? you had to go from start to finish with it. And by then there were few players who could go ten ends, three games/day swinging corn.

Corn disappeared. Today the only corn you see is used by players who like to throw with them. And even these brooms have their corn wrapped completely in duct or hockey tape. Wouldn’t want a single piece of chaff escaping to raise hell on the ice, would we?

Corn was done and gone. Ice makers discovered that sanding stones and scraping patterns brought curl back to the ice so even that issue was solved. Everything was hunky-dory, right?

Nope. All the while the brush was evolving and that’s what eventually leads to Broomgate.

The hair brush has a single, important drawback; over time it shed hairs. And you do not want that hair getting under the running edge of a stone. Corn was nice to stones. It yields to the stone’s 42 pounds. When a rock grabs corn pulp it tends to just curl more and slow down quicker, but gradually.

Not the same with nylon brush hairs. When a rock picks one up, bizarre things happen. Like going sideways, without warning, into the sideboards, or stopping dead in its tracks, or losing its turn then getting it back then losing it again. A stone that picks up a hair is curling’s equivalent of a knuckleball. You have no idea what the hell it’s going to do.

Now assuming you’re smart, you keep the path of the stone clean as it goes down the ice and your games should be pick free. However, we curlers are, if anything, opportunistic. Just as the corn broom begat the synthetic corn broom, so the brush begat the synthetic brush. Sowing the first seeds of Broomgate.

I saw my first synthetic brush in 1984. Less than a decade after the emergence of the brush, we had the Brownie, Hammer and Downer Disc-to name just a few. All essentially the same thing: a push broom but instead of hair, the head had a fabric covered piece of foam. Right from the get go they worked pretty well. They didn’t shed hair and seemed to be as effective as a hair brush.

Synthetics remain imperfect though. They do wear and can leave fabric fibers on the ice surface, they require cleaning when dirty and they can get damp. So having replacement heads in your equipment bag was, and still is a must. On top of this they weren’t cheap.

Over time the synthetic brush evolved. From a wooden handle to today’s lightweight, carbon fiber. But the real science is in the head. Enter the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

Presuming you actually don’t live under a curling rock, then you know we’re an Olympic Sport. And you know that Vancouver hosted the 2010 games. There was a lot of pressure for Curling to produce Gold. So the CCA decided to sink some money into broom science to gain an edge.

Now know this: before last winter there were no rules regulating curling equipment. None. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. Shoes, brooms, gloves, clothing-anything goes as long as it does not deliberately damage the ice surface. So by hiring wacky mad scientists to cook up a super broom we weren’t cheating. It’s like if baseball allowed any type of bat; aluminum, wood, corked wood, hell titanium if you wanted. There were no guidelines, clear, or even vague, to follow. And what these guys came up with is what really got Broomgate in gear.

Until 2010, there wasn’t a lot of scientific knowledge or study on how it sweeping works.   As I said before, we’ve just stumbled along. There were theories but not much meat to go on those bones.

WARNING! Boring Science Stuff Ahead!

One of the long standing theories is sweeping creates a thin film of water, acting as a lubricant and allowing a stone to travel further. Now this makes sense. The sweeping stroke creates heat friction so naturally a very small amount of ice will melt. That small amount of water likely does contribute to carrying a stone further than without sweeping.

What the CCA guys came up with was a small, thin piece of aluminum (likely foil) was inserted in the brush head to reflect heat downwards towards the ice instead of allowing it to rise, as heat is wont to do. And, it worked. More moisture was created and draws could be dragged further than brooms without the reflectors. Although no real evidence showed they were more effective at holding the stone straighter.

The brooms were kept top secret until after the Games. When offered to the competing teams, the Men turned them and won gold, the Women took them and won bronze. So the jury is out on just how effective the brooms were.

But it got the attention of the Uppsala University Engineering Sciences Department in Uppsala, Sweden. They conducted a truly serious, scientific and extensive study on sweeping and why rocks curl, releasing their findings in 2012. And what they found explains an awful lot. Bear with me. This doesn’t get any livelier.

Behold, for your amazement: The Micro-Scratch Theory-in as few words and technical jargon as necessary.

I’ll try to boil it down to one sentence: While the roughness (sharpness) of a stones running cup and ice conditions influence curl, the amount of curl can be increased or reduced by directional, temporary micro-scratches made in the ice.

Still with me? Here’s more.

Micro-scratches are made by several things; the stone (as it travels and rotates down the ice), athlete footwear and, most importantly, sweeping. High-resolution, microscopic photos clearly show straight scratch marks made by the sweeping motion. They’re temporary because ice is an elastic substance which will refreeze and fill the scratches to a certain extent or they get reduced, erased and replaced by further sweeping.

When the sweeping motion is in an east-west direction that crosses the path of the stone there isn’t a lot of impact on the movement of a stone, but it does help a stone travel further. When the motion becomes more north-south in a direction that is with or against the path of the stone then micro-scratching can really influence a stone. How? you ask. Well let me be rude and answer your question with a question.

Have you ever driven on grooved pavement?

If you so you know what I’m about to say. The idea is to channel water away from your tires and reduce the potential of hydroplaning. But wet or dry, those grooves like to pull your tires in their direction. Anyone who’s driven on a grooved highway knows the feeling as your wheel dances because your tires want to follow the grooves. It’s annoying. But that’s only if the grooves are travelling in the same direction as your car. If the grooves travel across the road and not with it, you feel nothing-except for maybe a tiny, speed-bump like vibration.

Apply the same thing to a curling stone. Micro-scratches made across the path have little or no directional influence on the stone. But make that motion more of a north-south movement and suddenly you have the stone following the scratches.

What the study did was show exactly-with real data-why snow-plowing was so effective back in the early 80’s. It also showed that the rule to force the stroke across the path of the stone was a correct one. It put the onus on making a shot in the throwers hand and reduced the impact of sweeping. So as long as it was against the rules to snowplow we had nothing to worry about.

Until someone decided to change the rule…

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