Friday, April 07, 2006

My Excellent Curling Adventure
(originally Posted on Blogcritics)

The family and I probably attend about five professional sporting events each year. We usually make it to three or so Lowell Spinners games (local Class A minor league baseball team), perhaps a college or minor league (Lowell Lock Monsters) hockey game, and the odd Red Sox or New England Patriots game.

Last weekend, we delved into the exotic, a professional curling tournament.

Not just any tournament or bonspiel, this was the Men’s World Curling Championship. Now, ordinarily I don’t think I’d travel all over the place for a sport I have barely no knowledge of – but this event was staged right next door at the Paul E. Tsongas Arena (Lowell, MA). We opted for tickets during the first weekend of the round-robin style matches, and now I wish our calendar conflict would allow for our going this coming weekend, it was that cool.

There was not a huge crowd at the 7,800-seat arena. The empty seats were a bit obvious – but once the action got going, the enthusiasm of both fans and players made up for it.

I knew this was going to be a special event, – there were cowbells. To me, the cowbells added a bit of sporting chic. After all, I only hear them when watching some sort of Wide World of Sports televised event. Oh yeah, this was the big-time baby. I swore that Amanda Peet was sitting in the row in front of us. I thought about getting an autograph, but I eventually realized it was just a doppelganger. Still – you never know who could have shown up. No, I didn’t crane my neck for a glimpse of Jack in his ever-present shades, but I felt that celebrity vibe for sure.

I noticed that seeing this sort of event live was quite different from the few times I’d seen curling during Olympic coverage. As a matter of fact, it strangely reminded me when I went to see a WWE live event, Backlash, last June. When my sons force me to sit and watch the televised wrestling antics of JBL, Triple H, or John Cena – a huge part of the show is the back and forth of the commentators. It was very strange, almost disconcerting to be at the live event, and to think how quiet it was. Oh, the audience was wild and strange - and loud, but the action in the ring was very quiet. And no commentary! Or, rather commentary that was intended for the Pay-Per-View home audience, not us in the Verizon Wireless Arena.

And so, this curling thing was not quiet by way of passionate fans, but missing was any Curt Gowdy (RIP) type broadcasting that a TV viewer like me is spoiled by. I had to rely on my in-laws knowledge of the sport. Not that they were huge curling aficionados, but they had at least watched just about all the coverage from Torino, and knew which ‘end’ was up.

I needed the help too. First of all, I thought I was just going to see Ireland vs. USA, but there were there were four busy sheets in the arena. Sheets are the ice ‘fields’ that the matches are played on. So, even though it was somewhat distracting, it was also pretty cool to see these fine gents in the additional and simultaneous contests: Finland vs. Norway, Denmark vs. Japan and Germany vs. Switzerland.

Right after the Star Spangled Banner ended, the players took to the ice to stretch out. That alone was an interesting scene. Seeing the all the curlers gliding across the sheet in that funky low down - parallel to the ice – throwing stance was kind of amazing. It almost had the feel of synchronized swimming; there was a certain grace exhibited, to be sure.

Also, there was something about that clunk of one rock hitting another one. I love that sound! It’s a bit like the smack of billiard balls hitting one another. Fittingly, because curling has been likened to both billiards, and chess. It’s a simple game in design, but very difficult in execution. Also, each play is different from the one before, in tempo and temperament.

In basket ball, or hockey for example, you see variations of the same thing, not that these sports aren’t exciting to watch, but pretty much the speed will remain the same, fast.

In one respect, curling could be compared to baseball, some plays are slow, a player might walk on base – or even if someone hits a home run, he’ll take his bases slow and leisurely. Other times, speed is crucial to a win or loss. In curling, you could have a fast hard throw of the rock down the sheet, in hopes to either knock the opponent’s rock out of the way, or to place yours exactly in the button. Other times, the rock will get a softer throw, and the sweepers simply act as escorts, keeping the same pace as the rock, not too fast, not too slow, when suddenly the skip will start yelling, and the sweepers start brushing…”Hard, hard, hard!” Then they slow down, watching the rock, then speed up again until they manage to get the rock exactly in the right spot. Incredible.

Though we were able to watch all four games at the same time, USA and Ireland was the match-up we were all most interested in. Wouldn’t you know they wound up tied at the 10th end. When the teams went into the 11th overtime end, USA had the hammer, which means the advantage of throwing the last rock. They deftly used this to their advantage, winning the end, and the game.

Currently USA is in 2nd place, right behind Scotland.

What’s even better is that BOTH my sons enjoyed it as well. The 17 year old had complained quite vigorously all the way leading up to the 4:00 start time, but when it was all said and done, he was the last one who wanted to leave. He, and the rest of us, had a great time.