Teamwork on ice

Rathdrum friends hope that curling, popular in Canada and elsewhere, can catch on here

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Chad Johnson and Karen Leinen sweep the ice in front of a stone as it glides towards its target during a game.

It started, as maybe many sport leagues have, with a group of young guys sitting on a couch, watching a match on television, when one of them said, "You know what, we should try that."

And as a group of friends is likely to do, they fed off the idea until motivation grew so high, they jumped from the sofa and started scurrying around the apartment looking for household items they could turn into equipment.

In this case, about five years ago, the six guys pulled a spaghetti pot from the kitchen and a plastic PVC pipe from who knows where, and made the Coeur d'Alene Curling Club's first stone.

Randy Boyd, club founder, took that homemade stone with his crew to Twin Lakes, where they tried to slide it across the frozen surface - but the thing wouldn't budge.

"It didn't move," Randy explained to me during a crash course curling clinic at Frontier Ice Arena in Coeur d'Alene last week.

Not even with the help of the brooms, which were literally brooms. The guys scrubbed the ice in front of the idle pot just like they'd seen on TV watching the Winter Olympics, but still the thing wouldn't go.

"We said, 'We're going to have to go somewhere else because this lake isn't going to work," Randy said.

It didn't, but the idea was born.

With interest sparked, the group of mostly Rathdrum guys found the Creston Curling Club, in British Columbia just north of the Canadian border, where a group of Canadians who had been curling since youth took the aspiring Americans under their wing.

They traded the spaghetti pot for real stones - that's what the 44-pound ball that curlers slide down the ice is called. They swapped garage brooms for the sport's real brooms, and strapped sliders and grippers on the soles of their sneakers. The Canadians, for their part, didn't take it easy on the Yanks when they went north to play.

"We will not disclose the running record of American teams," the Coeur d'Alene club posted on its website about those early days north of the border. "We will just say those Canadians know how to curl!"

Five years later, and the founders have an eye on competing at the Olympic level.

But on a much broader scale, they also want to see if the sport catches on in Coeur d'Alene. The club has organized the area's first curling league, with the help from curlers in Spokane, and the inaugural Coeur d'Alene season kicked off last week. A dozen teams will throw stones at Frontier Ice Arena every Monday night for the next two months as the breakout season gets underway. Quite the accomplishment, considering the club's humble roots. But if locals latch on to the sport the way the organizers did, more leagues and seasons could be set up in the future.

"We'll wait and see how interested people are," said Ryan Montang, curling club organizer, on setting up more league play after the current season ends later this spring.

Early signs say the sport might be quite popular.

To promote the league, the club offered a pair of free lessons, and around 300 people showed up for a how-to seminar, complete with real gear, not makeshift apartment stuff.

"I've always wanted to try it," my curling partner David, of Coeur d'Alene, told me when I asked what brought him out. His story was similar to the founders, though he didn't go out to Twin Lakes to try, but waited for the free lessons instead. "I was watching the Olympics six years ago and since then I always wanted to try."

After two hours, David became a capable curler, and sought to join the league.

How hard is it?

At first, learning to slide a stone is nothing but awkward.

You start out crunched down in a block, like at the start of a track race. You kick off the block with your back foot, holding the stone in one hand, and glide with your lead foot that has a slider strapped on the sole of your shoe. It takes balance and flexibility, and turning your wrist at the last minute to send the stone in a certain direction could take years to master.

Teams have four to their starting squad: First lead, two sweepers and the skip.

First lead slides the stone across the ice toward a bull's eye-like target, called a House. Not unlike shuffleboard, points are scored by the stones closest the center of the house. Sweepers apply heat to the ice to alter the slide, and strategy and defense play a big part, as teams go back and forth slides stones, which is why the sport earned its 'chess on ice' nickname.

The skip, or captain, stands near the House and points to the lead where to aim. All good skips yell at the sweepers to sweep, I'm told.

"Sweeeeep," the instructors, including the old guys from Creston, boomed across the ice as they taught the group during the lessons.

Even if it's too late to join a league - for now anyway - the club is hosting its inaugural curling tournament April 26-28 at the ice rink. The three-day tournament, called The Panhandle Bonspiel, is more than just sliding stones, because on Friday and Saturday evenings the teams will eat and drink together in grand style, sponsored by Nosworthy's Hall of Fame restaurant in Coeur d'Alene.

"There's nothing better than sitting around with the other teams," said Doug Piller, club organizer, who rounds out the organizing team with Corey Gorham, on the social component surrounding the sport that's very popular in Scotland and Japan too, not just Canada.

In fact, curling tradition allows teams to concede one-sided matches without the stigma of quitting as it allows for more time to socialize.

"It's very gentlemanly," Doug said.

As for becoming skilled, that takes practice just like anything. Directing the stone with a flick of the wrist takes time to master, and figuring out when and how to apply the perfect amount of heat to the ice with a broom for the optimal slide can only take more.

But it's fun learning. And before I stepped off the ice after the two-hour lesson, I broomed the ice in front of a stationary stone for no real reason at all, and one man saw me.

"Addicting," he said, "huh?"

Info: cdacurling@gmail.com or www.cdacurling.com

Lisa Dosch slides along the ice as she lines up her shot with a polished granite stone know as the "rock" during a curling game Monday at Frontier Ice Arena in Coeur d'Alene.

 

Josh Engle watches the trajectory of the stone as he guides his team with directions from the far end of the ice.

 

Randy Boyd walks across the ice during a Coeur d'Alene Curling Club practice and game session Monday at Frontier Ice Arena.

 

Curling involves strategy and teamwork to guide stones into defensive and offensive positions on the ice.

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