A new craze has folks flocking to the ice in Montana’s capital city—curling.
Although fairly new to the Helena area, curling is believed to be one of the oldest team sports in existence. It dates back to the 1500s in Scotland.
Imagine shuffleboard played on a huge ice sheet—roughly 150 feet by 15 feet—using round “stones” that weigh approximately 40 pounds. At each end of the sheet is a series of concentric circles called a “house.” These rings are defined by their diameters as the 4-foot, 8-foot and 12-foot rings. The center of the house is called “the button.”
As in shuffleboard, teams take turns trying to slide their stones across the sheet, to land as close to the button as possible.
Curling the Stone
Each stone has a handle on it, and a player throws the stone from one end to the other by gripping the handle and pushing off the “hack,” or what looks like a starting block embedded in the ice. The player guides the stone by hand for several feet and then lets it go, where it slides over the ice to the other end, ideally to land as close to the button as possible or in front of the house as a defensive stone or “guard.”
To control the movement of the stone once it has left the hand of the player delivering it, teammates use a specially designed broom to alter the surface of the ice. This “sweeping” of the ice ahead of the stone can help direct its movement, helping the stone to travel farther and straighter. “Essentially, what they are doing is creating a very thin layer of water on top of the ice,” Helena curler Todd Myse explains. “That way, they can increase the distance, but also straighten out the curl of the stone.”
The ice itself is groomed in an unusual way, quite differently from the glassy finish preferred for other ice sports like hockey or figure skating. After the ice has been smoothed, it is “pebbled” by sprinkling hot water over it, which then freezes, giving the surface a lightly cobbled profile.
“It looks kind of like the surface of an orange,” Myse says. “That pebbled surface allows the stone to curl.”
Brains, Not Brawn, Required
Whereas hockey and skiing depend on speed, agility, and being in tip-top shape, curling is a more relaxed adventure on ice, one that rewards strategy, finesse, and teamwork. One of the best features of the sport is anyone can do it.
Tournaments between communities are called bonspiels, and recently Nanette Dupont, 62, came down to Helena—with her team, the Funkensteins—for a Halloween-themed bonspiel hosted by Helena’s Last Chance Curling Club in October. She has been curling since she was 18 in Alberta, Canada, and curls at least three nights a week when she’s back home, north of the border.
“It’s a very social sport, open to really anyone,” she says. “Even if you’re older and have bad joints, you can still play. There’s even blind people who curl!”
Dupont says some of the folks she curls with are even in their 80s or 90s.
“It isn’t like hockey—it doesn’t matter your age, or your physique. You can learn at any age and go at your own speed,” she says.
Curling might have been an esoteric hobby a hundred years ago, but thanks to its status as an Olympic sport, it has gained popularity, and, according to Myse, “the big Montana towns now all have a curling club—Helena, Missoula, Bozeman, Havre, Billings, Butte.” At the recent bonspiel the Last Chance Curlers hosted in Helena, 18 teams showed up from every corner of the state, along with Dupont’s Canadian team and another from Idaho. Myse says the tournament raised several thousand dollars for the local club.
He says he started playing the sport in 2018, driving down regularly from Helena to play with the Butte club. “Then our team decided to start a club in Helena in 2020, file as a nonprofit, create a logo, bylaws, and create our own league.” His team is called the Sultans of Sweep.
According to Myse, the challenge for any curling club is finding “dedicated ice.” Usually clubs must rent ice time from local ice arenas. The only time Helena teams currently have to play league is at 10 pm on Thursday nights at the Helena Ice Arena. Still, the Helena club sees plenty of action in local tournaments and in league play.
“We currently have 10 teams in Helena,” says Myse, “and each team has four players, so we have a lot of local interest.”
When they have better ice times available, they can get up to 20 teams—80 people plus subs—for league play, according to Myse. He says the Helena club is actively pursuing getting their own exclusive curling facility.
“The ice is pretty different for curling, so it’s nice to have a place just for curling,” he says.
Myse says the Last Chance Curling Club will host its first ever (that they know of in Montana) outdoor bonspiel in Phillipsburg, February 3rd through 5th. The event will also feature a crash course for beginners, called “Learn to Curl,” on the 4th.
Registration for curling teams filled up quickly. “The registration is closed already for the 16 spots we had for teams,” he said. “We filled up in four minutes.”
Myse chalks up the popularity of curling to the camaraderie—even league play is a social event, where the emphasis is on having fun. But the mental aspects of the sport are also very appealing to participants.
“It is a game of skill. People often call it ‘Chess on ice.’ You have to plan moves and think about strategy constantly,” Myse says. “The challenge is pretty addictive.” MSN