VOL. 130 | NO. 50 | Friday, March 13, 2015
By Bill Dries
The calendar’s turn to spring next week can only mean one thing for sports fans who like their action on ice.
It’s almost curling season for a group of about 25 leads, skips, seconds and vices who open league play April 26 at the Mid-South Ice House in Olive Branch, Miss.
The group that plays has grown from the 16 people who played last year, one Sunday a week for about two hours.
“What we do is called arena curling,” said Memphian Greg Roberson, a 10-year curling enthusiast who has travelled to Canada, across the U.S. and to other places with different types of curling and different levels of competition including Olympic curling.
“We’re curling on hockey ice,” he said. “We’re going after a public skate where there’s been a lot of kids skating and we prepare the ice and then the hockey guys are waiting for us to get off so they can get out there.”
The dominance of hockey at such facilities means summer is the South’s curling season.
Roberson doesn’t just travel for curling. He’s also toured internationally as the drummer for the bands Reigning Sound and Tiger High as well as numerous other Memphis-based bands. And he has more connections from his career as Doc Walker on the Sirius-XM radio Elvis channel.
As a result, other curlers have told him that he brings a different sense of style to the sport.
Up until 10 years ago, he knew curling from the old Wide World of Sports TV show and the Beatles movie “Help” that featured it as a subplot. But curling held his attention in 2005 when was visiting upstate New York and Montreal.
“I was dating a woman that lived up there and we just happened to pop the television on. I was blown away,” he said. “We just laid there on a cold, snowy afternoon and watched this entire curling match.”
What got Roberson’s attention was the intense style of Russ Howard, a Canadian curler and Olympic champion who is now a television commentator and coach.
“Because he was so intense and so into it and passionate, I got back home and started investigating and I started watching it on the Internet and basically following Canadian curling,” Roberson said. “There are some that are very laid back on the ice. But Russ was always intense. … He was more vocal than anybody. It got my attention. It piqued my interest. You could tell this guy was really into this.”
What looks to the casual observer like a team sliding a teakettle on ice and furiously sweeping the ice with brooms takes a bit more explanation.
In advance of the start of the local curling league play, the Memphis Curling Club is holding two “learn to curl” sessions at the Ice House on April 11 and 18 at 5:30 p.m.
What looks like a teakettle is actually a 47-pound granite stone that has a six-inch concave bottom as well as a small band running along the rock’s base.
“That little quarter-of-an-inch band in the middle of the rock is what touches the ice,” Roberson explained. “You take this special backpack with hot water and they sprinkle water on the ice and it freezes. The rocks run on that pebbled surface.”
The brushing warms up the ice.
“A couple of good brushers can drag a stone an extra three to 12 feet depending on what level of play they are at,” Roberson said.
Those who “throw” the stone are trying to rotate or “curl” it to get it to go a certain direction. And the degree to which it curls depends also on the condition of the ice.
But the game isn’t really about throwing the stone. Those “throwing” push off from a “hack” or foothold in the ice, sliding on a Teflon slider on one of their shoes.
“It’s the speed that you kick out that delivers that rock,” Roberson said. “You don’t push it at all. You release. It takes balance.”
And it looks graceful at the elite level.
The small group of curlers in the Memphis area is just a bit older than the 18 to 30 year olds Roberson has curled with in Atlanta. Most are 35 and under. The Memphis group also includes more transplants who may have grown up curling as children.
“You will find muscles that you never knew existed,” Roberson said. “I thought playing drums and working out and chasing my kids – I thought I knew those muscles. I found muscles I hadn’t used in years.”