The U.S. men's curling championships have never before been held on the West Coast, and when they began last week the city of Seattle played up to the playdown—curler's term for their finals—with sunny, springy days that brought residents out blinking like owls in the sudden brilliance. "A drought," said one. "It hasn't rained in four days." They looked affectionately at the Cascades and the Olympics, their mountains which the mists disclose once or twice a year, and then the curlers among them turned their backs on these newly visible wonders to retire into the Granite Curling Club for a rigorous six days of competition to determine the ninth winner of the Marshall Field Cup and the rink (the four-man curling team) to represent the U.S. in the six-nation world championships next week in Scotland.
A Boeing engineer, Al Sundquist, calculated that the 48 men of the 12 assembled champion rinks each heaved about four and a half tons of granite down the ice, the sweepers swept some 14.2 miles apiece and each man was on the ice for at least six hours a day. Viewing the gentle sport of curling in this rather new light, it is no wonder that youth proved to tell. It is the Wisconsin rink, an infant team with an average age of 25, that will leave for the Scotch Cup matches in Perth.
This may be a little damaging to the idea of the curler as a middle-aged storehouse of canny stratagems and mystic ability to read the ice, but as a member of the Granite Club says philosophically, "It's like any other sport. Experience helps, but you can't beat the young ones." Evidently not, if they are Skip (team captain) Bud Somerville, Bill Strum, Al Gagne and Thomas Wright, and if you are going to put your contenders through round-robin, rather than elimination, play with 11 other teams for six days. It is a process that separates the boys from the men.
The playdown began last Monday, with ceremony and bagpipes and The Star-Spangled Banner. "Our national anthem." came the usual announcement and, "Oh Canada?" the whispered question. Irreverent, possibly, but pertinent. An estimated 75% of the contending U.S. curlers were Canadian-born. Curling is Canada's No. 1 sport. Contrary to popular belief, more boys curl there than play hockey, and there are about 500,000 Canadian curlers. In the U.S. only 20,000 people curl, but the number is increasing.
By Tuesday night in Seattle the rinks seemed to be sorting themselves out briskly. After 24 matches four rinks were undefeated, three were without a win and five had divided up the victories in a more equitable fashion. As expected, the eastern rinks were making a good-natured but not intimidating show of it, with Nebraska and, not expectedly Michigan, for company. Minnesota, Illinois, North Dakota and Wisconsin were undefeated.
Over the next few days the look of things became progressively less tidy, and it finally dawned upon careful followers that, except for Washington and Illinois on Monday, none of the strong teams had been competing against each other. They had been playing the weaker rinks, which accounted for a scoreboard full of unblemished, and wholly blemished, records. When the top teams did get down to business, they traded a few losses that did little to indicate where things were going. Illinois defeated Minnesota, Minnesota defeated Wisconsin and Wisconsin defeated Illinois. If not indicative of much, all of the matches were magnificent.
Minnesota and Illinois were the first of the four undefeated rinks to meet, and they were interestingly matched. Minnesota, despite the presence of a fairly stolid grownup in the person of 47-year-old Sibley (Mike) Stewart, is a jumpy rink, skipped by a 22-year-old whippet named Bruce Roberts. Young Roberts, of course, is new to skipping a team in national competition, and he did a cagey, unorthodox job of it. He has said that he lives and dies curling, and has proved one or the other by losing 40 pounds this season. This has left him a chain-smoking, blade-faced wraith, and it is little wonder he has trouble settling down. The difficulty does not extend to his curling, however, which is brilliant and steady under pressure; if he were a bullfighter—and he curls with all the style and the passion of a bullfighter—Bruce Roberts would be shaping up as El N√∫mero Uno.
The Illinois rink, on the other hand, skipped by Bob Warner, is not a nervous rink. It is steady, cheerful, solid and excellent, with all of its members decently on the far side of 30.
For those unfamiliar with the sport, curling is a combination of shuffleboard, lawn bowls, chess and pool, played on ice, which in the particular cumulative quality of its interest resembles baseball. It is a superficially simple game to describe. You have 138 feet of ice, with 12-foot, 8-foot, 4-foot and one-foot circles marked at each end, and toward these circles you propel heavy granite stones. The object is to have your stone, or stones, nearest the center of the rings, or house, at the end of each inning, logically enough called an end. Curling terminology is, on the whole, logical. The game is called curling because the stones curl, slowly and majestically, as they slide down the ice. An end is the end of both teams' delivery of their eight stones apiece—16 stones to an end. There are 10 ends. Sweeping means sweeping. Bending refers to the arc of the path of the stone from delivery to destination (and bend is surely as forthright a word for it as curve).
The placing of stones closest to a mark and knocking away your opponent's stones are simple enough ideas. The stones themselves and ice as a playing surface give the game its particular physical quality, and the number of stones and the question of who has the advantage of the last one in an end make it strategically demanding. As in chess, there are certain usual opening moves, certain necessary responses and certain daring, unconventional moves which, by contrast with chess, you have to be able to execute physically once you have thought them up.
When you get the hang of curling, it is immensely exciting to see a final stone travel more than 100 feet, curve to a seemingly impossible degree and glide through a 14-inch opening between two enemy stones to change what could be a four-point score for one side to a one-point score for the other. Or to see one stone pick off another, and do it with the sound of a 12-inch granite cue ball hitting a 12-inch granite five ball. The pool analogy is just: a good curler can take out two stones 12 feet apart, playing off the corner of one to the other.
As to the sweeping that is done in front of the stone as it moves down the ice—yes, it does do something. No doubt the custom arose when the game was played outside and falling snow had to be swept from the path of the stone, but indoors on artificial ice sweeping has another demonstrable effect. The best curlers insist that real sweeping can make a 15-foot difference in the distance a stone will travel, and a Canadian has wagered $100, and won, that given three good sweepers he can keep any stone out of the house by sweeping it through or by not sweeping and letting it fall short. The reason usually given is that the friction of hard sweeping of the stone's path melts a skin of ice and the stone thus glides on a wet surface. There are those who claim that it creates a vacuum, which sounds somewhat more mystical.
In any case, ludicrous as it may appear to see grown men flailing the ice fiercely with brooms, sweeping is difficult. It takes muscle—suppose your life depended on brushing up chewing gum stuck to a porous cement floor?—and timing, and a very peculiar, unnatural manner of locomotion on a sheet of ice. With an awareness of this, the bull-throated roar of, "Sweep, you dogs, sweep!" and the violent slap-slap of the brooms do not produce chuckles so much as visions of slaves in galleys.
It was in this unfrivolous atmosphere that Illinois met Minnesota. Illinois won the toss and blanked the first end (no score in the equivalent of a first inning), and from then on the two teams inched point by point to an extra end—1-0, 1-1, 2-1, 2-2, on up to a 5-5 tie in the 10th. The score indicates an excruciating progression for curling, where 160 stones are played in a match and the scoring possibilities are numerous. To keep the score so low requires virtually errorless play by both sides, technically and tactically. It is nerve-racking, being flawless, which may account for a mishap at the end of the ninth. Illinois had Minnesota down 5-4, and Illinois Skip Bob Warner delivered his last rock of the end, a rock that might well have decided the match. His second, Don Wilson, ran into it. The stone was fouled and removed from play, for probably the most painful single moment of the entire play-down. Wilson went off and appeared briefly to be trying to disappear through a blank wall. Failing this, he returned to the ice and the teams went into the 10th with Minnesota still down one.
At the end of the 10th, with a considerable buildup of stones in the scoring area, Minnesota's Roberts tried with his next-to-last stone for an exceedingly difficult double, hefting his 42 pounds of granite in the highest backswing in American curling and delivering the heaviest rock of the competition—what the Scots used to designate "a thunderin' cast." It failed to remove both the opposing stones Roberts wanted, but it did blast out Illinois' shot rock (the stone nearest the center, which would count as a score) and was a beautiful thing, though it failed of the particular miracle Roberts had in mind. Skip Warner drew his last stone in close to the center of the house, and Roberts had to play for the tie. He went for the shot rock, removed it and stayed, to tie the score 5-5.
Since his was the last point, in the extra end it would be Illinois' last rock—the scorer in one end begins the next—and Minnesota began building up the house. By the last four rocks they had succeeded in putting and keeping three rocks in. With the 14th, Illinois' next-to-last stone, Skip Warner hit two of Minnesota's stones but knocked one of his own out of contention, leaving Minnesota lying one and two—two Minnesota stones in scoring position. Roberts put his last rock in front Of these, creating a seemingly impassible guard, and Warner threw the last stone of the match. It came down the ice at the dignified speed of a curling stone properly delivered; it bent; it moved between the Minnesota stones to come to rest, after 110 feet, an inch closer to the center than the Minnesota stone. The match had lasted three and a half hours and was decided by the last of 176 rocks and a margin of an inch. It was the best match of the championships. Minnesota felt terrible.
After the battle of the Titans, in a battle of the non-Titans Nebraska broke a 5-0 string of losses to defeat Michigan by a heartwarming (to Nebraska) score of 10-5. "You can't lose 'em all," observed Sid Osten later, vice-skip of the triumphant rink, fortunately out of earshot of New Jersey and Massachusetts, who had reason to disbelieve him. (New Jersey finally did beat someone; it turned out to be Nebraska.) By Saturday afternoon it was clear that the last matches were not going to produce a winner. North Dakota, Illinois and Wisconsin were still tied up, the first two to play each other and Wisconsin to meet Washington. Washington, while not a negligible quantity, was still not the team to put your money on in a match with Wisconsin, which meant that Wisconsin would have to meet either North Dakota or Illinois in a playoff match. The winner was Illinois. North Dakota unexpectedly froze: if the Dakotans did not lose their touch, they lost full control of it, and Illinois ran up a score against them—9-3—by which their fine team should not be judged.
After an hour's rest it was time for Illinois and Wisconsin to find out who was the U.S. curling champion. Both teams, by this time, were tired and very tense, and they took to the ice with an air of considerable solemnity; only Bob Ferris, the Illinois lead, seemed to be entirely himself during the first ends. So severe was the strain that neither rink undertook any very imaginative play. A rock would be placed by one team and the other would apply all of its efforts to removing it, and Wisconsin's efforts proved superior. They won by 9 stones to 4.
It had begun to seem likely as early as the third end that Wisconsin was going to make it, and the real tension of the match centered rather on the question of whether Bud Somerville's pants would. Somerville's curling pants, his lucky pants, split up the front about halfway through the match. Bud turned his back and remedial efforts were made with tape and a large safety pin. He proceeded unperturbed. Composure is essential to curling, and we are fortunate that the U.S. is to be represented in Scotland by a skip with lots of it.
Bud Somerville is 28, the oldest member of his rink. He is a commercial printer in Superior, Wis. and the brother-in-law of his vice-skip, Bill Strum. In July his second, Al Gagne, will become the brother-in-law of his lead, Tom Wright, when he marries Wright's sister, Caren. This will make them the brothers-in-law four, or brithers-in-law a', as perhaps they will say in Scotland.
The Wisconsin rink is young, the curling is sound from lead to skip, and the boys must be among the strongest sweepers sweeping. (Tom Wright, a large young man, has developed a style that looks like a mechanical toy gone mad.) As skip, Somerville directs the sweeping of the others, and he is explicit about it, calling every stroke. Altogether, the Wisconsin rink will be the strongest team the country has ever sent to the Scotch Cup matches. The U.S. has always finished near the bottom in world play, but American curlers are expecting great things of their team next week. Their optimism may be justified. Somerville is having his lucky pants sewed up.