ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, FEB. 16 - In this photo taken Jan. 17, 2015, curling enthusiasts participate in a curling clinic hosted by the Bozeman Parks and Recreation Department at Southside Park in Bozeman, Mont.. Participants learn the basics of the game and help raise interest in the sport. (AP Photo/Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez)

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, FEB. 16 - In this photo taken Jan. 17, 2015, curling enthusiasts participate in a curling clinic hosted by the Bozeman Parks and Recreation Department at Southside Park in Bozeman, Mont.. Participants learn the basics of the game and help raise interest in the sport. (AP Photo/Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez)

Curling surges in popularity

BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) — Bozeman’s hottest up-and-coming winter sport, it turns out, doesn’t have anything to do with mountains.

Instead, it’s curling — perhaps best known for its presence in the winter Olympics, and perhaps best described for the uninitiated as a cross between shuffleboard, hockey and bowling.

Obscure even a few years ago, the sport is seeing dramatic growth in Bozeman’s recreation scene. The city’s league, only in its second year, filled rosters for 16 teams in a matter of days this winter, said Holly Crane, the city’s assistant recreation manager. That’s twice as many teams as during the inaugural season.

“Doubling in size in one season — it’s pretty impressive,” Crane said, adding that it’s far more typical for league sports like kickball to see gradual growth over several years.

Curling, she said, has “exploded.”

“It’s a team sport, but it’s a very polite and civilized team sport,” said Bruce Richards, a volunteer who helped get the city’s league started.

“There aren’t even any referees,” he added, noting it’s also traditional for the team that wins a match to buy the losers a round of drinks.

I was one of 30 Bozemanites who took part in a recent parks and recreation clinic, hoping to get in on the action. That Saturday morning, we spent an hour-and-a-half learning the sport’s basics on an ice rink adapted from a tennis court in Southside Park as temperatures hovered a few degrees below freezing.

The gist of the game is this: The lead, one of a curling team’s four members, pushes off from a footrest embedded in the ice at one end of a 100-odd-footlong playing surface, sliding a 42-lb granite stone toward a 12-foot target painted on the ice at the far end of the sheet.

As the stone skims across the ice sheet, a pair of broom-equipped “sweepers” frantically brush the ice in its path, strategically adjusting friction to fine-tune its trajectory. If the thrower has applied a gentle spin to the stone, it will also gradually curl over the course of its travel, providing the motion that gives the sport both its name and much of its strategy.

The fourth teammate, the “skip,” or captain, directs the action — providing the lead with a target to shoot for and relaying instructions to the sweeps. While we didn’t have time to play a complete game at Saturday’s clinic, I’m told this latter duty typically involves a significant amount of shouting.

Olympic-level precision, it turned out, wasn’t in the cards for me on my first go on the ice. My early attempts at launching a stone toward with me splayed across the ice, with the stone skidding to a stop somewhere around the ice sheet’s halfway mark.

I started to get a feel for things with a bit of practice, though — and after an instructor pointed out I needed to account for the ice rink’s slight tilt as I aimed.

That’s the thing about curling on outdoor ice instead of an indoor rink, it turns out — bumps and irregularities that would be less noticeable with something like hockey become a slightly bigger deal when you’re agonizing over the finer details of a stone’s trajectory.

The tennis court the city rink in Southside Park is built on, Crane explained after the fact, is designed with a slight slant so it drains in warmer months. Especially given a late start to the rec department’s annual rink-building, forced by this year’s warm December, that means the ice surface is something less than competitive grade.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s part of the charm.

Crane added that recreation staff spend hours prepping the ice used for the city curling league Tuesday and Thursday nights. They start by flooding the tennis courts in Southside Park off College Street to, weather-permitting, build up a new layer of ice, she said, then painstakingly shave off high spots before polishing the ice sheet with something akin to a “huge dust mop.”

Just before play a sort of hand-held sprinkler is used to spread droplets of water on the ice surface, which freeze on contact to create “pebbling” that makes it easier for stones to skim across the sheet. Part of the sport’s challenge is taking changing ice conditions into account as the pebbles melt or are scraped down over the course of a match.

“If it snows… we start all over again,” Crane said. “We’re fighting against nature.”

Richards, a longtime curler in his native Michigan before moving to Montana, says the sport is a perfect fit for Bozeman’s winter recreation scene.

It’s something that can be played evenings during the week, he said, and in contrast to higher-impact sports like soccer or hockey, curlers can remain competitive as they age.

“It’s easy to get started,” he said, “but you never get tired of it.”

The original story can be found on the Bozeman Daily Chronicle’s website: http://bit.ly/1zb4AKZ

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, FEB. 16 - In this photo taken Jan. 17, 2015, curling enthusiasts sweep the ice behind a stone during a curling clinic hosted by the Bozeman Parks and Recreation Department at Southside Park in Bozeman, Mont.. Participants learn the basics of the game and help raise interest in the sport. (AP Photo/Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez)

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, FEB. 16 – In this photo taken Jan. 17, 2015, curling enthusiasts sweep the ice behind a stone during a curling clinic hosted by the Bozeman Parks and Recreation Department at Southside Park in Bozeman, Mont.. Participants learn the basics of the game and help raise interest in the sport. (AP Photo/Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez)

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