The rocks were flying at the Woolwich Memorial Centre this week as titans of the curling world competed on Elmira ice – or just about. Typically the sight of all things hockey, the Dan Snyder arena was transformed last week in preparation for the curling provincial championships, which run through Sunday.
Gone was the single slab of ice in favour of five curling sheets. The boards were also removed, body checking being frowned upon in the sport of curling.
And there’s the ice. On the surface, it all looks the same. ‘Ice is just ice, right?’ you may find yourself saying. What’s the difference?
“The biggest difference between hockey ice and curling ice is that a curling rock is way smarter than a hockey puck,” explains Tom Leonard, an ice technician with CurlOn and an avid curler in his own right. Over the course of just a day, the crew prepped the ice for a 44-pound curling rock.
“Because a curling rock will find the little idiosyncrasies in the ice before a hockey puck ever will. It doesn’t matter if the ice is slopped one way or the other for hockey, the puck’s going to go up and down. And the travel of the puck doesn’t really dictate the game, where it’s so important for the rock to have the right curl and travel on the right lines for these players.”
That means keeping a level playing field – literally – as the slightest variations can send rocks careening off their expected paths. Noticing that the ice at the Dan Snyder tended to “bowl” in the middle and rise along the edges, the crew trimmed up to two inches of ice along the sides of the arena with a laser level.
“We have to have a level surface. There can’t be any fluctuation,” said fellow ice technician Jim Gleason. “One side can’t be higher than the other. If it does, it’ll make a difference in the way the rock travels. You throw a rock down the centre line going to the outside, it might only go three feet if the side is high. But if you throw one to the eight foot coming back, it wouldn’t even get to the centre because it’s not level.”
But while the ice should be level, that’s not to say it should be flat; rather, the entire playing surface is “pebbled,” or coarsened with bumps to give the rock something to glide along.
“Pebbling is applying water to the surface, so it freezes in like a really tiny frozen droplet,” explained Leonard. “And that’s what the rock travels on. The rock doesn’t like to travel on flat ice, it likes to travel in pebbled ice. There’s way less friction for the rock to travel.”
When the slightest deviations or inconsistencies in ice quality could jeopardize the players’ precision, the technicians admit there is some pressure to getting the ice just right – and keeping it that way over the entire championship.
“Yes and no,” said Leonard. “It can be a lot of pressure, but at the same time you have to have the confidence in your abilities, so you can’t be just a bag of nerves either.”
The confidence comes with experience, of which the crew has it in spades. “This will be, I believe, my twenty-third for Ontario. I’ve done a pile for Northern Ontario, along with stuff for Curling Canada, the Briers, Scotties. I was in North Bay last year for the World Championships.”
During his time, he’s also got to meet with many of the curling legends – definitely a perk of the job for a curling fan.
“Oh it’s cool. These are the best players in the province, so it’s cool,” said Leonard. Asked about his favourite, and he points to Kendra Lilly from Sudbury. “She grew up in my town, she’s curled on my ice since she’s been six years old, and just to see her grow into the player and the person she is, is just cool.”
Leonard and company will be keeping the ice in pristine condition for the remainder of the championship, which culminates with the women’s finals on Saturday at 7 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. for the men. In the meantime, however, draws will be running continuously throughout the week at 9:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m., until the Sunday finals.