Curling puzzlingly popular

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:34 AM ET

It has all the excitement of watching your grandmother do needlepoint. It has all the action of a good game of darts -- without the Guinness to make it, uh, interesting. And Canadians just can't get enough of it. On the national sports menu curling is our comfort food.

"TV has had a lot to do with the popularity and becoming an Olympic sport was just huge," says Fran Todd, three-time Canadian senior champion and president of the Ontario Curling Association. "I've been curling for 39 years and can't imagine life without it but there are many people out there who have never stepped on the ice but love watching curling. That amazes me."

At the provincial championship this week in Whitby, the competition never has been stiffer. The CBC and affiliates this year have more than 180 hours of live curling coverage and Rogers is providing full coverage of this tournament. On a recreational level, Canada has more than 1.3 million curlers. It is as much a part of the Canadian mosaic as hockey, the Grey Cup and a double-double.

"I was at the bantams last week in Sarnia and thinking, 'There's the future of our sport,' " says Todd, "They have beautiful deliveries. They know the etiquette of the game. They're so well coached now. And they're only 16."

So, what makes this sedate game so appealing to a populace that normally likes it's amusements to come with a McSorley shish kebab and a side helping of Tie a la mode?

"In a place like Toronto there are a lot of things to do but in places like Saskatchewan there just aren't that many things to do in winter," says Todd. "It's huge in places like that."

Where once the sport was the preserve of gramps and middle-aged pot-bellies who thought chic was a new plaid sweater, curling is attracting kids from six to, well, says Todd, "I know of some men in their 80s who still play three times a week. That's part of the attraction. There aren't many sports where you can do that."

Curling now has its own minor program -- Little Rocks -- just like hockey. Then there's the cost factor. In keeping with its fine Scottish heritage, it is cheap entertainment. Membership at the Whitby club is $300 for the year. You can blow that in one night at a Raptors or Leafs game. A ticket to the provincials here costs $11 to $15. That won't park the car for Mamma Mia.

Curling's appeal is a lot like a hot bowl of tomato soup on a cold day. Cosy. It doesn't rage like football or hockey -- or a steel cage match featuring Rafer and The Coach.

You can wrap up on the sofa and, even if you hit the snooze button on a Sunday afternoon, they'll still be blinking back at you from the screen at a quarter-after-lucidity. The game can be interminable -- and we mean that in the nicest way possible. It's chess on ice -- with attitude.

And, unlike pro football or baseball, curling looks like something anyone can do. Not to mention it has better "afters" than any other sport this side of golf. If you can't beat 'em on the ice, there's always the, hic, bar!

Curling has a long tradition of being the most social of sports. In the 1800s, early rules of the Montreal club stated that the losing party pay for a bowl of whisky toddy. Last night a lot of guys not named Middaugh or Howard were renewing that tradition. Some things never change.

So, is it a sport, a game, or an art? "That's an interesting question," says Todd. The answer is that it is probably a bit of each -- depending on the degree of competition.

"There's a lot of people out there happy just playing their one game a week," says Todd, "and recreational curlers are very important to us; the clubs need them to survive."

But to players like Middaugh and others it is more than a game. "A top competitor throws every day or, at least, every other day," says Todd. Then there are the head games. Like yesterday when Middaugh declined to say what colour rock he would be throwing today.

To someone like Todd, a two-time world champion, it is definitely a sport. Checkers is a game; curling is sweat and blood -- and she has the X-rays to prove it.

"Competitive curling takes a lot of mental preparation, endurance and strategy," she says. "It's the appeal of the game ... but in a split second you can lose it all."

One missed shot. One missed guess. One slip and a year of preparation can disappear. It happened to Todd. "It was the provincial senior semi-final game in 2002. I'd worked all year because we wanted to go to the worlds ... I bent over to get my gripper. I had been curling 36 years and had never fallen but I fell into the edge of the boards and broke my left shoulder ... your whole career, or year, is over in a split second."

So, call it whatever you want. Just don't call it easy. 

HEY FANS! Do you have a quirky sports item? Include your name and city and e-mail it to me at: bill.lankhof@tor.sunpub.com or fax it to: 416-947-2454

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