Rutland — It is Sunday evening and that means curling night at the Rutland Rocks Curling Club. At 6:30 sharp, a steady stream of people enters the lobby of the rink, carrying brooms and duffle bags with changes of shoes. Everyone wears red nametags, greets each other with a friendly hello and helps themselves to the platter of brownies someone has laid out on a paper plate.
Since its humble beginnings in the 1500s, today curling is played in 46 countries and is an Olympic medal sport. Canada leads the way with around 1 million curlers. And Vermont with its frozen lakes and skating arenas in nearly every town is another hotspot, with multiple clubs around the state welcoming members.
Founding Rutland club member Nancy Murphy wears two patches on the sleeve of her jacket, indicating her as a certified curling instructor from the USA Curling Association. In 2007, Murphy attended trainings in Massachusetts to become an instructor and get the Rutland club off the ground.
“I went from not knowing how to curl to being able to teach it,” she says. “It’s a little shuffleboard, a little bocce and a few other things.”
The club had its first open house on Dec. 30, 2007 and has since grown to nearly 40 members coming to curl weekly, driving from Middlebury, the Rutland area and even as far away as Bennington.
“It’s small, but it’s very dedicated,” Murphy says. “We have some people that don’t actively curl, but still join the club every year because they want to support the community.”
After signing in, the group heads out onto the skating rink, which has to be specially prepared for the event. The ice is sprayed with water, which freezes in lumps on the surface, creating a textured surface similar to that of a pond or the frozen marshes of Scotland where the sport is presumed to have originated in the 16th century.
The curling stones weigh precisely 42 pounds and are made of special high-density granite, imported from Scotland.
“The granite has to be of a certain composition to withstand the repeated strikings,” club member Phyl Keyes explains. “Apparently the granite here in Vermont isn’t up to the task.”
Members at the Rutland club say the sport is rooted more in tradition and sportsmanship than hard-nosed competition, a point they emphasize at the start of every match, when teams mingle, shaking hands and wishing each other a cheery “Good curling!”
“You wish each other well,” says club president Dean Mooney. “You compliment each other and the other team on good shots. It’s all very polite.”
Other pieces of good curling etiquette include avoiding distracting movements when a curler is in position and keeping the ice clean. The sport also depends on the honor system and players are expected to call their own infractions.
Like shuffleboard, bocce or golf, curling requires fine control and technique to accurately send stones as close as possible to the “button,” the center of a target shape located at both ends of a 150-foot long curling sheet.
At one end, Bruce Jenson crouches in the hack, or starting position, while at the other end of the curling sheet, Dean Mooney waits in his role as “skip,” or team captain, and estimates the speed and direction of travel the stone will need for the best placement. With an outstretched arm, Mooney indicates to Jenson how he wants the stone to curve. By turning the handle on the stone towards his body, the stone will curl inward. Turning it away will result in an outward turn.
With a push, Jenson glides forward on the Teflon soles of his curling shoes, sending the stone down the ice with a low rumble. Meanwhile, sweeper Mary Lou Webster follows alongside the stone at a pace that could be described as a fast shuffle.
Mooney observes the progress of the approaching stone. As soon as he yells “Sweep!” Webster attacks the ice directly in the stone’s path with her broom, sweeping vigorously. The sweeping smoothes the textured ice, reduces friction and thus causes it to slide further. The sweeping can cause a stone to slide an extra 10 feet or more and when thrown with a fine enough technique, can even curve around opposing team’s stones.
As the stone approaches, Mooney calls out for Webster to lessen the sweeping, slowing the stone to ensure it doesn’t carry too much momentum. The stone comes to a stop with a satisfying clack against the red-handled stone of the opposing team, which skirts out of the scoring zone.
“Great shot, Bruce!” Mooney calls down the ice to Jenson, who flashes a thumbs-up.
Then, they go skating or shuffling back to the other end. On average, an athlete can walk up to 2.5 miles in a full match.
Bruce Jenson tossed his first stone when the Rutland Club opened eight years ago. He has been curling ever since.
“When I was a kid I liked pitching pennies,” he says. “This is kind of like that or playing marbles – except with 42-pound marbles on ice in the freezing cold. I’m 69, but I love throwing rocks.”
Nearby, playing in a different match, Holly Citro was enmeshed in her old game. She grew up in Burlington and used to watch curling on television “constantly” with her father, who was born in Canada.
“I was always fascinated by it,” she says, “and when I found out that Rutland had a club I knew it was for me.”
At the end of January, a handful of members will head to the Schenectady Open Bonspiel to compete against clubs from all over the Northeast. On Feb. 22, the Rutland club will host the third annual “Verspiel” with the three other clubs in Vermont coming to the Rutland arena for a full tournament.
Members receive pins from the different “Bonspiels” – or curling meets – they attend and wear them on their fleece vests, jackets or hats.
Mooney says the sport is gaining momentum as more than just a feature during the winter Olympics. The club hopes to attract members from neighboring Castleton State College.
“We’re seeing it growing in leaps and bounds every year,” he said.
If you’re interested in exploring the unique world of curling, contact any of the three curling clubs around the state for open houses, learn-to-curl clinics or to join:
Green Mountain Curling Club:
The Green Mountain Curling Club has been around since 2005 and curls at the Bedford Curling Club in Bedford, Quebec, ten minutes across the I-89 border crossing, every Sunday morning.
Rutland Rocks Curling Club:
The closest club for interested curlers in the Champlain Valley area has existed since 2007 and curls every Sunday evening from November until March.
Upper Valley Curling and the Woodstock Curling Club:
Originally formed as the Woodstock Curling Club in 2008, the club has expanded to include members in the Upper Valley and neighboring towns in New Hampshire.