CALGARY – The start of this curling season is an attempt to stuff the sweeping genie back in the bottle.
Elite curlers now have the same fabric – an “ugly mustard yellow” as skip Brad Gushue describes it – in their broomheads.
All sweeping hell broke loose at curling’s highest levels last winter when super-coated brush fabric allowed curlers to manipulate the trajectory of a stone in ways never seen before.
Accurate shot-making took a back seat to steering stones down the ice with “Frankenbrooms.” There were fears the abrasive fabric in brooms damaged the ice.
Confusion over what should be allowed and what shouldn’t caused bad blood between teams.
“It was just no fun last year,” Canadian women’s champion skip Chelsea Carey said. “There was a lot more animosity and tension than I’ve seen in a long time.”
New rules imposed by the World Curling Federation on Sept. 10 came out of May’s sweeping summit in Kemptville, Ont.
Gushue was one of the curlers involved in three days of testing overseen by the National Research Council. The new rules apply to WCF events, and by extension, competition sanctioned by Curling Canada.
The most visible change this fall on the World Curling Tour is all broomheads used for sweeping have the same colour and type of fabric produced from a single source.
“It’s just to make sure no brush has an advantage over another one,” Edmonton skip Val Sweeting said. “It’s all back to the thrower and shot management now.”
The material, produced in China, is given to manufacturers by a wholesale textile distributor in Canada.
“The fabric the athletes like the best, the one that we’re using now, had the least amount of coating and had some of the finer fibres,” said Scott Taylor, president of the curling equipment company BalancePlus.
“When we get the material in, we have to report specifics on each roll and provide a sample from each roll to the WCF, so if there is a problem down the road, it can be worked backwards.”
Other new rules include:
â€” Each curler on a team declares his or her WCF-approved sweeping device at the beginning of the game and must use it for sweeping.
â€” No changing of brushheads during a game is allowed without permission from the chief umpire
â€” If an alternate player comes into the game, the substitute uses the broom of the person being replaced.
A player is disqualified and that team forfeits the game on a first violation in a single competition. A second offence in the same competition suspends all players on the team from WCF events for a year.
“We wanted strict penalties,” Gushue said. “(If) you got that same sharp fabric in the same mustard colour and try to sneak it past some people . . . I believe that deserves a harsh punishment. To me, it’s not different than corking your bat in baseball.”
The Frankenbrooms spawned “directional sweeping” in which one sweeper at a time uses a downward stroke to either enhance the rock’s curl or make it run straight. It was a departure from the traditional tandem sweeping.
The new rules crack down on equipment, but not technique, so directional sweeping is still allowed.
“What we didn’t want was a whole bunch more officiating in our game,” Curling Canada’s high-performance director Gerry Peckham said. “We don’t have to be out there policing the angle of the brushing motion.
“The athlete group took it upon themselves, once they had identified this new fabric, to try every imaginable technique and angle to see if they could impact in a significant way how the rock behaved and they could not.”
But teams won’t give up on directional sweeping until they’re convinced it doesn’t work.
“Some people think it’s doing nothing. Some people think it still has some effect,” Carey said. “The only consensus is it has less effect. It’s negligible if it’s doing anything.
“In some cases, if it makes a quarter inch of difference, that’s enough.”
Added Gushue: “I do believe there’s still potential for directional to work. It’s going to be minimized. You’re probably going to get 10 per cent of what you could do last year if not much less.”
Olympic champion Jennifer Jones supports technological advances in curling, but not when they make her sport unrecognizable to her.
“It was pretty stressful last year and there were so many changes and it really did impact the game we love,” she said. “What happened last year was damaging the ice, impacting the playing surface and you can’t have that. That’s impacting the integrity of the game. Technology is great as long as it doesn’t impact the fundamentals of the game.”
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press