With a push from Zeb Barber, Team That Escalated Quickly’s granite “rock” slid down the length of Glacier Ice Rink. Teammates Allie Otten, C.J. Williams and Ben Zehntner watched its progress. Then, Otten and Zehntner started shuffling alongside the sliding stone, sweeping the ice in front of it.
“You sweep to make the rock go farther and straighter,” Barber, the “skip” or captain, of this curling team, explained afterward. The ultimate goal is simple: "get rocks in the house."
After some furious sweeping, the rock came to rest just inside the “house,” a circular target at the opposite end of the rink. But the next one, thrown by their rivals The Ole Rudyard Slip n’ Slide, knocked it out. This back-and-forth lasted for nearly two hours, and was just one of several matches in this weekend’s Big Sky Bonspiel curling tournament, which drew 35 U.S. and Canadian teams to Glacier Ice Rink.
Curling’s premise is similar to that of shuffleboard: score points by sliding objects toward a distant target. Teams of four take turns sliding circular granite “rocks” down a 45-meter “pitch” toward the “house” at the opposite end. Each team slides eight rocks per set.
Once they’ve all been thrown, whichever team has a rock closest to the center of the house gets a point, and an additional point for each rock of theirs that is closer to the center than their rivals’ best shot.
The action is slow but suspenseful as each rock inches toward the house, where it could come to rest or knock a previously-thrown one — from either team — into scoring position. Players have to gauge its trajectory fast, then sweep the ice if they want to alter its course.
Ultimately, That Escalated Quickly, part of the Bozeman Curling Club, beat The Ole Rudyard Slip n’ Slide, of Havre’s Hi-Line Curling Club, to advance to the finals in their bracket. But “win or lose, you shake hands,” said Barber, who said the sport’s camaraderie is a big part of the appeal for him.
It also is for tournament organizer Lee Banville, a board member of the Missoula Curling Club. “The thing about the Bonspiel is it’s part sporting event, part family reunion and part party,” he said Sunday. “All three are going well.”
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Banville, also a professor at the University of Montana’s Journalism School, first got involved in the sport through one of the Missoula Curling Club’s Learn-to-Curl events in 2010. Since then, he’s seen it steadily gain prominence in Missoula.
Just six years ago, he said, the Bonspiel tournament was a six-team affair. The club sought to boost its appeal by reconfiguring it into what Banville calls “a big party with curling.” He said interest in the sport also surged last year, when the U.S. Men’s curling team won a gold medal at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
Now, the tournament is bursting at the seams. “Six years ago I was begging people to curl,” Banville remembers, “and now I’m turning away like 14 teams.”
With about 150 players from 35 teams — most from Montana and the Northwest, but one from as far away as Washington, D.C. — the Big Sky Bonspiel is “by far the largest [curling tournament] in the state.” The winners, he said, get a plaque, bragging rights and as many beer growlers as they can haul off. The Missoula Curling Club is looking at adding prize money in the future.
But, he and other players made clear, the prospect of victory is just a small part of curling’s appeal.
“To be really good at curling is really hard,” Banville said, but "to play curling is really easy."
“I played really well the first day, and then I played a team of 60-year-old Canadians and they destroyed me,” he added, with no hint of hard feelings. “It’s not just about competition, it’s about the people you play with.”
For more information, visit www.missoulacurlingclub.com.