Friday, February 24, 2006

Hurling, Sweeping and Women

Curling is in full swing at the Olympics. Every four years, there is something to do between football and baseball that you can see in prime time on major networks. One of the curious things, for me, is that domestic audiences seem to be unaware of the rich history of curling, having lost some of its luster over the decades similar to horse racing.

Curling, as a professional sport, was similar to baseball in the way rivalries were born and tensions between management and ownership often affected the competition. There were players being stolen from team to team, scandalous rigging of matches, battles between players and fans, and a massive reputation that followed the sport as a brutal competition. Brooms were most often made from the vibrassae on the front of whale's snouts, and some of the more vicious sweepers would organize the bristles to stick out at angles which would give them penetration into other player's ankles when used as a weapon. Hurlers were notoriously superstitious, and some careers were ended after a favored stone sunk under the ice after dirty tricks from the other side. Management, for its part, encouraged the violence that happened on the ice as a way of bringing in fans to the sport (which, operating primarily in the Northwest Territories, was a difficult arrangement at best), and children were banned from the matches for years. There are several lockout shortened seasons on record, and the controversy over player's salaries set the precedent for people like Babe Ruth to speak out much later.

I actually have a stone signed by Jorm Gnaarseen, he was one of the premier curlers from the Northwest Territories back in the 1880s. He passed away just after the great war, and is still considered by some to be the greatest sweep that ever lived. The man stood about 6'4, towering over other players. He could rip through the ice with his broom and had a reputation for finishing off the competition, much like a closer in modern baseball.

Gnaarsen played in the old Alpine league back in its heyday, and there is one particular match which remains notable even to this day as one of the largest sporting events predating the modern era. The Alpine league had playoff rules where the top 4 teams would go on to play for the championship, and Gnaarseen's team, the Steamers, was in competition with their ancient rivals the Ours (which means Bear in French). The competition between these two teams was ferocious, and matches usually ended well before the final hurl with a brawl on the ice. That year, one of the Steamers best sweeps, a Norwegian named Alfhild Andersdtr, suffered a career ending injury at the hands of the Ours that made news as far away as Baltimore. Andersdtr had been beaten down by three sweeps from the opposing team and had the ligaments in his right leg literally brushed away after a bad call on the ice. The controversy over the attack, coupled with the Ours dominance in the finals over the proceeding 8 seasons, reviled many fans of the sport and created a great deal of sympathy for the Steamers, who had not won a championship since the 1850s. It was an underdog story indeed.

Close to 20,000 people showed up for the match, which exceeded the known population of the Northwest Territories at the time. Some spectators travelled from as far away as Buffalo to see the event. Mounted patrols and armed soldiers turned up in anticipation of the crowds to prevent lawlessness and destruction. It was revealed, just prior to the start of the match, that the Steamer's ice had been coated in a thin layer of cod liver oil, which was a common method of disrupting the other team's hurls. After four hours of delay spent cleaning the ice, the match was finally set to begin.

While many of the details of the match are lost to posterity (due to the fact no detailed statistics were kept on players, only on match results), what is known is that a massive riot broke out after the defeat of the Ours. Trappers, soldiers, railroad workers, speculators, and players alike were involved in a near human catastrophe that lasted over days. Nearby towns and villages were destroyed from the resulting chaos. Canadian mounted troops from all over were called in to stop the destruction, and there were stories of all sorts of blackguard behavior which left a lasting impression in the minds of the public. What is important is that the Steamers won, went onto the finals, and put together a string of successful seasons that earned them a reputation and the most modern, scientific team in the game.

Gnaarsen left the team within 5 years to play elsewhere in the league before finally retiring around 1910. His reputation as an explosive player who could turn the tide of matches is still remembered by those who really know curling, even though the league went bankrupt in the 1930s.

Anyways, the new face of curling is good looking people with no visible scars, and women have entered the sport. It's nice to think that the game survives today, but it's really not the same thing that captivated the minds of people in frontier times. I look forward to the day when we can say the World's Chilliest Sport is more than something to pay attention to every 4 years and more than just a brief interlude between football and baseball.

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