Quick, which is more Canadian: curling or hockey?
It’s curling, hands down. True, in terms of sheer numbers, more people in Canada watch and play hockey than slap on a slider and “hurry hard,” but as we head into the Winter Olympics season, it’s worthwhile reminding ourselves that compared to the rest of the world, Canada’s fascination with brooms and bonspiels is uniquely, and weirdly, all our own.
The PyeongChang Winter Olympics will commence in a couple of weeks and already there’s a noticeably different feel this time around — thanks to unsportsmanlike conduct by the NHL. A conspicuous lack of star power on the ice (apologies to Chris Kelley, Maxim Lapierre, Ben Scrivens, etc.) will mean that as far as team sports go, it’s at the curling rink where we’ll really be pitting Canada’s best against the world.
Which is great, since we obviously care about curling more than anyone else does. A glance at Google Trends shows that while both sports, hockey and curling, get more searches in Canada per capita than in any other country, the margin of difference is much larger for curling.
Where is curling most popular?
Google Trends uses a 100-point scale to compare the popularity of search terms across regions, giving a score of 100 to the place with the highest relative popularity and then ranking the rest in descending order.
By that method, Canada is tops for hockey with 100, followed by Sweden at 64, Finland at 60, Latvia at 48 and Switzerland at 32 (the United States gets a score of 17). Roughly, this translates into hockey being twice as popular a search term in Canada (and thus, loosely, twice as popular in society at large) than in Latvia and a little less so in Sweden and Finland. Five times as popular as in the US.
For curling, though, Canada is again at 100, followed by Switzerland at a mere 24, the UK at 15, Sweden at 13 and Norway and the United States at 11. That means (again, roughly) that curling is four times more popular to Canadians than it is to its nearest rival and a full ten times more popular than to Norwegians or Americans.
How about this stat: in any given year, there are about 600,000 Canadians registered with Hockey Canada, but there are 700,000 Canadians who curl every year. Okay, granted we have another 800,000 playing hockey in rec leagues around the country and, yes, the number of regular curlers (playing more than ten times a year) is a lot less at 284,000.
And the numbers are telling on the international level, too. Whereas Canada has close to one-third of the world’s hockey players, as measured by those playing in nationally registered leagues, somewhere between 80 and 90 per cent of the world’s curlers are Canadian. Sorry, Scotland, but that makes curling ours.
One last point of weirdness: at various times a year, the sport of curling is a more popular Google search term in Canada than are American football and basketball. Curling even pops up above the almighty soccer once in a while. But that’s only once every four years, starting in two weeks.
Still, the world knows next to nothing about curling or the fact that it is an Olympic sport.
Is curling a sport?
Yes, curling is a real sport. At it’s simplest level it is a game that pits two teams against each other on a long strip of ice called a sheet. Typically, team are made of of four players, the Lead, Second, Third and Fourth. The lead delivers the first two stones and the other players follow. Each team gets eight stones and each player throws two of them. At the end of the sheet is a target called the house. Players throw stones in a shuffleboard-like manner and try to place them closest to the centre of the target. The opposing team tries to knock those stone out of the way. Just one team can score per period, or what is referred to in curling as an end. Curling is typically played in ten ends.
Technique comes into curling in the form of sweeping. Two players, guided by the Skip, or leader of the team for that match, can brush ice away from the surface with brooms, reducing surface tensions and increasing the speed of the rock. If the rock is traveling to fast, they simply do not sweep.
What is the history of curling?
According to the World Curling Federation, it is one of the world’s oldest team sports, dating back to at least the early 1550’s.
“Paintings by a 16th century Flemish artist, Pieter Bruegel (1530-1569) portrayed an activity similar to curling being played on frozen ponds, the Federation says. “The first written evidence appeared in Latin, when in 1540, John McQuhin, a notary in Paisley, Scotland, recorded in his protocol book a challenge between John Sclater, a monk in Paisley Abbey and Gavin Hamilton, a representative of the Abbot. The report indicated that Sclater threw a stone along the ice three times and asserted that he was ready for the agreed contest.”
And even Robbie Burns was aware of the sport, at least in its earliest forms, penning an ode to the sport and his friend Tam Samson in “Tam Samson’s Elegy”:
When Winter muffles up his cloak,
and binds the mire like a rock;
When to the loughs the curlers flock,
Wi’ gleesome speed,
Wha will they station at the cock?-
Tam Samson’s dead!
He was the king of a’ the core,
To guard, or draw, or wick a bore,
Or up the rink like Jehu roar
In time o’ need;
But now he lags on death’s hog-score:
Tam Samson’s dead.
So, is curling a Canadian sport?
Sort of, but not really. Does that answer the question? Okay, maybe a little more explanation is required. The very first curling club in the world, outside of Scotland, was The Montreal Curling Club, which was founded in 1807. It seems that Canadians went a long way towards standardizing the field of play for the game. For instance, there were no standards for sizes and shapes of equipment, neither, importantly for stones.
“The rinks were of varying lengths and rules differed from club to club about how much sweeping curlers could do, explains The Library and Archives Canada. “The number of players on a team varied from four to nine or more, with some curlers throwing two stones and others only one. As communications and roads improved, teams wanted to compete more and there was a need for standardization to make games easier to play.”
By the mid-1700’s Canada had made its first big contribution to the sport. In Quebec, where the roots of the sport were laid, the use of iron stones began, replacing the iron stones used by Scottish curlers, which were notoriously hard to get. These iron stones were huge, weighing as much as 65 pounds. These were used until about 1955, when they reverted back to granite stones, which were now easier to obtain.
So why did curling become associated with Canada, moreso than the place it was actually born. The Library and Archives says it was simply a natural for our climate and for our culture.
Gerald Redmond in his thesis, The Scots and Sport in Nineteenth Century Canada, suggests that there were many reasons for the success of curling in Canada. He comments on Canada’s favourable climate, plenty of water, the widespread settlement of enthusiastic Scots, the formation of clubs, the high-class patronage of the sport and the willingness of the Scots to open their sport to other nationalities. Redmond notes that throughout the centuries that curling was played in Scotland, it was renowned for its democratic tendencies. (p. 142) This was noticeable in Canada as well, particularly in the military clubs where people of different ranks played together.