It's weird. I don't curl, yet lately I've been hanging out at the Vancouver Curling Club. It's because half a dozen of my pushing-thirty male friends are suddenly into it. As a result, my primary watering hole has relocated from some of the trendy dives on Main Street to the homey little lounge at the VCC.
I'll admit I was initially drawn to curling's inherent dorkiness. As for my friends' interest, I thought it was a tongue-in-cheek beer-league sport that was more about retro-chic sweaters and cords than it was sweeping and take-outs. However, I talked to several teams of curlers -- newbies and veterans -- and it appears that while many people join out of a kind of irony, curling fever is heating up mostly because it's stereotype-free, cheap and low stress.
"We have just over 800 members," said Vancouver Curling Club manager Jason Rowland. Of those, more than 200 are women. "We have a large contingent of visible minorities, as well as the world's largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender league, so certainly it's a sport that now reaches out to the community in general."
"Curling is the great leveller," said a member of the Main Street Sweepers team. "In what other sport can an athletic 25-year-old get dusted by a half-blind 90-year-old woman, and then get drunk together after?"
Not just for rich, white, old men
If it ever was the sport of rich, white, older men, that era appears to be over. "In our novice leagues, probably the median age would be 26 or 27," said Rowland. "We're bringing in a new demographic, and I think that demographic is skewing younger."
It's also hard to characterize. "I would say [of the younger players], 50 percent you can't really nail down with a stereotype," said one Main Street Sweeper. "But the other 50 percent are clearly hipster kids -- the same types of people you'd see at Foundation or the Whip, at least fashion-wise."
Rowland notes he's seen more of a certain type of urbanite lately: "Curling falls into that niche where new retro falls. You know, the shaggy hair -- sort of the Sam Robertses of the world -- they seem to align with the culture of curling."
I talked to an assistant ice technician who was particularly enthusiastic about curling fashion (he later confided in me that he had waited all his life for curling-chic to come into vogue): "The woven sweaters that your grandparents used to wear, those things are in, man -- it's all shabby chic: ripped jeans, faded cords, with a curling sweater. There's a lot of hipster doofuses here, or in the plural, hipster doofi."
All this talk of hipsters got me wondering: is it just an ironic style thing going on here? "I think a lot of people come into it from a perspective of, 'this is like a really strange, weird sport and I'm only doing it as a lark,' but when people take to this game they really take to this game, " said Rowland. "You don't have someone become a member of a curling club who's kind of ho-hum about the sport."
The curlers I talked to agreed. "There's an ironic element, of course," said one curler. "But you can only sustain a façade for so long. Maybe you do it for a few weeks for a laugh, but most people get addicted."
So much so, in fact, that some continue to play at the peril of their romantic lives. "Well, I'm dating, you see, and you tell someone you're into curling and they're like, hmm -- you've got a bit of a hurdle there," said one forlorn curler, before burying his face in his beer.
His brother later added, "I saw this commercial the other day about a bowler, and he was a total loser…and it kind of reminded me of us. Am I a loser because I curl? I kind of think I am."
For many of the players, there was an obvious passion beneath the kitschy quirkiness. Much of that enthusiasm was due to the social aspect of the sport. And the cheap beer.
"What I love about curling is that anyone can pick it up within a couple weeks and be half decent at it -- ain't no thang -- and it's cheap. And it's a winter sport. So you look at winter sports in Vancouver: you've got skiing, which is forty bucks a crack, you've got golf, which is also forty bucks a crack, while for the whole year, curling is, like, 150 bucks, and you do it once a week. Basically it's like an organized night, once a week, drinking with your friends."
It was this planned-frivolity-with-friends aspect of curling that drew most people in. Who knew that yelling "heavy, hard" could be so cathartic?
"I don't remember the last time I yelled, like in a regular, everyday activity. I'm out on the ice and I'm screaming my head off. It seems like there's so much camaraderie," said one skip. "Next year we're talking about getting some team sweaters or something. Something really dorky. Tams, maybe -- that would be hot."
From my own experiences at the curling club, I can certainly attest to many of the sentiments expressed here. While curling has undoubtedly enhanced my social life, I'm still unsure if I'll ever actually pick up a rock. It depends what colour tams they get.
Rob Peters is a freelance writer who currently lives in Tsawwassen with his parents. He doesn't want to talk about it.