Reading the Ice

As a curler who grew up playing on curling club ice, it was a learning experience to adjust to curling on arena ice. Nothing else can quite generate more ice slapping, looks of bewilderment and frustration as arena ice. It is quite common to hear comments such as “what the h*** happened to that shot ??!!” or other colorful collections of adjectives to describe the wild things arena ice does with our shots. As skips, we urge our team members to hit the broom, but it is quite another thing to know exactly where to put that broom. In this column, I will elaborate on some tips for skips to handle some of the unpredictable ice conditions we find playing on skating ice.

First of all, skips should never assume that the ice surface is level. Playing hockey does not wear down the ice evenly. The majority of hockey action is played down the center of the ice, so it tends to get worn down the center more than ice near the boards. Also, a Zamboni does not have the capacity to level the ice to the ideal that curlers want. This is why we have special curling devices to prepare club ice. Wet cuts or dry cuts, a Zamboni will leave hills and valleys all over the ice.

Secondly, the hypothesis that a rock with the correct turn will curl an average of 2 to 3 feet is just a theory when it comes to arena ice. Don’t assume the rocks will do this under arena conditions. Rock will fall back, stay straight, curl 6 feet as they slow down, swing back and forth and many other unexplainable things. This is a great leveler of competition, as arena ice can make experienced curlers look quite ordinary until they get the hang of arena ice.

As a skip, one of the key things to do is make sure you carefully watch the path of every shot, especially during the initial ends. I am continually amazed at how some skips seem to be more concerned with running out and sweeping the rocks, rather than with learning how the rock moves. Learn from both your shots and your opponent’s shots. Devise a system to memorize what the shots do in various paths and with various weights. I find that crouching down in line with the path of the rock as it comes down the ice gives me the best view of its movement.

This habit can become an advantage. I have found that after I was curling on arena ice, I became much better at reading the ice. With club ice, you can generally trust the ice, as rocks will usually follow the theoretical path. With arena ice, you have to watch every shot, because you will learn something almost every time. Last season, when I played at the Rotary Can-Am bonspiel in Peterborough, ON, we won some games that we had no business winning because I picked up things about the ice that my club ice opponents did not catch. I attribute this to the habit of closely watching arena ice, as it sure wasn’t due to my shot making.

Another thing you can do is to use alternating ice on draw shots as a method to check different parts of the ice. Never assume that both sides of the ice react in the same way. It is more likely that the left side of the ice reacts nothing like the right side of the ice, or the center of the ice for that matter. If there have been a number of inturn draws toward the center, call an outturn draw from the other side. It will give you a chance to gauge what the ice does from the other side. For a crucial shot, you don’t want to be guessing at what the ice does.

Another thing to watch for is the dreaded Zamboni tire track. Our ice operators at the Lone Star Curling Club like to resurface the ice by driving in circles from the boards in. This works fine for hockey ice, but it results in Zamboni lines running along the curling sheets. If you can see the tire tracks on your sheet, it will have a definite impact.
Zamboni tracks will cause a ridge and a run. The ridge will tend to cause rocks to either not curl over edge of the track, or to sit at the ridge until they slow down. If a shot gets onto the Zamboni track, it will tend to stay there. You can use these characteristics to your advantage, as long as you recognize what they will do.

Another odd characteristic to look for is the amazing finish. Your draw shot stays straight or falls back for 95% of the running distance, and then curls 6 feet in the last 10 feet. This is actually fairly common on arena ice. As the rock slows down, friction between the ice and the rock increases, causing the curl motion to have more effect. Combine this with a ridge or Zamboni track, and you have the makings of a dramatic hook. This is great if you want to come around guards. But keep in mind that the takeout weight rarely displays this characteristic. Heavy draws or hack weight are usually the only ways to get at a rock that follows this path.

Watch for dead spots on your sheet. This can be from spots where the Zamboni blade skipped up, where the pebble was missed, where water dripped from the ceiling or where the ice gophers decided to come up ( OK, that only happens in Saskatchewan ). Whatever the cause, this can cause a rock to stop dead, lose or change turns, or to dramatically slow down. Remember these spots, and avoid them when you call a shot. On the other hand, they can also be used as a permanent guard, if you can draw around them.

With arena ice, you can also get into the situation where some sheets, typically the ones closest to the boards, have such a fall that they only curl one way. In Pittsburgh, the ice fell from the boards toward the center. In Austin, the end sheets tend to fall toward the boards. Either way, it makes for difficult curling. I haven’t found any good method to handle these other than holding the broom around the blue line, and hope the rock stops in the house before it goes out of play. Working with the arena ice makers is a whole different topic, and one I know little about. Making curling ice always reminds me of some form of black magic.

For strategy, tricky spots on the ice can also be used to your advantage. If you can get one of your rocks to a tricky spot in the house, it can be as good as having two guards in front. You may have to use an angled tap back, hit & roll or some magic words to get it there, but once in place, it has always amazed me how some rinks waste so many shots trying to hit it. And remember if the roles are reversed, don’t waste several of your shots at an opponent’s rock at some spot in the ice that is next to impossible to get at.

Calling ice for arena curling is much more an art than a science. And because the ice can change with every Zamboni run, it is hard to spot any trends. However, through careful observation, and by adjusting your strategy, it is possible to become reasonably proficient at calling the correct ice for your shots.

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