Curling's broom boom leads to player meeting in Toronto; Are regulations coming?

Marc Kennedy (L) and Ben Hebert lean on their brooms at The National, in 2014. (Anil Mungal/Sportsnet)

Curling's advancing broom technologies, unbridled for the most part over the game's history, almost certainly need to be leashed in the near future.

That's the general feeling permeating the game's corridors after a great leap forward in brush ingenuity; an ingenuity that has led to what one noted curler referred to as an ability to guide the rock "with a joystick." It's all come to a head this season - in fact it really boiled over this past weekend - as a group of world class curlers held a meeting during a Toronto bonspiel to see what could be done to even the competitive balance and slow the arms race.

Players, officials and manufacturers are all contemplating the question: How far is too far? We may have already reached that point.

“There’s a broom head to the point where me sweeping, is more effective than Ben Hebert and Marc Kennedy sweeping together,” said Team Howard vice Wayne Middaugh. Middaugh hadn't actually used it yet, but he was going on reports from his teammates, who'd tested new brooms from their supplier, BalancePlus, last week, and then trotted them out over the weekend at the StuSells Toronto Tankard. “They said It was to the point where, on a back line weight shot that curled six feet, they could make it fall four feet. That’s ten feet different in line.”

If what Middaugh says is so - and there is lots of reliable anecdotal evidence to suggest it is - then the game of curling has entered a new era, should that kind of broom technology become the norm. But will it?

It's hard to find anyone who is convinced that'd be a good thing and it's why the players felt they needed a meeting, in Toronto.

With Howard's team using their new broom heads this weekend and with Brad Gushue's masterful performances with a similar material - from another manufacturer known as Hardline Curling - on his team's sticks this season, it has become obvious that these brushes ain't your granddad's old straw relic. (Hardline's broom head was also used by teams skipped by Reid Carruthers and Mike McEwen last season)

“We’ve fought so long to have athleticism as part of the game and if there’s almost like a Nintendo effect of being able to just guide it with a joystick then we’re taking a step back and I don’t think anybody wants that to happen,” said Nolan Thiessen, lead for the two-time defending men's national championship Team Canada Rink.

He's not alone. There are fears the new technologies at hand will quickly extinguish the need for a physical edge when it comes to this crucial part of the game while simultaneously bringing sweeping to a level where it far outstrips a curler's other abilities - aim and weight control among them.

“I’ve had quite a number of phone calls from quite a variety of players on both men’s and women’s teams expressing concern in this regard,” said Gerry Peckham, the Director of High Performance for Curling Canada. Peckham is wary of what is happening in the game this season and he admits it's a confounding one because “we don’t currently have an appropriate mechanism to deal with the situation that may well be presenting itself.”

BROOM TECHNOLOGIES HAVE LED TO GUIDED MISSILE ROCKS

New broom heads are being utilized that have dramatically altered the game and are allowing players to control rocks in ways that were never dreamed of, not even in the recent past. While leaps in technology and design have been commonplace over the years, exponential change is now taking place. The Hardline "IcePad," as it is known and now BalancePlus' new entrant in the game seem to be some kind of super weapon, enabling pro curlers to guide a rock down the ice in serpentine fashion if they like, sometimes contrary to the accepted notions of curling physics.

Whatever the advancements in the sport's sweeping technology have encompassed over the years, they've really always been about two firm principles; Holding the rock's trajectory as straight as possible and dragging the rock farther. Now, with the latest incarnation of broom wizardry, it seems you can add more to that repertoire.

"Depending on the technique you use, you can make the rock curl (more), you can make the rock slow down," said Scott Foster, the ice maker at the Oakville Curling Club, just west of Toronto. "So, there’s something going on."

Curling the rock more. Backing it up and even slowing it down. Joystick curling. Middaugh says it has reached the point where these new brooms will allow a sweeper to be unimaginably more effective. As good as Hebert and Kennedy, the gold standard in rock management?

“I’m saying they can do it ten times better,” he said of a curler with one of these broom heads.

NEW FABRICS AND DESIGNS HAVE CHANGED THE GAME

What is making these brooms so effective?

“It has nothing to do with the actual make of the broom," said Middaugh. "It’s all the material that’s on the head.”

That material, according to Foster, who saw them in the hands of some of the world's top players when his club hosted a major competition in September, has particular characteristics.

“If you run your fingernail across it one way you can feel it's smooth, the other way it's coarse,” he said, describing the type of material the new broom heads employ.

“My sense is, right now," Peckham explained, "is it’s predominantly a fabric-related difference but there are also a couple of manufacturers experimenting with slipping a little plastic insert into a brush head in between the fabric and the foam which, I think, has the potential to increase the PSI (pounds per square inch).”

“I think the newer technology is a little bit more waterproof," said Brad Gushue. "There’s some different theories on the firmness of it. I really don’t know what makes the difference. I wouldn’t be able to tell you, I’m a skip.”

Gushue's team set tongues wagging a bit at the first Grand Slam event of the season when they approached sweeping their rocks, at times, in an entirely different fashion. Thiessen's Team Canada was not at the event to witness it first hand, but he did offer some observations.

“When you turn on the TV and you see a team like Brad Gushue’s only have one sweeper to get a rock by (a guard) and then the other guy sweeps it to make it curl more or they’re throwing a board weight hit and they’re yelling ‘wide, wide, wide,’ and the outside guy (sweeper) is hammering it, something’s going on,” he said.

THESE BROOMS HURT THE ICE. OR DO THEY?

The are scant regulations governing brooms  - or any kind of equipment in Canadian curling. Four, in fact. Number one seems most pertinent:

A player shall not use footwear or equipment that may damage or affect the playing quality of the ice surface.

"You're definitely altering the surface in a way that past brooms did not," said Foster.

Altering the ice is fine. That's been done since the first corn broom. You're supposed to be able to alter the ice, at least for the moment it takes for the rock to travel over a particular patch. Damage, is another thing.

"They do not," was the response from Archie Manavian, of Hardline Curling, when asked if his broom head damage ice surfaces. Hardline led the leap into this new age, with competitors looking to play catch up recently. “In the last four years prior to September of this year, there has never been one complaint by anyone that our brooms damage the ice," Manavian said.

Middaugh commented on what he said was his understanding of what the latest brush heads do. It should be noted that he made it unequivocally clear that he was not commenting on any particular manufacturer, but rather what the latest brush materials, in general, were doing to the ice.

“It puts little scores in the ice," he said. "So, if they go on the way the rock is curling and they score it the same direction, the rock will curl more along with the scores. If they go against the way the rock is curling, that’s how they make it fall back. If you go straight across the rock, it makes, like, speed bumps.”

There is no consensus on the damage question. Many of those surveyed agreed that more intensive study was needed.

“All of these things have yet to be analyzed in any kind of a scientific or lab-based manner just to see exactly what is going on,” said Peckham.

“Our elite ice makers have yet to bear witness to enough games where you have multiple athletes using these types of products. In talking to a few of them, there still is an uncertainty as to what is going on and what’s causing it. And how detrimental it’s going to be to the quality of the ice surface.”

“They’re definitely harder on the ice, there’s no question about that,” said Foster, before offering his own thoughts of caution.

“It’s so new we don’t really know exactly what’s happening in terms of explaining it. We know what the result is, we know what we can do, we don’t really know why that’s happening."

IS IT TIME FOR INCREASED REGULATION?

Like most everyone I spoke with for this story, Thiessen was abundantly clear that he doesn't blame manufacturers nor does he think anyone's cheating. He is, however, concerned that these new super-brooms might be pushing the game into territory it should not be going.

“Some people feel as though if you can really guide the rock with sweeping, then you’re taking away the need to be technically sound," he said. "Hitting the broom, throwing the right weight. Those skill sets. That being said, it’s a whole ‘nother skill set to be able to sweep properly, even with these brooms.”

“If the technology gets to the point where guys who train, guys who put in a ton of work and do the biomechanics of sweeping, if a guy can come in, that hasn’t put in the work, that doesn’t put in the work and is just kind of a good curler and he can just put the broom down and push it in the right direction, that’s kind of a step back for our game, right?”

Middaugh, General Manager and Executive Pro at the Port Carling, Ontario, Golf and Country Club believes curling is entering a phase similar to that of golf not long ago, when that sport saw giant leaps in equipment advancement. He believes the time has come for a regulation crackdown, at least at the elite competition level.

“A hundred per cent that has to happen," he answered. "Golf did it with the trampoline effect on a driver. Golf did it with the square grooves on an iron. Golf’s done it over and over and over again. Curling has never looked at, or tested, equipment."

Gushue agrees with Middaugh.

“You gotta look at what golf did when they had those springy faces (on clubs)," he said. "They put a test in place and kinda put a cap on what the manufacturers could and couldn’t do. I think that that’s the route that we probably will have to go at some point but I don’t think you can all of a sudden say we’re gonna ban these brooms.”

“I’m not saying we’re at that point (of increased regulation) now, and I don’t think we are by any means but I do think that the powers that be probably need to look at some sort of test, some sort of structure to allow the manufacturers to develop a product within that threshold. Because you’ve gotta look at it from their perspective. They’re running a business and they kinda need to know where the end zone is.”

Manavian takes the position you might well expect from a manufacturer or distributor.

"If it falls within the scope of the rules, you should be able to advance the equipment any way you feel right," he said. "But, once it breaks the current rules in place then you shouldn’t be able to sell that piece of equipment or use it in a game. It’s as simple as that.”

“We are okay with putting regulations in place on new equipment that’s coming into the market. However, if it’s available on the market currently, I’m not sure that any new rules would be required."

“I’ll agree with a cap as long as it starts with future equipment,” he said.

WORLD CURLING FEDERATION TAKES THE LEAD

There will be more meetings to come in the next few weeks and months and where this ends is still in question.

Curling Canada will need to make a move eventually, however, if for no other reason than the World Curling Federation is already taking steps towards equipment regulation.

“They’re going to have to determine, in consultation with players and icemakers what it is we’re dealing with and what role they want to play in monitoring it and managing it,” said Peckham, indicating that the WCF is ahead of Curling Canada when it comes to putting limits in place.

Once they do put them in place, it will be incumbent on elite Canadian curlers to accept those limits as they strive to win events overseen by the WCF, such as the Olympics.

It appears decision time has been reached on the issue of just how good a curling broom should be.

And it is likely that the players - meeting the way they did in Toronto this past weekend - will have to take the lead on changes.