Curling's broom summit: We've come a long way from corn and cocktails

Sweeping goes under the microscope at the broom summit, in Ottawa this week. (Anil Mungal/Sportsnet)
Sweeping goes under the microscope at the broom summit, in Ottawa this week. (Anil Mungal/Sportsnet)

Holy Hackner, just what is going on here?

The sport of curling is, this week, holding a "broom summit" in Ottawa, flush with high profile players, national and international organizers and equipment manufacturers, as well as members of Canada's scientific community.

A broom summit. Yeah.

Who would have ever imagined, prior to this past season, that such a thing would ever exist. I mean, who would have thought of that? "We need a broom summit," is something absolutely no one would have ever, ever said unless by "broom summit" they meant a bathtub filled with ice and Molson Canadian in Ed Werenich's hotel room.

This, though, is a whole other thing with protractors and lasers and gauges. Lab coats and hypotheses and testing and probably hardly any beer at all. I might be wrong on that. For all I know, scientists might be the freakiest of party animals. I barely made it through high school so I hang with a different crowd.

Those with big stakes in the game and those who possess the power of scientific method will all try to figure out just what to do about the modern broom and its magical powers of rock persuasion after a season of turmoil and finger-pointing, accusations of cheating, threats of lawsuits and general frustration. The 2015-16 curling season stands out for a few reasons, perhaps, but the dominant - and I mean dominant - shadow was cast by the humble broom's great leap forward.

My buddies and I used to joke that the sport one day might employ blow torches instead of brooms, if heating the ice to keep a rock straight or to drag it farther was the point. Blow torches ain't necessary, however. Coarse fabrics that apparently score the ice can do the job of a torch and then some, we have discovered.

So this week, the World Curling Federation (WCF) and Curling Canada, in a bid to get as much data on what various materials on broom heads do to an ice surface, are enlisting the services of the National Research Council of Canada's Security and Disruptive Technologies division as well as its Ocean, Coastal and River Engineering department.

The what and the what?

You've come a long way, curling. Used to be that most of your science sprouted from "touch" and "feel" on the ice followed by how to build the tallest tower made of folded coasters and straws after the game.

Truthfully, the grand gathering in Ottawa could spend most of their time on party tricks if they wanted. We all know what we saw this past year. We all know what we heard from players. That the broom heads became much too good at manipulating a stone's path. They mostly hated what the game had become. More about sweepers than shooters. Fans felt the same way, according to an on-line survey that the WCF says drew "around five thousand submissions." However, it behooves Curling Canada and the World Curling Federation to get some hard numbers and evidence on just what broom heads do to an ice surface. Due diligence and all that.

We know what we're getting, though, don't we? There will be regulations and stipulations coming and the year of - as Glenn Howard put it - "joystick curling" will fade into the rearview like the three-rock rule or the TV show Cop Rock.

Simply put, for those who might not follow the game of curling all that closely, there was a technological leap of fairly seismic proportions this past season, akin to, say, having NHL players discover a stick that adds thirty miles per hour to the average guy's shot. Or, I guess, more precisely, discovering a type of stick that makes the average guy's shot exponentially more accurate. Or, think of a pro quarterback slipping on a new glove that allows him to throw a tighter spiral with more revolutions, giving him ten extra yards on a pass if he wants it. Now think of him being able to alter the trajectory of the pass in mid-flight in and you have a better understanding of what curling's season of broom madness brought to the sport in 2015-16. It's not a perfect analogy but gives you a sense of how the game of curling changed this past season. You've always been able to mildly affect the path of a rock with a broom. This past season, however, rocks were doing things not previously seen, most agreed, because of broom head materials and what used to be illegal sweeping techniques.

It all hit the fan back in October, when news of the broom-haha first broke. (You can get a good sense of what we're talking about by hitting that link)

Curling has been employing new types of data for a number of years now, with some of it being shared with Canada's players prior to the Olympics in both 2010 and 2014, for example. At the High Performance Centre in Calgary, they've got a fancy-dan broom that measures how much pressure a player is exerting on both the forward stroke and the return stroke. This, however is wilder stuff. Need I remind you that experts from the NRC's Security and Disruptive Technologies division as well as its Ocean, Coastal and River Engineering department are taking part? I mean, that's geology and stuff, isn't it? I hope they drill into a rock to see precisely how old it is.

We long ago left the days where curlers in thick, collared wool sweaters with embroidered brooms on their backs sidestepped down the ice and comically smacked the surface with corn brooms, perhaps even with a cigarette dangling from their lips as they did so.

Even the most casual observers - like those who suddenly dig the sport when the Olympics are on - know that the game has changed over the last couple of decades. It looks way different. Corn brooms gave way to padded brooms and hair bristles (Oh, those were the target of scorn and a moratorium this past season too). The sweaters have long ago been replaced by form-fitting, moisture-wicking, high-tech materials, just like every other sport. They fit tightly, too, showing off the fact that most high performance players hit the gym at least as often as they hit the bar for a cold one or three.

Yes, fans, there's a broom summit in Ottawa this week. So hurry hard and pass the tribometer.

Ask the folks over at the National Research Council. They'll probably know what it is.