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Hockey season was supposed to start last week. It didn’t. But local Canadians have another pastime to keep them on ice during the winter months.

“We’ve still got curling,” says Dominique Banville.

Last week, while NHL players, locked out by their bosses, scrambled to find any team anywhere on the globe to use their services, members of the Potomac Curling Club (PCC) and their brooms hit the ice right on schedule for a tournament called Bonspiel. The event, held at the National Capital Curling Center in Laurel, Md., is the club’s first competition of the 2004–2005 season.

Banville, a Northern Virginia resident and incoming president of the PCC, is a native of La Malbaie (the “Bad Bay” when translated to English), a tiny town northeast of Quebec City where everybody curls. Everybody.

“Hockey’s very big where I come from, of course. But curling’s bigger,” says Banville, who admits subscribing to satellite television so she can watch the curling broadcasts on Canadian stations. “There are curling clubs everywhere, and while it’s pretty much just the young boys who play hockey, men, women, and children of any age can curl.”

Banville and her fellow area curlers will be introducing their favorite diversion—“The Sport That’s Sweeping the Nation,” they call it—to newbies this weekend at an open house hosted at the Curling Center by PCC. Brooms, stones, ice time, and instruction will be provided free of charge.

Though its origins are a subject of nationalistic debate, curling dates back at least to 16th-century Scotland. The point of the game is to slide a heavy, round object (or “stone”) along a flat ice surface and have it stop in a target area (or “house”) some 138 feet away. The speed and direction of the stone can be controlled somewhat after it leaves the thrower’s hand by sweeping in front of the stone to heat up the ice, thereby reducing the amount of stone/ice friction. First-time observers might want to compare the game to shuffleboard, but such comparisons are best made out of earshot of curlers wielding brooms.

“It’s nothing like shuffleboard,” says Banville.

Curling remained a small subculture sport until 1998, when it became an Olympic event. Late-night comics haven’t been short on monologue fodder ever since.

During the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, for example, David Letterman brought up what he called “a nice moment in the true spirit of the Olympics”: When members of the U.S. men’s hockey team reportedly destroyed their hotel rooms in Nagano, Letterman said, “the U.S. curling team volunteered to come by and sweep up.’’ He also had a Top 10 on “Ways to Make Curling More Exciting” during the 2002 Games. (Among the suggestions: “Throw in one of them miniature-golf windmills” and “Forty percent of final score comes from the swimsuit competition.”)

Jay Leno went after curling pretty much every night of the last winter Games.

“Women like curling,” Leno said, “because it’s the one place they can see a guy using a broom.”

But, proving yet again there’s no such thing as bad publicity, the U.S. jokesters only helped the Canadians sell their sport to a new audience.

“Not that many years ago, I don’t think anybody around here but Canadians even knew what curling was,” says Banville. “When I’d mention curling to an American, I’d get a strange look and ‘What?’ I can’t believe how much that’s changed. Now, when I say I play curling, I get asked, ‘Are you a sweeper or do you throw the stone?’”

Scott Edie, a Canadian native and PCC member now living in Burkittsville, Md., also noticed the bump. “We had our last open house during the last Olympics, and we were expecting maybe 70 people to show up,” Edie says. “We got 700. I think all the jokes helped.”

Not that the Yanks have grasped the game, however.

“The biggest misconception about curling is that it’s easy,” says Banville, who, when not sweeping or throwing stones, is a professor of physical education at George Mason University. “It’s true that anybody can throw a stone, but I challenge anybody to sweep from one end to the other and tell me that’s easy. And it’s incredibly complicated.”

The PCC rolls aren’t filled up entirely with those born and reared in the Great White North. Conor Mulvey, who grew up in Bethesda, was introduced to curling while attending the University of Wisconsin. He joined the club after returning to this area for work after graduation, and says his attraction to the game grows with every stone thrown.

“You learn pretty fast that curling is so much more complicated than it looks,” he says. “I tried to write a game-theory paper on curling for an economics class I was taking, and it was impossible. There are too many variables.”

It’s not just the brain exercise, however, that keeps Mulvey coming back to PCC gatherings, however. “Curling is an incredibly social sport,” he says with a laugh. “You always buy a drink for a guy after you beat him.” The surroundings inside the clubhouse—there’s a full bar just off the ice; cases of wine and Miller Genuine Draft are stacked at the ready beside the playing surface—support his comment.

Though few will argue the best curlers in America aren’t Americans, the natives are taking steps to change that image. The U.S. Curling Association instituted rules three years ago insisting that only American citizens will be eligible to compete for the national championship. Winners of the national title are awarded an invitation to the world championships, so the U.S. competition has historically been particularly attractive to Canadian curlers who, because of the high talent level back home, couldn’t possibly imagine winning a title in their birth country.

Banville says that ever since the restrictive rules were put in place in the States, she’s heard stories around PCC circles that the decision motivated some of the best Canadian expat curlers to apply for U.S. citizenship.

But if that’s true, the recent converts aren’t ’fessing up.

“I got my U.S. citizenship after 9/11, but it had nothing to do with curling,” says Edie, who grew up curling with his grandfather and father, when asked about the reasons behind his conversion. “I’ve also heard people say [curlers] are becoming U.S. citizens because of the rules changes, but I don’t know if that’s really true. The ability to continue to compete in the championships is definitely a perk, and curling is important to people. But changing citizenship isn’t something you take lightly.”

—Dave McKenna