Campus curlers get their bonspiel on

Billy Galligan delivers a stone Friday night in the International Bonspiel at the Fairbanks Curling Club. Photo by Erin Widby/The Sun Star

By Tom Hewitt
Sun Star Reporter

Matt Birklid flailed wildly with his kitchen broom Friday night at the curling club as he mimed the chords of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” In 45 hours he would be playing for the championship of Fairbanks’ 75th International Bonspiel, but as he shredded along to Freddie Mercury’s vocals with his band “House of Air,” Birklid was more concerned with keeping the crowd dancing. It was just another night at one of Fairbanks’ biggest and oldest sporting events, a curling tournament that combines sport and party in equal measure.

Though the sport maintains a relatively low profile, curling is the oldest organized sport in Fairbanks.  Members established the curling club in 1905, only two years after the town’s founding, and this year’s International Bonspiel is the 75th for the club. The bonspiel trophy displays the American and Canadian flags as they existed when the event began – with a 48-star American flag and a Canadian Union Flag.

Shuffleboard and Eight-Dimensional Chess

Asked to describe the sport in less than 30 seconds, curler and longtime youth coach Bill Gryder said, “I would end up resorting to the analogy of shuffleboard on ice, with the addition of sweeping, which I think really sets curling apart.”

Each curling team has four members, who each throw two 42-pound granite rocks down the length of a 150-foot sheet of ice in an attempt to place their stones closest to the center of a 12-foot circle at the far end.  After all the rocks have been thrown, the “end” (like an inning in baseball) is scored, and the curlers start over. Curling games typically have eight ends, though matches may be shorter if a team decides to concede early or longer if the score is tied at the end of the eighth end.

The sport gets its name from the motion of the rock as it travels down the ice.  As a curler releases the rock, he or she twists the handle so that it spins as it travels down the ice, causing it to move in a long, slow arc.

“It’s a projectile sport, like baseball, football, bowling, or a lot of other sports,” Gryder said. “Curling, though, is the only sport where you can do something afterward to change the course of the projectile.”

The stone’s course is altered through sweeping.  Two members of the team throwing the stone follow the rock down the ice, sweeping its path with synthetic brushes when directed by the skip or the thrower.  Sweeping the rock’s path polishes the ice, making the rock travel farther and “curl” less.

“I think one of the best comparisons of strategy is that it’s like chess on ice, but not chess in two or three dimensions,” Gryder said. “It’s like chess in about eight dimensions, with all the things that can change the game – ice speed, sweeping, differences between rocks, ice texture, amount the rocks curl… there are just so many factors.”

Curling is also a precision sport, referred to in educational materials at the club as a “sport of inches” due to the small margins of distance that separate rocks from one another when scoring the ends. Sometimes, however, curling is a sport of millimeters, or even less.  In one Saturday match at the club, a team needing to score three points to tie the game came up less than a millimeter short in a three-way measurement that lasted several minutes. For the want of a millimeter, the team needing three points scored only two, lost the game, and was eliminated from the tournament.

A Family Affair

The Birklid family has been curling in Fairbanks for nearly as long as the bonspiel has existed.  Starting with family patriarch Bill Sr., three generations of the family have taken to the ice. Matt – Bill’s grandson, and a Criminal Justice freshman at UAF – is the youngest.

Curling isn’t just a birthright in the Birklid family, it’s a responsibility.  Between Matt and siblings Steven and Lacy, the members of the third generation have been to Junior Nationals a dozen times. “I’ve been curling as long as I could walk, basically,” Matt said. Still, in several years trying to capture the title of International Bonspiel champion, Matt and brother Steven had always come up short, sometimes in the title game.

This year, however, things looked to be going the Birklids’ way.  Matt and Steven’s team, which also included Colin Hufman and UAF student Atticus Wallace and alumnus Chris Benshoof, rolled through the A division with impunity, beating former champion Greg Persinger Saturday in a match many expected would be a preview of the final. Cruising to victory, the team even brought a touch of levity to the game by wearing garish robes over their regular clothes.

“We were just trying to have a good time,” Matt said afterward. “Colin and Steven played a fun spiel in Seattle where they bought capes, and when they pushed off to make a shot, the cape would billow out behind them and look really cool.  So we went to Value Village to find capes, but all we could find was robes, so we got the most ridiculous robes we could find.”

Rookies Take the Ice

While Birklid’s team rolled through the upper echelons of the spiel, rookie curler and UAF leadership office staffer Kari Pile was shepherding her team through the novice division, a separate mini-spiel designed to break in new curlers. “I played at the open house three or four years ago,” Pile said, whose team went 2-1 on the weekend. “It had been quite a while since I’d been on the ice.”

Just after midnight Sunday, Pile’s team faced off against a team made up mostly of UAF rifle team members.  Skip Billy Galligan and teammates Jace Bures, Cody Rutter, and Travis Duft took the ice bedecked in loud plaid shirts, but their sartorial style and sharpshooting rifle skills didn’t translate to a win.

“It was a close game,” Galligan said, “They scored a couple right away, then we came back, and they just took the last couple of ends and beat us.  But we all had a good time together, so we didn’t have any issues about it.”

Watching the novice division action like an expectant mother, Cathy Persinger stood by to answer questions or offer suggestions to the new curlers. “We had 48 people in the novice division this year,” Persinger said.  “Last year we had five new curlers who turned into club members. I hope we can keep up that pace.  But you can never tell.”

The idea for the novice division, Persinger said, was to provide an opportunity for interested people to get a grasp on the sport in more depth than a training session, but with less time commitment than becoming a club member and curling in a league.  “It’s so much better to have new curlers be in a progression [of games] rather than a single game,” she said. “And it worked. By the end, they were getting it.”

“I had a great time, it was awesome,” Pile said Sunday.  “I think I want to join a league. I actually wish that they had [the event] right before the beginning of a league time so that I could get into a league now when I can still remember how cool it is… I definitely recommend it.”

Final Redemption

At spiel’s end, the Birklids and their team faced the Jim Sias squad from Whitehorse for the bonspiel title.  Though both teams shot well, the Fairbanks men put up a couple of big frames early on and were able to maintain their lead until a Canadian comeback was nearly impossible.  After seven ends, the Sias team conceded defeat, and the members of the Fairbanks squad notched their first International title. Following the match and post-spiel banquet, the team was treated to a champagne baptism in the International trophy, a tradition dating back to wilder times at the spiel.

After the hubbub had died down, Matt Birklid looked back on the spiel with a mixture of happiness and relief.  “It’s good,” he said, “Just like my brother, I’ve been trying for a long time to win it. Two of the last three times we’ve gone nearly all the way and not been able to finish it.”

“It’s really a good experience no matter who you are,” he said of the bonspiel.  “It’s perfect for both worlds of curling. If you’re a recreational curler you can have a really fun time, play with your friends, wear costumes, party and have a blast. If you’re competitive, there are plenty of competitive teams curling too, so you can get a lot of experience over the course of the weekend. There’s something for everyone.”

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