Late Sunday afternoons, groups of people from the Greater Plymouth area gather at Plymouth State University’s Hanaway Ice Arena to slide rocks on several 146-foot sheets of ice toward a set of rings.
For more than two months, members of 32 four-person teams from area towns have been coming to the arena to participate in the sport of curling, which is new to many Americans, though the game has been growing in popularity, particularly since the Olympic games in Sochi, Russia, said arena manager Dave Gyger.
Legend has it that the game was invented in 1541 in medieval Scotland. Curling is a popular game in Canada and many European countries, but its popularity in the United States has been limited and largely isolated. It has been called “chess on ice” and “arctic shuffleboard.”
The term “curl” refers to the curve of the stone’s course across the ice. One player slides the rock while two teammates accompany the stone on its trip, furiously brushing the ice ahead of it with brooms to smooth the ice and keep the stone on a straight course.
The fourth team member stands at the destination end, advising — often loudly — the players with brooms how to stop the rock in the circles or how to knock the other team’s rock off the target.
Gyger said he started the Plymouth Rocks Club about two months ago, with financial help from the university, which paid for the expensive sliding “rocks” or “stones,” as they are sometimes called.
When he worked at Waterville Valley Resort before taking his current job running the PSU arena, Gyger hosted teams from the Belfast (Maine) Curling Club for a Scottish games event.
“To this day, that was the most fun I’ve ever had on the ice,” he said.
So when he came to Plymouth two years ago, starting a curling club was “at the top of my to-do list,” he said. “I knew that there would be a market for this game in this area.”
He was right. In February, as curling was highlighted in the Olympic games, he advertised for curlers to join the Plymouth Rocks Club.
He got a big response. Members paid $300 to join the six-week spring program. They gather to play each Sunday afternoon, and there are curling workshops on Thursday nights and Saturday mornings that cost $10 per person per session.
Club members said they were excited to have a new activity in the cold winter months. Most said they were first-time curlers, though a few are more experienced.
“I just started playing, and it’s a blast,” said Sherri Covell of Ashland. “It’s so much different than what we have around here at this time of year.”
“It’s something new and different, I’m really enjoying it,” said Brian Chalmers, also of Ashland.
Some, like Cathy McLeod from Plymouth, had played before. McLeod is originally from New Brunswick, Canada, where kids learn to play hockey and curling at an early age.
“I’m having a ball,” she said.
Brenton Johnson of Wentworth learned how to curl 40 years ago in Duluth, Minn. He hadn’t curled since childhood and had forgotten how much fun it is.
“I also don’t remember it being this frustrating,” he said, chuckling as he watched a rock go through the end circle without hitting another rock.
The Plymouth Rocks’ spring season ends on May 4, Gyger said, though the club is planning a summer season, as well as fall and winter seasons.
Gyger thinks curling will grow to the levels of other curling clubs in the state, including those in the Mount Washington Valley, the Upper Valley, and Nashua.
“It’s already exceeded my expectations,” he said. “People seem to be really intrigued by the game.”