(I’m not claiming that this is the last time I’ll drone on about this; it’s just that the name of one of the most awesomely bad movie sequels ever made seemed somehow… germane. Sorry.)
I’ve talked about sparing before. More than once. Briefly, a curling team is four people; it’s a significant disadvantage to play with three and against the rules to play with two so most teams will try to find a ‘spare’ — a replacement player — if someone can’t make a game. The sparing I’ve talked about so far all occurred during regular club play but there are also times in bonspiels (tournaments, more or less) and other competitions when spares are needed. (A famous (well, in some circles) example of a spare is described here (and, more succinctly, here).) To help with this, organizers will maintain a comprehensive list of well-socialized replacement players of the highest caliber. Well, either that or some guys whose phone numbers they happen to know.
And that’s where I come in.
The local curling calendar contains dozens of bonspiels, a few of them quite large (though nothing like what you find a couple of hours up the road). In April or thereabouts, for example, the last ‘major’ local bonspiel of the year runs. It’s a 48-team ‘spiel that has been in existence for about sixty years. There’s a lot of history there. A lot of tradition. Also a lot of aging participants who sometimes need people to play for them. But that wasn’t why I got the call this year. I got the call because, when one of the teams from outside the country had a player denied entry to Canada, they called ahead and reserved a warm body — any warm body.
That was a first. I’ve played for people who had conflicting time commitments. I’ve played for people who were on vacation. I’ve played for people who were injured. But I had never before played for someone because they were deemed a threat to society. (We lost — I may not be a threat to society, but I can be a threat to a team’s chance of winning.)
I mentioned injuries — a few years back I got the call at another of the large local bonspiels because an out-of-town (but still domestic) team had a player that had somehow broken a bone at the last minute and apparently he thought it unwise to gambol about on large stretches of ice while encased in plaster. He had called home and ordered a replacement but he (the replacement) couldn’t be here until the next day. Could I step in for their game that afternoon? Sure I could.
When I showed up the first thing they did was apologize. Umm, why? Well, despite the fact that it was their skip that was injured, they didn’t want the spare (that would be me) to play skip, they wanted someone from the team to call the game and did I mind?
Well, no. First of all, he knew his team better than I did. Secondly, I don’t pee all that fast and an experienced curling coach says that’s important. And thirdly… a long time ago when I was asked to spare for the first time I was told that to be a good spare I should “throw two, sweep six and keep your mouth shut.” It’s not always relevant (not every player sweeps six rocks, for example) but over the years I’ve decided that it’s pretty good advice, all things considered. So when they said they didn’t want me to skip, I was fine with that. Heck, the main sweepers being twenty years older than me, I figured they might ask me to play front end. But no: “My boys are fine right where they are. No, we’ll have you throw third.” Aside from the fact that a third can’t keep his mouth shut — which sort of violates my rule of thumb — that’s fine. Besides, sweeping is hard work and a third only has to sweep four rocks, not six.
The other team — the team we were playing — was roughly half the age of ‘ours.’ Being young isn’t necessarily a huge advantage in curling, though: since the game rewards consistency, experience and guile, old guys can be extremely difficult to beat. And that day we were: about halfway through the game we had a fairly commanding lead.
A brief aside about curling strategy (that ‘guile’ thing I mentioned a little while ago): when you’re up in the score, it’s often a good idea to keep it simple; you don’t mind if they score as long as they don’t score a lot. The other team does need rocks in play in order to score multiple points, though. Every rock in play, then, can be seen as potential help for the other guys. So when you have a lead, you don’t put a lot of rocks in play and you remove rocks from play — by throwing takeouts — whenever you can. So you can kind of understand why I assumed that our skip would be trying to keep things simple and ‘clean.’
To my surprise, though, to start the next end he called for our lead to throw a longish guard — a fairly aggressive shot. (This isn’t wrong, I hasten to add, it’s just riskier than necessary because if things don’t work out the way you envision, it can let the other guys back in the game.) I thought I should find out what The Master Plan was so I asked him “Umm, don’t you want to keep things clean?”
“My boys” he said, trying to keep the pride out of his voice when referring to men old enough to be your father, “don’t hit.” I couldn’t figure out why he was so happy — a takeout is a basic shot and not being able to call for one when you need it weakens the team. He did call some takeouts in the second half of the game, though.
To me. After all, his boys don’t hit.