Friday, March 18, 2011

Vintage curling

Eisstockschiessen - Vintage Curling

By M. Helmuth

Eisstockschiessen, an ancient folk-sport with historical roots in Scandinavia, is one of the most popular winter sports in Central Europe. The first "real" proof of the popularity of the sport can be found in a 1601 painting by Pieter Breughel, who depicts ice stock shooters in "Winter Landscape With Bird Trap." However, clubs in Austria and Bavaria own old stocks which are dated before this time.
In my native Austria there are right now more than 120 organized clubs and tens of thousands of active participants, even in the smallest villages. The same applies to Bavaria, Hungary, Switzerland, the northern part of Italy, and to some extent the Czech Republic. The venue might be a frozen pond, lake, river, or man-made ice surface in an inn's rear yard. Thousands of country restaurants, hotels, and bars have ice stock areas and many ski centers groom them every year to provide an alternate activity to skiing.
The stock used to be a lovingly hand- or machine-turned piece of beech wood, alder, or pear wood. In its top center was attached a stick, mostly of oak. The stock had a wrought iron ring at its bottom to give it heft and also to push snow and debris out of the way. The stock bottoms were waxed with ski wax and every shooter had a special formula to use in specific ice conditions. Generally, for regulation play, the surface must be a rectangle of 40 meters in length, but for informal play any ice can be used.
The target is called the "Daube," a 10 cm by 10 cm piece of wood with canted edges, and, as in curling, the object of the play is to land as close to the Daube as possible, whereafter the opposing player will try to knock your stock to kingdom come. Just like curling but without sweepers.
I recall many evenings at my grandfather's favorite hangout, a local beer garden, where the men built the ice in a meadow behind the establishment much in the manner Canadians make their temporary hockey rinks. And then the first glorious days or nights when 20 or 30 men would get on with serious play, mostly after a few steins of Pilsner lager or Goesser Urquell bitter. Usually at night the ice was illuminated by light bulbs strung over the playing surface, and night Schiessen was magical. I still remember the hissing of the stock as it slid over the ice and the sharp rap as iron met iron, or the dull thump if it impacted the Daube.
Many times those weekend plays would go on till midnight or later. In my area we had women's nights where the men groomed the ice and it was the girls' time to play. Currently, club membership is evenly divided between men and women, and in the international championships the women play to the same rules as the men.
Today the sport has become so popular that it even has its own world championship. It was also an exhibition sport in the 1936 and 1961 winter Olympics, but eventually the I.O.C. chose curling because of its global acceptance. The big change in the sport came when new stocks of heavy lead-lined plastic, or even today's carbon fiber stocks, were introduced. Just the old-timers in the farm country or the Alps still hold on to their wooden stocks, but competitors in serious events avail themselves of the most modern technology. There are four weight classes for the stocks ranging from 2.75 to 3.8 kilograms.
There are also two kinds of sticks, the straight stick which is the traditional stock and the curved stick which was introduced in central Europe in the mid 1920's. Even the modern stocks of today offer the two stick options, which affords me a lovely anecdote:
In the Austria of the 1950's a great schism developed between straight stick shooters and the "curvies," whom of course could not be trusted. I had the privilege of listening to many hours of heated pro and con discussions about the relative merits of either stick form. It went so far that parents forbade their respective offspring from dating a kid from the opposing side. So if your dad was a straight you better not bring a curvie girl home. For us Roman Catholics it was almost as bad or possibly equally unacceptable as a Lutheran girl in a Roman household.

Those biases died of course with our elders, but sometimes when I go on some stock club websites and see the photo albums, I still cannot totally reconcile in my mind the fact that a lot of the good-looking young women with their event trophies are curvies. This might have something to do with the fact that I am married to a straight stick...
I wish we had a club here - we have the ponds and the lakes and this would make an inexpensive and fun winter outdoors activity for many, and possibly an added attraction to any town or village in theTownships. We used to have the best times just doing it informally: gather some friends, find a piece of ice, have a picnic and a beer or bottle of wine, and shoot for fun.
M. Helmuth can be contacted at:

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