Technological advancements in curling are about as rare as an eight-ender. There haven’t been any high-tech stones developed of late and no artificial ice has been created on which to play.
But thanks to some research done ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympics, a new brush head is causing a stir at both the elite and grassroots level of the game. While it’s proved exceptionally effective, there are naysayers who charge that it ruins the ice and that it’s almost cheating.
In curling, this is about as close as it gets to controversy.
It all starts with Tom Jenkyn, a University of Western Ontario kinesiology and mechanical and materials engineering professor, who developed the Equalizer brush head. In 2007, he was hired by the Canadian Curling Association to look scientifically for more effective ways to sweep that could be passed on to the Canadian Olympic teams to provide an advantage.
“Our first discovery was that no one is actually melting the ice when they sweep,” he said. “That sort of changed all our thinking.”
For decades, perhaps centuries, curlers believed when they swept, they melted the ice ever so slightly and that allowed the rocks to travel farther and curl less.
So, then, what really goes on after the skip yells, “Hurry hard?”
“What actually happens is that infrared heat photons warm the ice,” Jenkyn said.
“Those photons are created and travel off in all directions as you sweep. We discovered that by putting a reflective device in the broom head, a lot more of those photons would be redirected back onto the ice, thereby increasing the heat.”
In plain English, that translates to meaning that a small strip of heat shield was put under the cover of the broom and that allows sweepers to better warm the ice without having to work so hard.
The discovery, which Jenkyn says was really almost a no-brainer, was top secret before the Olympics with only the Canadian teams getting the scoop.
While Cheryl Bernard’s rink put the new heads in play in Vancouver, Kevin Martin’s rink didn’t see much benefit and that, Jenkyn says, was because they were already so effective with their brooms.
But there was also some discussion that Martin opted out because the new heads were too effective, that they ripped the pebble off the ice, thereby harming playing conditions. That story has circulated throughout the curling community now that the heads have been available to knee-sliders from coast to coast. And it’s a charge disputed by the good professor.
“We never saw any evidence of pebble stripping,” Jenkyn said. “And we tested very carefully for that.”
Balance Plus, an equipment manufacturer in Barrie, Ont., purchased an exclusive licence on the patent and has been selling the Equalizer at a brisk pace. Scott Taylor, who runs the company, said he fended off complaints in the early days, pointing out that he changed the material on the broom’s outer surface to a much less abrasive cloth, reducing any chance that the Equalizer will harm the ice.
Still, one of his competitors called the new brooms “trickery” and charged that they “compromised the game” like the ultra-curved hockey stick or weighted boxing glove.
While most of Taylor's sales so far have been to elite teams – Glenn Howard’s rink is one of many using them – he said that the biggest beneficiary of the new technology would be the average player, who shows up for his once-a-week game at the local club.
“In testing, we’ve seen women and seniors get the most benefit,” Taylor said.
“The seniors were increasing the temperature when they swept by as much as 75 per cent, women by 100. That’s a huge improvement. It’s really a game-changer.”
Taylor likened the technology to golf’s plastic spikes, which have gone from novelty to the norm, effectively making metal cleats non-existent. He predicted that in a few years, this technology might be in every broom.
“If you don’t have to sweep as hard and you can be more effective, what’s not to like?”
Perhaps the only thing better would be a broom that sweeps itself.
Special to The Globe and Mail