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A hockey player wouldn't think about playing a game with a chipped puck. A golfer would never tee up a cut ball, and a basketball game couldn't be held with a half-inflated ball.

But in curling, many games, competitive and social, are being contested with worn-out, broken rocks.

In fact, some feel there's almost an epidemic of bad rocks being used at the 1,200 curling clubs across Canada.

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"A lot of clubs are in trouble and just don't know it," said Fred Veale, the owner of the Canada Curling Stone Co. and one of the world's foremost experts on curling stones.

This isn't the sort of stuff that results in summit meetings or even idle chat around the water cooler, but it is a serious enough problem that it could affect the growth of the sport. Call it a sleeping dragon, one that might wake up very soon with plenty of fire.

What Veale has seen at the many clubs he visits is aging granite. Unfortunately, there is a perception that because these are rocks, they simply won't break down. But stones do wear out. Year after year of sliding up and down the ice and banging into each other with great force can take a toll.

The result is a running surface that becomes flat and a strike band that loses its proper shape. That means stones don't curl or have very limited curl, and in some cases, rocks that begin to chip when hit.

When there's no curl in curling, the game is flat and boring. That makes it less fun to play and less attractive to new participants.

"Really, what we're seeing is the end of a life cycle of many types of granite," Veale said. "So many clubs in this country were built 40, 50, 60 years ago and that's about the natural life span for a rock."

Curling stones in Canada generally are made from one of six types of granite. Contrary to popular belief, granite from Ailsa Craig, an island off Scotland, is not that common and hasn't been used for more than 25 years. Most new stones are made from Welsh granite.

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A 40-pound stone slides along on a thin band, about five millimetres in width, along the bottom. This can gradually wear down. As well, the strike band, the place on the stone where it strikes another stone, should be convex. It should be impossible to get a rock to stand on end. Many get flattened out, and that's when chipping, which shows up like little half moons on the side of the stone, occurs.

Fortunately, much of this can be corrected. Veale, as well as a few others in the business, use a method of inserting a new bottom, called inserts, on an old stone and reprofiling the strike band so it is once again convex.

I can attest to the work that Veale does. My club, the Weston Golf and Country Club in Toronto, recently had its stones reconditioned. The results were dramatic.

After years of playing on straight ice where it was nearly impossible to bury a stone behind a guard, there is now a five-foot curl. Suddenly the game has become fun again.

It's proof that in curling, just as in music, it don't mean a thing if you ain't got that swing.

Some clubs, however, unaware of the poor condition of their stones, may be in dire straits if it doesn't become apparent soon. If not caught early enough, many stones can be beyond repair. That means having to buy a new set, which can run in excess of $1,000 a pair, a large price tag for most operations.

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Veale, who is also one of only two people in the world manufacturing new curling rocks, figures he's worked on about 13,000 stones in the past decade.

And if his predictions are accurate, there's a good chance that number might increase dramatically in the next few years. bobweeks@sympatico.ca

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