GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Without meaning to, Mike Barok stood out from the group gathered around at the outdoor rink in LeBauer Park.
But between “encouraging” his friends who took the ice first in their Tuesday night curling league — it’s a fine line between constructive criticism and heckling — and his very bright orange-and-black Cincinnati Bengals gear, Barok managed to stick out in a noticeable way.
“Nice block,” he offered helpfully to a player whose 38-pound-stone slid into an advantageous position. “If you actually meant to do that.”
Odd as it sounds, Barok is among 30 to 40 regulars who turn up each week to participate in a literal beer-league for a niche sport few think about outside Winter Olympiads.
“Once I saw it, it looked like fun,” he said.
After a scant 5 minutes watching, that much was obvious. Even if the rules and strategy were not.
If you saw even a sliver of a game on one of NBC’s many video platforms during the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea — who didn’t? — it’s fairly obvious that aficionados, even at the highest level, are having a blast.
And that’s where Greensboro’s curling league more or less began, in front of the tube, in an apartment.
“It looked like fun so we tried it in the kitchen with a broom,” said Alex Pegg, a native of Kernersville, who has been around since the start. “I saw (a notice) posted online somewhere about curling and thought we’d try. It sort of evolved from there.”
There’s that word again: fun. It’s crucial.
A lack of gear didn’t deter the originals much. The first few years, instead of using authentic curling stones that can run upwards of $165 each, members would turn up at the park with hardware store brooms and handmade stones.
“We used pots and concrete blocks with handles,” Pegg said.
Official high-end stones weigh between 38 and 44 pounds each and are crafted from granite taken from a particular island off the coast of Scotland, Alisa Craig.
Brooms, too, are standard and come in a range of styles. Some are made from carbon fiber or fiberglass and have replaceable heads with covers.
The best practice for footwear, players say, is choosing shoes with rubber soles. Some players — those with an aversion to falling, say — can purchase slip-on grips.
“It’s like golf or anything else,” Barok said. “You can spend whatever you want on gear.”
But all one really needs is warm, preferably loose fitting clothes, access to ice, a few stones and a fun-loving spirit.
Oh, and beer. Beer definitely helps.
Since the beginning
Little Brother Brewing offers its wares at a lawn service kiosk in the park. And players waiting their turn have an indoor option 25 steps away at Cafe Europa.
That’s where Barok instructed us to look for Pegg on a recent Tuesday after she’d stepped away.
“She’s still here. That’s her TV,” he said, pointing to one that had been rigged for use as a timer at rinkside. “Alex is the one you want to talk to. She’s been here since the beginning.”
Informed that by default she’d been named — or perhaps thrown under the bus — as league commissioner, scheduler and primary recruiter, the affable Pegg sighed before explaining the sport to rank outsiders.
Basically, the game is played on courts (sheets) with concentric circles (the house) painted around a center dot called the button. The stones closest to the button score; players can use their turn to knock the opponents’ stones out of position or block, setting up a protective wall around well-positioned stones.
Sweepers use brooms to groom the ice in front of a sliding stone. Skilled sweepers can cause a stone to change its path — curl — and speed.
The league, part of what the city bills as Piedmont Winterfest, has grown so much since the Pyeongchang games that organizers are considering expanding next year to another night.
It’d be a smart move for Greensboro; drawing regular crowds of young people downtown on weeknights is huge.
City boosters recognized that, too. A grant from a community foundation paid for a set of regulation curling stones, something that regulars truly appreciate.
“It makes a difference,” Barok said. “Some of us went to Raleigh to try it on a regulation curling rink.”
For the most part, players are a mix of locals and transplants from colder climates where people are used to outdoor recreation during winter.
But no Canadians. Not yet.
“I don’t think so,” Pegg said. “We do have some from upstate New York and other northern states. But we’re doing our best impersonation.”