Pick ups! They really are the scourge of curling. The stone, perfectly laid and played, suddenly veers off course for no apparent reason. We saw the cruellest example of the evil art that ever I have seen in the final of the Ramada Perth Masters last weekend. Duncan Fernie, having controlled the final from the minute he took a three in the second end of the game, found himself facing three shots when he came to play his last stone of the game against the Canadian team skipped by Mike McEwen. I understand that the only reason he was facing three shots was because an earlier David Edwards stone had also picked up but, be that as it may, big Duncan had played the shot perfectly and it was hitting the Canadian counter plum on the nose when – suddenly and within the last couple of yards of hitting its target– the stone veered off course so dramatically that it missed the target stone completely and handed the Canadians a steal of three and, more importantly, the Perth Masters title.
I cannot begin to imagine how Duncan, David, Richard Woods and Colin Campbell felt after such a turn of bad luck – well actually, I can – but to be fair to them, they took it on the chin and were philosophical about things after the game.
By and large, Perth is not known as a rink that suffers from pick ups; it is a big, modern rink and has been home to many national and international events over the years; the ice that Paul Martin and his team produces has constantly been of the very best quality in Scotland; yet something had obviously changed and whatever it was caused there to be a surfeit of pick ups throughout the big weekend. Lest anyone think that I am having a pop here, exactly the same thing happened at the Edinburgh International at the end of November; it had its share of stones veering inexplicably off course. I dare say that each of you dear readers will be able to point to similar instances in your own rinks.
And it’s not limited to Scotland, by the way – just before any lurkers from across the pond get all smug and righteous! Remember the Brier in 2008?
What was interesting there though was what the ice team implemented immediately once it became clear that there was a problem. The fans thought they were crazy, but an almost 'operating theatre mentality' was introduced. Do you remember the sticky floors over which anyone going onto the ice pad had to walk? A pick up can be caused by the minutest piece of salt, grit, fibre or dirt; the ice technicians spotted there was a problem and tried to sort things out as soon as was humanly possible.
I know one ice technician in Scotland who has a 'ball of shame' in his office. What is it? Well you know when the ice technician 'nips' the ice with that elaborate piece of kit known – not unreasonably – as a nipper? He melted down all the residual ice and collected the stray bits of rubbish through the season. The 'ball of shame' was essentially all the bits of curlers’ clothing and shoes that he collected off the ice throughout the season. It was a big, medicine ball of a ball, let me tell you. So, lesson number one for the curler must surely be to ensure that they use clothing and shoes especially designed for curling and that they keep things as clean as they can.
Lesson number two: I suspect that a lot can go wrong in the short walk between the changing room and the ice pad. In the inclement weather from which we have been suffering these past few weeks, we must have been bringing all manner of debris into the rinks from the outside. If every curler could avoid stepping on the mats adjacent to the rink in their outdoor shoes, then make sure that they wiped their feet on the mats with their curling shoes before stepping onto the ice pad, then that presumably would help – assuming, of course, that the mats are regularly cleaned.
Lesson number three: some of the shoes I see curlers wearing on the ice are just a joke. You can see the bruising marks that badly attached sliders leave on the ice. You can see the damage that a rough edge does to the ice. Every time the ice is so damaged, I cannot help but think that the miniscule ice shards are potential pick ups waiting to happen.
Lesson number four: don’t bang your brush on the ice. Seriously – just don’t do it. Just think for a moment of all the little bits of bristle and nylon that come off the brush when you jar it on the ice. And if you are a regular banger – and you get a pick up? Guess what – it was probably your fault.
Lesson number five: I am not sure whether ice going flat, or fudging, is down to the curlers’ exuberant use of the nylon brushes now so much in vogue, or ice technicians having the ice temperature a degree or so warmer than perhaps would be wise, so that they can give the curlers a swing, or whether indeed it is due in some cases to curlers leaving handprints and other bodily prints on the ice, but it does seem to me that, on ice that is prone to fudge, curlers would be well advised to keep their hands off the ice surface.
Just developing that theme for a moment, there was a rule introduced last year that specifically prohibited a player from damaging the ice. I quote from rule 5 (b) (vi): No player shall cause damage to the ice surface due to equipment, hand and/or body prints. A player may be ejected from a game if continually breaking this rule: see 6 (b) Royal Club Competitions General Rules and Conditions under Dispute & Discipline. For clarification, rule 6 (b) goes into chapter and verse in terms of what will happen to players who break the rule. The procedure is interesting.
Again, I quote from the relevant section of the rule:
1) Warning and procedure explanation at the team meeting.
2) 1st incident – 1st official on-ice warning, repair damage.
3) 2nd incident – 2nd official on-ice warning, repair damage.
4) 3rd incident – repair damage and remove player from the game.
That the rule was a serious attempt to bring to players’ attention the seriousness of the breach is not in question. Time and again though, I have seen players’ hands resting on the ice and melting it. I have not yet seen a warning issued. This does not mean to say that a warning has not been issued (and if one has, I have a feeling that Alan Stanfield will be on my case faster than a speeding bullet!) – just that I haven’t seen it.
If you see players leaving their hands on the ice in an un-umpired game, it seems to me fair to draw to the player’s attention their breach – even if it is just in the exaggerated sweeping of the melt marks once they have un-spreadeagled themselves from the ice. If they get stroppy at you for pointing it out, the rule is there and it’s not your fault that they are breaking it.
So, in summary, what causes pick ups? Answer – it seems to me that it depends. What can we do to help make them less common (I doubt we will ever eradicate them from the game)? Answer – keep it clean, Archbishop, keep it clean!