by Jim Force, special to Wausau Pilot & Review

The sport of curling dates back some 600 years to frozen lakes and ponds in Scotland.

But the introduction of the “delivery stick” just 20-25 years ago is enabling players to keep on curling well into their 70s and 80s and even later in life.

Normally, curlers crouch in a deep knee bend, then push the 42-pound curling stone by sliding forward along the ice and releasing it from their hand. By gently turning it clockwise or counter-clockwise they can cause the stone to curl, or bend, on its way to the bullseye at the other end.

But the delivery stick—much like push sticks used in shuffleboard—allows curlers to remain standing as they walk toward the target and release the stone, turning the stick at release to create the curl. Team members sweep the rocks to control direction and speed, just like they do in slide curling.

Players with stiff backs, cranky knees or balance issues don’t have to kneel or struggle to get up off the ice, and that’s why the stick is so popular with the seniors. 

Jane Christianson has curled with the Wausau Curling Club for years, and now uses a stick.

“You make the same kind of shots you would if you were sliding,” she said.  

Christianson and about 40 other seniors curl three mornings each week at the Wausau Curling Center. It’s a recreational league; attendees draw poker chips from a box to determine their team, which is called a rink, and which sheet of ice they’re on. During the game, they rotate through the four positions on a curling rink—lead, second, third and skip. Score is kept, but there are no standings. If you miss a morning, that’s OK.

For many players, the stick makes playing possible. Richard Runquist didn’t start curling until he turned 62. He says the stick allowed him to learn and play the game comfortably.

Richard Runquist manages the poker chip box for the senior curlers. Photo courtesy of Jim Force

Darrell Heath likes the stick so much he advocates that any new curler over 50 at least start out with the stick. That’s because there is so much technique and strategy to learn as is, without having to master the kneel and slide.

Darrell Heath uses a home-made curling stick made from PVC pipe. Photo courtesy of Jim Force

Sticks no longer carry a stigma

Camille Anderson says that when the stick first came on the scene there was a bit of a second-class stigma associated with it, but no more. Except for the USA Curling National Championships, sticks are allowed and widely used throughout the sport.

Camille Anderson launches her stone toward the target. Photo courtesy of Jim Force

The device is commonly about 4-5 feet long, and usually is adjustable to match differing heights of individual curlers. A toggle fitting on the end fits loosely around the handle on the curling stone. Sticks are commercially available at shops like Steve’s Curling in Madison, or at the curling equipment store the Wausau Curling Club sponsors once in a while at the Curling Center. 

Homemade sticks are not uncommon, as long as they conform to the rules. Larry Korpela said that after he retired, he became a golf club maker and then realized he could make curling sticks as well.

“I used the old broom handles the club had lying around and purchased ¾-inch PVC pipe and cut it into the proper shape and epoxied it to the end of the broom handle,” Korpela said. The handle of the curling stone fits perfectly inside the open end of the pipe.

“I was still sliding at the time,” he remembers, but says he found the stick easier and better. “You can walk right up to the line, straight toward the target. On shots where you need to knock out an opponent’s stone, it’s more accurate.”

Hazy history

No one seems to know exactly when the delivery stick made its debut. Canadian sources talk about somewhere in the mid-1990s. Korpela said the late Charlie Spear may have introduced it in Wausau, showing up one night with a home-made push stick with a wire holder fashioned on the end.

But whatever the source, homemade or commercial, red, green, purple or black, long or short, the stick has become an essential tool in curling and a joy to older curlers.

Christianson says the exercise and socialization that curling offers are very important to her. 

“I wouldn’t have that if it weren’t for the stick,” she said.

Seniors curl from 9:30-11:30 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at the Wausau Curling Center, 1920 Curling Way on the city’s southeast side. Anyone interested in joining them is welcome to stop in and take a look.