New curling broom technology developed in secrecy for Canada's Olympians is now available to the masses.
The Equalizer broom head features a strip of insulation which directs more heat onto the ice while curlers are sweeping, making the rock travel further with less effort.
The technology was developed by the University of Western Ontario under Own The Podium's Top Secret program. Own The Podium spent about $8 million heading into the 2010 Olympics coming up with technological advances for Canada's athletes.
UWO still has the patent, but sold the licensing rights to BalancePlus, a Milton, Ont., curling supply company. A company co-founder says they've moved "thousands" of the Equalizer brush heads, at $30 each, in just three months.
"Since we made them available in November, we've had a difficult time keeping up with requests," Scott Taylor said.
"Anyone who has curled many games in a row, whether it's two a day or three in a row in a bonspiel, and on that last end the skip throws a little light and you're the one that's supposed to sweep it, you're pretty happy if it's easier."
Many recreational and elite curlers are embracing the Equalizer, but surprisingly Canada's Olympic teams are not. The Kevin Martin and Cheryl Bernard rinks, winners of gold and silver medals respectively at last year's Winter Games, don't use it, even though the technology was initially designed for them.
Martin isn't convinced his front end of Ben Hebert and Marc Kennedy, considered the strongest sweepers in the world, can get much more out of the new technology.
Bernard's Calgary team used them at the Olympics, but haven't since.
"I need to see more proof and my team feels the same way," Bernard said. "Did it make a difference? Like my lead said 'When you have 7,000 screaming fans screaming for you to sweep a rock, you have a lot of adrenaline so was it the head or the broom?' I don't know."
In Bernard's case, sponsorship is a deterrent. She doesn't want to use brush heads manufactured by one curling company when she is sponsored by another.
Martin says sponsorship doesn't prevent him from using the new brush heads. He just doesn't believe there's enough of an advantage to warrant a switch.
He's also concerned the broom head under such power could strip the ice of its "pebble" — the droplets of water spread on the ice and frozen to decrease friction and allow rocks to slide.
"I kind of think it damages the ice, so we'll have to have some testing done," Martin said.
Taylor says the brush heads are constructed with a less abrasive cloth to prevent the stripping of pebble.
"Obviously the better sweeper you are, the more you wear the pebble out and that's not great for curling," he said. "With this technology we don't need to produce as much heat so we can use a finer, smoother cloth, which makes it less destructive on the pebble."
Glenn Howard's Canadian and world championship team is using the new brush heads, as is Wayne Middaugh's Ontario team.
"We noticed on the arena ice, it made a huge difference," Middaugh said. "We could control the rocks a lot more. You didn't have to sweep so early. You could wait a little bit longer and control the curl a little bit more."
Howard's team is sponsored by BalancePlus. The skip is convinced after using the Equalizer for the past few weeks.
"I'm a firm believer it is definitely more effective," Howard said. "It's proven that it creates more heat and the theory is the more heat, the more effective the broom head is from the standpoint of dragging the rock further and keeping it straighter.
"The only concern is whether it's going to wear the pebble down sooner than normal. If that happens, it could be a bit of an issue, but it hasn't."
Mathew Camm's Ontario rink is one of the teams using the new broom head this week at the Canadian junior championship in Calgary. Third Scott Howard, Glenn's son, says the Equalizer is effective, but he discovered when he started using it last month that the brush head needs to be broken in.
"We had to work them in. We couldn't use a brand-new head the first game," Scott said. "They're more effective on their second game.
"We love them. We found there's a huge difference. If feels like we're not working as hard."
National development coach Paul Webster is encouraging the junior curlers to use the new brooms this week. He'd like to see at least half of them with the Equalizer in their hands.
In decent ice conditions, he says the young curlers can drag a rock a metre or more further with the new technology.
"We want to make sure when these curlers go to competitions such as this that they don't leave it in their bag," Webster said. "They want to go to their big championships with every possible advantage given to them."
Icemaker Jamie Bourassa is keeping an eye on the sheets at both the North Hill and Glencoe clubs this week for signs of wear and tear from the Equalizer.
"I just did ice for our provincial ladies here in Alberta and I know about half the teams are using them and I really didn't see any effect," he said. "We had lots of pebble left, even extra-end games."
New technology in any sport generates debate between those who embrace it and the purists who don't like messing with tradition. Glenn Howard has heard the argument that the high-tech broom head is cheating. He's not buying it.
"I equate it to the big-head golf club," he explained. "You have a bigger sweet spot, you can miss it a little bit and it will go just as good."
Recreational curlers in senior or women's leagues would benefit the most from the new broom head because they lack the upper body strength of the elite curlers, said Taylor.
"I think we're lazy by nature," he said. "Why would we sweep harder if we don't have to? Any sport, if you can make it easier whether it's better shoes, a better racket, or the clap skates for speedskating, just by nature we like to be more efficient."
Neither Glenn Howard nor Webster would go as far as calling the new brooms revolutionary, but they agree it's a significant development in the sport.
"This is the one technology in curling in the last 10 to 15 years that can really change the sport and I honestly think it's for the better," Webster said. "It's available to the masses now and it's not just one team using it. I think you're going to find a lot of club curlers pick it up."