From the Archives: Playing Eisstockshiessen

Karl Hammer Jr.

Karl Hammer Jr., founding member of the Kingston and Area Ice Stock Club, on Elbow Lake. (Photo by Richard Saxe)
[This article ran in the February/March 2015 issue of The SCOOP.]

Picture this scene – a frozen lake, snow cleared to reveal long lanes of hard ice, two teams of players taking aim and hurling a heavy, round-bottomed stock down the icy lane, the sounds of cheering echoing across the winter landscape. No, this isn’t taking place in a rural Alpine area, the game these friends are playing is “eisstockshiessen” and the place is Elbow Lake north of Sydenham village.

The popular game of “eisstockshiessen” is played in many countries in Europe and elsewhere, with clubs competing in domestic and international tournaments. In Canada, the sport is called Ice Stock Sport and it is played wherever there’s a vibrant Austrian and German population. So it is not surprising that the Canadian Ice Stock Federation is located near the Kitchener Waterloo area where many people can trace their ancestry back to Germany and Austria. As a first generation Canadian, I believe that it’s important to be proactive and keep alive a game that has cultural significance to my family. My Opa (grandfather) and his generation of Austrian Canadians once came together to play the game because it provided them with comfort and companionship as they worked hard to build their lives from scratch in their new home in Canada.

As a consequence of my parents’ separation my childhood home had to be sold. One day I stopped by to collect some items that my parents didn’t want or need. That day I took home some beer steins, schnapps glasses and a few other trinkets that represented my parents’ German and Austrian culture. While rummaging in the basement I stumbled upon my dad’s “eisstocks” or ice stocks. For me, they were a symbol of our culture and I was excited by the thought of sharing a new experience with friends. As I drove home that day with the eisstocks in the back of my truck, my mind slipped into the waters of childhood memories.

It’s 1983 and it’s a cold winter’s day. I’m about six years of age and I’m playing hockey with my cousins on the Prohaska Pond west of Elginburg. On another area of the pond, our dads are hurling their eisstocks. As the eisstocks smash and crash against each other, the tings, clinks and clangs fill the air in equal share to the laughter and yodelling calls of friend and foe. On the edge of the pond stands a hut where swirling smoke slowly dances out of the exit hole of a tiny wood stove pipe. Inside the little hut, the intense and unforgettable smell of “gluh wine” steams from a pot sitting on top of the wood stove; the men venture into the hut for a little “warming of the spirits”!

As I resurfaced from the cherished memory, I wondered why my dad and his peers had stopped playing a sport that at one time seemed so integral to winter activity in our area. The last time I could remember seeing eisstockshiessen played was in the early 1990s.

At some point the loss of culture began to matter and to tug at me. I’m a proud first generation Canadian, yet I’m passionately conscious of my connection to my ancestral homelands. While I was growing up, the Austrian International Club (and later the Edelweiss Haus), was like a second home since my parents were active members. I performed with the Junior Boys from the Austrian Alps doing the dance known as the “schueplattle” for the many functions typical of a cultural club. Yet, today both clubs are gone and the buildings repurposed. The colourful wall mural of an Austrian couple performing a traditional dance, that had once graced the front of the Austrian International Club building for over forty years, has now been painted over. I can’t help but ponder the image of Canada as a mosaic: being a Canadian, while keeping ones cultural roots. The pull to assimilate into Canadian culture is like the paint roller that whitewashes over the symbols of one’s identity until one day all that is left is the trinkets and things you stumble upon in the basement.

The first winter after I brought home the old eisstocks from my parents’ home, I began to toss them at my in-laws’ place on Gould Lake. Although I didn’t know it then, that day marked the slow rise of eisstockshiessen out of the endangered species list in Kingston and area. I called my dad, other family members and players of old (now older) and slowly we rediscovered the beauty of this sport. In time new players arrived to play.

Ice Stock Sport is easy and fun to play. It shares many common elements with curling and bocce and has been referred to as Bavarian curling. The size of the playing surface is similar to a curling surface and the object is to get one team’s stocks (they have a gliding surface to which a stick is attached) closer to the target, called a daube, than the other team’s. In this respect the strategy is similar, but the major difference is that the daube is movable within the “house” which measures 3m by 6m. If the daube is moved out of the house, it then needs to be replaced in the centre of the house. Two teams of four players eventually each take six turns throwing the stock during the course of one game. The points are gained by being closest to the daube after all four players have thrown their stock.

The technology of this sport has made it possible for us to play on asphalt or on concrete surfaces using special plates so we can play throughout the year. An eisstock is virtually indestructible and “holtzstocks” (wood stocks with a steel band to absorb the contact) from the late 50s are still used today. Modern stocks with interchangeable plates appeared in the 1970s. Unlike other sports that require upgrades and new parts and pieces, once you have an eisstock – you have it forever. Essentially the sport has grown so quickly in popularity that every eisstock in the Kingston area is probably in use again and used stocks have been brought in from Austria to keep up with the growing interest.

We now have the Kingston and Area Ice Stock Club and the decade-long journey to get to this point has been an important one for me. The re-emergence of eisstockshiessen in the Kingston area is much more inclusive; there’s more female representation and youth are encouraged to play. Most importantly, we also have a player with an exceptionality playing the sport. Participants, of all abilities, of all ages from 11 to over 70 can play and compete together in a sport that balances fun and competition. We have original players who are now in their 70s playing alongside kids who are just over a decade old. This brings me back to the importance of not only sharing one’s culture, but actively sharing it with others. If we don’t, the mosaic metaphor is no longer valid and the ways that we describe Canadian society will no longer ring true.

To learn more about the Kingston and Area Ice Stock Club, please visit their website at kingstoneisstock.webs.com

Kingston and Area Ice Stock Club players on Elbow Lake. (Photo by Richard Saxe)

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