Here’s one of the neat things about curling, the blue-collar sport of brooms and rocks and beer: You never know when you might bump into a former U.S. Olympian.
Jeff Isaacson, manager of the newly-opened Chaska Curling Club and a veteran of the 2010 and ’14 Olympic teams, was in his office Saturday chatting up a visitor when John Benton, a teammate at the 2010 Vancouver Games, ducked in to say hello. Chaska was hosting a party for the inaugural Big Spiel, a “bonspiel,” or tournament, encompassing all four greater Twin Cities curling clubs — three more than there used to be. Benton directs Four Seasons Curling Club in Blaine, which had been the area’s newest club until Chaska opened.
Until 2010, the venerable St. Paul Curling Club, with 1,200 members (the largest in the U.S.) and a history dating to 1912, stood as the only permanent curling facility in the Twin Cities. Minnesota produces more curlers than any other state, but its heart beats in northern Minnesota, in Bemidji and Duluth, and Iron Range towns like Eveleth, Hibbing, and Chisholm. The last three men’s Olympic teams, skipped by Pete Fenson in 2006 and John Shuster in 2010 and ’14, largely hailed from Bemidji and the Range, as did women’s teams in 2002 (with Kari Erickson skipping) and 2006 (Cassie Johnson).
The Cities always seemed untapped. Then the St. Paul club expanded into Frogtown at Biff Adams Ice Arena in 2011. Frogtown broke off from St. Paul in 2012, signed a five-year lease with the city and converted Biff Adams from hockey to curling. (The process is ongoing; some of the hockey boards remain in place.)
Aptly-named Four Seasons, which opened in 2013 at Fogerty Arena, is the state’s only year-round venue and will be the training site for future Olympic teams. And now comes Chaska, cornerstone of a $15 million development project for that city’s downtown Firemen’s Park. (A fifth club, Dakota Curling, rents ice Sunday afternoons and evenings at the Burnsville Ice Center, primarily a hockey and figure skating arena.)
Curiously, none of this expansion made much of a dent in St. Paul’s membership, which dropped only slightly, to 1,130. General manager Scott Clasen said he had some concern until its 20 leagues filled up as usual this season.
“We’re still good and still busting at the seams,” he said. “With Chaska, it’s going to be another year before we get the full effect. But we’ve got people trying to get in here still.”
That shows curling’s grass-roots popularity. Though Fenson’s team, or “rink,” won a bronze in 2006 for U.S. curling’s first Olympic medal, the sport didn’t really take off until four years later in Vancouver, when the Norwegians showed up with outrageously colorful pants, and Olympic broadcasts on CNBC gained a cult following.
USA Curling membership increased 20.1 percent from 2009-10 to 2013-14, the last complete season where numbers are available. This month the NBC Sports Network brought back for a second season Curling Night in America, a seven-week series on Fridays featuring Team USA international matches, taped in December in Eveleth. (Fenson serves as analyst.) Clubs exist in 42 states, as far-flung as Hawaii, Texas and Florida.
“Curling has gone from a real oddity to a legitimate curiosity,” Benton said wryly.
It especially suits Minnesota. Curling combines the best aspects of golf, billiards and even baseball, sports that require thinking and strategy, with just enough time between shots to talk over possibilities.
Sliding a 42-pound granite curling stone and sweeping the ice in front of it is harder than it looks – trust me, I’ve tried it — but not so impossible that four friends in reasonable shape couldn’t walk in off the street and learn. Curling is mostly angles and finesse. Most clubs have a bar, and the social aspect of sharing a post-match cocktail with teammates and opponents (winners buy the first round, per curling tradition) adds to the attraction.
“For the common person like me – a non-athlete, middle-aged woman – I can do it,” said Gretchen Pietruszewski, the manager at Frogtown, who learned to curl the year the club opened. “It takes some skill. It’s a little more complicated than bowling, and a little more fun.
“When the Olympics come on, everybody thinks they can do it. Then you try it and realize it’s a little more involved. But you think, ‘I can get better if I keep doing it.’”
Frogtown’s homespun layout reflects the modest neighborhood around it. Volunteers salvaged old church pews, cut beverage holders into the tops, and set them to frame the five ice sheets. Chairs discarded by Spring Hill Golf Club in Wayzata made their way here, and a green leather sectional set surrounds an electric fireplace near the ice sheets. Even without many amenities, Frogtown doubled its membership to 360 since it opened and hasn’t seen a league vacancy in two years, Pietruszewski said.
League space is equally tight at Four Seasons. Fogerty Arena features six curling sheets, two hockey rinks, an off-ice training center and a full service bar and restaurant, Gabe’s Rinkside Bar and Grill, where puckheads, curlers and regular folks mingle. Four Seasons grew from 303 members its inaugural season to 746 in 2014-15.
Then there’s Chaska, a country club compared to Frogtown and even nicer than Four Seasons. Its cream-brick exterior reflects the city’s history as a brick-making center. Inside, wood beams and trim provide a European feel. The Crooked Pint Ale House on site often gets so crowded, Isaacson said, that veteran curlers gripe they can’t find seats for post-match libations.
Chaska Recreation officials projected the club would attract 188 members its first season and 600 by 2022. Instead, Isaacson said 900 signed up within a month of the Dec. 2 opening. Every date on Isaacson’s January wall calendar contains scribbled notations for group outings, and February is equally cluttered. More than 1,000 people took Learn to Curl classes in December.
“What’s surprising me is, probably three-quarters of my day is just replying to groups and booking them,” Isaacson said. “Every day in January and February is booked with business groups, and I haven’t done a thing to promote or advertise. It’s wonderful.”