Curling is booming in Minnesota, bolstered by the Olympics, new technology and the sport’s unprecedented camaraderie.
When people walk into the St. Paul Curling Club, Jim Dexter tells them to enjoy themselves. It’s not a platitude. It’s an order.
“If you can’t have fun in this building, get out,” he said.
Dexter joined the club in 1960 and was still curling until he ran into health problems four years ago. These days, he’s listed as the club’s assistant manager, where his primary duty appears to be making sure that people are having a good time.
It’s not a tough assignment. Curlers pride themselves on their sociability.
“This is the only sport where, after you beat an opponent, you buy them a drink,” said Nancee Melby, who has been curling for 10 years. “Don’t get me wrong — we’re very competitive. But after the game, we’re friends.”
The postgame camaraderie is such an established part of curling that the club’s bar is set up with large, round tables, each surrounded by eight chairs. There are four people on a curling team; do the math.
“That interaction is what sets curling apart,” said Tim Lindgren. “Sure, softball teams go out for a beer after a game, but each team goes to their own bar. We go upstairs and talk about the game with the team we just played.”
That can be an unusual experience for people who are making the transition from less congenial sports.
“I started doing this after playing hockey, and it takes a while to learn that level of sportsmanship,” said Dan Frey. “You’re expected to congratulate your opponent for a good shot. That first year, we were out there getting our butts kicked, and it was tough. In hockey, if you’re playing badly, you can get a little chippy and knock somebody down. But this isn’t like that. You have to be very polite.”
But it has paid off. “I’ve made friendships here that will last a lifetime,” he said.
All in the family
For two weeks once every four years, the public rediscovers curling thanks to the Olympics.
But the sport doesn’t disappear when the winter games end. On the contrary, it’s booming. There are now 25 curling clubs in Minnesota, including four in the Twin Cities: the Four Seasons in Blaine, Frogtown in St. Paul, Dakota in Burnsville and the great-granddaddy of them all, the 101-year-old St. Paul Curling Club, which, with its 1,200 members, is the biggest in the country, said Dexter.
Curling has had its dry spots. In the 1920s, membership dropped to the point where the St. Paul club considered folding. Interest lagged again in the 1970s.
“We were down to about 250 members,” Dexter said. “You could pretty much show up anytime you wanted and curl.”
You can’t do that these days. The club has leagues booked on all of its eight rinks seven evenings a week. There are daytime leagues, a youth league on Saturdays and tournaments (called bonspiels) just about every weekend. The club also has become a popular site for corporate outings.
Many of the curlers credit the Olympics for the surge in public interest. When curling became an official Olympic sport in 1998, “You could see the difference right away,” Frey said. “Now you have millions of people watching it on TV and getting curious about it.”
It’s a lifetime sport, involving kids as young as 8 and seniors like Harry Byrnes, who, at 78, still participates in a weekly league.