Bryan Hanson is ditching his summer softball league. He'll spend his summer nights on ice at the new Four Seasons Curling Club in Blaine.

The $4 million, year-round curling rink, restaurant and amenities attached to Fogerty Arena will open in mid-December. It's attracting attention, from locals looking for a league all the way to Olympic teams from around the world interested in summer ice time.

"This would be the only facility in the United States open year-round dedicated solely to curling," said Terry Kolesar, director of communications for USA Curling, the national governing body for the Olympic sport. "Some other sports have national training facilities. We don't have that. It's really significant to have a curling facility open year-round. ... It speaks to the growth of our sport as a whole."

Hanson, of Circle Pines, said having a year-round curling club just miles from home means he can sharpen his game and aim for nationals.

"I am going to be constantly committing all my free time to curling," Hanson said. "I've become severely addicted to it and practice a lot. I am trying to catch up to people who have been competing since they were juniors."

His wife, Vicky, who is also a curler, is all in. But his softball buddies didn't take the news as well. "They don't understand curling yet, but my goal is to get them on the ice," Hanson said.

200 locals have joined

The new curling rink isn't just for the elite athlete. More than 200 locals have joined the Four Seasons Curling Club in anticipation of its opening. Staff members are also preparing to introduce a whole new generation to the sport.

"We are anticipating 65 to 70 percent of our membership will be novice," explained John Benton, director of curling operations at Fogerty. The 2010 U.S. Olympian from Afton will now oversee the club's operations.

Benton is talking up the sport and the new digs, but he said the word is already out. The phone is ringing almost nonstop.

"It's a lifelong sport," said Benton, who learned to curl at age 6. "It's a great sport for kids. It's inexpensive in terms of equipment, and it doesn't take a long time to become proficient. It's one of the most evenly matched sports between men and women."

The rink will include six sheets of ice dedicated exclusively to curling. They've hired a veteran ice-maker from Mankato to create and maintain the ice.

"A lot of people think it's like hockey ice. It's not," Benton said. "You sprinkle the ice with water to form pebbles. That's what allows the rock to glide gracefully. Ice-making is like grounds keeping. It's an art form."

The new facility also includes large women's and men's locker rooms, a heated spectator area, and a full-service restaurant and bar with an outdoor patio for the summer.

Even the club room has a few special touches, said Benton, pointing out the curling rocks are incorporated in the stone fireplace.

Fogerty Arena general manager Mark Clasen said they expect to reach the curling club's maximum membership capacity of around 700 in two or three years. There will be an emphasis on youth curling programs, and will also be programming and leagues for curlers with disabilities.

Leaders at Fogerty Arena, a private nonprofit owned and operated by the hockey communities of Blaine and Spring Lake Park, decided to build the curling rink a couple of years ago when it became clear that one of the hockey rink's refrigeration units needed to be replaced. That alone would have cost $800,000, Clasen said.

The curling rink's new, high-efficiency refrigeration unit eventually will do double duty -- cooling the ice for the curling rink and for the south hockey sheet. The south rink will be closed from late March until June for the conversion to the new unit. Clasen said the energy used for the two rinks is expected to be about the same as or less than what's currently used for one.

He also said that proceeds from the curling rink will supplement the youth hockey programs.

"The goal is to generate revenue," Clasen said.

Curler Peter Stolt will increase his league play from two to three nights a week once the rink in Blaine opens. He and his wife will play two leagues in St. Paul and now one in Blaine.

"It's a great community sport. It's pretty social," said Stolt, who met his wife, Maureen, curling. "It's a good way to meet a lot of new people."

Shannon Prather is a Twin Cities freelance writer.