Judy Taylor crouched low, eyeing team skip Bob Hedstrom’s signals at the other end of the sheet, before sending the smooth 40-pound stone gliding down the ice.

Three times a week, Taylor makes the trip from River Falls, Wis., to the St. Paul Curling Club to enjoy the competition and the camaraderie at the nation’s largest curling club. Starting Thursday, that club and its 1,200 members will do their best to make the sport even bigger by hosting their first-ever Big Spiel tournament, featuring 96 teams and nearly 400 curlers from around the Midwest.

“It gets us through winter,” said Taylor, a native Canadian who has curled for 28 years. “Fifty percent of why we do it is just the sociability. You praise good shots by the other team. You shake hands before and after. And you always get together after the game.”

Hedstrom, a native of Grand Marais, Minn., who’s been a curler since childhood, said the Big Spiel is a big deal.

While the St. Paul Curling Club is full and not taking new members, two newer clubs — the Frogtown Curling Club in St. Paul and the Four Seasons Curling Club in Blaine — have room to grow. All three are hosting games for the Big Spiel, with playoffs to be held Sunday at the St. Paul Curling Club.

“Curling no longer is a best-kept secret,” Hedstrom said of the sport whose popularity has grown beyond its every-four-years Winter Olympics boost. “We have 21 leagues a week here. The new clubs are growing and there is word that another is building in Chaska.”

Canada, home to about 90 percent of all players, is curling’s hotbed, but the Twin Cities is ground zero for American curling, Hedstrom said. And the St. Paul Curling Club is the center of the center.

Founded in 1912, the old place on Selby Avenue has been spruced up over the years. But its second floor, overlooking the huge ice sheet, drips tradition. Trophies and plaques line the walls. One black-and-white photo features the St. Paul winners of the 1928 Black and Armstrong Trophy of the Winnipeg Bonspiel (curling’s name for a tournament).

Duaine Olson of Edina wasn’t part of that team — it just seems that way. He’s been curling for 55 years.

“I’ve been around a loooong time,” he said, chuckling.

The club holds league games five days a week, with three games on Sundays. About 100 kids, ages 5 and up, curl on Saturdays. Hedstrom said the hope is that the Big Spiel will grow to 126 teams and continue curling’s growth in the Twin Cities.

“It’s a great game,” he said. “The strategy is like chess, the angles are like billiards.”

And that brushing thing that players do with brooms to make the stone go farther and straighter?

“Cardio,” he said, smiling.