The Crooked Pint Ale House starts buzzing around 5 p.m. on weeknights in Chaska, as patrons flood the bar area to get a bird’s-eye view of the rookies below trying to learn this Olympic sport.
Two months after opening its door, the Chaska Curling Center has stunned city officials. Participation numbers already have blown away five-years-out projections, and the center has become a corporate and social destination with a full calendar in the south metro.
“It is such a wonderful addition to our community,” said Lynn Gossfeld, a newcomer to the sport who plays in a women’s league. “It’s beautiful. Who wouldn’t want to spend time there?”
What started as a controversial brainchild of a few city officials has turned into a $24 million gem that attracts a cross-section of people curious about the sport of curling.
The city anticipated having 188 club members by the end of 2016 and 645 by 2021. Membership reached 915 in less than two months.
“That’s just a mind-boggling number for a brand-new place,” said club manager Jeff Isaacson, a two-time Olympian for USA Curling. “You’ve got clubs that are struggling to get 300 that have been in existence for a long time.”
Chaska created different leagues — men’s, women’s, mixed, etc. — and opened registration at 10 a.m. Nov. 2. A men’s league was filled by 10:02 a.m., with 25 teams on hold.
In all, 162 teams compete in leagues that are held six days a week.
“[The interest] is crazy,” Isaac- son said. “It’s caught us all off guard.”
Isaacson competed in the Vancouver and Sochi Olympics for the U.S. curling team. He was working as a junior high science teacher in Gilbert in northern Minnesota and considering a job change when he spotted an ad for the manager’s job in a curling magazine. The application deadline was four days away, so he whipped up a résumé and mailed it overnight. He was hired last June.
“It looked like it was going to be an amazing place,” he said. “I wanted to be involved with this.”
Not everyone shared that enthusiasm. Chaska officials faced pushback from residents who questioned why the city would spend millions on a sport that few people play or even see other than Olympic years.
“We had probably a good nine months of letters to the editor that thought we were crazy,” said Tom Redman, Chaska’s director of parks and recreation.
Redman, who took curling in college in 1974, receives compliments now after people visit the center and witness its impact on downtown business.
The complex is owned by the city and was built on Firemen’s Park near downtown Chaska, offering six sheets of ice that will be operational all year. The center also includes a banquet hall that hosts receptions and other large gatherings.
Foot traffic at Crooked Pint, which features a long glass wall that overlooks the ice, has helped the restaurant exceed expectations in both customer numbers and overall sales, according to Green Mill CEO Paul Dzubnar.
In addition to league play, the center hosts daily outings for corporations throughout the Twin Cities. Companies rent a private lounge in the facility, receive curling lessons and then play a match. Companies booked reservations every day in January and February.
The center also will host various tournaments — called bonspiels — all year, including the college national championship in March.
“I was probably the happiest one that it’s exceeded expectations,” Redman said, “because I had a lot of people say it’s a bad idea.”
Isaacson said club members range in age from late teens to 80s. Roughly 90 percent had never curled, so Isaacson held “Learn to Curl” sessions to teach the game, rules and etiquette.
Members practice every day in the morning. Isaacson typically finds a long line of people waiting on him to open the facility on weekends. “They’re fascinated and it’s something new and they want to learn more about it,” Isaac- son said.
Gossfeld, a 57-year-old nurse from Chanhassen, is in that group. She always watched curling during the Olympics but knew nothing else about the sport.
“It looked like a blast,” she said.
Gossfeld formed a team with five friends — their team name is Roaring Stones — took Learn to Curl classes and now they’re hooked. Gossfeld, who practices once a week in addition to the league game, and her teammates are improving — the Stones started league play with a 4-1 record — and learning more about strategy.
“I’m in it for the long haul,” Gossfeld said, joking that she might compete in the Senior Olympics.
Isaacson, however, wasn’t kidding when he said his Olympic days are over. He said he no longer has the motivation to practice and compete at the highest level.
His new job keeps him busy enough.
“They took a lot of heat for building the place because for people the first question is, ‘Who’s going to come here and curl? That’s a stupid idea,’ ” Isaacson said. “Based on the response, they’ve got be just thrilled because this place is filled every night.”