A hot ice sport
Across Minnkota's service area in North Dakota and Minnesota, the sport of curling has seen an uptick after the U.S. won Olympic gold in 2018.
When the curling club in Stephen was built in the 1960s, plans called for a grain storage facility as a backup if the sport didn’t catch on in the northwest Minnesota town.
“It’s been going strong ever since,” said Dick Dolan, who has played in every bonspiel Stephen has offered over the years. “In fact, it’s going stronger than ever.”
That seems to be a common refrain from curling clubs around the country. Other ice sports such as fishing and hockey are popular in the Red River Valley, but curling received an immense boost from the United States men’s gold-medal win in the 2018 Olympics and its return to an official Olympic sport in 1998.
Minnesotan and skip John Shuster led the U.S. team to the title, defeating Canada twice before knocking off Sweden in the final.
The Americans had never won a gold medal in the sport. For that reason and more, members of the team expressed hope that curling would become more than a cultural curiosity every four years. For sure, they didn’t want the pebbled curling ice replaced by storage of any commodity.
“We want our sport to be loved by our country as much as we love it,” Tyler George, a member of the Shuster team, told The New York Times after the Olympics. “There’s a reason why we play it, and there’s a reason why we love it as much as we do.”
The sport is a hit in Grafton, Thief River Falls and Stephen, all of which receive their electricity from the Northern Municipal Power Agency. Minnkota is the operating agent for NMPA, which is located in Thief River Falls.
“The Olympics got everybody watching it,” said Krist Olson, who maintains the curling ice in Thief River Falls. “It was a big win for Team USA. It’s a pretty big deal to beat Sweden and Canada. It’s kind of unheard of.”
In Stephen, officials have even revived the club’s Farmers League, which is going strong on Wednesday afternoons. The other adult league is on Thursdays. Between the two days, Stephen has 24 teams competing. It also hosts youth events and high school students at the rink.
“We just started youth curling at the end of last year,” veteran Stephen curler Dan Riley said. “We saw 30 to 40 kids show up for three Sundays in a row. We plan to do that twice a month this year. I've heard rumors the Minnesota State High School League may make curling a sanctioned sport. If so, I think it would be great to get a Stephen-Argyle Central team and other high schools in the area involved.
“We were very close to closing our doors in the early ’90s due to lack of membership and funds. Living in a small ag community, our club thrives and declines with the state of agriculture. We’ve been very fortunate there’s been multiple young people and families, working in agribusiness and farming, who have moved back home in the past few years.”
Thief River Falls has had similar growth.
“We are definitely in a growing phase in our club,” said Tony Gilbert, Thief River Falls club president. “Three years ago we finally recreated a board of voting members to help make decisions on club direction. With this board many positive steps have been made to increase visibility of our club in the community, as well as the youth.
“Every year, the high school has a four-week elective class where they come over and we have members teach them how to curl. We also started a four-week youth program last year in which we had a dozen kids under 12 come out and try the game.”
Better than half of the Thief River Falls curlers work for Digi-Key, a large electronic components company headquartered in the city. Digi-Key has an in-ice logo in the middle of the rink and helps pay for its employees’ membership in the club.
Former Warren attorney Brian Rokke has been curling for several years. He’s one of about 100 members in the Thief River Falls club.
“It’s a good thing to do in the winter for those who can’t skate,” he said.
The city owns the curling building in Thief River Falls. The club is working with the city on a new long-term lease. Once the lease is in place, the club and the city plan to make improvements.
It appears to be a smart investment. Prior to reinstatement as an Olympic sport in 1998, curling had been a niche sport in the United States. Due to nationwide exposure through Olympic television coverage, curling has expanded rapidly. In 2016, membership in the U.S. Curling Association (USCA) topped 20,000 for the first time.
In 2011, the North Dakota region reported 1,041 members to USA Curling, and Minnesota reported 2,925. Their combined total was 3,966 out of 16,545, which was 22.4 percent of all reported curlers. As of Jan. 31, 2018, the Dakotas region reported 1,700 curlers, and Minnesota reported 5,662. Their combined total is 7,368 of 22,690, which is 32.5 percent of all reported curlers.
Grafton might not be growing as much as the Minnesota towns, but it has a long and successful curling history. The club has had U.S. men’s national champions in 1960 (Orvil Gilleshammer) and in 1972 (Robert LaBonte). The LaBonte rink lost to Canada for the world championship gold medal in 1972 after a fluke kick of a rock in the 10th end, taking away an apparent U.S. victory. Canada went on to win in an extra end.
Al Presteng, a veteran Grafton curler, said the club is holding its own. There are a combined 24 men’s and women’s teams playing.
Grafton, Stephen and Thief River Falls all have tournaments, which are referred to as bonspiels in curling. Grafton held a bonspiel in January that paid out several thousand dollars in cash prizes. Stephen is looking forward to its event. On Jan. 10 it posted on Facebook that it had already reached its limit of teams and others interested would be placed on a waiting list for the Feb. 21-24 bonspiel.
Stephen’s bonspiel is the town’s big event during the winter season, the unofficial winterfest. In addition to curling on Stephen’s three ice sheets, the American Legion hosts a steak fry, the Community Center hosts a senior class breakfast fundraiser and a vintage snowmobile run is held.
“In 2006 we were unable to have a bonspiel due to lack of interest,” Riley said. “In our 52-year history, that is the only year we didn't have a bonspiel. There were a core group of committed members who decided to really try make our bonspiel an event. Ever since 2007 it has grown to the point to where we are full.”