Iced Out

The Denver Curling Club searches for respect after five years without a home.

Basketball players and boxers, in particular, like to talk about how they get no respect. What this usually means is that the athlete allegedly being disrespected (see also: "dissed") feels his opponent is not showing proper regard for the dissee's sporting skill. Denver-area curlers, though, have a much more basic definition. When they say they don't get any respect, what they're really saying is that they can't play their game.

It's been nearly five years now since the Denver Curling Club has enjoyed any respect. "The club is in suspended status," says a grim Doug Deleff, the club's president. Indeed, Deleff is a club president much in the same way that the Dalai Lama is a head of state: Both are leaders without countries, landless chiefs. The Denver Curling Club is a curling club in name only.

It wasn't always so. Until 1995, the Denver Curling Club had its own sheet (the equivalent of a rink) in Commerce City, off Stapleton Drive, north of the old airport. The conditions were hardly what you'd call ideal. Their landlord didn't want a layer of ice lying directly on the concrete floor, so clubmembers trucked in enough sand to cover a 9,000-square-foot area a foot deep. They buried their refrigeration pipes in the sand and, at the beginning of each season in October, one or two members would literally live in the building, slowly building ice on top of the sand -- first a glittering smear of frozen crystals, then successive thin layers of ice, until a surface smooth and perfect as a mirror (curlers scorn hockey ice as inadequate) gleamed from the warehouse floor.

Outside, the building looked plain, even ugly. Inside, however, was a world-class curling sheet, good enough to attract national competitions. There was a comfortable lounge and a fully equipped kitchen where the potlucks were held. At the end of every season, about this time of the year, the club would host the infamous (within certain circles) Oilman's Bonspiel, a gathering of about 32 people in the oil business, usually Canadians who recalled the game longingly but who had time to play just once a year.

But then the outside world intruded on the happy scene within. During one match in 1994, members exiting the building found their car windshields pocked with bullet holes. The following fall, the club returned from its summer break and discovered more bullet holes in the building.

And so, when the landlord that fall also announced a 40 percent rent increase, "We decided that it was in the long-term best interest of the club to move out of Commerce City," Deleff remembers. "If we were going to maintain the integrity of the club, we knew we had to get out of Commerce City." Besides, how difficult could it be to find another curling sheet? Surely there was room for a curling club somewhere in the Denver area.

It is here that the disrespect began.


You may as well admit it right now: Unless you are a transplant from Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota or Canada, you really have no idea what curling is. And even if you have heard of it, you suspect it might be slightly ridiculous -- less of a genuine sport than two people frantically sweeping a path for an ice tortoise.

Yet players insist that the game is elegant, intelligent and athletic. "When people try to tell me curling isn't athletic, I say, 'Come out and play. And if when you walk off the ice you can still say this isn't athletic, you'll win the argument,'" says Pam Finch, a legal assistant and former world-class curler who grew up in North Dakota but who now lives in Denver. "Nobody's done it so far. I mean, there can be two and a half miles of sweeping in a match."

The game is a cross between shuffleboard, billiards and chess. Four-member teams try to position their 40-pound stones (made only of a special granite from Scotland called Blue Hone; a set of sixteen stones can cost $12,000) in a bull's-eye target area painted into the ice sheet. Players influence the path of the stone by sweeping in front of it with special brooms. Contrary to common perception, this is not to clear the ice of debris (although it once was, when the game was played on ponds). Instead, vigorous sweeping can actually melt the surface of the ice, thus creating a thin layer of water that allows the stone to glide even more fluently. Strong sweeping actually pulls a stone into position. Meanwhile, the opposing team attempts to displace the first team's shots and score its own points.

Although the game probably started in Scotland (this is hotly debated by some Eastern Europeans), it was the Canadians who adopted it and made it into an obsessive pastime. Televised curling often surpasses hockey in viewership. Top curlers can earn a handsome living through prize winnings, sponsorships and endorsements. Many are placed on corporate payrolls but permitted to curl practically full-time.

In the United States, however, the game remains more of a curiosity -- except, of course, in small pockets of clubs dotting the top half of the country and the frost-bound states of the northern plains. The first organized curling club was the Orchard Lake Curling Club, of Detroit, founded in 1832. The country's best-known curler, the legendary Bud Somerville, hails from Wisconsin. And the St. Paul Curling Club is the country's largest, boasting about 700 members.

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