Iced Out

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

Two years ago, after several appearances as a demonstration sport, curling debuted as an Olympic event in Nagano. Inauspiciously, the opening match was attended by...dozens of people, most of them Canadians. (One member of the Canadian curling team was so excited at being there that he dropped his pants at a press conference to show off the five-ring Olympic emblem he'd had tattooed on his buttocks. It was next to the red maple leaf tattoo.) Still, the crowds grew as the competition progressed. Eventually, the Swiss men and Canadian women's teams claimed gold medals, while the U.S. teams, in true winter-Olympics fashion, were soundly trounced.

All of that excitement, however, is a long way from Colorado. "I remember telling my friends that I was going to go to school in Wisconsin so I could curl," recalls Kirsten Finch, Pam's twenty-year-old daughter and a 1998 graduate of Rangeview High School. "And they said, 'So you can what?' I got the most incredible looks."

Finch migrated to Wisconsin for many curling-related reasons. There is a great coach there, and other fine women players. The game is even taken seriously: Kirsten's employer always lets her curling come before work. But another big reason for leaving Denver was the disrespect.

Caught between a rock and a hard place: Doug Deleff's curling club is on ice.
Jonathan Castner
Caught between a rock and a hard place: Doug Deleff's curling club is on ice.

When the Denver Curling Club left Commerce City behind, Deleff was plenty confident that a new sheet was just around the corner. Still, so there wouldn't be a break in the action, even a small one, one clubmember suggested a temporary home. The member, who was also a member of the Denver Country Club, brought up the idea of playing at the exclusive Cherry Creek facility for a winter. He struck a deal for cheap rent by promising that country-club members were in for a treat: Many would watch the curling club and become enthralled and want to join.

The curling club played at DCC for eight happy weeks. The country club let them paint their targets in the ice and install hacks, the pushing-off points for throwers; it permitted the curlers to store their rocks out by the rink so they would remain cold, and thus slide better when play began. Yet clubmembers responded timidly, and the DCC declined to renew the deal at the end of the winter.

No problem, Deleff thought. By now the curling club was like an octopus, with feelers stretching out in every direction into the community. It was only a matter of time before the right building came along. After all, the club had plenty of money in the bank and a good line of credit. It had its own refrigeration unit and high-intensity lights -- "much better lighting than hockey," Deleff says. If there was an obstacle, it was making the right selection from among many opportunities.

One such prospect was at the old Lowry airfield. In 1996, the curling club struck a deal to lease an entire building for a new state-of-the-art curling facility. The lease was faxed to Deleff, who signed it with delight. But the next day, when he drove to Lowry to sign the originals, he was informed that a review of the zoning restrictions showed that the area was to be used only for outdoor recreation. The deal was off.

A setback, sure, but the curlers had plenty of irons in the fire. There was the deal with South Shore Water Park, in which the club arranged to build a new facility that members would use to play on in the winter and the park could use in the summer. But when the deal hit the county planning office, the bureaucrats had questions: How was traffic going to affect the area? What about the runoff when the club melted its sheet each summer? "They wanted us to build a retaining pond," Deleff scoffs. "For one inch of water melted once a year." But the bureaucrats were firm, and the mounting costs killed the plan.

The South Suburban Recreation District, too, seemed to be a potential partner. "They had property on Santa Fe and Bowles they wanted to develop," Deleff recalls. "They would donate land and we would build the building and donate it back to them over time." The curlers were even willing to accommodate on design. "We agreed to build the building bigger than it needed to be so they could use it for things like volleyball," he says. But later, the district insisted that the ice sheet must be big enough to host hockey games, a requirement that drove the price up from about $400,000 to more than $1 million -- and out of the club's reach.

It was becoming depressing, striking deals only to watch them wilt under the powerful weight of bureaucracy and cost. But as soon as one possibility died, another seemed to pop up. Deleff and investors soon reached a tentative deal to build a curling facility next to an executive golf course just south of Denver. Deleff even hopped a plane and flew to Texas to view a unique curling facility there that allowed the building to be used for curling in the winter and other uses in the summer. But several months later, the owner of the golf course sold out to the nearby Family Sports Center, which soon was building rinks of its own -- for hockey, not for curling.

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