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Iced Out

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

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.

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.


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.

That winter, the club tried to find pleasure in events scheduled at the temporary rink erected by the sports center. It was humiliating, frankly. They were permitted to play on the ice when the facility's junior B hockey team had away games, every other Saturday night at 9 p.m. That was shameful enough, but then the Family Sports Center only permitted the curlers to draw their targets with tiny, quarter-inch lines, instead of the regulation one-foot-wide circles.

And it was a hockey rink, for God's sake. Hockey ice, when skated down, is not even. Like a muddy football field, it gets worn in the middle but is left relatively unscathed at the edges. "The stones go all over the place," Deleff says morosely. "We did parties, and it was nice and social. But the curling was...let's just say there is no competitive curling game when you play on hockey ice."

The following year, in 1997, the Family Sports Center opened a brand-new rink. It was used for hockey, but at least it was ice, thought an increasingly desperate Deleff. "Everyone who was a customer at the previous rink was promised that they would have time on the new one," Deleff recalls. "But they didn't give us any. We called and called them, and they didn't even return calls."

No respect.

It is an irony not lost on Deleff that at the same time the Denver Curling Club was scrambling for a piece of ice to call its own, the sport of ice hockey was exploding. That same year, two new rinks were opened at Lowry, right next to where the curling club was to have had its own facility. "They promised to send schedules," Deleff says. "But we never got to the point where they even were willing to give us a price for time."

In 1998, the City of Westminster asked voters to approve a bond measure to borrow money to build three new ice rinks. The Denver Curling Club quickly sent off a letter of intent promising to rent time at the proposed facilities -- a promise the city used, among others, to sell the issue to voters. "But once the rinks went up they said, 'Sorry, you don't fit into our plans,'" Deleff says bitterly. "We got squat when they opened." (Actually, the club got some satisfaction. "A former curler was ice manager there, so, unlike many other rinks, at least we got some contact with Westminster," Deleff says. "At least they said no to us.")

Other deals have fallen through or failed to materialize, too -- in Highlands Ranch, near Mile High Stadium, in old downtown Aurora, in Lakewood. The club has approached garden centers (the typically long, skinny buildings would fit curling sheets nicely) and golf courses (the curlers could store equipment there in the summer when people golfed and then curl in the winter when the golfers rested) and the Irish-American Club, which was big on enthusiasm but short on an actual site.

In all, by Deleff's reckoning, there have been sixty sites considered, and sixty sites failed. "We were involved in almost every ice project on the boards from its inception," he sighs, now tired and depressed. "At this point we can't even rent ice at a facility. They won't even talk to us. I can't tell you the number of phone calls we've made to hockey rinks asking for ice time, and then not even getting a call back."

 

There have been a few outlets, places to release the curling bug, although none have materialized without considerable effort. A couple of years ago a few members traveled to Pueblo, where the tiny Colorado Springs curling club had finally managed to rent some ice time. Some Denver members have traveled to Omaha, the closest place with genuine sheets, to curl.

Last winter, the Denver club planned an event at Evergreen Lake. It was lousy ice, but at least it was something cold and relatively flat. The night before, when they drove to the mountains, it was clear and crisp. They painted their targets and set the hacks. But the next day dawned sunny and warm, a brilliant Colorado winter day. The circles melted away, and the event was canceled. This winter has been so warm the club didn't even try to curl outside.

"If we had our own facility, we'd have more people than we knew what to do with," Deleff predicts. Indeed, the final winter the club occupied the Commerce City building, the City of Aurora bused in hundreds of kids to see what curling was all about. "They couldn't get the kids back on the bus, they liked it so much," he recalls.

There is something about the civility (international rules ban smoking in curling facilities, as well as -- a little more perplexing -- "performance-enhancing" drugs) and accessibility of the game that appeals to people, he says. "You don't have to be a particular physical shape or size to compete. It's physically active without being strenuous, and it's very, very social. And it's a sport where, if you get good at it, the chances of you going far are very good."

Kirsten Finch would be the first to agree. When she was in eighth grade, she traveled with her mother to the national championships in St. Paul and watched her win. The next year, when Pam made the world finals, Kirsten told herself, "This is what I want to do." And with curling, she could.

"I had a greater opportunity to go farther with curling than I did with the hundreds of thousands of other girls who play soccer," she says. Two weeks ago, Kirsten and her teammates won a bronze medal at the world championships in Germany. She is planning to earn a spot on the 2006 Olympic team. "Unlike other sports, in curling you can get better as you get older, because a lot of the game is strategy that you only learn over time," she says.

But no one is learning anything in Denver. Without a place to play, clubmembers for the past several years have had to make do visiting the many curling Web sites, chatting about curling by e-mail and attending the club's annual meeting (November) and picnic (June -- maybe).

The involuntary hiatus has taken its toll. The Denver Curling Club is withering toward extinction. When it played at the Commerce City facility, the organization had about 125 active dues-paying members. Now there are anywhere from 25 to forty. And the future is bleak: Most of the remaining members are older or middle-aged. (About 50 percent are Canadian "or living next door to a Canadian," Deleff says.)

Recently, Deleff began drafting desperate letters to Parker, Castle Rock and other communities farther from Denver, asking for suggestions as to where a curling sheet could be erected. "We need to get something going sooner rather than later," he says. "We don't have anything to offer members now."


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