In 1996, my wife (at the time) and I traveled to Toronto, to see a production of the musical Rent. Aside: Jai from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy played Angel in this particular production, before he was on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. He was really really good. Rent was really really good.
It was an afternoon performance, so after dinner, we went back to our hotel room and I switched the TV on. On TV? Curling. I was fascinated and watched for hours, literally. It wasn't the first time I had seen curling - I visited Niagara Falls frequently as a child, and watched a lot of border television - but it was the first time I had sat down and tried to understand the game.
Since I was lucky enough to live in a place where I used rabbit ears to get local television, in Rochester, NY, I was able to get CBC broadcasts from Peterborough, Ontario - CHEX-TV. Which means that in 1997, I watched my first Brier. I didn't understand how big a deal it was, but I watched it. And I was fascinated. It was snowy reception, but I did enjoy it.
I also got to watch a lot of Hockey Night in Canada, where I developed a taste for Don Cherry's suits. But that's another story.
This was a sport that looked reasonably easy to try, and I desperately wanted to try it. So I did an Internet search for "curling," and lo and behold, there was a Rochester Curling Club. And it wasn't too far from where I lived. However, I had just missed an open house, so I didn't have an opportunity to go at that time.
I frequently went back and visited that site, looking for new open houses. I found a few, but.... well, I've been painfully shy most of my life. I really am not the guy - at least not traditionally; I've gotten much more outgoing - who can just walk in a room and be the life of the party. So I kept chickening out.
The 1998 Olympics came and went. US television barely covered curling - literally one 5-minute wrapup segment - but I watched the Canadian coverage as intently as I could (I did have a day job - still do, in fact) and as much as my wife would allow. And, really, as much as Lake Ontario and proper cloud cover would allow.
And the Rochester Curling Club had an open house. And I didn't want to go alone. So I tried to talk my wife and several friends into going with me, to try it out. I could not muster enough interest, and so shy me and my dream died.
Fast forward a few years, to 2002. My wife and I now have a daughter and other friends who have kids. And we were out to dinner during the 2002 Winter Olympics with two such friends - Judy and Lonne - yes, his name is Lonne. Since NBC did a slightly better job covering curling - cable outlets help with that - it was actually playing on the TVs in the restaurant in which we sat. And I mentioned my dream of being a curler and trying it out, and did they know there was a Rochester Curling Club?
Imagine my surprise when Lonne said that 1. yes, he did and 2. he used to be a member! I immediately started working on him - you have to take me next season, Lonne! Time to get back into curling, Lonne! And he was receptive to the idea.
What happened next is pure luck. A few days later - six days, I believe - I was watching the news. Big news story - Rochester Curling Club has open house, 300 people show up, lines out the freakin' door! Oh no! I missed an open house! Well, no, because this was a 2-day open house! I immediately called Lonne, and we made plans to go the next day!
And go we did.... along with another 200 people. Lonne and I knew to carry shoes into the club - he was a past curler and had shown me the way - but club members didn't trust the newbies. Adair Jensen - a long-time curler who Lonne remembered but who did not remember him - did the show scrubbing for us. And after a wait that seemed like hours but was probably only about 10 minutes, we took the ice.
There were I believe 5 or 6 people in our group. I do remember some of their names - Tim and Kathy were two of them. I consider them to be friends now - the three of us are among the few still curling today that curled for the first time that day - but back then, I found them to be obnoxious. They probably felt the same way about me. Because I was obnoxious and excited like a schoolgirl!
Let me pause here for a minute. Out of the 500 or so people that came through the club, and the 105 that joined, at least for the rest of the season, there are less than 10 of us left - I count 7 in my head, but I could be missing a couple. At least 2 of those are people who left and came back and various reasons. Our retention rate from the 2006 Olympics has been a bit better - we have a lot more than 10 of those curlers left - but it doesn't change the fact that the average lifespan of a Rochester curler is three years. Three years. That's a problem. The curlers that do stick, however, stick for a lot longer than three years. There was a relatively crowded club before 2002 - we significantly increased its size - and we are more crowded today.
I will discuss curler retention in a future post, but I wanted to make sure that thought was out there now, so it doesn't get lost.
And - Tim, Kathy - you aren't obnoxious. I was wrong. Great people they are. I was on a team with Tim for a couple of years - he has an unusual delivery, but it's effective, and he has a great understanding of strategy. Kathy has led a lot of our social endeavors, and I give her a lot of credit for retaining a lot of the newer curlers.
We got some quick instruction on how the game was played - the delivery, the rules, sweeping - and we got to throw a couple of stones. I did OK - I threw them REALLY hard - and I had some confidence. Wanted to get right out and play a full game....
.... which is why it was smart of the Rochester Curling Club to meet me as I left this ice with a very special offer - 5 weeks of curling for only $25! I'd like to say I signed up right away, but I didn't. I did within like 2 hours - I had to go home and ask my wife - but I was determined to be a curler.
That Friday, I played my first curling game. I got to play all four positions, and got to have a drink bought for me (I was on the losing team). I fell on my face a lot. I missed a lot of shots. I seriously hurt both my back and my knee. And I kept coming back for the next four Fridays. And I fell less and made more shots.
One of the new curlers who was on the Friday night grind was a great, nice guy named Ben Emerson. We were on Sheet A, sweeping a stone together. He slipped and fell, hitting his head on the ice. Hard. Hard enough to give me a concussion, I believe. He didn't finish that game, and he didn't come back for the rest of the season. I never curled with him again, although he did come back for a few years. He was a nice guy, an avid and experienced skier (a member of Ski Patrol, as I recall) and fun to curl with those few weeks that I did. Which is why I was sad to hear that he passed away a couple of years ago.
To this day, Sheet A is my least favorite, and I won't sweep where he fell.
Thankfully, the curling club wanted to retain new curlers, so there was another special price to get me back for a 2nd draw.... and a 3rd, 4th and 5th. I took advantage of that offer. So did Lonne. I would have a curling partner who would be a great post to hide behind when I was too shy to actually talk to people. Little did I know that I wouldn't have that post for very long, and I'd have to actually get to know people.