The mysterious white art 

State's first curling club comes roaring down the ice

Shouts echo across the Stumptown Ice Den in Whitefish, followed by the low groan of gliding granite. Few of the 18 people here have ever curled before. Maybe they saw the sport televised in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Maybe they're just bored on a Sunday afternoon.

click to enlarge Jim Thompson tosses a curling stone down the Whitefish ice arena during the Whitefish Curling Club’s learn-to-curl workshop Oct. 11. The club, founded in July by John Hoepfer, already fields four teams and roughly 20 members. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • Photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • Jim Thompson tosses a curling stone down the Whitefish ice arena during the Whitefish Curling Club’s learn-to-curl workshop Oct. 11. The club, founded in July by John Hoepfer, already fields four teams and roughly 20 members.

Instructors run through game lingo during the Whitefish Curling Club's learn-to-curl workshop. Two "skips" —curling's take on the quarterback position—point out shots to newbies positioned in the "hack," a C-shaped plastic foothold. As 40-pound granite stones roar down the rink, beginners with fiberglass "brooms" guide the speed and direction of tosses by frantically sweeping the ice.

Until this fall, Montana remained the only state bordering Canada without an established curling club. Several communities have made the attempt, with Gallatin County struggling to form a club last winter, but Whitefish is well on its way to being the state's first success story.

That's predominantly the work of club president John Hoepfer, 60, a 25-year Colorado resident who moved to Whitefish in June. During the clinic, he wanders around the arena with his red cap turned backwards, offering pointers and inspecting makeshift "houses"—target-shaped goals—he painted earlier.

"Curling comes off the ice, and you can't get people out of the rink," Hoepfer says later. "They're playing, they're visiting, they're socializing. I love to see that."

Hoepfer first took to curling when he headed a learn-to-curl workshop at the Aspen Ice Garden in late 2006. The event drew 400 people in two days and led to the formation of an 80-player league. Twenty teams with the Aspen Curling Club now play two nights a week in winter, with weekends reserved for practices and public curling events.

"I'd watched it on the Olympics and thought it looked like a blast," Hoepfer says. But he can't quite put a finger on what drew him to the sport. "I've heard people call it the 'mysterious white art,' and I totally agree."

Curling was pioneered on frozen ponds in Scotland in the 1500s and most closely resembles shuffleboard. Enthusiasts refer to it as "chess on ice," as the placement of stones in the house requires intense strategy. It's often the butt of jokes, and even fueled the 2002 Canadian comedy Men with Brooms starring Leslie Nielsen.

Aware of Hoepfer's experience with the Aspen club, Whitefish Parks and Recreation Facility Manager Andy Hergesheimer approached Hoepfer in July about a similar grassroots effort for Whitefish. The two recognized a long-standing demand for curling in the community, and Hergesheimer immediately offered late-night ice time on Saturdays.

"It's always been in the back of my mind to start curling," says Hergesheimer, who has managed the ice rink for seven years. "We have a Canadian influence up here, since we're close to the border, and there are people around here who have curled in the past."

Whitefish Parks and Rec covered the $1,200 for brooms, hacks and other equipment using funds from the rink budget. Hoepfer arranged to bring in two instructors–Merwyn Nash from McCall, Idaho, and Roger Smith from Bismarck, N.D.–for last weekend's two-day workshop. More than 50 people attended, and the club now has four teams.

"We pulled this together in very little time," Hoepfer says. "We couldn't have done it without the city of Whitefish Parks and Rec. That's where most arena clubs have trouble. Public rinks have lots of demand for hockey and public skating time...They wonder, 'Is [curling] a moneymaker for us?' That's where we can help out, by showing them, 'Yes.'"

Hoepfer's biggest concern is fundraising for curling stones. One set of 16 stones costs around $7,000, and Whitefish will eventually need two. The North Dakota Curling Association loaned Hoepfer two sets this fall, but the favor expires in January.

"Our goal is to start fundraising right away so we can have one set of stones," Hoepfer says. "Then we'll start fundraising for the second set. We need the stones cause we have the interest."

Hoepfer says local businesses and individuals have already donated funding to sponsor 10 stones. The club sees that as a public vote of confidence in curling's potential.

"Once rink operators in cities see how much fun the folks are having curling and, frankly, how much money they can bring in with people having fun, I think other cities are going to follow," says Will Hagin, a Whitefish attorney who joined the club in August. "Hopefully we can be successful enough to help other folks start similar programs in other cities in Montana."

The workshop wraps up five minutes after the club's four-hour timeslot expires, and no one wants to leave. Some hunt for the club roster, dropping $20 on a year membership. Others plan to attend the first practice on Saturday, hoping to try again before joining.

"Once I figure out the schedule for the next practice, you bet I'll be back," says first-timer Jim Thompson.

Hoepfer pulls a bottle of Aleve from his vest pocket. Even a sport as addictive as curling comes with sacrifices, he jokes. Despite the aches, he's got grand plans for curling in Montana. Three years from now? Youth curling, statewide leagues, a more rigorous schedule for practices and public exposure. Just like in Aspen.

"'Cause it's about time," he says. "If we can head the charge, we're happy to."

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