Every four years, like clockwork, the following two things happen: The Winter Olympics begin, and the phones at local curling clubs start ringing off the hook.
On the other end of the line, excited voices declare that they’ve just seen curling on television and really want to try the odd little sport with the brooms and the stones that slide across the ice.
In the past, this bit of Olympic buzz presented a quandary to curling advocates in New England. They welcomed the opportunity to expand the popularity of their sport, but they couldn’t capitalize on it; there simply weren’t enough venues to meet the demand. The quadrennial buzz inevitably died until the Olympics came again.
But this year, as the Winter Olympics begin, the situation is very different. Curling venues have popped up all over the region, part of an organized effort to take advantage of the Olympic rush.
“It’s all about bringing curling to people instead of making it a destination,” said Al Ayotte, who recently started the Blackstone Valley Curling Club in Hopedale, one of 11 New England clubs that have formed in recent years, including a brand new one in the North End of Boston. “We believe that if you build it, they will come.”
Until recently, curling in this part of the world was an exclusive sport, played at a handful of members-only clubs like Broomstones Curling Club in Wayland, the oldest in the state. That club, like all the members-only clubs, hold open houses and learn-to-curl events every four years during the Olympics. At Broomstones, 1,000 or more people typically come to give curling a try. But Broomstones has no available memberships and a long waiting list. The only other curling rinks are on Cape Cod and in Western Massachusetts. Another rink at The Country Club in Brookline is reserved mostly for club members.
So, a few dedicated souls hit on the idea of launching curling clubs at skating rinks. So-called arena curling wouldn’t have the perfectly groomed and pebbled ice of a dedicated curling facility, but ice rinks are plentiful in New England and anything but exclusive.
The first arena curling in the area got started at the Bridgewater Ice Arena in 2010 with the launch of the South Shore Curling Club. The latest, the North End Curling Club at Steriti Memorial Rink on the waterfront, got going this winter and has already grown to 28 regulars on Sunday nights. Paul Aronofsky, one of the founders, said he believes many more will start coming this week as the Olympics remind them of curling.
Much of the credit for this wave of arena curling goes to a 78-year-old Cape Cod man named Russ Lemcke who is known as the Johnny Appleseed of New England curling.
Lemcke curled when he was a child in Canada, where more people participate in curling than ice hockey. He took a long break from the sport but picked it up again when he moved to Falmouth 20 years ago and joined the Cape Cod Curling Club.
It was there that he remembered all the social things he loved about the sport — the friendly competition, the post-match beers with teammates and opponents (a ritual among curlers known as “broomstacking”), and the fact that it’s a sport you can play for a lifetime.
“Whenever we’d get people out on the ice to try it, they’d always say ‘That was fun. And it’s harder than it looks. And I want to do it again,’ ” Lemcke said. “Once you start, it’s hard to stop.”
Lemcke set out to help make it easier for arenas to offer curling, devising a kind of starter kit that arenas could borrow to help ease the considerable cost of setting up. The kit contains all the equipment needed for games, including several sets of stones (which can run $10,000 a set), as well as the tools to draw targets on the ice. Once an arena gets up and running, with members and its own equipment, it passes the kit on to a new one looking to get into the game.
It helped launch clubs in Hopedale, Marlborough, Nantucket, and Pittsfield, as well as Hartford, Portland, Maine, Cranston, R.I., and Ithaca, N.Y.
Already, there is big interest in the new clubs, as evidenced by the crowd this week on the ice at the New England Sports Center, where a former Broomstones curler named Peter Dalton founded the Marlborough Curling Club in 2016.
Regulars glided gently along the ice in specially-designed shoes, sweeping in front of the stones, guiding them into strategic positions — curling is often called “chess on ice” — while newcomers slipped around awkwardly on a side lane, with large rubber bands wrapped around their shoes for some semblance of traction. Everywhere was the sound of laughter and clanking stones.
Alli Butler of Auburn had come the previous week with her boyfriend for a “learn to curl” event, and they were now back again to try their hand at an actual game.
“I don’t know how they do it so beautifully in the Olympics,” she said as she laughed and slid awkwardly down the ice, using her broom for balance as much as anything. “But it’s totally fun and everyone is A-OK with you not being any good at it.”Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.