By Tony Bennett
Superior Curling Club is eager to introduce more people to the ancient sport
Sure, the gold medals brought home by Duluth’s Team Shuster in 2018 had an effect on the visibility of the sport of curling in the region, but the truth is, even with that high-profile victory before the eyes of the world, curling has always had a place in the Twin Ports.
Duluth Curling Club may be the home base of the Olympic-champion team, but just across the bridges in Wisconsin, there’s another curling scene – one that has been around for more than a century. Since 1893, in fact.
While things started small way back then on an outdoor rink, it wasn’t long before funds were raised to build a dedicated facility, and then another. The decades ticked by, and one of the two Superior clubs closed due to World War II. By the time the 1980s rolled around, the remaining Oakes/Belknap location picked up stakes and moved to the Head of the Lakes Fairgrounds, where it remains to this day.
It may seem curious that a sport that people of all ages can play – one that requires people to sweep with little brooms to stop a big old rock from sliding around too fast – has had such a long lifespan in the Northland, but for those who play it, it’s the most logical thing in the world.
“It’s a lifelong sport that is just a great thing for people to get out and try. If people haven’t tried it, they should.”
– Mike O’Brien, President – Superior Curling Club
For those who have been hypnotized by the sport – whether that be 50 years ago or three years ago – curling is an utterly unique experience, one that brings together socializing, camaraderie and skill in a way that perhaps no other sport other than, say, bowling or cornhole can even hope to match up to. The cult of curling in Superior is alive and well.
Dave Podratz is a member of the Superior Curling Club and has been for the last 30-some years. He’s been curling since the mid-’70s, and he’s got a lot of personal experience with the sport and the club.
“I’m probably one of the few guys who remembers the old curling club,” Podratz said. “I came up with my high-school curling team in 1975 or so. It was the first time I curled in Superior.”
In Wausau, where Podratz grew up, curling was actually a varsity sport. “We had sectionals in the state tournament and the whole thing,” he said. “I got started in high school, and, when I went away to college at Madison, I played at the Madison Curling Club. Then I went to my first job outside Chicago and I curled there.”
For Podratz, curling has been a part of his life since he was young, and it still is today, all those decades later. For many, sports get left in the past as people age – one can only play football or baseball or hockey at a competitive level up through college, in most cases. Curling, though, is friendly to people for much longer.
“It’s a lifetime sport,” Podratz said. “You can play forever. I turned 65 last month, but two years ago, I played in the national championships. We came out of Wisconsin and made it to the nationals – me and a bunch of youngsters.”
Podratz has also recently served on the Superior Curling Club board as both President and Treasurer, so he’s got a good handle on the history of the place. He remembers what transpired when it moved to its current location back in the ‘80s.
“My goal has been to get more people introduced to the game.”
– Doug Runnoe, Vice President – Superior Curling Club
“It was a big, drafty old club, I recall,” he said. “I’ve heard tell that the city and/or the county were interested in having that site developed with Super One and that little mall, there. And so they worked out a deal where they helped fund the new club at the fairground. We have a 99-year lease. We got a new club and the city and county got some tax revenue with the retail, there.”
Podratz points out something that likely isn’t that well-known – the fact that, while Duluth is of course home to a gold-medal curling team, the Superior club is no slouch, either.
“You have to call the Superior Curling Club the most successful curling club in America and maybe even the world,” he said. “Teams from Superior have won three world championships. The United States has won four [total]. Superior teams won in 1965, 1974 and 1978.”
One has to wonder: if the sport was hockey or baseball or football, would this fact be better-known?
And, before the Shuster team won gold in 2018, “a team from Superior won the Olympic bronze medal in 1992,” Podratz noted.
There’s a legacy of success, then, that is in the background at the Superior Curling Club. It’s something that everyone who walks in might pick up on.
“The names of all the champions are up on the wall of the club,” Podratz said. “We’re very proud of that. We also have two curlers from Superior who are in the World Curling Federation Hall of Fame. There are two American curlers in the Hall of Fame, and they are both from Superior.”
The second and most-recent inductee, the late Bill Strong, has a son who Podratz curls against to this day in the club’s Wednesday league. And Strong’s grandkids were flown to Canada for their grandfather’s induction ceremony.
“There are two American curlers in the World Curling Federation Hall of Fame, and they are both from Superior.”
– Dave Podratz, Superior Curling Club member
This is the sort of thing that one starts to understand when they spend any time learning about the local curling community – it’s just that: a community. These are people who know who came before them, who they currently are comprised of, and where things need to go in the future. It’s a group of passionate people who know what a good thing they have, and they want to make sure it’s around for future generations to enjoy.
“In the last couple of years,” Podratz said, “we’ve added some new leagues. We’re just looking to find more things to do for people. We have leagues on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday that are open. We have a mixed league for teams of two men and two women on Thursday nights. A couple of years ago, we started a Sunday league for new curlers where we offer instruction and then they get to go out and play a game. We have a junior program that is really growing that meets earlier on Sunday afternoons. Just last year, we started a Thursday-morning league for folks like me that are retired and can’t get enough of the regular curling. We recently started a two-on-two league.”
“There’s just all kinds of opportunities for people that want to curl,” Podratz said. “We’ll be hosting open houses and learn-to-curl events and offering things like that. There’s just some great opportunities. It’s a fun sport to play.”
The Superior Curling Club may be a club, but it’s an easy one to join. It’s not a country club where anyone needs to worry about their shirts not being crisp enough or their shoes not shiny enough. This is salt-of-the-earth stuff.
“We have beverages after the game, but it’s self-serve,” Podratz said. “You go up to the cooler, take what you want, and put your money in the box. If the team wants something to eat afterwards, we’ve got a kitchen. They’ll bring their own pizzas and put their pizzas in the oven. It’s very relaxed, very casual.”
That seems to be key for most of the people who frequent the Superior Curling Club. It’s a place where folks can let their hair down, mingle, chat about life and play a game that can be as relaxed or focused as one wants it to be.
Doug Runnoe has frequented the club for about 20 years. In his case, he had a grand total of zero hours of experience when he began. “My first day of league was my first time on the ice,” he said. “I was kind of thrown into the deep end. I had a friend who curled, and I would go down to the club and kind of watch.”
His frequent presence was noted by the regulars, and, before long, he was invited to become a player, too. After a while, he got involved in open houses and in teaching adults and juniors to curl. Today, he’s Vice President, and a great example of just how welcoming the Superior Curling Club is.
“Winter is a time where it’s dark early, and I’ve found it to be a really nice social activity to get through winter.”
– Charlie Johnson, Superior Curling Club member
“My goal has been to get more people introduced to the game,” Runnoe said. “It’s a very social club. It’s very volunteer-driven – the volunteers are what makes the club and gives the energy to the club. Everybody is usually very willing to give you pointers or help you out and improve your game. I don’t know that you would necessarily see that in all clubs. Some are very, very competitive – not that we don’t have competitive players in our club – but even on the competitive side, if they see something that will help you improve, they’re going to give you tips. That’s how we grow as a league.”
The warm, welcoming environment helps, too. “Our Thursday league is our most social league,” Runnoe said. “It’s more of a dinner league where one of the teams is doing a potluck and feeding everybody.” Cold ice and a warm meal – now that’s winter in the Twin Ports.
As an instruction, Runnoe is interested in keeping the club a welcoming place. “Anybody that wants instruction can come down,” he said. “I have a six-week learn-to-curl program. We’ll fit you in when you can play. It goes from how you deliver a rock, [to] how you sweep, to what the sweeping is for, to the strategy of the game.”
Meg Thoreson has curled at the club since the fall of 2008. She comes from a big curling family. “My grandfather emigrated from Scotland, and is one of the charter members of the St. Paul Curling Club, so I’m a fourth-generation curler in this country,” she said. “My mother was curling competitively when she was pregnant with me.”
Thoreson says she loves league play, but for her curling is a reason to gather with friends.
“I am very much a social curler,” she noted, “and not very much of a competitive curler. I enjoy talking to other people, playing with them and enjoying camaraderie at the club. That’s always been a great outlet. And it gives my husband and I an opportunity to curl together – we’ve curled mixed together for the last 15 years.”
“Curlers are generous people,” Thoreson said. “What’s interesting is, you openly talk strategy on the ice, and your opponents can hear you’re talking strategy, or you may even talk with them. There’s a lot of curlers that are really helpful showing new curlers how to make a shot. I think curlers generally want to see people succeed in the game. We all want it to be a good game and we want our opponents and friends to get better.”
Thoreson said that the club ranks have swelled since she’s been involved: “In the 15 years we’ve been members in Superior, we’ve definitely seen the club grow, membership-wise. I think the club continues to attract new people to the sport who maybe just knew it peripherally. It’s really rare that someone joins and doesn’t bring a friend or two along with them on that journey. They just want to show it to their friends. Anytime you can add one member, that member brings one or two more. It’s continuing to keep the club vibrant.”
“My grandfather emigrated from Scotland, and is one of the charter members of the St. Paul Curling Club, so I’m a fourth- generation curler in this country.”
– Meg Thoreson, Superior Curling Club member
Current club President Mike O’Brien has been involved since 1997. He said that, for him, the club is “like family” and that there are a lot of “good, core folks” that are heavily involved in its successful operation, even though they may not be on the board.
He talks about the it-takes-a-village efforts of the members to construct the ice sheet every year and of the organization it takes to set up bonspiels. One of his favorite aspects of the club is how welcoming it is for families.
“Curling is a great family activity,” O’Brien said. “I’ve seen curlers as young as eight, and we have members of our club that are in their 80s. It’s a lifelong sport that is just a great thing for people to get out and try. If people haven’t tried it, they should.”
Newer curler Charlie Johnson concurs. “This will be my third season,” he said, adding that he “just kind of fell in love with” the sport. He was initially asked to sub in by some friends, and that was it. “I subbed one time, and then I literally proceeded to play every single Wednesday with them for the rest of the season. Winter is a time where it’s dark early, and I’ve found it to be a really nice social activity to get through winter. I golf and hunt and fish in spring, summer and fall, but having something to do in the dead of winter is really nice.”
At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about – spending time with friends and making life a little better because of it. At the Superior Curling Club, that’s what people are looking to do – spice up their lives with a bit of competition, a bit of hearty food, a few smiles. It’s simple stuff, but it’s not always easy to find. It’s no surprise, then, that those who have found it in Superior want to keep it healthy for the coming generations, so that a century from now, people will still enjoy the pleasure of throwing the rock with a few friends. P.S.
Tony Bennett is a Duluth-based freelance writer.