Locals of all ages flock to Ferndale for unique Olympic offering

By: Timothy Pontzer | C&G Newspapers | Published February 22, 2018

 John Lundgren, of Grand Forks, North Dakota, begins a shot during USA Curling’s 2018 Junior National Championships Jan. 29 at the Detroit Curling Club in Ferndale. Founded in 1885, the Detroit Curling Club is the oldest athletic club in the state.

John Lundgren, of Grand Forks, North Dakota, begins a shot during USA Curling’s 2018 Junior National Championships Jan. 29 at the Detroit Curling Club in Ferndale. Founded in 1885, the Detroit Curling Club is the oldest athletic club in the state.

Photo by Donna Dalziel

FERNDALE — Tucked away in a neighborhood one mile off Woodward Avenue sits one of the area’s oldest sporting institutions.

Founded in 1885, the Detroit Curling Club is housed in a humble building next to a public park. One of the first of its kind in the country and the oldest athletic club in the state, the group boasts four curling sheets and over 300 members.

On an unseasonably warm Tuesday afternoon in February, stepping inside the rink brings the proper frigid air of the season. Competitors bundle up with jackets and the proper pants and shoes for the sport, armed with specialized carbon fiber-handled brooms.

Participants carefully slide 44-pound stones down the surface, hoping to block, knock and score in a game that traces its roots back to Scotland in the 16th century. The first members of this particular club played on the frozen surface of the Detroit River, with its current roster opting for the Ferndale facility built in 2002. Previous stops for the group included a building in downtown Detroit and another sheet of ice in Bloomfield Hills.

“What I like most about us is our history,” said Josh Lopez, a member of the club’s board of directors. “We date back to 1885, and we’re the only club in the United States that can play in the Ontario Curling Association. The sport itself stresses competitiveness and strategy. But it’s a gentleman’s game, and you must always shake hands before and after.”

In the club’s lobby, members share a pizza before the annual Tuesday night men’s league matches. A television in the corner is tuned to Olympics coverage, showing a replay of a Feb. 20 match that saw the United States upset Canada in “extra ends” — the sport’s version of overtime.

Despite knowing the outcome, many intently watch the match and discuss the happenings. The victory marked the first time the Americans had topped their neighbors to the north on the Olympic stage. The sport is hugely popular in Canada — a country that has captured the men’s curling gold medal in the last three Olympics — and the proximity to Michigan has inspired many of Detroit Curling’s current members.

“Since we get the CBC on television, I had seen it and was always interested,” said Ben Levy, an Ypsilanti resident who travels to Ferndale three times a week to play. “I was looking for something new to try, and I found the club here. I signed up for the ‘Learn to Curl’ program in 2004 and was hooked and got a membership. Most people around Michigan know a little bit and will ask if I sweep or throw the rock. I didn’t know anything at first, but it’s pretty easy to get started and have fun. Pretty quickly you realize there’s another level to it if you want.”

Chad Roberts was in the same boat and admitted that every four years, he gets an onslaught of questions related to his hobby.

“I grew up in Harbor Beach and we got the CBC,” said Roberts, who is a Flushing native. “My dad would put curling on whenever he wanted to take a nap, and I was mesmerized. After college, I was surfing the web and found this club. Every four years, people ask me about curling because of the Olympics. I get a bunch of bizarre questions, and then people leave me alone for three years and 50 weeks. I don’t mind; I enjoy teaching people about it.”

Lopez, Levy and Roberts are teammates in the Tuesday men’s league. Additionally, they won a regional competition in Kalamazoo, earning a berth in USA Curling’s Club National Championships in Brainerd, Minnesota, Feb. 18. There, they represented the Detroit Curling Club, placing seventh.

“People may think it’s easy to just slide a rock down the ice, but there’s a lot to it,” Lopez explained. “To get to the highest levels, you have to actually be in pretty good shape.”

The Tuesday night affairs encourage a good time for all, drawing members from all over the area. Detroit native Nathan Glitman has been a member for four years and said the environment is the best part about the club.

“Like everyone else, I saw this on the CBC and was curious about it,” said Glitman. “The camaraderie is the best (part) about it. The sport is so dependent on everyone working together, but at the same time, your individual skills are pertinent to doing well. In any other Olympic sport, you wouldn’t see guys in their 40s, but there’s a lot of wisdom that comes with it. Everyone is very helpful, and they want to see you succeed.”

A wide range of ages is seen, as longtime member Dave Hesse can attest. An 81-year-old Clawson resident, Hesse has been curling since 1962.

“I love everything about it. It’s a great team sport,” Hesse said in between his duties as a sweeper. “It keeps the heart going. I’ve got two artificial knees, a pacemaker and hearing aids, but this keeps them all working.”

In the morning, Hesse faced off with one of the club’s youngest members. Ryan Balcom is a 16-year-old sophomore at Madison Heights Lamphere, and due to winter break he decided to get an early match in with Hesse.

“This is a unique sport that’s really fun to do in the winter,” said Balcom after purchasing a brand-new $120 broom in the club’s shop. “Most kids don’t know what curling is, but I love it. The people here are really nice and have helped me a lot. I don’t feel intimidated being one of the youngest guys.”

Many members consider the disparity in age to be one of the best parts about the sport.

“What’s really cool about curling is the fact that anybody can do it,” said Livonia resident Mike Clapsadle. “We have teenagers in here all the way up to seniors. We can all compete at the same thing, and that’s definitely something we couldn’t do in baseball or football. But we’re on a level playing field here.”

One of Hesse’s teammates is another longtime member. Now 61, Chuck Thomas said he started curling at 14 with his father and two brothers. A member of the Royal Oak Fire Department for over three decades, the now-retired fire chief sports a pair of black pants that feature a pattern of flying pigs to every match.

“Everything about this is just fun,” Thomas said after delivering a throw down the ice. “My dad got me into this, and I’ve enjoyed it my whole life. Next week my team is going to Wisconsin, and there are people there that I’ve been curling with since I was a junior. That’s what is cool about this sport: the people that are in it.”

Michael Yanska agreed. Part of the club for a dozen years, Yanska enjoys the 15 percent discount on membership given to Ferndale residents.

“I happened to find on Google that Detroit had a curling club. I like the people here more than anything else,” Yanksa explained amidst a match against Lopez, Levy and Roberts. “The curling is fun, but if not for all the friends and memories I’ve made here, I probably wouldn’t do it.”

While competing, Roberts and Yanska exchange friendly banter and jokes, a hallmark of the sport. A sign by the rink’s door explicitly commands each contest’s winner to buy a round for the loser.

“The game itself imposes a gentlemanly culture,” Roberts explained. “In the rules of curling, the first part is about the spirit of the game before anything is listed about how you must throw or sweep. You call fouls on yourself and would never think of trying to cheat. The rule everyone remembers is if you win, buying the first round is mandatory!”
The club welcomes new members, offering men’s, women’s and mixed leagues throughout the week. The ice sheet itself is available for rent on Saturday nights. Coinciding with the popularity of the Olympics, two Learn to Curl events will be offered 6-8 p.m. March 10 and 1-3 p.m. March 30. The cost is $30 per person.

The Detroit Curling Club is located at 1615 E. Lewiston Ave. in Ferndale.

For more information on the club, visit detroitcurlingclub.com.