It's probably safe to say that almost no one in Bridgeport, and maybe all of Connecticut, has ever heard of Willmar, Minn. The city's only claim to fame was in 1930 when Machine Gun Kelly robbed the local bank there of $70,000.
But head over to the Nutmeg Curling Club on Glenwood Avenue in Bridgeport and you'll find plenty of people who will be focused on that city of 19,000 in western Minnesota. Two Bridgeport club members, Charissa Lin and her husband, Derek Surka, of New Haven, will be representing Nutmeg at the 2013 Mixed Nationals competition set for March 16-24 in Willmar.
"I picked up curling in high school," Surka said, adding that he gave it up for a time in college. He met Lin while they both were in graduate school at MIT in Boston.
They began playing in earnest while they were living in Washington, D.C., at the Potomac Curling Club and they joined Nutmeg after moving to Connecticut.
In February, they won the Grand National Curling Club championships in the mixed (two men and two women) division with two other players, Nate Clark of Nashua, N.H., and Rebecca Andrew of Rochester, N.Y. This means they will be traveling to Willmar in two weeks for the national championships.
"You can get into at any age, and you don't have to be in great physical shape to have fun at it," Surka said. "It'll never be another soccer, but I could see the 15,000 curlers in the U.S. that we have now growing to 25,000 in a few years."
Lin said that in spite of their success this year, they should have been spending more time on the ice.
"This year, we've only been coming out once or twice a week," Lin said. "But, we'll be here a lot more in the next two weeks to get ready for the championships."
She said that skills involved are much like those for billiards.
"You're always thinking, 'Where do I put this stone to have it make the most points.' "
Competition aside, most members play for the fun of it, curlers say.
"Must of us are out there having a good time," said Sharon Giese, club president.
In addition to the three sheets in a huge refrigerated space, there's a comfortable, heated club room where members can see the games while enjoying snacks and drinks. On the far wall is an out-sized flat-screen TV on which the Curling Channel is on constantly.
"It's from Canada," Giese said, stating the obvious.
Like golf or baseball, curling has its own vocabulary. Some are obvious. Those brooms they use are called brooms and the round, plastic-handled granite stones are called stones.
The rink-like playing court is called a sheet, and the Nutmeg club, which was founded in Norwalk in 1960, has three sheets. Some clubs in the upper Midwest have as many as six or even eight. There are four players on a team, and the team captain is called a "skip."
The game bears a passing similarity to bocci, shuffleboard or even horseshoes. The object of the game is to slide or "throw" as many of your team's 42-pound rocks closer to the "button" or target than the nearest of your opponent's stones.
The three concentric rings are called the "house."
Game strategy requires that the first to throw their stones to block those of the opposition.
The broom, or brush is used to slightly melt the ice ahead of the stone; this makes it travel a little farther. It's the skip who can be heard shouting at the team to sweep vigorously or less so. A good broom or brush -- they come with graphite and carbon fiber shafts now -- cost about $200 or more.
The thrower usually gives the stone a slight twisting motion; this makes the stone "hook" or "curl" as it slows to a halt, giving the sport its name.
The last stone thrown is called the "hammer." Unlike bowling balls, the stones stay with the club. At 42 pounds, they're too heavy to take home with you.
Players wear special footwear. On the right foot is the rubber-soled "gripper" and on left is the "slider," with its hard plastic sole.
Although many matches are played on what curlers disdainfully call "hockey ice," serious play takes place in dedicated facilities like Nutmeg's, where conditions can be precisely controlled. The ice, for example, is "pebbled" by a spray of water to give it the proper texture. And the place is kept at a constant 39 degrees Fahrenheit.
Canada has been the traditional powerhouse in international curling. The men won Olympic gold in 2006 and 2010, although Canadian women haven't tasted gold since 1998 -- something an embarrassment for the Maple Leafs, Surka said. Other top curling nations are Sweden, Great Britain, Switzerland and Norway.
The Olympics has given the sport, and the Nutmeg club, many more participants. "We got a lot of interest after the 2010 Olympics," said Sharon Giese, club president. "Membership in curling clubs increased 25 percent nationwide after the 2010. People saw it on TV, and said: 'This is interesting. I don't know what they're doing, but it's interesting.' "
Now the club has 140 members, she said, and another surge is expected after the Sochi games next year.
It's a genteel game, with opposing teams frequently complementing one another. A lower-level match is even called a "friendly." And the winning team buys the losing team the first round at the bar, always a fixture in any respectable curling club.
"I've been curling for about 20 years, and I started when the club was at the Country Club of Darien," said Jennifer Stannard of Stamford. "A friend on mine -- he was Canadian -- invited me to an open house, and I was hooked. It's a sport that's very easy to do at a beginner level, and it's lots of fun "
As with most recreational sports, she notes that it's much more difficult to master, but she's spent that last two decades doing just that. Two weeks ago, she was on a foursome that went on to fourth place at the Bay State Women's Bonspiel in Falmouth.
She's also past president of Nutmeg, which has had their home ice at the city's Glenwood Park since October 2006 in a building adjacent to the Wonderland of Ice.
Nutmeg was founded in 1960 at the old Crystal Rink in Norwalk. The club operated at the Country Club of Darien from 1963 to 1998. Between 1998 and 2006, members wandered like the ancient Israelites, playing at other clubs, until the Wonderland facility was readied.