On a wall overlooking the ice at the Grafton Curling Club is a
sign that reads the spirit of curling. It states eight
guidelines, the last of which is the most significant: "Winners
traditionally treat the losers." In North Dakota--where it's all
about affability and quaffability--winners also traditionally
treat themselves, their neighbors and anyone holding an empty. So
even though a trip to the nationals was at stake in the North
Dakota State Curling Championships, held in Grafton last January,
after every match, without fail, the competitors would march
upstairs to the bar and socialize over a few brews. "The
tradition of curling is camaraderie," says Dr. Don (Doc)
Barcome, a former president of the World Curling Federation who
pushed to get the sport into the Olympics. "That's maybe the
greatest thing in curling. You meet such a cross section of
people. You might have the president of a bank and a mailman
curling on the same damn team."
The bar in the curling club offers a bird's-eye view of the
action. Six large windows overlooking the ice give the place a
minor league luxury box feel. Directly beneath is Sweeper's, a
coffee shop that serves as the town's social hub, the place where
people come to socialize over a bowl of beer-cheese soup that's
so tasty it's well worth the angina it'll most likely give you.
They'll also watch a little curling, which one Sweeper's patron
calls "a cross between shuffleboard, bowling and New Year's Eve."
If curling is a party, then the life of that party in North
Dakota is Bob LaBonte, a 53-year-old stockbroker. In 1972
LaBonte, Ray Morgan and the Aasand brothers, Frank and John, won
the national championship representing Grafton, then came within
a bristle of pulling a huge upset at the worlds in Germany. After
LaBonte leaped in the air to celebrate an apparent 9-8 victory
over Canada in the finals, his feet came out from under him, and
as he fell, he grazed the Canadians' final stone. When it was
replaced and measured, it was found to be close enough to the
target to give the Canadians another point--despite the fact that
two Canadian players had already taken their gloves off to shake
hands and concede defeat. Canada then won in the first extra end,
or inning. "So we were world champs for seven seconds," LaBonte
says with a laugh. "At least I got to feel what it was like to
win." The pratfall gave birth to the so-called LaBonte curse; it
was 25 years before another North Dakota team made it to the
LaBonte, who moved to Minot 20 years ago, is far from bitter. For
the duration of the 2003 state championships, he held court a few
hundred yards from Grafton's curling club at John Aasand's bar,
the Extra End, spinning yarns for locals and visitors alike.
Imagine Bill Buckner showing up at a Red Sox game to buy fans
Fenway Franks and pints of Sam Adams. "If you came to Minot, we'd
show you a good time," says LaBonte. "But there's nothing like
playing in Grafton."
Grafton is a largely agrarian community of 4,500 about 40 miles
south of the Canadian border where everybody knows everybody and
curling is the favorite pastime. "The whole fam-damily can play,"
says Mary Jaster, whose team finished second in the women's
competition. (Indeed, the whole fam-damily often does. Jaster's
husband, Miles, played in the men's tournament, as did her
18-year-old son, Joe, who would have been the best young player
in the tournament were it not for 19-year-old Zach Jacobson. Zach
was joined on the men's championship-winning team by his father,
Joel, the Kakela brothers, Kevin and Carey, and the team's skip,
Craig Disher, whose brother Kurt was on the runner-up team.) So
if someone wasn't playing, chances are a family member or close
friend was, which accounted for the standing-room-only crowds
every night of the tournament.
It might not have been the seventh game of the World Series at
Yankee Stadium, but in a state with just 9.3 people per square
mile, and where the average temperature last January was 10.9°,
you tend to make your own fun. On Friday, the third day of the
tournament, much of the talk in Sweeper's centered on that
evening's homemade bologna cook-off at the Harvey Avenue Saloon,
owned by Chris Misialek in nearby Harvey. In addition to the
sausage fest, Misialek and his pals put on an antique Sno-cat run
for pre-1980 models every January and hold a Pinewood Derby in
March. Even Misialek's cocktails are infused with a spirit of
inventiveness--among other things. Competitors and judges in the
cook-off were plied with shots of vodka and pickle juice, a
concoction that tastes, if possible, even more disgusting than
you would expect it to. (When asked for the proper mix, the
bartender replied, "It really depends on how drunk you are.")
In between rounds of the bologna cook-off there was a competition
in which contestants had to choke down four Saltines without
drinking anything and then whistle. It was won, as it is every
year, by Mike Stoltman, who, according to the guy doing the
blow-by-blow coverage of the contest over the bar's P.A. system,
was working with an unfair advantage: an extra salivary gland. "I
don't know for sure," says Stoltman when pressed on the issue.
"But my orthodontist said he's never seen saliva like that."
The only time Misialek curls competitively is at the annual
outdoor tournament across the street from Tom's Lounge, a tavern
down the road in Forest River. The emphasis there is more on
staying warm than anything else, because it's held in February.
Video cameras are set up so that curlers can retire to the bar
and watch the proceedings over closed-circuit on three big-screen
TVs when they're not sliding rocks.
For such a recreational renaissance man, Misialek isn't a very
good curler, and that's not just for lack of practice. Curling
may look like an anybody-can-do-it sport, but it requires balance
and a deft touch and, most important, the ability to see several
moves ahead, as in chess. "Curling is weird. You can be the world
champion and go out there and lose to four guys in their 60s
wearing galoshes," says Doc Barcome's son Don. "It's happened to
me. You watch it, and it doesn't look that hard. But when you
throw a 42-pound rock 140 feet down the ice, there are so many
variables that come into play."
Indeed, Don Barcome's team was knocked off in the finals in
Grafton by the squad from Langdon skipped by Disher, the 1997
national champ. Despite all the experienced players on the ice,
in the final match no one was as clutch as Zach Jacobson, the
rare teen prodigy. When LaBonte and Barcome were younger, plenty
of kids curled, but now other sports--especially hockey, with its
time-eating travel teams--have diminished the numbers. "Junior
curlers in Langdon are rare," says Jacobson. "We're a big
basketball town, and there are quite a few hockey players. In
their free time they don't have anything to do with curling."
Which is a shame, because they'll never get to enjoy the scene
upstairs immediately after the championships, the winners and
losers sitting side by side, sharing beers and stories and having
a great time. And if you didn't know who was treating whom, you'd
never be able to tell them apart.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY ROCK STEADY Sliding a stone 140 feet to a bull's-eye may look easy, but it requires a deft touch, a chess master's ability to strategize...and warm shoes.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY CLEAN SWEEP Brooms come out of the closet at Grafton's curling club.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY ICE FOLLIES Grafton's version of a luxury box is the club's bar, which offers a sweeping view of the action below.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY [See caption above]
Curling is part sport, part party. One Grafton aficionado
describes the sport as "a cross between shuffleboard, bowling and
New Year's Eve."
For more about sports in North Dakota and the other 49 states, go
This is the 26th in SI's 50th anniversary series on the 50
states. Next week: Arizona