By Kody Acevedo
There are certain things in this world that naturally go to together: peanut butter and jelly, ketchup and fries, a pillow and a blanket, even maroon and gold.
Okay, maybe the last one is a little biased. But there’s something growing in the Valley that’s quietly making its mark in the Arizona desert: Curling.
Yes, that’s right—the Winter Olympic sport that a majority of folks watch when they can’t sleep late at night. Fact is, though, ice sports are slowly growing in Arizona popularity. It’s not the combination you’d expect: desert and ice, that is.
But after all, they say opposites do attract. Hockey, of course, has become part of the new mainstream, with the Arizona Coyotes and now the Arizona State men’s ice hockey team, but curling hasn’t caught on yet in the national spotlight.
If you talk to the folks at Coyotes Curling Club in Tempe, however, it’s a simple question: Why not?
“I’ve seen more hockey rinks go up and more kids talking about playing hockey, and so now with our curling, I definitely think ice sports are picking up here,” said Karen Tait, former president and now a co-chair on the Organizing Committee of the Coyotes Curling Club.
Tait was essential in bringing the club into existence in 2003. The original club operated at the Ice Den in Scottsdale. Curlers were given only a couple of hours of ice time every Saturday.
Back then, there was almost no interest in curling in Arizona. After the 2002 Olympics, however, the popularity began to rise, Tait said.
“So we put out the word to as many as we could and 160 people showed up the first day so we knew there was real potential,” he said.
The club, not affiliated with the Arizona Coyotes, operated in Scottsdale until 2014 when the owners purchased their current building in Tempe.
They took an old tennis-ball warehouse and converted it into what it is today: A curling-only facility that operates seven days a week.
“A lot of money had to be raised. Then we searched and searched for the right place and building. Once we found this one, we converted all of this ourselves,” Tait said.
The renovation included a state-of-the-art curling ice rink, team locker rooms, a pro shop and, of course, a bar for its members.
“So, it’s really grown in two years since we’ve moved here. We have our own ice. We can curl day and nights and weekends,” Tait said.
The popularity has grown so much that the club was awarded to host the 2016 USA Curling Mixed National Championship.
The weeklong tournament consists of 10 teams from different regions of the United States, including Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan and Alaska to name a few. The winner will go on to represent the US at the World Curling Championship in Kazan, Russia.
Carol Ann Naso is a member of team Arizona. She started curling in a small town in British Columbia in 1974. She moved to Arizona in 1984.
Following the 2002 Olympics, she happened to come across a learn-to-curl ad at the Ice Den in Scottsdale. She’s been a part of Coyotes Curling ever sense.
“Here we are two years into [our new building] and holding national events,” Naso said. “It’s fantastic. It’s really grown.”
Much of the Coyote Curling Club’s success is credited to snowbirds who visit during the winter time, something that Naso echoed.
“We are very blessed in this area because we have a lot of winter visitors who know curling. So they come and join us and our membership boosts when they are here from about October to April,” Naso said.
With the added tourism comes a flurry of added curling talent, which helps the local Arizona team improve their game.
“Our level of play has increased. We’ve gotten better from those people who play all the time and then come here and play with us,” Naso said.
It seems almost a win-win for all the parties involved. Arizona sees better competition and the visitors enjoy the warmer temperatures, something Stephanie Senneker from team Michigan agreed with.
“It’s a little weird to come here and curl, but in a good way,” Senneker said. “It’s nice to walk outside and have it be 80 degrees and sunny, but it’s a little odd. I didn’t have to pack any winter clothes which was weird.”
It’s a trend that’s not only taking place in Arizona, but in Florida as well. Jacksonville hosted the Men’s and Women’s Championship earlier this year.
“There is definitely growing popularity in the southern states,” Senneker said.
“There are clubs popping up that play on hockey ice just to get out there and curl, but you get a big push every four years after the Olympics.”
That’s certainly something the Coyotes Curling Club will look forward to in 2018. More importantly, they have the facility to welcome new members on a constant basis, something their club lacked for so long in Scottsdale.
“Back then, we had a core, but we couldn’t really get any bigger. We could teach, but we couldn’t play,” Tait said.
For Tait and the Coyotes, it’s just about come full circle. From their two hours a week in a shared facility, to hosting a national championship event with all eyes in the curling industry on them.
The USA Curling Mixed National Championship ran through April 9, with events happening daily.
“It’s amazing and it’s a little bit surreal for me. We really took a flying leap and hoped that we could make it work and it’s thriving,” Naso said.