Missoula curling

Sentinel High School sophomore Briawna Rauh seemed to like her introduction to the sport of curling as she and a few hundred of her classmates took to the ice at Glacier Ice Rink in 2013.

MICHAEL GALLACHER, Missoulian

If you are unfamiliar with hogged stones, hacks, heavies or biters, this weekend is your chance to learn the lingo.

Beginning Friday, the Missoula Curling Club will welcome 32 teams from the western U.S. and Canada for two curling tournaments – the largest curling event ever held in the Northern Rockies.

All 30 games – called “draws” in curling parlance – will be open to the public.

The inaugural MoPac Open and Big Sky Bonspiel will be held at the Glacier Ice Rink at the Missoula County Fairgrounds through Sunday afternoon, and will feature teams from Denver, Spokane, Lethbridge, Alberta, and cities across Montana.

Organizers are hailing the event as a mark of the continued growth of curling in Montana. It is a sport that was relatively obscure until just recently.

“Five years ago, curling in Missoula was a dream shared by a few people on Facebook,” said Barry Bollenbacher, president of the Missoula Curling Club. “Now, we are welcoming clubs from Alberta, British Columbia and the western U.S. to Missoula. We’re going to have some very good curlers in town.”

The MoPac is the regional curling association, and the Big Sky Bonspiel is for teams with less than five years of experience.

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The nonprofit Missoula Curling Club was formed in 2010 and held its first season in 2011. The club consists of 130 members, and 15 local teams will be competing this weekend.

“It’s a pretty big thing here in Missoula now,” Bollenbacher said. “We have three high school teams in our winter league, and we had 1,000 kids in P.E. curling classes. We’ve got good participation from the school system.”

Curling is a sport that originated in Scotland in the 15th or 16th century. Players slide 43-pound granite stones across the ice, curling the rocks into a 12-foot target consisting of four concentric circles, called a “house.”

The path of the stone can be influenced by sweepers with brooms who work furiously to alter the ice in front of it.

According to tournament organizer Lee Banville, the introduction of curling into the 1998 Winter Olympics sparked a huge growth in popularity of the sport, and there are now about 1.5 million players worldwide. This weekend is a chance for Missoula to get on the curling map.

“We think this event will help show how curling events can be a real draw to Missoula and the region,” Banville said. “That’s more than 150 people shopping in stores, drinking in breweries and eating in restaurants who would not have been here without this event.”

The increased popularity of the sport in Missoula has put added pressure on the limited amount of ice space available at the rink, which also must support figure skaters, hockey players and folks who just want to play around on the ice.

Organizers are hoping to build support for a dedicated curling facility in the next few years, which they say could be used to lure regional and national tournaments and expand both the youth and adult programs.

“We think the potential for curling in Missoula and Montana is huge,” Bollenbacher explained. “Our main limitation to continued growth here is the availability of ice time.”

The club has a couple of options, including developing something at the fairgrounds or building a dedicated rink next to the Missoula Osprey baseball field.

“We’re going to be meeting with the ice rink user groups to talk about this,” Bollenbacher said.

The festivities begin at 3:45 p.m. Friday at the indoor rink, and Mayor John Engen will deliver an introduction about 5:30 p.m. Friday's games will end at midnight.

Saturday's games begin at 7 a.m. There will be a banquet Saturday night, with the games ending at 8 p.m. and continuing Sunday.

The public is invited to watch the events. For more information, visit missoulacurlingclub.com.

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