Even as much of the state of Maine was swept up Friday in the annual high school basketball frenzy, a small pocket of Belfast had its mind fixed firmly on a different sport entirely: curling.
This weekend marks the 60th anniversary of the Men’s Little International Bonspiel, and the Belfast Curling Club was full of avid curlers from New Brunswick, Quebec, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. They came for the competition, vying against each other to score points as they slid 42-pound granite stones to the other side of the ice sheet, with players vigorously sweeping the ice with brooms to keep the stones moving.
But they also came for the fun and camaraderie, which the four-day Belfast bonspiel offered in spades.
“The curling is the excuse to get together and have a good time,” said Jeff Dutch, organizer of the bonspiel and a lifetime board member of the Belfast Curling Club. “We do a Saturday night banquet. We’ll stop the matches, sit down and recognize all the new players. We initiate them by making them eat sardines, honest to God.”
Curling, which originated in Scotland in the 16th century, is one of the world’s oldest team sports. It was included in the first Winter Olympics in 1924 in Chamonix but was dropped from the roster. It surfaced four times in the Olympics as a demonstration sport before being added back as a medal sport in the 1998 games in Nagano, Japan.
But even if curling languished as an Olympic sport for much of the past century, it never really went out of style in Belfast after being brought here in the 1950s by Dr. Norman Cobb, who first practiced medicine in Calais and learned to curl in neighboring St. Stephen, New Brunswick. The Belfast Curling Club officially opened its doors 60 years ago this month, and Canadian curlers such as Jamie Kenney of St. Stephen said he’s glad the international ties remain strong.
“It’s fun,” he said. “Good times and good people.”
Last year, when the U.S. men’s team defeated Sweden to win America’s first gold medal in curling, it prompted a wave of interest in the sport, according to Dutch and other curlers at the bonspiel.
The Olympic bump was huge, said Derek Campbell, a Westbrook man who helped found the Pine Tree Curling Club in Portland several years ago. “We had to open up another whole league,” he said. “It was really exciting. Plus, when the Americans won the gold medal, that made it even better.”
Campbell got into curling when he and his wife were living in Seattle, Washington, and his wife drove by a curling club every day. They joined, and loved it, and when they moved to southern Maine, they did not want to give up curling.
“It’s a real social sport. You can make it as competitive as you want, but it’s real camaraderie,” he said, just before heading back out on the ice in his bespoke curling pants dotted with brightly colored sailboats. “Besides golf, this is a sport, I feel, that has the wackiest pants.”
Andrew Hatch of Sherbrooke, Quebec, bantered back and forth with Dutch and the other curlers while waiting to take his turn on the ice. It’s a four-hour drive to Belfast from his home, located not far from the Vermont border, but it’s well worth it to participate in the Little International Bonspiel.
“We found out about it about seven years ago, and fell in love with the club. It’s our second home,” he said. “It’s all kinds of fun. That’s why we keep coming.”