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ST. CLOUD - Growing up in Hibbing, Minn., Nathan Lee was surrounded by curling.

His dad was in a league. World champion curlers played at the local club. And by the time he reached high school, Lee was hooked — throwing "stone after stone after stone" after school, he said.

Lee, 42, took a break from curling when he went to college and completed his medical residency out of state. So when he moved back to Minnesota about a dozen years ago, he looked forward to joining a local curling club — until he learned there wasn't one in the St. Cloud area.

Katie Hilger of Sartell successfully delivered the stone for her team at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud.
Katie Hilger of Sartell successfully delivered the stone for her team at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud.

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

"St. Cloud is a biggish city in the state. It's [one of the] largest metro areas," said Lee, an obstetrician-gynecologist who lives in Sartell. "How can't there be a curling club?"

Jessica Dahl asked the same question when she became Lee's neighbor in 2018. The 39-year-old mother of two didn't grow up curling, but she had tried it at a team-building event in Wisconsin and liked it.

Lee and Dahl said they considered joining a league after moving to the area, but the nearest clubs — in Willmar, Alexandria, Brainerd, Cambridge and Blaine — were all about an hour away. The commute was too big of a commitment for Lee, who works at St. Cloud Hospital, and Dahl, who was finishing her master's degree in business administration.

But last year's Winter Olympics brought curling to the fore again. While Lee was watching a curling competition, a neighbor asked him what it would take to start their own curling club. Around the same time, Lee learned Dahl was also thinking about starting a curling team, possibly using an outdoor ice rink in her backyard.

"Then it really took off," Lee said. "We thought, how do we actually go about doing this?"

The answer, they found, was getting a lot of help from the curling community.

Experts from local and state curling associations, as well as other curling clubs, helped Lee and Dahl find equipment — including 80 stones, as well as brooms and adaptive curling sticks for players with disabilities, including those for whom it's difficult to crouch down and throw the stone. They also learned how to pebble the ice, which involves spraying hot water on the rink to create texture and reduce friction between the ice and the stone.

Last summer, Lee and Dahl formed the nonprofit and volunteer-run North Star Curling Club. They then set about finding an ice rink, a daunting task in a community with youth, high school and collegiate hockey, as well as figure skating. Eventually, they secured a few hours of ice time on Sunday evenings at the practice rink at St. Cloud State University's Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.

"We're a little underbuilt on arenas for the area," Dahl said. "We feel very fortunate that we got any ice time at any of the arenas."

While finding ice time was a challenge, attracting participants was not. Nearly 300 people signed up with the club this year for learn-to-curl classes, and about 150 club members compete in the North Star Curling Club league each week.

The one-session learn-to-curl events cost $35; members of the 10-week competition league pay a fee — about $1,200 for a four-person team — that covers the cost of equipment, insurance and memberships with the Minnesota Curling Association.

The league plays through the end of April, but organizers hope to form summer and fall leagues next year and expand the winter league. The long-term plan, Dahl said, is to build a dedicated facility for curling.

"I would say this area could easily fill six to eight sheets of ice and have a restaurant or bar attached," she said. "We'd love to break ground by the Olympics in three years."

St. Cloud resident Steven Stewart, 40, grew up curling in Wisconsin and joined the North Star club to socialize with friends and share stories with his 74-year-old dad, who still plays league in Wisconsin.

"It helps get through winter faster," he said.

Sam LaBine, 27, of Sauk Rapids competes with his wife, Christina, and two other team members whom he met through the club.

"It gives you a sense of community. It's more than just the social aspect," he said. "We look forward to it every week."