DRAYTON, N.D. - Tom Grzadzieleski is a fighter who's not afraid to twist an arm or throw a few 42-pound rocks to get his point across.
The longtime curler and president of the Drayton Curling Club says with a wry smile: "Sometimes people just need a little abrasive encouragement. We already know 90 percent of the people who come in these doors and try it are going to be hooked. They never say, 'No, I'm never going to do that again.'"
All a newcomer needs is a little extra nudge before that instinct for slippery strategy takes over, and soon they're craving the competition and camaraderie of what's come to be known as "chess on ice."
Grzadzieleski and cousin Andy Grzadzieleski knew it first would take some hard work, but they were all in when given the chance to help bring North Dakota's oldest curling club back from the edge of extinction.
"We're Goose and Maverick," Tom said with a laugh, referring to the fighter pilot characters in the 1986 blockbuster "Top Gun."
"Andy and I are the icemen, and Tom (Halcrow) just fixes everything we break," he said.
The three board members sat down last week to talk about their love for the sport with the strange language all its own - hog lines and hacks, buttons and bonspiels - and their dogged determination to see their small-town club thrive again.
Weather the storm
"Some curling clubs in the recent past have been on the way out, but if you can't find a way to weather the storm, chances are you'll never come back," Andy said. "That's why we're pushing so hard, so when our kids grow up, they have someplace to curl. If we lose this, it's gone, and our kids will miss a great opportunity."
Drayton's original Dacotah Curling Club was established in 1900, and its earliest members played outdoors until the current Quonset clubhouse was built in the 1950s.
For years, it was a popular hot spot for winter activity in Drayton, and Tom said when he left for college in the late 1990s the club was still 100-plus members strong with at least two dozen men's and women's teams.
But somehow before returning to farm in 2012, he said, the club's popularity waned. The women were gone, and the men's teams had dwindled to about seven. Likewise, sponsorships stalled, and any sign of capital investment vanished.
"The reason we lost everyone was probably because the ice got pretty rough," Tom said.
He blamed the arena's compressor and cooling system, which Andy joked had come "over on the Mayflower."
It was so old that Acme Electric couldn't guess its horsepower, let alone its age, and that's when the cousins recruited Halcrow to take a look. The brand-new curler turned out to be a motor mechanics whiz who refurbished the compressor from pistons to sleeves.
Meantime, the Grzadzieleskis took their first crack at making faster ice last year, and that meant hauling giant water tanks from eight miles away.
"The water has to be treated, or deionized," Tom explained. "That takes all the sediment and minerals out of the water to make it as pure as possible."
Practice makes perfect
"Clean ice is good ice," Halcrow said. "And that ice doesn't make itself even though we are in a freezing-cold climate. I don't think the icemen ever get enough credit, but there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes on."
The daily chore begins in November and takes a good month from start to opening game. As much science as guesswork, meticulous records are written in a spiral notebook as each ice sheet is built up slowly in layers - about 50 "passes" to be precise. It begins with misting to create a good sand base, then flooding layers and leveling before paint and mesh markings, more layers to seal it, and then shaving and finally pebbling - the frozen beads of water the curling rocks float on.
After a major melting mishap that had some ready to cancel last year's bonspiel, or tournament, and then countless more long hours this year, the threesome, along with electrician Blake Johnson and go-to man, Jim Weinlaeder, say it's all beginning to pay off.
Membership has jumped from about 28 to 45 and "for the first time since the place was fired up, we had in-ice advertising," Tom said.
"Everyone grabbed it by the horns. We said, finally, we're going to make some phone calls, and we sat here one morning and basically tripled our sponsorship income in a few hours. That really helped out the club."
It also made it possible to invest in new brooms and sliders so the club could host open fun nights and even a high school curling day with 64 students.
"The big thing is it's a snowball," Tom said. "You get one or two kids in here, they have a good time and tell their buddies. And it takes off from there."
"It seems like we're starting to see more interest sparked in the community," Andy said.
"We even have people who just show up to watch, and that's what we want them to do,"
Halcrow added. "They might be a potential curler, too. It's just a place to be on Wednesday night."
Inside the double-decker clubhouse with its cozy, knotty-pine walls, there's plenty of warm seating. Upturned rock handles act as coat racks, and a line of theater seats upholstered in deep-green velvet overlook the three ice sheets just steps below.
A behemoth wood-carved trophy sits in a glass case upstairs, along with old-fashioned corn brooms and two antique rocks in a decorative needlepoint chest.
Not quite as old but just as museum-worthy, a vintage Pepsi vending machine stands in another corner, its scrappy buttons testifying it once delivered Mountain Dew, Diet Coke and Keystone beer.
"I feel we are at the tipping point," Tom said as he peered out the large windows. "We have our ice the way we want it. We have our membership. And I think next year it's really going to blow up."
This weekend the men will compete in the Dakota Territory Playdown in Grafton. The winners advance to nationals. And the club expects 20 teams to compete in its own fourth annual Capital Open Bonspiel on Feb. 16-18.
To learn more about the club or its Wednesday night mixed leagues, go to Drayton Curling Club on Facebook or call Tom Grzadzieleski at (701) 360-1693.