On a wall overlooking the ice at the Grafton Curling Club is a sign that reads THE SPIRIT OF CURLING. It states eight guidelines, the last of which is the most significant: "Winners traditionally treat the losers." In North Dakota—where it's all about affability and quaffability—winners also traditionally treat themselves, their neighbors and anyone holding an empty. So even though a trip to the nationals was at stake in the North Dakota State Curling Championships, held in Grafton last January, after every match, without fail, the competitors would march upstairs to the bar and socialize over a few brews. "The tradition of curling is camaraderie," says Dr. Don (Doc) Barcome, a former president of the World Curling Federation who pushed to get the sport into the Olympics. "That's maybe the greatest thing in curling. You meet such a cross section of people. You might have the president of a bank and a mailman curling on the same damn team."
The bar in the curling club offers a bird's-eye view of the action. Six large windows overlooking the ice give the place a minor league luxury box feel. Directly beneath is Sweeper's, a coffee shop that serves as the town's social hub, the place where people come to socialize over a bowl of beer-cheese soup that's so tasty it's well worth the angina it'll most likely give you. They'll also watch a little curling, which one Sweeper's patron calls "a cross between shuffleboard, bowling and New Year's Eve."
If curling is a party, then the life of that party in North Dakota is Bob LaBonte, a 53-year-old stockbroker. In 1972 LaBonte, Ray Morgan and the Aasand brothers, Frank and John, won the national championship representing Grafton, then came within a bristle of pulling a huge upset at the worlds in Germany. After LaBonte leaped in the air to celebrate an apparent 9-8 victory over Canada in the finals, his feet came out from under him, and as he fell, he grazed the Canadians' final stone. When it was replaced and measured, it was found to be close enough to the target to give the Canadians another point—despite the fact that two Canadian players had already taken their gloves off to shake hands and concede defeat. Canada then won in the first extra end, or inning. "So we were world champs for seven seconds," LaBonte says with a laugh. "At least I got to feel what it was like to win." The pratfall gave birth to the so-called LaBonte curse; it was 25 years before another North Dakota team made it to the worlds.
LaBonte, who moved to Minot 20 years ago, is far from bitter. For the duration of the 2003 state championships, he held court a few hundred yards from Grafton's curling club at John Aasand's bar, the Extra End, spinning yarns for locals and visitors alike. Imagine Bill Buckner showing up at a Red Sox game to buy fans Fenway Franks and pints of Sam Adams. "If you came to Minot, we'd show you a good time," says LaBonte. "But there's nothing like playing in Grafton."
Grafton is a largely agrarian community of 4,500 about 40 miles south of the Canadian border where everybody knows everybody and curling is the favorite pastime. "The whole fam-damily can play," says Mary Jaster, whose team finished second in the women's competition. (Indeed, the whole fam-damily often does. Jaster's husband, Miles, played in the men's tournament, as did her 18-year-old son, Joe, who would have been the best young player in the tournament were it not for 19-year-old Zach Jacobson. Zach was joined on the men's championship-winning team by his father, Joel, the Kakela brothers, Kevin and Carey, and the team's skip, Craig Disher, whose brother Kurt was on the runner-up team.) So if someone wasn't playing, chances are a family member or close friend was, which accounted for the standing-room-only crowds every night of the tournament.
It might not have been the seventh game of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, but in a state with just 9.3 people per square mile, and where the average temperature last January was 10.9�, you tend to make your own fun. On Friday, the third day of the tournament, much of the talk in Sweeper's centered on that evening's homemade bologna cook-off at the Harvey Avenue Saloon, owned by Chris Misialek in nearby Harvey. In addition to the sausage fest, Misialek and his pals put on an antique Sno-cat run for pre-1980 models every January and hold a Pinewood Derby in March. Even Misialek's cocktails are infused with a spirit of inventiveness—among other things. Competitors and judges in the cook-off were plied with shots of vodka and pickle juice, a concoction that tastes, if possible, even more disgusting than you would expect it to. (When asked for the proper mix, the bartender replied, "It really depends on how drunk you are.")
In between rounds of the bologna cook-off there was a competition in which contestants had to choke down four Saltines without drinking anything and then whistle. It was won, as it is every year, by Mike Stoltman, who, according to the guy doing the blow-by-blow coverage of the contest over the bar's P.A. system, was working with an unfair advantage: an extra salivary gland. "I don't know for sure," says Stoltman when pressed on the issue. "But my orthodontist said he's never seen saliva like that."
The only time Misialek curls competitively is at the annual outdoor tournament across the street from Tom's Lounge, a tavern down the road in Forest River. The emphasis there is more on staying warm than anything else, because it's held in February. Video cameras are set up so that curlers can retire to the bar and watch the proceedings over closed-circuit on three big-screen TVs when they're not sliding rocks.
For such a recreational renaissance man, Misialek isn't a very good curler, and mat's not just for lack of practice. Curling may look like an anybody-can-do-it sport, but it requires balance and a deft touch and, most important, the ability to see several moves ahead, as in chess. "Curling is weird. You can be the world champion and go out there and lose to four guys in their 60s wearing galoshes," says Doc Barcome's son Don. "It's happened to me. You watch it, and it doesn't look that hard. But when you throw a 42-pound rock 140 feet down the ice, there are so many variables that come into play."
Indeed, Don Barcome's team was knocked off in the finals in Grafton by the squad from Langdon skipped by Disher, the 1997 national champ. Despite all the experienced players on the ice, in the final match no one was as clutch as Zach Jacobson, the rare teen prodigy. When LaBonte and Bar-come were younger, plenty of kids curled, but now other sports—especially hockey, with its time-eating travel teams—have diminished the numbers. "Junior curlers in Langdon are rare," says Jacobson. "We're a big basketball town, and there are quite a few hockey players. In their free time they don't have anything to do with curling."