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December 21, 2014

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Curling enthusiast planting seeds for sport’s growth in Las Vegas

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Steve Marcus

Gloria Greenman slips as she learns how to launch a stone during an open practice session of the Las Vegas Curling Club at the Las Vegas Ice Center on West Flamingo Road on Feb 12, 2012. Curling instructor Gary Hunneyman looks on at right.

Curling in the Desert

Curling instructor Nick Kitinski shows his curling form as he releases a stone during an open practice session of the Las Vegas Curling Club at the Las Vegas Ice Center on West Flamingo Road on Feb 12, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Las Vegas Curling

For more information about curling in Las Vegas, visit the group’s website (lvcurling.com) or call 350-2875.

For a game on ice that doesn’t require skates, curling still had novices struggling to find their balance Sunday at the Las Vegas Ice Center.

Right-handers crouched over and over, with their right hands on the curling stone and their left clutching a broom. And make no mistake: It’s not your grandma’s kitchen broom, but rather a sleek, synthetic-material version fit for the sport.

“Lift your hips,” curling instructor Nick Kitinski told 18-year-old Stephen Pretto. “Great — now slide forward … Stone-foot-leg almost in a perfect line. That’s what we want to do.”

One by one, the students attempted the basic form for launching the 42-pound granite stone across the ice. The ideal end product: a straight, smooth release resulting in a curl — a complete revolution by the stone, and how the sport got its name. Some lunged successfully, with minor wobbles along the way. Others nearly caught their left foot behind the hack, curling’s version of a starting block, or slammed their right knee into the ice.

“Complicated, huh?” Kitinski asked the group. “But it looks so easy. Balance is the No. 1 thing we want to teach you today.”

Welcome to the world of curling, a sport gaining popularity since televised Olympic games in 2002 and 2006 intrigued onlookers. Membership in the U.S. Curling Association jumped roughly 53 percent since the early 2000s, up to 16,512 members in the 2010-11 year, according to the organization.

Now Kitinski, a native Swede living in Los Angeles, has made it his mission to bring the winter sport to the Las Vegas desert — in an ice rink, of course.

Kitinski, who moved to Los Angeles to attend film school, is a self-described “curling addict.” He is a certified instructor with the U.S. Curling Association, and he also serves as the association’s chairman for club and membership development.

When a small group of Las Vegas residents wanted to form a league in 2010, he showed up with equipment in tow.

Curling 101

The effort died when players decided they didn’t have enough money to sustain practices. Not ready to give up, Kitinski returned a year later, organizing a Las Vegas curling tournament in October for 34 teams from across the country and Canada.

“I thought it would be good to bring it to Vegas because it’s a city people would like to go to,” he said. “There’s always a party and because we wanted to start curling in Vegas, this was a good thing to bring so people could see what it’s all about.”

An open house during the tournament exposed curling-hopefuls to the sport, and twice-monthly practice sessions began in December, Kitinski said.

The effort lured Gary Hunneyman as soon as he stumbled upon its existence while randomly searching online for curling. The Rochester, N.Y., native had missed competing in a curling league so much he said he had told his wife they needed to move back East. Now Hunneyman helps Kitinski with instructing the group.

“What I like about curling is the strategy,” Hunneyman said. “It’s like chess on ice.”

In the most general terms, the game works like this: Two teams of four people compete to score the most points by landing stones closest to the center of a bull’s-eye on the ice. A team earns points based on the number of stones closest to the center that aren’t interrupted by the opposing team’s stones — similar to scoring in table shuffleboard.

That’s where the strategy comes into play. The team’s shooter (who launches the stone), two sweepers (who create a pathway for the stone to travel farther and straighter) and a skip (similar to a team captain who calls the shots) work together to outmaneuver the other team, either by landing a stone closer to the circle’s center or bumping out the other team’s stones.

“It’s almost a scientific project every time, for me at least,” Kitinski said.

The sport’s strategy component, paired with its lack of physical contact, tends to attract players with a wider mix of backgrounds and ages, Kitinski said.

“It’s the total opposite of hockey. … It’s a thinking game. It’s precision. It’s a lot of team dynamics,” he said. “It looks easy, but it’s like golf: It takes a lifetime to master.”

On Sunday, the curling crew assembled on the rink mirrored Kitinski’s description. There were UNLV students studying law, electrical engineering, economics and sociology, along with a bakery worker, a couple of stagehands and business owners.

“Why not?” Zachary Clayton, 25, said he thought when he heard about Las Vegas’ curling startup. “Who doesn’t want to push stones down and sweep away ice?”

Click to enlarge photo

Forty-two pound granite stones are shown at the Las Vegas Ice Center on West Flamingo Road on Feb 12, 2012.

After practicing his stone release, Clayton, a multisport athlete, admitted curling takes more coordination than portrayed in Olympic television coverage.

“It looks so simple,” Clayton said, “but I knew it was going to be a technically complicated game, so it’s going about how I expected.”

By the end of the practice session, shouts of “Sweep! Sweep! Sweep!” echoed through the rink as the newcomers played an abbreviated first game. A minute later, the rink fell silent as a shooter prepared to launch and release the stone.

Kitinski vows to continue his travels to Las Vegas as long as he’s needed or until there are enough players to form a league. He has high hopes the city might one day be home to a college curling team.

“People are dreaming about becoming an Olympian,” he said. “I think that’s great that you don’t have to do pushups and be in top shape to play curling and make it into that bracket.”

Until then, it’s all about mastering the basics. The group meets again Sunday, Feb. 26, when Kitinski and Hunneyman hope to see some new and old faces.

“In Vegas, there are so many other activities to do,” Hunneyman said. “I don’t know how successful it will be, but we’re crossing our fingers.”

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