Mix together two professional golfers, two former hockey players and a former high school soccer player who tried cricket for one season and you get . . . a curling team that will compete for a national championship?
It’s an odd combination, but skip Charlie Brown’s rink from the Schenectady Curling Club prevailed in a qualifier recently to represent the East in the U.S. Curling Association Club Nationals next week in Madison, Wis.
And the Schenectady curlers are banking on the competitive drive they acquired in their previous sports backgrounds, as well as cohesiveness, to compensate for a lack of curling experience as they face a challenging field of nine other rinks.
The golfers are rink lead Scott Brennan, the head pro at Orchard Creek Golf Club, and vice skip Mike Stefanik, who was the pro at Pioneer Hills and is now manager of a new First Niagara Bank branch in Wilton. He still carries a PGA card.
Trading in their skate blades for sliders were Brown, a sixth-year curler who played hockey through prep school at the Berkshire School in Sheffield, Mass., and alternate Dan Machold, who played hockey at Niskayuna High School, the University at Binghamton and in the Mohawk Valley men’s league.
Richard Gonyeau, who mans the “two” position, kicked a soccer ball around in his high school days at Mohonasen, then dabbled in a local cricket league two summers ago.
“It’s a good bunch. We’ve jelled really well,” said Brennan, 26, who is in his second year of curling. “That’s a big part of the sport, the chemistry.”
On most of the rinks the starting four Schenectady curlers will face, each player will have more curling experience than their collective 16 years.
“We’ll be the youngest team in Wisconsin, by far, when it comes to level of experience,” said Stefanik, who is 33. “But our commitment is very strong, as is the competitive drive for all five of us.”
“We’re the babies of the bunch,” said Gonyeau, 30. “But this could be a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
The Schenectady curlers will fly into Madison Friday and attend a University of Wisconsin hockey game, thanks to Brown, a Wisconsin native who hooked them up with tickets. Practice is set for Saturday, and Brown’s rink will be on the ice for its first match Sunday at 2 p.m., following opening ceremonies.
Schenectady will play nine round-robin games through Thursday, Feb. 25. The top four teams advance to the semifinals the next night, and tiebreakers will be used to settle those positions earlier on Friday. The final is at 2 p.m. on Feb. 27.
The other nine rinks are stretched from across the country to Seattle, and the biggest name in the field is Mankato, Minn., skip Todd Birr, who skipped the U.S. Curling Association championship rink in 2007. Birr also lost to John Shuster in the semifinals of the U.S. Olympic trials last winter, but represented the U.S. in the Karuizawa International Bonspiel Jan. 27-31 in Japan. Because Club National rules dictate that every member of the rink be from the same club, Birr will not have his usual downrink.
Assembling the team
After attending the Francis Dykes bonspiel for players with five years or less of experience and “watching other clubs winning all the hardware each year,” Brown decided to assemble a quality rink to compete in invitational events in the East. Stefanik and Gonyeau were part of the original foursome, and Brennan came on board last year.
The first major victory for Brown’s rink came in the Worcester Cup in 2008 at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. The playdowns for the Club Nationals last year were at Broomstones Curling Club in Weyland, Mass., where Brown’s rink lost its first two matches, but came back to win the last three.
Although they did not advance, the local curlers showed potential.
“Scotty had only been on the ice for three months then,” Brown said, pointing to his rink’s lack of experience. But the team continued to play together and learned with every match. This season, it reached the semifinals of the Achilles Bonspiel at Schenectady in November, and climbed to fourth place on the Grand National Curling Club Men’s Curling Tour, also traveling to bonspiels at Norfolk, Conn., and Broomstones.
Then, everything clicked in the qualifier for the Club Nationals.
Brown’s rink only lost one match against a field of eight in the round-robin event that Schenectady hosted in January, but did have some heart-stopping moments in the final game against fellow Schenectady skip Brian Damon. That match went to an extra end after Brown’s rink lost a 7-2 lead, and the skip made a clutch shot to win and avoid falling into a tie for first, which would have necessitated a playoff game the following day.
Damon, who used to play lead for Brown, was sitting two, but Brown, with the advantage of last rock, drew his shot inside them to the four-foot circle for the win.
“I was calm in the hack when I threw the shot, then after, I was shaking for about an hour,” Brown said. “This meant the world to me, to go back to Wisconsin to play.”
Machold, who was the winning skip in the Achilles this season, was picked up as the alternate for the trip to Wisconsin. But he already knows that he will be called into action because Stefanik must fly back home early to attend the grand opening of his bank, and will miss the last three draws of the round-robin.
Prior to that, “I’ll be behind the glass every match,” said Machold, who will serve as a coach and pass on his observations during timeouts and the fifth-end break. The 20-year veteran of National Grid also has the most curling experience on the team, nine years.
“I’m a fresh broom if someone gets hurt or tired,” he added.
Bitten by the curling bug
Besides their competitive nature, the five curlers have another thing in common: They all got hooked on curling the moment they tried it.
Both Gonyeau and Stefanik attended open houses at the Schenectady Curling Club four years ago after watching curling on TV during the Torino Olympics, and soon became members.
“We’re expecting a lot of the same this year,” said Gonyeau, who works in edition design at The Gazette. Television coverage of curling in the Vancouver Games began Tuesday, and Schenectady is holding open houses Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the Balltown Road facility.
When he began curling, Gonyeau got encouragement and helpful advice from Brown right away.
“He took me under his wing,” said Gonyeau. “I didn’t have good balance coming out of the hack [to deliver a shot] and he was so smooth, I asked him to show me how to do that.
“He got me on a competitive team [in league play], and asked me to throw rocks for him [on the invitational team].”
Gonyeau feels comfortable playing two because he throws a lot of takeout shots. “That’s my specialty,” he said.
Edison Club members who also curl invited Stefanik and other golf pros to give the sport a try.
“It fits the golf season to a tee,” said Stefanik, noting that the curling season begins in late October, when golf is winding down, and wraps up in early April, when it’s time to golf again.
Through his connections from when he was a golf pro, Stefanik is having matching team jackets monogrammed with “New York” on the back.
Brown, 36, who lives in Selkirk, is a stock analyst for Johnson Illington Advisors in Albany. Although he grew up in Wisconsin, a hotbed for curling, and shares the name with a famous Wisconsin family in the sport (no relation), Brown “did not know that curling existed.”
While training for the Disney Marathon, Brown would drive past the curling club every Saturday when he met a friend in Niskayuna to train, and the two runners once mused that maybe curling was their last chance of making the Olympics in any sport.
“I’m very much into my Scottish heritage, and I go to the Capital District Highland Games,” said Brown. “The curling club had an information booth there, and I talked to [former SCC president and chief ice-maker] Jim Ridenour. He invited me to come for an open house.
“My wife, Kathleen, wanted nothing to do with it. She went kicking and screaming. Two years later, she was on the board [of directors].”
Brennan used to bowl in scratch leagues in the winter, and “was looking for something new, something challenging.” He was recruited by Stefanik, and not only fell in love with the competitive nature of the game, but also with the social aspects and the traveling from club to club for bonspiels.
“Mike said they had an opening on their team and were looking for a guy,” Brennan said. “I watched it and said, ‘This is a piece of cake.’ It wasn’t so. It was tough. That’s what attracted me. It was hard.”
What will be even harder will be the week-long event in Madison.
“We’ve seen everything,” said Stefanik. “We’ve come from six points down to win, and we’ve lost six and gone to an extra end. As a team, we’re still learning how to win, to put the nail in the coffin.”
“We were seeded fifth in the playdowns, and we turned a lot of heads,” Brown said. “We’re going to their neck of the woods, where the game is really played. We’re seeded seventh, and hopefully, we can turn some heads again.”