EVELETH— Can a small group of northern Minnesota curlers help heal the divisions of a country and offer a bit of hope in a uniquely troubled time? That may be a tall order, but Phill Drobnick is …
EVELETH— Can a small group of northern Minnesota curlers help heal the divisions of a country and offer a bit of hope in a uniquely troubled time? That may be a tall order, but Phill Drobnick is still riding the high from his team’s stunning come-from-behind victory to win gold at the Olympics in PyeongChang, Korea, last month, so he can be excused for thinking anything’s possible.
Drobnick, an Eveleth native who still makes this Iron Range town his home, was coach of the U.S. Olympic curling team and he said he’s never seen the kind of response that he and his team members have experienced in the wake of their storybook finish.
“America loves a winner and a good story, and this one has both,” said Drobnick, during my interview with him last week at Curl Mesabi, in Eveleth. “Curling is really having a moment on the national stage,” he said. “We always get a bump after the Olympics, but this group of guys and the way they interact on social media, they’ve really gotten a lot of people’s interest. The country is just going crazy for curling right now.”
Call it a diversion from the national political scene. Call it therapy. Call it hunger for an uplifting tale. Whatever you call it, Drobnick said Americans are finding a lot to like in this improbable group of average Joes who worked hard and achieved the kind of success only few can imagine.
“I’ve been told there’s a feeling out there that with all the negatives going on, that America really needed this group of guys,” he said.
And it almost didn’t happen.
While Drobnick had high hopes as the team headed to Korea, the team struggled in the early going, losing four of their first six games in pool play, leaving them one loss away from elimination. Next up was Canada, the perennial curling powerhouse that had never finished lower than second in Olympic competition. In other words, the end was near, or so it seemed.
Drobnick admits the team members were frustrated with their early losses, but he said the team had prepared itself both physically and mentally, which allowed them to bounce back. The coaching staff had imposed a new level of structure on the team, said Drobnick, and that included debriefings after each match to identify mistakes, and avoid them in subsequent matches.
In fact, he said, much of his coaching duties focused on creating a structure that allowed the team members to focus solely on their play. That meant handling the complicated logistics of Olympic competition in addition to working with players on their technique and strategy.
Going into the do-or-die match with Canada, Drobnick said he left his team with a challenge. “I told them not to let anyone decide when our tournament was done,” he said.
He said the team went into the game confident they had the ability to beat Canada— and when that final hammer shot clinched the stunning win, Drobnick said the entire team believed they would go all the way.
“It was the first time U.S. had ever beaten Canada in the Olympics, so that was a real confidence builder,” he said. “In the next game, we played Switzerland, and we just drilled them. We shot about 92 percent as a team, and never looked back.” They went on to win two more before knocking off Sweden for the gold.
For Drobnick, it was a moment of pure fulfillment. “It’s really the pinnacle of coaching to help and watch as your team achieves their goals,” he said.
While the team relished its victory, they didn’t realize the full extent of their accomplishment until they arrived back in Minnesota. “There were hundreds of people waiting for us at the airport, and just as many at the Duluth [curling] club,” he said. Later, the team enjoyed a police escort as they made their way to Curl Mesabi. “I can’t tell you how much this has meant to the club and for people in Minnesota, and around the country,” he said. “It was a pretty cool thing, actually.”
For Drobnick, curling has been a central part of life since childhood, when the original Eveleth Curling Club became like a second home. “My parents were both big into curling,” he remembers. In fact, both his parents were instructors in the local youth curling league and he began learning the sport at the age of seven. Thirteen years later, in 2000, Drobnick won the junior national title and later that year, finished sixth at the World Junior Championships. He competed in the U.S. Olympic team trials in 2002 and 2010, and was runner-up at the 2011 U.S. Men’s National Championship.
Drobnick turned increasingly to coaching over the years, and led Team USA to gold at the 2008 World Junior Championship and to bronze in 2009. Along the way, he was twice named USA Curling Coach of the Year.
While Drobnick has focused on the competitive nature of the sport of curling, he recognizes that for most curlers, competition is only a small part of the game. “Curling is a hidden gem,” said Drobnick, who serves as board president of Curl Mesabi. “The social aspect is very enjoyable and is a big part of the experience.”
That’s a view echoed by others at Curl Mesabi, who were participating in a senior bonspiel last Tuesday.
“It’s a chance to socialize,” said Denny Bone, a longtime member of the club. Since retiring from the St. Louis County Land Department several years ago, he’s found curling a great way to keep in shape in the winter and keep in touch with longtime friends.
A day at the curling club may involve a few hours on the ice, but once the stones are reset and the brooms are put away, the curlers head upstairs for lunch, dinner, or a few drinks with friends. It’s a low-key, casual, and very friendly atmosphere, the kind of place, in other words, that has attracted a loyal following, with a membership of over 320.
Dennis Peterson, of Greaney, is one of them. He’s been curling since the 1950s and has introduced a number of friends and acquaintances to the sport over the years.
A retired engineer, Peterson likes working out the strategy of each game, or “end” as it’s known.
“It’s like a chess match that stretches a 150 feet long,” he said. “Every end is a unique experience. With bowling you set up the pins the same way every time. With golf, it’s all offense, no defense. With curling, there’s a lot of strategy involved.”
Drobnick, who works as a St. Louis County probation officer when he’s not on the ice, encourages everyone to give curling a try. He notes that age is not a factor. Indeed, the club’s oldest member, Bill Hill, of Eveleth, is still curling at age 97.
Peterson, now in his 70s, said that’s one of the things he finds most appealing about curling. “You can start curling at age nine or ten, and keep on until you’re 97. It’s definitely a lifetime sport.”
The club offers senior leagues Mondays and Wednesdays, as well as junior and evening leagues. They also host occasional open houses and beginner nights for those thinking of trying the sport. If you’d like to give it a try, act soon, however, since the curling season wraps up in a week or so. Another season begins again around Nov. 1.
For more details, you can call Curl Mesabi at 218-744-1302.