Who knew a granite rock gliding over ice could be such a draw in central New York, where members of the Wallkill Lions Club host an annual curling tournament–known as a bonspiel. The event has exploded in popularity from a one-day tournament with 12 teams nine years ago to 46 teams in 2023.

Lions Clubs members curling tournamentThat doesn’t count the roughly 400 community members who show up to watch the event that was expanded this year to two days to accommodate contestants’ interest. “We have local restaurants, and the fire department that have put teams together to participate. It’s grown into a fun thing,” says Dave LaSpada, vice president of the Wallkill Lions Club and chairman of the curling tournament.

The idea for the tournament was suggested by Lion Andy Harcher of the Wallkill club. “We’re always dreaming up new ideas [for fundraisers],” says LaSpada. “But when he suggested a curling tournament, we looked at him like he had three heads.” With no expert curlers among their membership, the club decided to make the tournament a fun, rather than ultra-competitive event.

Curling at the Olympic level requires contestants to slide a granite rock toward a target segmented into concentric circles while using brooms to brush the ice to smooth the way.  The Wallkill curlers do much the same, but with the sort of long-handled brushes use for washing a car and their curling rocks are fashioned from stainless steel cooking pots filled with cement and with little handles jutting out of them. The players follow rules similar to those in Bocce, requiring curlers to get their rock closest to the goal for a higher score.

As years have gone on, teams have upped the event’s entertainment aspect by dressing up in wacky costumes. Teams have come dressed as cowboys, penguins, and Harry Potter characters. “Everybody is dressed for warmth, but we’ve started giving a trophy for best costume,” says LaSpada, who notes that they also award trophies to teams for first, second, and third place.

Lions clubs curling tournamentPlanning for the tournament starts in mid-December when the Lions place a plastic liner in an outdoor wooden park pavilion and fill it with water to create a 50-by-80-foot long playing surface. The tournament, which happens in early February, is only held if the water freezes. “It’s weather-dependent,” says LaSpada. “It’s a nail-biter for us.” There has been only one year when the club had to return participants’ entry fees because the weather was too warm and they could not re-schedule the event for another day.

Once frozen, the custom ice rink is made available to community members for public skating—also weather dependent—throughout the winter months. LaSpada says the tournament raises between US $12,000 and $15,000, most of which goes to local schools, including providing scholarships and supporting a lunch program for children in need.

Funds are raised from entry fees and from a 50-50 raffle. The club also operates a concession stand during the tournament with proceeds going to another organization that organizes the community’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Lions clubs curlersBut New York isn’t the only cold-weather locale getting in on the curling craze. While ice hockey may be Canada’s official winter sport, curling is a big draw for the Coldwater Lions Club in Ontario, Canada. It has been hosting an annual bonspiel for 15 years. The event attracts 64 players and raises about CA$5,000 (US$3,690) that goes to local non-profits.  “It’s a fun game. Not a competitive bunch,” says Lion Brian Johnstone.

The club makes sure players are competing on full stomachs and have plenty of time to socialize by serving coffee and donuts for breakfast, soup and sandwiches at lunch, and a lasagna dinner.

Unlike Wallkill’s outdoor event, the Coldwater club hosts the bonspiel at an indoor ice rink that is not subject to the whims of weather. as much fun as the tournaments are, LaSpada and Johnstone agree they require commitment to organize. For any club considering such an event, LaSpada says, “Make sure you have a good work force, because it is a lot of work.”

And, if it’s held outdoors, keep those fingers crossed for a good freeze.