By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Jan 21, 2010 at 9:02 AM

"League night" in Milwaukee doesn't only mean bowling. Just like the 45-pound stones eased onto bulls eyes on ice, the recreational team sport of curling is quietly gaining momentum ... and it's about to pick up dramatically.

As the 2010 Winter Olympics approach and bring renewed attention to the famously northern sport (on both sides of the Atlantic), greater Milwaukee's curling clubs offer young and old alike a chance to compete in a game that's easy to learn but hard to perfect.

To that end, the Wauwatosa Curling Club, founded in 1921, invited me to drop in on a recent Thursday night to learn the ropes with its president, Rick Lemke.

The club, now 250 members strong, has called Hart Park home since 1925, and moved into the facility's Muellner Building in 1941. This club might technically be late to the game of curling, which was invented in Scotland in 1541 and is popular throughout the "low countries" and into Canada, but its 85-year local history is immediately obvious.

When I arrive at 5:30 p.m., the seniors' league is already in full swing. Technically, it's designed for members older than 50, but tonight several curlers in their 80s are playing with plenty of vim and vigor. The league is mixed, with men and women taking turns as sweepers and throwers. The team captain presides as the skip, calling the shots on the far side of the curling "sheet."

From the heated viewing area, the sport looks, well, easy. Even the seniors don't seem to be breaking a sweat, and while they play seriously, they joke and smile with their opponents. All strategy aside, the game looks like a combination of bocce, shuffleboard and bowling, mixed with what looks like floor scrubbing. I'm watching these octogenarians slide across the ice, while listening to Lemke explain the rules, and I think, "I can do this."

When the senior league wraps up, they head downstairs for "broomstacking," a tradition in which teams sit at a large, circular table and enjoy drinks and conversation with their opponents. This league has a catered dinner, too, and several members bring bottles of brandy and other liquor that they sip from as they socialize about the preceding match.

"Both teams shake hands and say, ‘Good curling,'" says Lemke. "It's almost mandatory that you go downstairs and sit with the team you played."

When I walk out onto the ice, I notice that it's cold, and perhaps I should've heeded the advice to wear a fleece. I'm sporting a long-sleeve T-shirt, sweatpants and tennis shoes, but I'm still chilly. The ice is slippery, but it has a little bit of texture. At only a few points do I feel in jeopardy of falling over.

Says Lemke, "Our ice isn't as slippery as normal ice is, because before we play, we'll scrape it to get it flat, then we'll take a watering can with an end nozzle so the ice gets like an orange peel on it.

"The stones actually go farther on that ice than they would on flat ice because there's less friction," he adds.

Lemke shows me the proper technique for throwing the stone, or rock, a granite disk that's required to weigh between 38 and 44 pounds. Yellow or red, the rock has a handle (to control spin), and a smooth, smaller base. Lemke says that each stone is mined from the same granite in Scotland; "they're expensive, nobody brings their own."

Lemke owns curling shoes, but I, of course, do not. Instead, I apply a "slider," to my left shoe and take my position in the "hack," which looks somewhat like a starting block for sprinters.

It takes me at least a dozen attempts to release the rock without looking like a total clod. At first, I lean back too far. Then I jut out the wrong leg. After that, I tip forward on my hand too much and either deliver the stone way too far and fast, or barely at all.

Eventually, though, I get a feel of the right pressure, more or less, and release the stone near the "hog line" with the right amount of gusto -- and Lemke starts sweeping.

Sweeping, I'm told, makes the rock go farther or travel straighter. It can be used to add distance to a teammate's stone -- or, in the targets, or "houses," to encourage an opponent's rock to go too far. The curling broom, which looks a little like a Swiffer, slightly melts the pebbled ice in front of the rock, and encourages it to keep moving. Until I see my rock travel several yards beyond where it should, due to Lemke's vigorous sweeping, I'm suspicious that this maneuver works. After I do some of my own sweeping, I'm sold.

Sweeping is surprisingly tiring, but running next to the ice as the skip yells, "sweep," I actually see it working. The rock continues to glide farther than inertia says it should, and it clearly takes practice to learn when to start and when to stop the broom action. I just keep sweeping until they tell me to stop.

Jumping from throwing the rock to sweeping and back again seems a little like another Olympic sport, the biathlon, in which the athlete must furiously ski then temper his nerves to shoot a gun with accuracy. And, though curling is the sport that can claim the oldest Olympian in history at age 59, it's definitely more physical than, say, bowling or bocce.

Lemke, who has curled for seven years, also compares his sport to golf, in that it's easy to learn, and the improvement is quick for beginners -- but it takes a long time to become great. He speaks of strategy in sliding the rock behind his opponents, about the advantages to throwing the last shot, or the "hammer."

"The difference between this and bowling," says Lemke, "is you see yourself getting better when you curl. When you curl one night a week, you're OK. When you curl two nights a week, you see improvement, and all of a sudden you're here three nights a week."

I, personally, am more concerned about getting the rock somewhere near the house, not touching the stone with the broom, and most importantly, not falling over and busting my head as I run across a sheet of ice, focused squarely on a heavy chunk of granite at my feet.

Curling clubs regularly travel to other venues for tournaments called "bonspiels," and this is "finals week," so the club has only a dozen members present for a little practice. On a typical Thursday night, the teams play six "ends," or rounds, as opposed to the regular eight. I join in a mock game, fortunately, since my lack of skills don't help my team.

Steven Scheuing, a South Milwaukee chiropractor, is one of the curlers practicing tonight. He's been curling for about six years, and says he hasn't earned any chiropractic business from his teammates throwing out their backs on the ice.

"It's a great winter sport, from October to March," says Schueing. "And I typically do one bonspiel a year."

Scheuing says he's turned on a number of friends to the sport, and he participates in the club with his wife, Cindy.

"I always introduce them to it, and some people love it as soon as they get onto the ice," says Scheuing. "Others find it mediocre."

I don't find it mediocre at all, and after about 90 minutes, I'm out of breath and panting a little, happy to retire to the basement, where Lemke pours me a beer from the club's tap. One of the gentlemen from the senior league -- still laughing and joking at its tables, brings us a plate of cheese. Even though they're in different leagues and different generations, it's easy to see the camaraderie between everyone at the Wauwatosa Curling Club.

"You get to meet everybody in the club very quickly, because you're playing a different team each week, and it's just mandatory that you go with sit with them. It's very frowned upon if you don't," says Lemke.

In a few weeks, Lemke says his club will again get very popular. The Olympics always bring in interested newcomers, and the club is happy to accommodate them. Lemke hosts open houses on Feb. 27 and 28 from 1 to 5 p.m., and he assures me that some of the participants will look even more foolish than I did tonight.

There's a surprising amount of curling going on in and around Milwaukee, with three clubs in the area and about 60 clubs statewide. It's not an especially expensive sport to get into, given most of the equipment belongs to the club. The first season's dues cost about $200, says Lemke, which includes a free broom. After that, it ramps up to about $325, and allows curlers to play as many nights as they want.

Depending on how hard you sweep, curling can be a little exercise or a lot. It is, however, a friendly, apparently addictive sport laden with friendship and tradition. And, played only during our long, cold winter, it's a nice way to break up the monotony of the season, too.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.