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Rick Weegman, Published February 02 2010

A laugh no more: Chisholm’s John Shuster helps curling get national exposure

Duluth, Minn. - Curling is no longer the Olympics’ version of the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players.

With terms like “eight-ender” and “hog line” and equipment such as brooms and stones, curling more often than not was the subject of punch lines for American audiences and usually only ended up on late-night highlight shows.

Now, after a comedic bit on “The Colbert Report,” a reality show stop that included alternate Chris Plys being asked out by a member of the singing group Pussycat Dolls and skip John Shuster’s prime-time appearance on “The Jay Leno Show” on Monday, the U.S. men’s curling team is becoming a media darling.

And that’s before the first stone is shot at the 2010 Winter Games later this month in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“Any kind of publicity for curling in the U.S. is great; we’re trying to grow the sport all the time,” U.S. men’s coach Phill Drobnick said. “The more people are exposed to it now, the more people will follow it when we’re in Vancouver. The last time the Olympics were around, it was one of the most-watched sports. Hopefully, we can maintain that momentum.”

Pete Fenson’s U.S. rink won the bronze medal at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy. Shuster, a

27-year-old Chisholm native who lives in Duluth, was a member of that team and now is charged with the task of earning another medal.

If he does, he and other members of the team can expect increased media attention in the short term, which in turn should generate more interest in the sport.

“Being on national TV gets you that exposure,” the soft-spoken Shuster said, “and then going out and representing ourselves and our sport well … that should [generate interest] on its own. I don’t go on the ice thinking, ‘How can I grow the sport?’ I think about representing myself, my team and our country well. If we have success and we do that, we should increase the reach of curling audiences.”

So far, the curlers have gone to New York to teach Lester Holt how to curl for a segment on “The Today Show,” filmed interviews with NBC to be shown during the Olympics and dueled on the ice with cable talk-show satirist Stephen Colbert. They’ll also appear on an upcoming episode of HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.”

Plys, dubbed “the cute one” by Colbert, received $6,500 he requested to bring his parents to Vancouver from a celebrity panel of judges on a December edition of the E! reality show “The Bank of Hollywood.” The 22-year-old also received an unexpected offer to go on a date with Pussycat Dolls singer Melody Thornton – Plys declined since he’s engaged – and a suggestion from Wilhemina Models president Sean Patterson that he could model in front of the camera.

It’s all helped recruit a younger fan base, Shuster says.

“That was the major part with doing the Colbert Report,” he said. “Colbert has a huge following through the college ranks. Those are the people that curling needs to attract, people in their 20s, to become lifelong members and that will help our sport flourish.”

Another medal wouldn’t hurt, either. After a year of training and competitions, the U.S. quartet of Shuster, John Benton of St. Michael, Minn., Jeff Isaacson of Duluth and Jason Smith of Chisholm are expected to vie with defending gold medalist Canada, Norway and Scotland for that honor.

“They’ve gone through more intensive training than any other Olympic team, so hopefully they will be ready for the challenge,” said Rick Patzke, USA Curling’s chief operating officer.

Shuster said he expects to be in contention.

“The world has gotten better at curling, but we’ve developed and can beat the best teams in the world on a regular basis,” Shuster said. “Being around for the medal round is a likely scenario, and when you get to the medal round anything can happen.”

Rick Weegman is a reporter at the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.