Do you believe in miracles on ice? Ready for another Cool Runnings? Then start following the Israeli curling team with Olympic hopeful Jeff Lutz of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
Implausible as it sounds, curling is hot in Israel, thanks to the meteoric rise of its fledgling team – five Jewish athletes selected less than a year ago from a search through the top curling clubs in the U.S. and Canada. Israel’s men’s team was assembled after an invitation-only tryout in Blaine, Minnesota, where 20 finalists were evaluated by legendary curlers from Winnipeg, Terry Braunstein and Ray Turnbull.
The five players selected to represent Israel are:
- Skip (Captain): Adam Freilich, 22, Montreal. Curled for 8 years. Father is Israeli. Home club is Montreal West. Student at Concordia.
- Third: Yuval Grinspun, 36, Toronto. Curled for 19 years. Born in Kfar Saba, Israel. Home club is East York. Business Process Analyst for Toronto Transit Commission.
- Vice Skip/Second: Jeff Lutz, 31, Jewish Detroit’s own. Curled for 16 years. Became an Israeli dual citizen in August 2014. Home club is Roseland Curling Club in Windsor, Ontario. Director of Marketing for TRIARQ Health, a marketing software and service provider for medical practices.
- Lead: Gabriel Kempenich, 19, Rockville, MD. Curled for 13 years. Born in Beer Yaakov, Israel. Home club is Potomac. Student at University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus.
- Fifth: Gilad Kempenich, 23, Rockville, MD. Curled for 13 years. Born in Tel Aviv, Israel. Home club is Potomac. Student at University of Maryland.
Against all odds
The team assembled on the ice for the first time at a three-day training camp held in Winnipeg in September. In October, Team Israel headed to the Netherlands for pivotal games in the 2014 European C-Group Championships. Shaking off a rocky start in their first international competition, the Israeli team curled seven straight wins to take home a silver medal, earning them a coveted spot in the European B Championships held in November in Monthey/Champéry, Switzerland.
Motivated by their silver-medal debut and fueled by their pride in wearing the Blue and White, Team Israel again prevailed in Switzerland with an impressive three victories in the B-Group Championships.
Such is the stuff of Olympic dreams. With the goal to keep winning, Team Israel will compete next in the 2015 European B Championships in Esbjerg, Denmark, where success will take them shot-by-shot and sweep-by-sweep all the closer to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
As Lutz observes, “What we’re doing is unbelievable! From that first sense of wow, we’ve hardly had the chance to let it all soak in to realize just how far we’ve come to compete on such a high level in such a short time. In terms of ‘curling years,’ we’ve got what it takes and really solidified as a team.”
Recalling the training camp in Winnipeg, Lutz speaks with reverence about the century-old Granite Curling Club, where legendary players have been made and were watching him compete. “I’m a geek of the game. Just being there, playing on that level, meant more to me than the actual tryout. At first, there was a lot of competition, jostling for the position we wanted on the team. But, by the end of the week, we were like college roommates, best buddies.”
But curling in Israel? Seriously?
It’s a Nordic sport . . . and a long shot across a sheet of ice to Olympic heights. No blades of glory, thrilling time trials or high jumps from mountains. Team Israel is five guys now living and training separately in four cities, and traveling worldwide largely at their own expense. Competing against full-time players and countries that pay millions of dollars for curling teams alone, Israel has only a handful of skating rinks and no dedicated facilities for the sport that involves throwing 42-pound granite rocks down a sheet of ice that is specially “pebbled” with a frozen mist suitable for sweeping shots.
What are the odds of the team securing their place at the Olympics? You gotta believe.
“The top thing I’ve learned through this experience is that you have to have a sense of humor,” says Lutz. “You can’t look at this thing without being an optimist and something of a dreamer, and when you say you’re the Israeli curling team, you have to say it with a smile and realize that it’s not only a cool thing, it’s also a funny thing — like a Jamaican bobsledding team.”
Curling is not new to Israel. Back in 1999, Israel joined the World Curling Federation (WCF) as part of a northern Galilee initiative to put the town of Metula on the winter sporting map. In spite of the best efforts of the town’s mayor, Yosef Goldberg, for the better part of a decade, the 64 curling stones donated by the WCF sat quietly on the sidelines, rarely used.
On the other hand, Lutz has never lost his passion for the game. Inspired by the sport at the 1998 Olympics (as he watched curled up on a couch late into the night), Lutz started playing on a championship level in his teens. As a student at Syracuse University, he won a silver medal and three bronze medals in the U.S. College Curling Championships.
“Actually curling is a good game for Jews,” he says “You can tell when you watch the game that there’s a great team component. A thinking man’s game, where gender is at equal footing. Like golf, it’s a quiet game of etiquette and finesse with a long tradition of camaraderie. For me it was really an accessible sport, one that didn’t have a huge learning curve. Even when I was playing my first tournament, what I was seeing immediately was that this was a sport that could really take me places. And there have been great friendships out there, too.”
“On the championship level, the field is narrow enough that everyone wants to be in the Olympics,” says Lutz. Israel is no exception with a long history of scouting Jewish winter athletes from the Diaspora, and initially, it was Lutz who approached the Israel Curling Federation (ICF) with the idea to enlist North American curlers for Israel.
While the ICF had been running occasional curling bonspiels (tournaments) for a membership of around 200 who now curl at ice rinks in Metula, Holon, Ashdod and Jerusalem, it wasn’t until last fall when that Israel got serious about fielding national curling teams. With the ICF’s development director, Simon Pack, Lutz helped organize the North American recruiting tour at curling clubs in Boston, Chicago, New York and two cities in southwestern Ontario: Windsor and nearby Leamington.
A natural leader, well suited to promoting as well as playing the game, Lutz dreams of growing the sport both here and in Israel. “Curling is a sport you can play well into your 70’s,” he suggests, “But we’ve got to get more kids out here. I think the opportunities for junior curlers is tremendous – you can be in the national championship fairly easily, if you get good enough.
Lutz’s enthusiasm is infectious. It’s easy to see how his position as vice skip (assistant captain) plays to his team’s advantage. “I love the role,” he says. “While the skip calls the shots, manages the show, the guys holding the brooms are the heart and sole of the team, working closely together. As vice skip, I get to work both the front end and back end of the team.”
Calling the shot
Meet Jeff Lutz off the rink and it easy to imagine his easy demeanor across a conference table with his clients in healthcare. On the ice, he’s all business beneath his ready smile, a tough competitor with steely focus. On the ice every chance he can get, he states, “I’m a practice nut. When it comes down to game day, I don’t want to be the guy who misses the shot because I didn’t practice. I always want to do my level best even in practice when no one is looking.”
It may be only the Roseland Curling Club in Windsor watching his every move now, but stay tuned to Jeffrey (Yaakov) Lutz in the months ahead. And hold on to that Olympic dream for another exciting season. To follow the team, visit Facebook at TeamIsraelCurling