Ralph Roza looks out across the ice at chilly Baxter Arena.
Technicians spray water over freshly applied logos. Another crew member spritzes water along a strip of foam, sealing it into place.
A transformation — from hockey arena to curling sheet — is underway.
Omaha will become the nation’s curling capital when the weeklong U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Curling begin Saturday.
Three women’s teams and five men’s teams are set to compete for the chance to represent the U.S. at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Roza, a longtime Omaha curling coach who helped prepare the ice this week, says he hopes the Trials inspire locals to check out the niche sport, which for years has had a dedicated following in Omaha.
“Who knows, five, 10 years from now, we might have competitive curlers back competing for juniors or nationals,” he said with a smile.
Organizers say the Trials won’t bring the crowds like past Olympic events held in Omaha, including the Swim Trials in 2008, 2012 and 2016.
“But it’s going to be just as exciting,” said Lindsay Toussant, director of events for the Omaha Sports Commission, one of the entities hosting the Trials.
Omahans are already showing that they’re intrigued with the sport that involves sliding heavy stones across the ice toward a bull’s-eye called the house.
More than 2,000 all-session tickets have been sold, Toussant said.
That’s more tickets sold than during the previous curling Trials in Fargo, North Dakota, and Broomfield, Colorado, she said.
More than 14,000 people attended six of eight 2016 Swim Trials night sessions at the CenturyLink Center. Total attendance neared 200,000.
Toussant said she expects that most people attending the Curling Trials will be from the Omaha area and that walk-up, single-game tickets will be popular.
While curling is more common in cold-weather states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, Omaha landed the Trials in part because of its facilities.
Baxter Arena, which has two sheets of ice, will allow fans and visitors to curl on the Holland Community Ice. Meantime, the Trials take place in the main arena.
Close proximity to the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Aksarben Village at 67th and Center Streets didn’t hurt, either.
At least two nearby hotels, the Courtyard Marriott and Residence Inn, have sold out of rooms for a few nights during the Trials.
Kristi Jokela, director of sales at both hotels, said the Trials aren’t providing a College World Series-size boost.
“But for November,” she said of the normally quiet month, “it’s awesome.”
Omaha has quietly had curling fever for decades.
The active Aksarben Curling Club produced nationally competitive athletes through the 1990s and early 2000s.
The club’s momentum dipped after losing its ice at the Ak-Sar-Ben Livestock 4-H Barn. Since then, the group has played on various hockey ice in the metro area.
The club now plays on Baxter’s community ice. Ultimately, the club is hoping for its own “dedicated” ice used only for curling.
Club President Steve Taylor said he expects the club’s ranks to expand as the sport gets more exposure through the Trials. More than half of its 200 members are beginners, he said.
“People in Omaha are up for trying new things,” said Taylor, who started curling a decade ago after attending one of the club’s learn-to-curl events. “A lot of people we get say, ‘Hey. It looked weird and fun, so I’m going to try it.’ It’s a social sport.”
What’s there to like about curling? There’s too many things to name, said Derek Rau, the local curling club’s head instructor.
Rau and others said it’s a family game, like golf or bowling, that can be played at any age. Players need to use strategy and mental toughness. While physically demanding, it doesn’t require players to be bigger or stronger than their opponents.
Curlers like to have fun, too. Players who are part of the Aksarben club go for drinks after playing. As tradition has it, winners buy losers drinks.
Omaha City Councilman Pete Festersen has curled since he was a kid and in 1988 was part of an Omaha team that won fourth place at nationals.
He’s throwing the ceremonial first stone during the opening ceremony at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Others helping are Justin Marshall, a member of the 2018 U.S. Paralympic Curling Team; John Shuster, a team captain competing in this year’s Trials and a 2006 Olympic curling bronze medalist; and Kelly Stephens, a longtime local curler and retired police officer.
Festersen said he thinks the city will embrace the Trials, as it has major competitions in other sports.
“These are world-class athletes we’ll be seeing on TV on the world stage in February,” he said. “It’ll be neat to get behind them while they’re here.”
U.S. Olympic Team trials for curling
When: The U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Curling begin Saturday and end Nov. 17 or 18. The playoffs are a best-of-three format. They begin Nov. 16.
How to go: Tickets can be purchased at the Baxter Arena box office or by calling 800-745-3000. They’re also available through any Ticketmaster outlet nationwide or online at ticketmaster.com. Single-day tickets range from $5.50 to $24. All-session tickets range from $70 to $100.
How to watch: The Trials will be streamed online on the NBC Sports app or NBCSports.com. The playoffs will air on NBCSN.
What to look for: Nebraska Brewing Co. and the Aksarben Curling Club partnered on a new curling-themed beer called Sliding Stones Scottish Ale.
How to meet athletes: The Team USA WinterFest is 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday at Stinson Park, 2285 S. 67th St. The free public event will include three-time Olympian bobsledder and Nebraska native Curt Tomasevicz and 2017 U.S. curling champion Jamie Sinclair. For more information, go to TeamUSA.org/WinterFest.
What else is going on: The Big O Bonspiel, a series of six three-game tournaments, will be held between Olympic Trials games on the Baxter’s Holland Community Ice. The tourneys, hosted by the Aksarben Curling Club, start Friday. For more information, visit squareup.com/store/big-o-bonspiel.