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'72 Grafton curling team's lost victory still shapes the lives of its members

GRAFTON, N.D. -- A visitor to the Extra End bar was scanning the walls and asking about a trophy, and John Aasand let a smug, Buddha-like grin spread across his face.

The 2008 World Men's Curling Championship begins Saturday in Grand Forks' Ralph Engelstad Arena, with opening ceremonies Friday night followed by round robin play Saturday and Sunday. Action continues through the week and concludes with championship play Sunday, April 13.

When your team finishes second in the world, there must be a trophy, the visitor was saying. Where is it?

Eyes twinkling, the grin widening, Aasand bounded from his stool and beckoned for the visitor to follow as he strode through the sports bar he opened in Grafton 32 years ago and named for one of sports' greatest snatching-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory stories.

It's a story that's been told many times: how a 21-year-old Aasand and three Grafton buddies won local, state and national curling titles in 1972, reached the title match at the world championship in Germany, appeared to have won the title -- but lost it with a freak misstep and a heart-breaking overtime ... an extra end.

Aasand is a big man, with a big, gravelly voice that suggests a pro wrestler or mob boss with a microphone. His sweepers never had to strain to hear his shouted instructions. But even now, after a lifetime of abusing his knees on ice and off, he moves quickly and with a surprising grace.

He reached the back of the bar and flew down an old wooden staircase to the basement, the dark, cluttered supply room he calls the dungeon, and picked his way to a shelf bearing a gallon jar of martini olives and stacks of plastic beer cups.

There, beneath a layer of dust, Aasand found the engraved silver platter he and his mates brought home from Garmisch-Partenkirchen when they were young and -- almost -- kings of the world.

Using a sleeved elbow, he rubbed away enough dust to read the engraved words: The 1972 Silver Broom. The world curling championship. Second place.

He held the platter for a moment, then without ceremony set it back onto the shelf, behind the olives.

"I live for today," Aasand said gruffly, explaining as he climbed the stairs why the ornate silver trophy wasn't on display upstairs. "In 32 years, I don't think I've ever brought it out," he said. "I never have dwelt on the past."

'We were good'

They were youngsters in 1972, but they already were competitive curling veterans. As boys, they had beaten past national men's champions, some from their own club. Winning the right to advance out of the Grafton Curling Club in 1972 may have been as tough a challenge, in fact, as winning the state and national titles.

Three of the four were roommates at UND: lead Ray Morgan, skip Robert LaBonte and Aasand, who curled second. John's brother, Frank, who curled third, attended NDSU in Fargo.

They had the confidence and cockiness of youth, and they were easy to spot on the ice. "We wore gold or red pants," John Aasand said. Opponents sometimes complained the garishly colored pants blinded them and affected their shots.

"We knew we had the ability to win" at the world championship, he said. "We were confident. We hit on all cylinders. We knew we were good."

The title match was against a strong Canadian team that had trounced the Grafton boys in a preliminary round.

"On paper, the Canadian team was the better team," Aasand said. "They had slaughtered us in the round-robin. But we knew that if we could get a couple breaks, we could beat them. And in the final, they realized it, too. They realized that these four young guys had come to play."

Going into the 10th and final end of regulation play, the Americans led the Canadians by two points. All they had to do in that last end was hold the Canadians to a single point and the Silver Broom was theirs.

"I told the guys, 'We each have two rocks to throw. If we make our shots, we're world champions,' " Aasand said.

The Canadians had the hammer -- the last rock. After Orest Meleschuk, the Canadian skip, threw the first of his two rocks, Canada was in position to score three. But with his second and final stone, U.S. skip LaBonte knocked out two of them.

Thirty-six years later, LaBonte is still proud of that last shot.

"I knocked out two, and Meleschuk had to hit my stone out and stick to score two," LaBonte said by phone from Minot, where he works as a financial adviser.

The Canadian rock did stick in the house, but it appeared to be a shade outside LaBonte's.

"I saw my brother raise his broom, signaling that we had won," John Aasand said. "They had scored only one.

"Robert [LaBonte] was standing there. He jumped, and he slipped on the ice. I had never seen him slip on the ice before.

"I asked him, 'What happened?' He said, 'I kicked the rock! I kicked the rock in!' It was like he was in shock."

In the extra end, Meleschuk made a great shot, burying his last rock behind a guard, and LaBonte wasn't able to respond. The shaken young Americans stripped off their gloves and shook hands with the world champions.

"I think we won," LaBonte said last week. "Frank saw the rocks. Back in '72, he had a pretty sharp eye.

"But it was a short tenure. We were champs for about 7 seconds."

Curlers from around the world tried to console him and his teammates. "They said, 'You're young. You'll get back.'

"But we never did."

No animosity

They came close to getting back to the world championship several times, including the following year when they finished second at nationals. Since 1972, John Aasand has curled on teams that finished second at nationals four times and third twice.

He still curls, but after a double knee replacement three years ago, he shoots with a stick, "like in shuffleboard." That's OK, he said, because "it's the camaraderie that always came first in curling," even in the competitive years.

"My problem was I liked to have fun," he said, the knowing grin spreading again across the always expressive face. "My father and uncle brought me up to understand curling was a social sport. Sometimes I put the social ahead of the curling."

It was a business partner who suggested opening a sports bar in 1975 and calling it the Extra End -- curling's version of the 19th hole, but also an open invitation for visitors to inquire about the 1972 leap from glory.

"If people bring it up, I'll talk about it," Aasand said. "But in all these years, I don't think I've ever brought it up myself. I just don't dwell on the past.

"Life has been good to me. I've been married for 32 years. I've had a good business for 32 years, and a wife (Debbie) who ran the bar all those years I was off curling." They have a daughter, Necole, and four grandchildren -- "three boys and a girl," he said, "my own mixed curling team."

He feels no animosity toward the Canadians who beat him in 1972, partly because they've never rubbed it in.

"Orest has never said to me, 'We beat you.' Every Canadian curler I've ever met has been a gentleman about it," he said.

Meleschuk will be at the world curling championship in Grand Forks later this week, Aasand said. The Canadian is, like himself, a fan of all things curling, including the ... camaraderie.

"We're partying together," Aasand said, grinning.

Good therapy

He and LaBonte remain close, too, "as close as we were when we were roommates in college," he said. "Heck, I trust him with my money; he's my broker."

LaBonte has been more inclined than the others to talk about what happened in 1972.

"I think it's been good therapy for him," Aasand said. "As a curler, Robert was never the same after we lost. He still could make the same shots, but he was more hesitant. He became more conservative, not the gambler he was."

But in all the years since, there have been no harsh words among the almost world champs. "We played as a team and we lost as a team," Aasand said. "Never, ever has any one of us pointed a finger at another member of the team."

LaBonte agreed.

"It was me who did it, and I was the skip," he said, so he takes primary responsibility for the debacle. "But nobody gave me any crap to my face."

He laughed. "I've heard, though, that every time somebody falls down in the parking lot at a curling club, my name comes up."

Over the phone, he described the unhappy sequence of events with the keen intensity of someone who was there but stood apart, watching, wide-eyed and disbelieving.

And he's still watching.

"You can Google 'curse of LaBonte' and see a clip that shows it in slow motion," he said. "It's become a novelty item."

Has he looked at it recently?

"I look at it every couple of months."

On the Web:

• CBC Archives video clip of Robert LaBonte's slip during the 1972 World Men's Curling Championships in Germany: http://archives.cbc.ca/programs/emission.asp?IDEmission=2

• 2008 World Men's Curling Championships information on tickets, lodging and entertainment:

www.worldmenscurling2008.com/

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com.

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