by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)
While Howard Wood, Sr., excelled in many sports, it was in curling that he attracted national attention, becoming noted for the many laurels he won on the ice, as well as his longevity in the game, which earned him the nickname, “Pappy.”
“Wood had a truly remarkable career,” wrote Morris Mott and John Allardyce in their book, Curling Capital: Winnipeg and the Roarin’ Game. “He was on teams that won seven grand aggregates and fifty-four trophies at the (MCA) bonspiel.
“He skipped rinks to victory in two Briers (1930 with the same team as in 1925, except Jim Congalton replaced Johnny Erzinger at third; and 1940 with third Ernie Pollard, Howie Wood, Jr., his son at second, and lead Roy Enman). He threw third rocks on another Brier-winning team in 1932 (skipped by Jim Congalton).”
“He was a beautiful curler,” is how C.H. Scrymgeour, who curled with Ken Watson, another Manitoba curling superstar, in the 1930s and 1940s, described Wood in an interview with Mott and Allardyce (Manitoba History, Autumn 1987). “You never realized how nice his game was, until you realized you were in a hell of a hole! Oh, yes. He would be playing his shots and you’d wonder, ‘Why is he playing this, why is he playing that, why isn’t he taking out my shot rock?’ and then suddenly you missed a shot and he’d pick up four.”
Wood was one of the early superstars of curling in a city and province noted for producing a number of the best in the game, including Bob Dunbar, Mac Braden, Frank Cassidy, Leo Johnson, Ab Gowanlock and Gordon Hudson.
In 1972, Wood was voted Curling’s Man of the Year, was inducted into the Canadian Curling Hall of Fame in 1974, the Canadian Sports Hall of fame in 1977, the Manitoba Sports Hall of fame in 1981, and was made an honourary life member of the Granite Curling Club and the Manitoba Curling Association (MCA).
When the Wood rink journeyed east in 1925, they weren’t sure whether or not they would be playing with granite or iron rocks. While Manitoba curlers had been using only granite for decades, Eastern Canadian teams were still using iron stones. But before they left, they received the welcome news that “Montrealers are making greater use of granites instead of irons in their inter-club play” (Free Press, February 18, 1925).
The newspaper reported 60 curlers were in Toronto a week earlier to compete in the annual Birks Trophy, a home-and-home curling challenge between the two cities. “This is the first real competition that the Montrealers have been using granites in as they have been using irons for the game for a good number of years.”
Winnipeggers had abandoned iron stones for granite in the 1880s.
Irons were the cheaper option for Canadian curlers in lieu of importing very expensive granite stones from Scotland. For years, there had been an unsuccessful search across Canada to find suitable granite that could be made into curling stones.
In addition, Québec curlers, the very first to take up the game in Canada, had for generations been using “irons,” so it was extremely difficult for them to concede that another variety of curling stones was superior.
To encourage the Montréal curlers to convert, Walter Stewart generously donated 180 pairs of granite stones. Stewart was said to have done more to promote the granite game than any other easterner.
While Wood and his team were in the Eastern Canadian city, they met Walter Stewart of the family that owned the Macdonald Tobacco Company and sponsored the Macdonald Brier Trophy won by the Winnipeg rink at the MCA Bonspiel. Steward, an avid curler, explained that his goal in sponsoring their trip was to bring attention to curling with granite stones in the Montréal, Québec City and Ottawa districts. Stewart was convinced that if frequent visits to Eastern Canada by Curlers from the West could be arranged, the merits of the granite game would overcome the prejudice of those then using iron stones.
Without the support of Stewart and other easterners, such as Peter Lyall, another Montréaler, the dream of a truly national men’s curling championship would not have been realized in the 1920s.
However, when Wood and company were in Eastern Canada, “Their interpretation of the game of curling with granite rocks was another question entirely and the well known ‘pass out and lie’ — i.e., hitting — game in the west, as against the prevailing ‘draw’ game in the east, was very incorrectly given a bad reputation by both Eastern curling writers and lovers of the ‘Irons’ game. It just wasn’t understood” (Free Press, March 3, 1952).
Actually, “irons” were not as suitable as “granites” for a hitting game — when even slightly warmed, the iron stones had a tendency to melt into the ice and become frustratingly difficult to remove — which helps explain the apparent lack of appreciation for the knock-out prowess of the Western Canadian curlers, who practiced both a hitting and draw style of play.
The Wood rink ended up playing games in Montréal, Québec City, Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, and Detroit. Of the 19 matches they played, they won 18, sometimes by scores of more than 20 points. Their only defeat occurred in Montréal when they were defeated by Peter Lyall by a score of 8-7.
In the last game of the series, which was played in Toronto against the W. Scott rink, Wood won 12-4.
Also accompanying the Wood foursome east was a rink skipped by W.F. Payne, supported by D.W. Griffith, R.H. Hamilton and W.J. Ross. This rink of long-time curlers essentially served as ambassadors of the games, as Griffith was both the president of the Granite Curling Club and the MCA. The focus during the eastern tour was entirely on the Wood rink.
“As winners of the first free trip offered in connection with the Macdonald Brier competition at this year’s bonspiel, we feel that we have enjoyed one of the finest curling outings ever experienced,” Wood told a gathering on March 9 at the Granite that was organized to mark the return of the team to Winnipeg.
The Wood rink officially received the Macdonald brier Trophy, emblematic of being the first provincial men’s curling champions, from Cameron on November 12, 1925.
Although the journey east was described by the Free Press as somewhat anticlimactic and created only a “ripple of interest and a few lifted eyes,” the worthiness of establishing a national championship had gained a number of influential supporters.
Among them were Cameron and Payne, who, following Wood’s success, were convinced that the establishment of a Canadian championship was indeed possible. In their corner was the tobacco company, which again agreed to send the winner of the Macdonald Brier Trophy in the MCA Bonspiel to Eastern Canada.
In 1926, the George Sherwood rink from the St. John’s Curling Club in Winnipeg won the Macdonald Brier Trophy, defeating a rink skipped by Jim Congalton of the Granite.
Sherwood and his teammates, third C.A.V. Edge, second L.S. Tingling and lead R. Vincent, won the Holt Renfrew Trophy at the Québec City Bonspiel, becoming the first Western rink to win a major curling event in Eastern Canada. In the final, they defeated fellow Winnipeggers, skip Mac Campbell, third T.J. Low, second D.W. Stocking and lead F.J. Campbell of the Thistle Curling Club, by a 9-3 score.
The journey east by Wood in 1925 and Sherwood in 1926 set the stage for the first Macdonald Brier national men’s curling championship held in Toronto in 1927. Unfortunately, no Manitoba team made the trip east. The West was represented by the Ossie Barkwell rink of Yellow Grass, Saskatchewan, which defeated Congalton in a two-game series played at the Granite Curling Club, 11-10 and 13-9.
The first Macdonald Brier Tankard was won by a foursome from Halifax skipped by Prof. Murray Macneill. Macneill finished with a 6-1 record in the round-robin series, while Barkwell was well back in a three-way tie for fourth place with a 3-4 record.
For the next Macdonald Brier in 1928, the trustees decided that only individual provinces should be represented in the Canadian championship, although a couple of city rinks, rather than provincial representatives, did participate.
As a result of the rule change, the foursome of skip Gordon Hudson, third Sam Penwarden, second Ron Singbush and lead Bill Grant headed east to Toronto to represent Manitoba. The Hudson rink from the Strathcona Curling Club in Winnipeg claimed the Canadian title after winning a three-way tie-breaker series. The Hudson rink also won the Brier in the following year, and gained their place in the history of the event by being the first foursome to go through the competition undefeated.
The Brier competition the following year for Wood and his Manitoba team was stiffer. At the end of the eighth round of games at the Toronto Granite Curling Club, Alberta, skipped by Bobby Munro, led the way with a 7-1 record, while Manitoba was in second place at 6-2 with just one draw remaining.
In the last draw, Alberta struggled and dropped its final game to Québec, 15-8. In fact, Alberta’s final two games of the Brier were against two teams from Québec, one a club team from Montréal (a club team from Toronto also competed in the Brier, but a change to only provincial representatives was made for the 1932 national championship) skipped by Peter Lyall, and the other the provincial representative skipped by John Darby. Munro’s opportunity to win the Brier during round-robin play slipped away when he first lost to Peter Lyall in his second-to-last draw, and then to Darby in his final game of the nine-game series.
On the other hand, Wood’s rink soundly defeated the Nova Scotia rink, 17-3, in the last draw, which meant Alberta and Manitoba would have to play a tie-breaker to determine the Brier champion.
“Howard Wood outcurled Young Bobby Munro by a wide margin,” reported Free Press sports editor W.G. Allen on March 1, 1930, from Toronto, “but the most important shot of the game was a draw made by the youthful veteran from Winnipeg on the eighth end. His steady support slipped on that end, and when Howard told Jimmy Congalton to give him the broom for a wide draw, and the stones certainly take some broom on this ice, Howard played it perfectly to slip by the guards and draw the four foot rings” to score one.
At this stage, Howard was three up and took control of the game, gaining another two in the 11th following two misses by Munro to be five up coming home. Alberta’s two in the 12th end made the final 12-9 in favour of the Wood rink.
“Without any question of doubt they (Wood and company) have been the best rink in these finals and spectators with odious comparisons in the early stages, with the record made by another great Winnipeg rink, that of Gordon Hudson, in the last two years, were forced to change their opinions in the last two days. Yesterday (February 27) and today (February 28) the Wood boys (Howard, and his brothers Vic and Lionel) and Jimmy Congalton curled brilliantly. Over-cautious at the start, they stepped out Thursday morning and since then have turned in some of the finest exhibitions it is possible to witness.”
In his Free Press column, In the Realm of Sport, on March 1, Edward Armstrong wrote that it wasn’t looking very good for Manitoba on the last day of the Brier, “but the glorious uncertainty of the great game of curling was never more decisively expressed at the Canadian finals yesterday morning. Quebec stepped out and created a tie for the aggregate honors by beating the Albertans. Wood had given the same quartet (Québec) a bad trimming the day previous and the princely tankard appeared in the bag (for Alberta). But the plot thickened and unravelled beautifully for Manitoba, Winnipeg, and last but not least the Granite club.”
With Wood’s victory in 1930, Manitoba had won three successive Briers, and would continue to monopolize the national men’s curling championship for most of the next two decades.