by Bruce Cherney
Since its earliest days, the annual Manitoba Curling Association Bonspiel has been called “The Big Bonspiel,” denoting it as the most prestigious bonspiel in the curling world.
This year’s 118th edition of the MCA, just completed, was whittled down to only 441 rinks participating, but the event still ranks as the biggest annual bonspiel in the world.
In its centennial year, the MCA Bonspiel had over 1,000 entries. In the years leading up to the 1990s, it wasn’t uncommon for over 700 rinks to participate.
From its earliest days, the MCA Bonspiel has attracted the world’s curling elite. This year was no exception, with teams coming from as far away as New Zealand. What made this year’s edition special was that it fell during an Olympic year. The United States Olympic team, skipped by Pete Fenson of Bemidji, North Dakota, participated as did the New Zealand Olympic team, skipped by Sean Becker. Both teams said they were using the bonspiel as a tune-up for the Turin, Italy, 2006 Winter Olympic Games in February.
The annual bonspiel started out in 1889 with 62 rinks from Canada and the U.S. The bonspiel evolved after seven curling clubs from Winnipeg, Portage la Prairie, Carberry, Morden and Stony Mountain decided on December 6, 1888, to form the Manitoba Branch of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club (which became the MCA). The Manitoba Branch of the RCCC was associated with the Ontario Branch of the RCCC which was in turn associated with the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in Scotland, established as “Royal” by Prince Albert in 1843.
The RCCC set the rules under which all associated clubs played, most of which are familiar to today’s curlers — setting the number of players at four per side, each player throwing two rocks, standardizing the length of sheets, etc.
The Manitoba branch by 1889 represented 700 curlers. Within five years, the branch was representing 35 clubs with 1,300 members. By 1903, the number of curlers had swelled to 3,000 from 97 clubs from as far afield as Schreiber, Ontario and Golden, B.C. The Manitoba Branch represented all the curlers of the North-West until the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were created in 1905 and formed their own separate branches.
As authors Morris Mott and John Allardyce wrote in their book, Curling Capital: Winnipeg and the Roarin’ Game, the city is special in the curling world for a number of reasons:
“One reason was that the city produced such a large number of top curlers, and the ones who represented their province and country compiled an enviable record.
“A second reason was that so many curlers from across Canada and around the world had learned, or were learning, from Winnipeggers to curl competitively.
“A third was the relationship between the members of the Winnipeg media and curling, especially the extensive coverage the various outlets gave the sport and the ways in which Winnipeg television producers and technicians pioneered means for broadcasting it.
“A fourth factor was that so many successful national and international championship events were held there.
“Finally, Winnipeg was still the site of the largest annual bonspiel in the world (the MCA).”
The first media reference specifically to local curling comes in the March 28, 1860, issue of the Nor’Wester. A letter from “Templeton” outlines curling as it was played in Scotland and mentions that some gentlemen in the then village of Winnipeg planned to form their own club to arrange games with curlers from the lower district of the settlement, which was presumably the St. Andrews area, where Lower Fort Garry now stands.
Apparently, the Royal Fort Garry Club was never formed, but documents from the era give evidence that curling was played, although not on an organized basis, upon ponds and rivers wherever a clear patch of ice could be found.
The creation of the Manitoba Curling Club on November 9, 1876, marked the beginning of organized curling in the province. Originally possessing 20 members, the club purchased land from businessman A.G.B. Bannatyne and constructed a rink on the present site of Victoria and Albert School. Eight members played their first club game on December 11.
Games at the Manitoba Curling Club were played using iron rocks, which led to a rift in the membership and the creation of a new club. Because of the splinter group’s preference for granite rocks, it was aptly called the Granite Curling Club. The Granite Club remains in existence to this day, though its location has changed throughout the years.
For three years, those who used iron rocks and those who used granite shared the same facilities, but with the popularity of metal stones waning, the iron club folded in 1883.
Another rift occurred in 1887 when a group of Granite Club members became dissatisfied with the rental arrangements at the “mother club,” and in 1887 broke away to form the Thistle Curling Club, which, like the Granite, exists today.
The Winnipeg Bonspiel was played over the course of two weeks in its early days and attracted thousands of spectators. They jammed into rinks to watch a collection of “the finest curlers ... in the world,” as described by the Rev. John Kerr, who arrived in the city in 1903 with a contingent of Scottish curlers.
In fact, curling was at first a more popular spectator sport than hockey and garnered more newspaper coverage.
In 1897, 80 rinks took part in the bonspiel. By 1898, there were 101 rinks and by 1902, there were 120 rinks. In the year that the six Scottish rinks, captained by the Rev. Kerr, arrived in Winnipeg, 171 rinks were entered in the annual curling extravaganza.
For two weeks, the bonspiel created a holiday atmosphere in Winnipeg. Hundreds of people journeyed to the Prairie community, especially after a 1898 railways’ agreement with the bonspiel organizers allowed special return fares for families, relatives and friends of the curlers. The curlers had always received a special rate, but the extension of the agreement meant that more people began to flood into the city.
Recognizing a bargain when they saw one, conventioneers from Western Canada began to plan their get-togethers to coincide with the annual bonspiel. Stores and theatres were also caught up in the holiday spirit and began to hold “bonspiel specials.”
An 1896 T. Lyon advertisement during the bonspiel offered “curling boots ... for the roarin’ game.”
Like today, newspapers carried extensive coverage of the Big Bonspiel. In 1894, the Daily Nor’Wester listed the communities and clubs participating as the Thistle, Regina, Selkirk, Gladstone, Morden, Brandon, Holland, Portage, St. Paul, Minnesota, Rat Portage (Kenora), Pilot Mound, Carman, Granite, Deloraine, Neepawa, Moosimin, the Assiniboine, the (Manitoba) Legis-
lature, Birtle and Duluth, Wisconsin, making for a total of 68 rinks entered.
“The Duluth curlers made their first bow to the Winnipeg bonspiel of ’94,” reported the Daily Nor’Wester on February 19, 1894. The Royal Caledonian Cup was here, but now it is not as the four gentlemen from the Zenith City have returned home with the cup.”
The newspaper said that two of the Duluth team’s curlers were Canadians and two were Scots. “The wonder is how they curled as well as Wilson is a Democrat and Dun-woodie is a Republican, but the two, opposite in politics, did great work and practically won the game as Smith as third is too long in the legs for his broom and didn’t ‘soop’ as well as some of the others.”
Curlers today would be surprised to know that games in the early days of curling were 24 ends. The number of ends dropped to 20, then 16 in the 1890s and 12 by the 1900s. In the modern MCA Bonspiel, 10 ends are used in the majors and eight ends in the minor events.
The first MCAs were six bonspiels in one with individual, club, challenge and international competitions.
“Winnipeg by no means had her own way in any of the contests and rink after rink fell before the victorious onslaught of Couchon of Fort William, Neff of Moosimin, and others from the smaller towns whose clubs are in affiliation with the Manitoba Branch (of the RCCC),” reported the Daily Nor’Wester on February 20, 1894.
The Grand Challenge — New York Life Trophy of Hamilton, Ontario — was the major event, followed by the Walkerville Trophy. The International was played between equal numbers of Canadian and American teams. The Royal Caledonian was an open competition pitting an equal number of rinks representing the clubs affiliated with the Manitoba Branch of the RCCC and those outside the branch. The Tuckett Trophy (which later became the top prize) was open to all clubs affiliated with the Manitoba branch. The Galt Trophy was open to clubs affiliated with the Manitoba branch, but outside the province. The Drewry Consolation medals were open to all rinks defeated in the first games of both the New York Life challenge and the Walkerville Trophy matches. All these competition trophies have since been replaced by other sponsors.
Prizes were also given to the team scoring the highest point total in a game during the bonspiel.
Typically, each member of a winning rink would receive either a silver cup, gold watch, gold medal or a gold fob, or any combination of these. In 1906, the main-event Tuckett trophy, awarded to the Youhill and Carson rinks, had as prizes eight Kodak cameras valued at $250 (a small fortune in those days).
A major event outside the bonspiel was a “smoking concert and reception.” In the early days, it was sponsored by the city and held at Winnipeg’s premiere hotel, the Manitoba, which burned down in 1899 and was never rebuilt.
All the event trophies were prominently displayed on a raised stand in the centre of the dining hall. The reception was at 9 p.m. sharp, according newspapers, and games in progress were stopped so that all the curlers could attend. The postponed games were resumed the next day.
In 1896, the Daily Nor’Wester reported that the smoking concert “was simply one mass of living beings, all eagerly intent on recognizing and greeting one another ... Like loyal citizens, the whole audience stood while the National anthem was sung, and the toast of ‘The Queen’ was smoked, in place of being drunk.”
Winnipeg Mayor Richard Jameson “gave a most spirited and appropriate address of welcome to the visitors.”
In keeping with the belief of the day that curling was a “manly” sport, the mayor compared its mental and athletic powers to the influence of the ancient Olympic Games.
“He did not profess to know much about curling, but one thing he did know about it, it was a leveller of caste — peer and peasant were ‘brither all’ on the ice; side by side on the curling rink stood the blue-blooded aristocrat of Winnipeg and the denizen of New Jerusalem (a name for the city’s North End).”
However, that wasn’t quite true, since working-class curlers were vastly outnumbered by those from the city’s so-called elite. Of 207 club members in 1898-99, a scant 24 curlers were identified as working class.
The bonspiel even had a special sermon delivered by the Rev. Hugh Pedley, of Winnipeg’s Central Congregational Church, who served as the chaplain of the Manitoba branch from 1894 to 1896 and from 1898 to 1900.
An avid curler, Rev. Pedley compared the game of curling to the game of life. As reported by the Manitoba Free Press, Rev. Pedley compared sweeping in curling to helping others in life; curlers who missed shots, because they failed to keep their eyes on the broom, were unlikely to succeed in life, since they had no definite objective; curlers who “hogged” rocks did so because they lacked resolution, curlers who fired rocks through the house lacked moderation; and curlers who raised an opponent’s rocks into the house played into the devil’s hands by acting with indifference to corruption and vice.
“And when the fading honour of the bonspiel should be passed, when cup and locket and medal should be gone to rust and decay, might it be theirs to receive the fadeless laurels from the King themselves as one who fought the good fight and left a good record in this world,” is an example of how curling, according to the Rev. Pedley, assumed the status of a noble sport.
Early games of the two-week bonspiel were marathon events and scores could be in the high 20s and 30s. The scores were also high because purposely using “weight” to remove an opponent’s rock was rare — the “draw” was the dominant weapon of curlers.
But, Winnipeg curlers such as Mark Fortune, W.G. Fraser, Sam Harstone, W.A. Carson and H.R. “Bob” Dunbar by the early 1890s were developing the “take-out” game. Winnipeg curlers also used in-turns and out-turns to “fade” or “draw” rocks across the ice. In 1903, a Scot curling in the city said “long guards are of no use” because the Winnipeg teams simply went around them.
Besides being marathon matches, the number of games played to win the overall championship was staggering. Typically, the grand aggregate championship in today’s MCA Bonspiel involves winning about 14 to 16 games in the majors.
One hundred years ago, the Winnipeg Morning Telegram reported that the “Mac” Braden rink of the Thistle won 25 of 26 games played, taking the Dingwall and Tetley Tea trophies.
“To go through a bonspiel with 147 rinks competing and to lose but one game is something for which the Thistle men have reason to feel real proud.”
The newspaper proclaimed their feat “a record that will stand for some time. It has never before been equalled, and it is not likely that it will be surpassed for a long time.”
The only game the Braden rink lost was to Bob Dunbar of St. Paul, who was a former Winnipeg curler.
Braden was called “the animated iceberg” for his coolness on the ice.
“By their ability to vary their style sometimes playing the ‘draw’ game almost totally, and on other occasions trying nothing but ‘running’ shots, much of Braden’s rink’s success is due,” reported the Morning Telegram. “When they found they could not get the counts fast enough one way Braden was able to alter his tactics and always for the better, for he and his men are as proficient at one game as the other.”
Dunbar was the first superstar of curling. Born in Pictou, Nova Scotia in 1860, he arrived in Winnipeg in late-1870. An all-around athlete, he was introduced to the game in the late-1880s while he worked as a bartender in a hotel near the Thistle Curling Club.
Whenever he had a spare moment from his job, Dunbar would walk to the Thistle to hone his curling skills.
Dunbar is noted as being the first to effectively use the slide delivery. He learned the delivery by bending his knees more than any other curler when throwing a rock. His delivery was smoother, and greater accuracy was produced if he allowed his momentum to carry him a short distance from the hack.
By the time he had left, a group of young curlers led by Braden had learned the finer points of the game from him and carried on his tradition.
“By 1903,” wrote Mott and Allardyce, “...Winnipeg was the headquarters of a major curling association that was promoting improvements in the game and was sponsoring the world’s greatest bonspiel ... Winnipeggers could legitimately claim by this time that theirs was the greatest curling city on earth.”