Manitoba’s first Brier winner — Hudson rink takes tankard after three-way playoff

by Bruce Cherney

In 1928, the Gordon Hudson rink had an opportunity to claim Manitoba’s first Macdonald Brier Tankard by winning its last game in the round-robin schedule. At that stage in the Canadian curling championship, Hudson and his teammates were one game up in the standings over the entire Brier field.

During the morning session of the last round-robin games of the 

final day of the Brier, the Strathcona rink was slated to face Dr. Vic McWilliams, who skipped one of two rinks from Toronto. 

The Strathcona  Curling Club rink was confident of victory over McWilliams, however,  they should have realized curling is a fickle sport that at times defies expectations. As it turned out, their confidence was misplaced and the Winnipeg foursome subsequently became involved in a unique Brier in Canadian curling history. 

During the early years of the Macdonald Brier (now Tim Hortons Brier), the format was significantly different than today’s national curling championship. For  the first Brier  in 1927, foursomes were designated as representing city clubs rather than provincial associations. In that year, the only Western Canada representative was a rink from Yellow Grass, Saskatchewan, skipped by O.S. Barkwell, which gained its berth by defeating rinks from Alberta and Manitoba in a special playdown.

But in 1928, the trustees of the Brier decided their original intent of holding a true national curling championship could only be fulfilled by only allowing entries from each provincial association. Yet, the 1928 format was still in a transitional phase — eight of 10 rinks did represent provincial  associations, including for the first time individual entries from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, but club teams representing the cities of Toronto and Montreal were also allowed to compete. For example, McWilliams represented the Ontario Curling Association, while the Charles Snow foursome earned a berth in the Brier as representatives of the Lakeview Curling Club in Toronto. The Montreal representative hailed from the Granite Curling Club (at that time most Canadian cities including Winnipeg, had a Granite club) and was skipped by William Hutchinson. It wasn’t until 1932 that city representation was officially dropped from the Brier format.

On the last day of the 1928 Brier, McWilliams’ win-loss record dictated that Ontario could finish no better than fourth in the final standings. But a Manitoba loss to McWilliams and wins by Alberta and Snow would result in a three-way tie for first place, sending the rinks into a winner-take-all playoff. 

At 7-1, the Hudson rink from Manitoba had the best overall record before playing its last game of round-robin competition. Meanwhile, the Snow foursome and the team representing Alberta had identical 6-2 records. 

During the last round-robin game, the Manitoba rink of third Sam Penwarden, second Ron Singbusch, lead Bill Grant and skip Hudson quickly fell behind 3-0 to McWilliams. But after the completion of the 12 regulation ends, the Manitoba foursome had fought back and tied the score at 8-8, sending the game into an extra end. An enthusiastic Granite Curling Club audience, described as “the largest crowd that ever witnessed a curling match,” cheered their home squad skipped by McWilliams.

Unfortunately for the Manitoba rink, the province’s first opportunity to become Canadian champions was momentarily dashed when McWilliams scored one and claimed victory in the extra end.

While Manitoba was suffering an upset at the hands of McWilliams, Snow and Joe Heartwell from 

Alberta won their final games. With Manitoba’s loss and the other two rinks’ victories, all three teams sported identical 7-2 records, necessitating a tie-breaking play-off round.

Another anomaly of the 1928 Brier was that the Heartwell rink represented Alberta despite hailing from Rosetown, Saskatchewan. In a quirk of curling during the era,  the community fell under the jurisdiction of the Alberta Curling Association, and the Heartwell rink had won the ACA bonspiel which earned them a berth in the Toronto competition. Stranger still was the fact that in prior years the Manitoba Curling Association membership included clubs from British Columbia to Northern Ontario as well as the northern United States.

While the Rosetown foursome gained its berth to the Canadian championship by winning the ACA Bonspiel, the Hudson rink claimed its ticket to Toronto by winning the McDonald trophy in the annual Manitoba Curling Association Bonspiel. 

“His (MCA Bonspiel) victory ... against the young Deer Lodge rink of Hugh McDonald was a typical one for Hudson,”  reported the Manitoba Free Press on February 20, 1928, “for it was a battle to the last rock, where the slightest slip in the closing stage would have meant defeat, and he came through to win by a single point, showing the reliability under pressure which is expected of the Strathcona skip.”

Yet, Hudson’s reliability under pressure failed him during his last round-robin game, and it remained to be seen whether the Manitoba rink could  reclaim its form for the tie-breaker series.

In the play-off round, the Hudson rink was first scheduled to face Alberta, while the Toronto rink was to take on the winner of the Manitoba-Alberta match in the second game. After that, the series would continue until a winner was decided. Including the last round-robin game, the winning team on that day would have played a minimum of three games. Meanwhile, the flaw in the plan was that the three teams could still be tied after the first series of games and the elimination process would have to restart. 

Manitoba’s first game against Alberta was no contest, as the Hudson rink jumped out to a commanding 5-0 lead after six ends and never looked back. When the 12-end game was over, Manitoba had defeated Alberta 12-7. 

The next game against Snow had a similar result, although it was close until Hudson cracked three in the fifth and then stole one, two and one in consecutive ends. The Manitoba rink dominated the later ends and by the completion of the 11th end, Snow and his teammates conceded a 10-6 victory to Hudson.

“The Manitoba victory, which transferred the residence of the tankard from Halifax to Winnipeg (the Murray Mcneil rink from Halifax won the first Brier in 1927), was a well earned one and the Hudson rink, on their play throughout the four days, deserved to carry the 

trophy west,” reported the Free Press on March 3, 1928. “In fact the other two rinks were somewhat flattered by ending the regular schedule on an even basis with the Strathcona.”

In the days prior to the free-guard zone rule, the biggest criticism against the Western rinks since the 1890s  was that they had made the game boring by resorting to a hitting (knock-out) game to protect a lead. But in 1928, the Hudson rink used a combination of draws and hits to claim their Brier championship. 

“The Manitobans did not play the knockout game as much as did their Alberta rivals, being content with adopting draw or slightly over draw style, but when it came to pinches they were there with the draw to the button,” according to the Free Press.

“The playing of the skip (Hudson) was the outstanding feature of today’s play and at least a dozen times during the three games (vs. McWilliams, Heartwell and Snow) he drew his stone into the four foot ring. The drawing of the Strathconas at the time was uncanny.”

In later years, Hudson admitted Westerners had mastered the hitting game, but at the same time they could draw as well as their Eastern counterparts. When  reading Hudson’s descriptions of how he skipped and played, it seems that what he is essentially describing is how the game is played today. The free-guard zone has transformed curling from a predominately hitting game to a game that relies upon the ability to throw different types of weight using greater finesse. 

Actually, Hudson later said the rinks he skipped rarely used heavy or firm  take-out weight during a game. He objected to even using the term knock-out to describe the removal of an opponent’s stone.

“It’s a clip-and-lie game,” said Hudson in a January 7, 1949, Free Press article explaining how 

Western Canadian curlers had come to dominate curling during the era. “We use it for a dual purpose: to get rid of our opponent’s stone, and at the same time save our own (today’s use of “control” weight). By knocking the other stone about half on, we can send it out of the house and still keep ours in (play).”

In 1949, Senate J.T. Haig, a Brier trustee, avid curler and builder of the sport in Manitoba, said the curling style in the West was never exclusively knock-out. Like Hudson, he explained, “We play a combination knockout and draw game.”

During its year-end round-up of the top sporting stories of 1928, the Free Press said the Hudson rink’s 1928 Macdonald Brier Tankard win took “precedence over all else in curling over the past year ... Gordon Hudson has for many years been recognized as one the best skips in Manitoba, and at the (MCA) bonspiel last winter, besides capturing the Macdonald Brier event, which entitled him to the Toronto trip, he also carried off the grand aggregate.”

Hudson was originally from Kenora, Ontario, where he was born in 1894. He and his brother Cliff regularly attended the annual MCA Bonspiel and were part of young Kenora rinks that continually showed they had mastered the skills required to become successful curlers. By 1916, the Hudson family had moved to Winnipeg. After serving in the First World War, Hudson joined the Strathcona Curling Club. In the 1920s, rinks skipped by Hudson won three grand aggregate titles and 11 other events at the annual MCA Bonspiel.

Hudson adopted a unique slide to deliver a curling stone, described in 1968 by Free Press sports writer John Down as not “a long one. In fact, he stopped about the eight-foot ring and always slid on the inside of his foot.”

He may not have possessed the long-slide used by curlers today, but Hudson is still recognized as a superb shot-maker and supreme tactician.

In Curling Capital: Winnipeg and the Roarin’ Game, 1876-1988, authors Morris Mott and John Allardyce  wrote that Hudson was known as being “an even better sportsman,” who was respected by teammates and opponents alike.

“He was the easiest skip to play for, and could convince all members of his rink that they were curling a fine  game. If a stone or two were missed, Hudson would take the blame for not reading the ice properly, or for giving the sweepers the wrong instructions ... Gordon Hudson was a special curler and a special human being.

“It was appropriate that he, the best curler of the day, should be the first Winnipegger to skip a rink in the Macdonald Brier ... His rinks were the first of many Brier teams which, over the next thirty years, confirmed the excellence of Winnipeg curlers and revealed to all Canadians just how far Manitobans had taken the ancient Scottish sport,” added Mott.

Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor J.S. McDiarmid, said, “Hudson’s name is known wherever gentlemen meet.”

In 1929, Hudson returned to Toronto as the Manitoba champ and successfully defended the national title he had won a year earlier. The rink he skipped had the same personnel as 1928, except Don Rollo replaced Sam Penwarden at third.

Ken Watson, a clubmate at Strathcona — the club known as the “home of champions” — and  the first triple-winner of the Brier (1936, 1942 and 1949), described Hudson as “the greatest curler of them all.”