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Bonspiel party might go coed

MCA event mulls letting women enter 125th edition

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The MCA Bonspiel is a lot of things, many of them record-breaking.

Celebrating its 123rd renewal when it opens tonight at the Grain Exchange Curling Club, the MCA Bonspiel is, for instance, the longest continually running bonspiel in the world.

And while the number of participating teams continues to drop -- 384 teams will be on the ice tonight -- it remains the largest annual bonspiel in the world.

Then there's the world record held by the 1988 edition, when 1,280 teams took part in the bonspiel centennial to become the largest single curling event ever staged.

But there is one thing the bonspiel is not now or ever has been -- coed.

That, however, may finally be about to change.

For the first time ever, bonspiel organizers are giving serious consideration to allowing women to participate in an event that has been an exclusively male bastion.

Shane Ray, executive director of the Manitoba Curling Association, said Wednesday a proposal is being considered to allow women and mixed teams to take part in the 2013 MCA Bonspiel as part of special celebrations being contemplated to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the event.

"We're talking about making 125 a completely open bonspiel," Ray says. "So that would mean everything from stick curlers, mixed teams, women's teams, junior teams -- everyone."

Now it bears noting that the subject of allowing women to enter the MCA Bonspiel has been broached several times in recent years as part of discussions about what to do about an event that has seen entry numbers drop more than 20 per cent in the past decade.

Every time it has come up before, the idea has been rejected by the people who still make the bonspiel a formidable local institution -- Manitoba's male curlers.

Ray says the resistance is still there.

"Guys have been talking to me and some of them aren't happy about it, but there appears to be more will to actually make coed happen this time, at least as a one-time thing in 2013.

"The flip side is I'm also hearing from guys saying that's an awesome idea," Ray says. "And I hope some of the others see the bigger picture. I'll be honest with you: I think it's a great idea.

"We need to do something different. We need to grab people's attention again."

The bonspiel has been in slow, steady decline for the past 10 years as entry numbers drop almost uninterrupted. The decline has continued even after an exhaustive review of participants led to sweeping changes to the format two years ago that reduced the number of games and number of days teams had to play.

At the same time, the women's equivalent of the MCA Bonspiel -- the MCA Women's Bonspiel, which runs a week earlier in January -- has also been plagued by declining entries. Last week's renewal, for instance, attracted just 13 entrants for the competitive division.

Put the two problems together and maybe there's a solution for both, says Cathy Overton-Clapham, who flew to Edmonton last weekend to practise with some Alberta teams rather than play in the MCA Women's Bonspiel as a tune-up for next week's women's provincials.

"The MCA Bonspiel always runs the weekend before the women's provincials, and that always makes it tough for us to get practice ice," says Overton-Clapham.

"And this year, there hasn't been much for women's events since the zones to get ready for provincials. So if we could play in the MCA Bonspiel, sure I'd do it.

"It would be a neat idea."

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

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