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World's biggest bonspiel open to women curlers in 2014

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The 125th MCA Bonspiel next January will be the final time the historic annual curling tournament will be played as a men’s only event, Curl Manitoba officials announced today.

But it will also be, in a strange way, the first time it is played as a men’s only event.

Regarded as the world’s biggest bonspiel, only men’s teams have ever played in the MCA Bonspiel. But the Free Press learned -- and reported -- last winter that there was technically nothing that had been stopping women’s teams from entering all those years because the MCA Bonspiel had actually been listed on Curl Manitoba’s books as an "open bonspiel" all along.

After the Free Press stories ran, a number of women’s curlers -- including former world champion Jennifer Jones -- expressed interest in entering this winter’s historic anniversary bonspiel and a number of women’s teams contacted Curl Manitoba offices about becoming the first to break the gender barrier by entering.

All of which caused some concern within Curl Manitoba that their plans to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the longest continuously running sporting event in this province would be overshadowed this winter by the fall of the gender barrier instead.

Curl Manitoba executive director Shane Ray said today that after a survey of the province’s curlers found an even split on whether this was the most appropriate winter to allow the gender barrier to finally fall, the decision was made to put a one-time rule in place just for this year’s event expressly prohibiting female curlers and then actively open up the event to both sexes beginning with the 126th renewal in 2014.

"It really was split down the middle -- 48 per cent in favour, 48 per cent opposed and 4 per cent who didn’t care," said Ray. "So we decided in the end to make this a men’s only event for just one more year and then open it up after that."

By opening up entries to women, organizers are also opening up the prospect of mixed teams entering. And it’s hoped that all those new potential entries will help reinject life -- and heft -- to an event that has seen entries steadily decline over the past decade from what used to be an annual count of at least 512 teams -- over 1,000 teams entered the 100th anniversary event in 1988 -- to something more in the range of the mid-300’s the past few years.

Winnipeg skip Chelsea Carey said today that she will almost certainly enter a team into the MCA Bonspiel in 2014, noting it would provide all the top women’s teams in the province a badly needed tuneup event in advance of the women’s provincials, which take place every year in the final week of January immediately following the end of the MCA Bonspiel.

"We have nothing in January. And you can’t get ice during the MCA because every club in the city and the surrounding area is used for the MCA. So we probably would (enter)," said Carey. "We have a month and a half (between their last curling event in mid-December and the women’s provincials). It’s terrible. So yeah, the MCA would be a good one because that timing is good for us."

The announcement of women being allowed into the MCA Bonspiel beginning in 2014 came on the same day, coincidentally enough, as officials also announced the creation of a whole new provincial mixed curling event -- the Manitoba Mixed Doubles Trials, to be played Feb. 15-17, 2013 at Wildewood Curling Club.

That event will be modelled on the mixed doubles format that has been played for years at the Continental Cup international curling event and the winner will advance to the inaugural Canadian Mixed Doubles Trials, Mar. 14-17 in Leduc, Alberta. The winner of that event will in turn go on to represent Canada at the 2013 World Mixed Doubles Championship in Fredericton, Apr. 13-20.

Curling officials believe a new and structured mixed doubles format that leads to a world championship will help bolster the sport’s pitch to the IOC that it should be added as a new medal event beginning with the 2018 Winter Olympics.


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