Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Book tells roarin' good story

Grassie's chronicle a colourful examination of world's biggest, oldest curling event

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The following excerpt is from Chapter 1 of Kings of the Rings. It gives a description of the inaugural MCA bonspiel in 1889.

On the eve of the first bonspiel in 1889, the curlers weren't scattered around the city, waiting in their homes or hotels for play to start the next day. They were together at the Princess Opera House. Admission to the drama was free for visiting teams, while city curlers paid 25 cents each. Led by a band, the curlers marched in procession to the opera house. Each went in carrying a broom "and very imposing they looked with these instruments of warfare," wrote the Manitoba Daily Free Press (later renamed the Winnipeg Free Press).

Friends were already made. And the first rocks had yet to be thrown.

But, remember, some things in curling are out of your control. Can a bit of tough luck, though, wipe out an entire bonspiel? In 1889, it almost did.

Everything was ready for the start of play the morning of Tuesday, March 5 except one thing: the ice. No, the icemaker didn't sleep in. Warm weather was the culprit. And to think, the city set record low temperatures for February 22 (-41 C) and February 23 (-42 C) that year - records that still stand. Less than two weeks later, the ice was melting at the local curling rinks. Only in Winnipeg.

Well, if the curlers got a bit wet, so be it. It was decided at a meeting that afternoon to proceed with the bonspiel.

Never mind cleaning or pebbling the ice. The task before play began was to sweep off considerable amounts of water at the Granite and Thistle rinks. Off the curlers went, but it wasn't long before the ice was again covered in water. Rocks were sent "splashing through the water like a duck swimming over a pond," wrote the Free Press. Slush went flying when sweepers got to work, forcing spectators close by to duck. Any complaints? According to the Free Press, all of it "seemed to give a keener zest to the fun."

With 62 teams in the bonspiel and just nine sheets of ice (five at the Granite, four at the Thistle), a late start to Day 1 meant play ran all through the night. It wasn't until almost 8 a.m. when the last group of curlers came off. And you thought those 9 p.m. draws on the other side of town were bad?

The ice was in poor condition again on Day 2. The Free Press reported that if the warm weather persisted, "the bonspiel may be declared off for the present." Luckily, the temperatures dropped. How often do people in Winnipeg hope for that?

When Day 3 arrived, the ice was in its best condition all season. And a full day of curling was ahead. At 9:30 a.m. play began for the rinks skipped by William Sparling (Portage la Prairie) and Sam Harstone (Granite). Three games later and at just after 3 a.m. the next day, Sparling and Harstone emerged as the finalists for the bonspiel's main prize, the Grand Challenge Cup. At 5 a.m. another bonspiel event was wrapping up its games for the day.

Harstone beat Sparling 16-11 in 19 ends on Day 4. Spectators crowded around the sheet for the final and rushed onto the ice at "exciting periods of the game," wrote the Free Press. In an earlier bonspiel game, a policeman was called in to help keep the ice clear from spectators.

Day 5 belonged to the Americans. In the 'United States vs. Canada' contest, the Americans won by a 43-40 aggregate: J.H. Wells of Portage, Wisconsin beat Sparling 22-18 and Harstone edged William Rodger of St. Paul, Minnesota 22-21. The two American rinks were to play off for the International Cup, but Rodger's team was too tired and defaulted to Wells.

A bonspiel trophy was headed south. But the Americans weren't satisfied with just one.

They also won the 'Manitoba vs. All-Comers' contest (four rinks a side). The Manitobans finished ahead 68-60, helped in a big way by a 12-point win over a team from Guelph. But a residency issue arose: the Guelph team was largely composed of former citizens of that city now living in Manitoba. They shouldn't have played on the All-Comers side, protested the three other outside rinks. After winning their case, the game the Guelph team lost was awarded to the All-Comers.

With the All-Comers now the winners, their three teams were left to play off for the Tuckett trophy. Rodger beat John Flavelle of Lindsay, Ontario to set up an all-American showdown with Wells. But this time Wells defaulted the final to Rodger due to fatigue.

The curlers who needed a rest got it the next day. There was no Sunday curling at the MCA bonspiel until 1967.

Two more events were decided on the bonspiel's final day, Monday, March 11 (the spiel was scheduled to last three days and end the previous Thursday). W.G. Fraser of the Granite won the Walkerville tankard. The competition was open only to rinks affiliated with the newly formed provincial curling association.

Reprinted from the book, Kings of the Rings, 125 Years of the World's Biggest Bonspiel by Sean Grassie, with permission from Great Plains Publications.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2012 C4

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