This week marked the first time Luke Spence played in Manitoba's biggest bonspiel, though he's curled for most of his life, and to get here it took a hell of a ride.
By land, the journey from Churchill to Winnipeg begins with an nine-hour train to Gillam. Then there is a 12-hour drive down the ribbon of highway that curls south at Thompson, and slices through the Interlake. Last week, Spence and his teammates from Gillam white-knuckled that part in a snowstorm, so that they could be here to curl in the Manitoba Open.
The bonspiel kicked off on Thursday, and by Saturday morning the whole journey was worth it.
"Last night at the Heather, you look around and you see all eight sheets going, I love it," said Spence, 39, tipping back a post-game beer at Rossmere Curling Club. "Just being involved in it, it's great. I get to experience this maybe once a year, when I curl in the Aboriginal Mixed Curling Bonspiel. In Churchill, you're only playing with six teams. It's not the same as when you come play here."
So goes the glory of the Manitoba Open, formerly the MCA Bonspiel and still -- although much shrunken from its heyday -- the biggest curling bonanza in the world. There are 256 teams in this year's bonspiel, and 15 curling clubs and too many empty beer cans to count. There are over 1,000 curlers bouncing across Winnipeg for their games, from Pembina to Heather to Granite, where the chiseled stone faces of last century's curlers still hold court on the walls.
And Luke Spence, he's the only curler at this Manitoba Open who came in from Churchill. So he says, anyway, but Spence makes the ice for the Churchill Curling Club, and it's not a very big town. He'd know if anyone else came down. "I was born and raised in Churchill, it's very rarely I go 'who's that?' " he said, with a laugh. "If I do, I make sure I find out right away."
The team Spence has in the Manitoba Open is a casual one, he hasn't played competitively since 2005. That ad-hoc assembly showed on the ice: They lost their first game in a blowout, and their second in a feisty 8-5 battle that went the full eight. It was the most competitive game at Rossmere on Saturday morning. "I tried some miracle shot, wasn't even close to making it," Spence said, with a sheepish grin. "There was no getting (the opponent's) red rock out of there."
But for most teams in the Manitoba Open, it's not really about the wins. It's about the people they meet, and the stories they take away.
See, Churchill is the kind of place where people live stories, and Spence has his share; he grew up in the northern gateway, and never really left. He had his adventures, moonlights as a DJ and worked as a bartender until 2006, when he landed a gig as a security guard at Churchill's one-stop-shop recreation complex. That set a new course for his life: the next year, the rink offered him the job of making the complex's ice.
Spence didn't even know how to drive a Zamboni when he started. "For the first couple of seasons, my ice looked like crap," he said, with a hearty laugh. "I've got it bang-on now. Well, the hockey ice is good, the curling ice is... meh. A little heavy, a little straight."
But Spence's work goes beyond just making the ice. He is also one of a handful of folks keeping curling alive in the town of just over 800 people, perched on Manitoba's rocky northeastern shore. Once, the town boasted a vital curling scene with eight men's teams, eight women's rinks and six more in the mixed league. Rocks were roaring three or four nights a week, and kids started curling in elementary school. That's where Spence learned, and how he fell in love with the sport.
Somewhere along the line, that scene started to dry up; one year, the town wasn't even sure there was enough interest to make it worth paying to put in curling ice. But Spence and three other diehards shouldered the work of keeping the Churchill Curling Club alive. It's not easy: When the crew looked to launch new leagues this season, just six mixed teams signed up.
"It's just that nobody wants to do it anymore," Spence said. "Everybody's too much into computers, and X-boxes and cellphones. I love my cellphone, but I still love to curl. I try to motivate people, like 'come on curlers, let's do something.' It's a lot of work."
But Spence has reason to hope: Tourists sometimes like to try their hand at the sport, and bonspiels seem to work. In November the town hosted a bustling 12-team bonspiel and right before Christmas they put together an eight-team event. "That was a good turnout," he said. "Eight teams, perfect, everybody had a great time."
So now Spence's first Manitoba Open is over, he will go back to Churchill with some new curling notes: He talked shop with Pembina's icemaker, and thinks some of the advice will help. Maybe he'll come back with a competitive team next year, he mused. In the meantime, he has a tenacious small-town curling club to keep him busy.
"I think it'll grow," he said. "Hopefully we get back up and running like a normal club. I will continue to do what I'm doing... you gotta keep it going."