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Grassie signing bestseller today MCA Bonspiel on rocks

Needs major revitalization or could be lights out

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And with that, the once-unthinkable is now on the table.

Curl Manitoba president Resby Coutts has sent a letter to all the curling clubs in Winnipeg and the surrounding area, calling for a complete rethinking of the MCA Bonspiel and for the first time putting up for discussion the possibility that this week's 125th renewal of the annual Winnipeg winter tradition will be the last one ever.

"I don't want to be the president who says we're ending a 125-year tradition ," Coutts said Friday.

"But over the next five years, I can see the Bonspiel dwindling to the point where it basically just dies from apathy. And it's too important to me and it's too important to too many people to let that happen. There's a time and place to have this discussion and that time is now...

"I'd rather let's end it with some dignity than let it whither away."

But what Coutts would prefer even more to that -- and the discussion he's hoping to spark with his dramatic proposal -- is a complete rethinking of the MCA Bonspiel that would allow it to continue for years to come in a entirely new form.

In his letter to the clubs, Coutts lays out a series of wide-ranging possibilities. On one end of the spectrum, there is simplest scenario of allowing the bonspiel to continue in its present form despite a dramatic and nearly uninterrupted decline that saw entries fall from 512 teams in 2003 to a 46-year low of 352 teams last year.

On the other end of the spectrum is simply shutting the whole thing down, tying a nice neat bow on a grand old tradition that attracted 448 teams in this special anniversary year, but which everyone agrees has long since passed its best-before date.

In between those extremes Coutts suggests other possibilities, including giving Brandon and southwestern Manitoba a chance to host the event occasionally.

But perhaps most provocative among Coutts's proposals -- aside from shutting the whole bonspiel down -- is a suggestion that would see the MCA Bonspiel change dates to something closer to spring and become a super-bonspiel, with competitive men's and women's divisions, a junior division, a senior division and then an entirely open division, where men, women and kids could all play together in any combination they chose.

Women have technically never been prevented from competing in the MCA Bonspiel and there was some talk it might happen for the first time this year. But MCA officials put in a special rule just for this year to preclude that possibility, with the understanding a much broader discussion of changes to the bonspiel would take place.

Coutts has asked clubs to discuss his letter at their own board level this month and meet with Curl Manitoba on the evening of Jan. 31 to discuss where it all goes from here.

Coutts said reaction from the clubs so far has been mixed, ranging from the usual "change is bad" crowd to others who think the conversation is long overdue.

"If bragging about this being the world's biggest bonspiel is the only reason we do it," says Coutts, "then why are we bothering?"

Coutts says the bonspiel's future is ultimately going to have to be dictated by the curling clubs and their memberships. He said that while the bonspiel turns a profit for Curl Manitoba -- about $40,000 in recent years -- when you subtract all the time, manpower and resources it takes Manitoba curling's governing body to put it together, it is barely a break-even proposition. What's more, Curl Manitoba has been given a quote of a whopping $45,000 to $65,000 to do the long-overdue computer update necessary to bring the bonspiel draw into this century.

Coutts said it is time clubs take ownership of the event and either remodel it and carry it forward, do nothing and let it die the death of a thousand cuts, or simply shut it down.

"Do I think there will be an MCA Bonspiel next year? Yes," says Coutts. "But I have absolutely no idea what it's going to look like."

SEAN GRASSIE is living his book.

The author of a new local best-seller about the history of the MCA Bonspiel -- Kings of the Rings -- is also curling in it this week and was undefeated heading into Friday night.

The book was the No. 1 local best-selling non-fiction paperback for the first three weeks it was out late last year and it finished the year seventh overall despite being out for barely a month in 2012.

"It's been selling really well. The publisher is very happy," said Grassie.

The book is available in most curling clubs in the city and surrounding area. Grassie is also doing a signing between draws today, from noon to 2 p.m., at Chapters Polo Park.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2013 C5

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