Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ice is like a box of chocolates

You never know what you're gonna get in MCA

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There are 17 different ways to fall in the 124th MCA Men's Bonspiel.

Please note: This number arrives absent of statistical theory or scientific methodology and no math was harmed in its proclamation.

The figure is simply an exaggerated guess, stemming from the fact the MCA -- 352 teams strong this year -- is being played at 17 different curling venues in and around the city of Winnipeg.

That's 17 different ice surfaces and 17 different pebble conditions, varying from quick and straight to swingy and slow -- with some sheets holding a frustrating blend of all four characteristics. In one club, it's possible a stone won't come off the centre line no matter how much you torque the handle. Other places, if you throw too light, the swing could curl your rock onto the sheet next to you.

La Salle's Randy Neufeld called the MCA "one of the toughest events to win." The box of chocolates that represents the ice at the MCA bonspiel is the reason.

"There aren't many places that have the same ice and that's the battle," he said after his team (third Curtis Bale, second Andy Stewart, lead Scott Podolsky) defeated Thistle's Scott Labonte 8-2 in the Friday morning draw.

"You have to be able to figure it out quickly because if you don't, the game can get away from you in a hurry."

No kidding. With only eight ends to work with, teams that get off to a slow start reading the ice they're on could be up in the lounge before they know it.

An informal poll of curlers yields few complaints about the lay of the frozen land, though. If the ice at the Granite "really swings," as one curler noted, that mobility is quickly made up by the quick surface at the Fort Rouge rink.

This unpredictable element is what many point to as the reason they love the MCA in the first place.

Speaking of unpredictability, there's the sliding scale of competition, as well.

There are two types of teams in the MCA: Those targeting one of the five berths available for the 2012 Safeway Championship in Dauphin next month and those looking for some good male bonding, a good laugh or two, and an opportunity to make a good shot once or twice a day.

"That's one of the tough things for guys looking for a berth; you never know what level of opponent you're going to get," said Deer Lodge's Sean Grassie, who is one of a handful of participants already booked for Dauphin. "Add the ice challenge to that, and guys can sneak up on you.

"There are a lot of capable curlers in Manitoba. You might not know their names or they might not be on the tour, but they're out there."

Neufeld is one of the teams still searching for an invite to the men's provincial championship, and knows how treacherous the MCA path is. Last year, he picked up the final berth for the Safeway Championship on the last day of the MCA bonspiel and carried that momentum into a top-eight finish at the provincial event.

He said playing in the MCA helped him not only get into the Safeway Championship; it also gave him an opportunity to find a rhythm to his game.

"You play a lot, which helps teams like us who might not get to play as much as some of the others," he said. "It helps you feel more comfortable; that's the advantage those upper-tier teams have. They're used to the pressure."

So if there are (unofficially) 17 different ways to lose in the MCA bonspiel, what's the secret to winning this thing?

Like most sports, talent and ability play a big role. A favourable schedule always helps get through the curling marathon and a little bit of luck will never be turned away when it glides up to the house. Grassie, who played 11 games in the MCA last year to win the Free Press event (one loss), points to one other thing teams need.

"You just have to be patient," he said. "It sounds simple, right?"

NOTES: MCA organizers had a headache on their hands when the draw computer crashed late Friday afternoon. With the system down, the schedule had to be put together manually, forcing an hour delay to the 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. draws... Curling action is scheduled to resume this morning, with Draw 8 scheduled for 9 o'clock.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 21, 2012 C4

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