AT the height of its glory, on its 100th anniversary in 1988, the historic MCA Bonspiel attracted 1,270 teams to cement its claim to the title of world’s largest bonspiel.
Two decades later, as the Manitoba Curling Association gets set to unveil a drastically overhauled and shortened 121st event after years of declining entries, the number of teams has fallen to fewer than 420.
"How do you address that?" drawmaster Mel Marsh said this week. "There was a decline in the country teams because it took too long for them -- to come in and play and to stay in a hotel, the cost of eating.
"It just got to be too expensive... It's too much of a grind for the curlers, so they wanted to make it easier for everybody. Hopefully we can increase the numbers in the bonspiel."
An event that at its zenith brought some 5,000 hurry-hard curlers together, lighting up lounges and cash registers in roughly 20 curling clubs in the Winnipeg area, now barely makes it over the hog-line.
There were only 441 entries in the bonspiel last year and as of Monday, despite a draw that has cut the bonspiel by two days, the number was at 412. The entry deadline was Jan. 15, but the MCA will take stragglers right up to the last minute for this year's spiel, which begins Thursday.
"There wasn't a lot of advertising about how the bonspiel was going to run," Marsh said. "This is the first year for it. You want to give it time to grow and hopefully it will. We don't know. That's the state of curling."
There are five berths up for grabs to next month's Safeway Championship provincial men's event in Selkirk and that's the enticement for teams like former provincial champ Randy Dutiaume.
But it was the club curlers -- the recreational, once-a-week teams that just want to be a part of the spiel and have fun, by wearing tuxedos or Santa Claus outfits, or to get a shot at world champions like Jeff Stoughton -- that made the spiel what it was.
Those guys are still around, but their numbers have been cut by one-half to two-thirds. The MCA Bonspiel, to many, has lost its lustre. For some, it's not the party of camaraderie and laughs, beer and burgers that it used to be.
New MCA executive director Shane Ray said that families have more things to do on cold winter nights. Entering the spiel means taking time off work or school. It's expensive.
He admitted the new and slimmed down bonspiel hasn't been promoted much this year, but it will be in 2010. His goal is for a return to a 512-team draw, which he calls realistic.
There's even talk of surpassing the 1,000-team level for the 125th anniversary of the bonspiel four years from now.
"When this one's done, we'll sit down, we'll look at everyone's suggestions and we'll potentially make some more changes and keep tweaking it and making it better," Ray said.
"And it'll be an event that some day, I'm sure, will go back up to the 512, if not more."
Veteran curler/broadcaster Bob Picken, who's been involved with 57 bonspiels in one form another, said the declining entries in the world's largest bonspiel is part of a general trend across Canada of reduced participation.
"Changing lifestyles is part of it," he said. "I think people are spending more time with their families than we used to... we find it in the curling club too. The curlers come, they play their game, they go in and have one quick drink and away they go."
Picken said the decision to do away with the bonspiel's Friday and Saturday night socials turned off some curlers who used it as a chance to fraternize and party with other curlers before returning to work on Monday.
"I think it's had some effect, no question."
HAVE YOU DITCHED THE BONSPIEL?
Are you a curler who threw the high, hard heater and took the annual MCA Bonspiel out of your life?
If so, tell us why.
Email your thoughts, in brief, to
and we’ll follow up in Thursday’s Free Press.
The new MCA Bonspiel -- a primerMajor changes for the 121st MCA Bonspiel that begins Thursday:
Reduced to five days from seven, to six guaranteed games from eight
One-sided draw, not two as in past years
Labatt's event now called premier event
Free Press, Safeway-Lucerne now called major events
Double knockout format remains; loss in Labatt's event drops team down to Free Press or Safeway-Lucerne; second loss drops team to lower events and out of contention for Safeway Championship berth
Five Safeway berths available through bonspiel
Two berths awarded to Labatt event winner and finalist
Two berths awarded to Free Press and Safeway-Lucerne winners
Final berth awarded to winner of playoff between Free Press and Safeway-Lucerne losing finalists
No grand aggregate trophy awarded due to single rather than two-sided draw
Team can win Labatt's event undefeated in as few as eight games
The eight fondest MCA Bonspiel memories of curler/broadcaster Bob Picken, who's participated in at least 57 of them in one way or another:
1. Watching Ken Watson dominate the bonspiel by winning six straight Grand Aggregate titles from 1942-1947 (plus one previous Aggregate victory in 1939).
2. Observing Bill McTavish's 1950 unbeaten streak in winning the Grand Aggregate, Birks and Eaton trophies, plus the provincial men's championship without a loss.
3. Playing against (and losing to) both Mac Scales and Bruce Hudson in the bonspiels of 1960 and '61 as they zoomed to unbeaten records in winning the Grand Aggregate those two years.
4. Beating Hersh Lerner in a bonspiel playoff for a Consols spot in 1968 with a 10th-end takeout through a narrow port at Deer Lodge (five years after losing to Lerner in the provincial final).
5. Broadcasting bonspiel results after every draw from the mezzanine floor of the Marlborough Hotel (along with three or four curling reporters on other radio stations, sometimes at the same time).
6. Reporting on the five Aggregate victories of Kerry Burtnyk from 1985-2001 (and missing a possible sixth title when his team and Jim Ursel's were tied and passed up a playoff in 1995. No winner was declared).
7. Commentating on Randy Dutiaume's Aggregate run in 2005, on his way to the Manitoba championship with a pickup team assembled before the bonspiel.
8. Curling in and reporting on the monumental MCA bonspiel of 1988, when 1,280 teams had the special experience of participating in the 100th edition of this super Manitoba sports event.