The 125th MCA Bonspiel next January will be the final time the historic annual curling tournament will be played as a men's-only event, Curl Manitoba officials announced Thursday.
But it will also be, in a strange way, the first time it is a men's-only event.
Regarded as the world's biggest bonspiel, only men's teams have ever played in the MCA Bonspiel. But the Free Press learned -- and reported -- last winter there was technically nothing that had been stopping women's teams from entering all those years because the MCA Bonspiel had actually been listed on Curl Manitoba's books as an "open bonspiel" all along.
After the Free Press stories, a number of women curlers -- including former world champion Jennifer Jones -- expressed interest in entering this winter's historic anniversary bonspiel and a number of women's teams contacted the Curl Manitoba offices about becoming the first to break the gender barrier.
All of which caused some concern within Curl Manitoba that their plans to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the longest continuously running sporting event in this province would be overshadowed this winter by the fall of the gender barrier instead.
Curl Manitoba executive director Shane Ray said Thursday that after a survey of the province's curlers found an even split on whether this was the most appropriate winter to allow the gender barrier to finally fall, a men's-only rule was put in place for this year and then actively open up the event to both sexes beginning with the 126th renewal in 2014.
"It really was split down the middle -- 48 per cent in favour, 48 per cent opposed and 4 per cent who didn't care," said Ray. "So we decided in the end to make this a men's-only event for just one more year and then open it up after that."
By opening up to women, organizers are also opening up the prospect of mixed teams entering. And it's hoped all those new potential entries will help reinject life -- and heft -- to an event that has seen entries steadily decline over the past decade, from what used to be an annual count of at least 512 teams -- over 1,000 teams entered the 100th anniversary event in 1988 -- to something more in the range of the mid-300's the past few years.
Winnipeg skip Chelsea Carey said Thursday she will almost certainly enter a team into the MCA Bonspiel in 2014, calling it a badly needed tuneup event in advance of the women's provincials, which take place immediately after the MCA Bonspiel.
"We have nothing in January. And you can't get ice during the MCA because every club in the city and the surrounding area is used for the MCA... We have a month and a half (between their last curling event in mid-December and the women's provincials). It's terrible. So yeah, the MCA would be a good one because that timing is good for us."
Officials also announced the creation of a whole new provincial curling event -- the Manitoba Mixed Doubles Trials, to be played Feb. 15-17, 2013 at Wildewood Curling Club.
That event will be modelled on the mixed doubles format played for years at the Continental Cup international curling event. The winner will advance to the inaugural Canadian Mixed Doubles Trials, March 14-17 in Leduc, Alta. The winner of that event will in turn represent Canada at the 2013 World Mixed Doubles Championship in Fredericton, April 13-20.
There is a scheduling conflict that may keep a lot of the top curlers from Manitoba out of the new doubles event, however. A major men's and women's cash event -- at which critical points can be earned towards qualifying for the 2013 Canadian Curling Trials -- conflicts with the new event.
Both Carey and Reid Carruthers, second for Jeff Stoughton's team, said Thursday their teams are entered in the World Curling Tour event and regrettably likely won't be able to compete in the Mixed Doubles event.
Officials believe a mixed doubles format that leads to a world championship will help bolster the sport's pitch to the IOC it should be added as a new medal event beginning with the 2018 Winter Olympics.
A shot of news, on the rocks
NEWS of the gender barrier falling at the MCA Bonspiel next winter and a new provincial mixed doubles curling event this winter were just a couple of interesting notes to come out of Thursday's season-opening Curl Manitoba news conference.
In other news:
Curl Manitoba officials did not announce a new broadcasting agreement with Sportsnet that was detailed in Thursday's Free Press, but executive director Shane Ray said "an announcement is imminent."
Mitch Tarapasky, chair of the 2013 Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings, said tickets for the event will go on sale next month. The event, which will be held Dec. 1-8, 2013 at the MTS Centre, is the qualifier for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
New Jeff Stoughton lead Mark Nichols says he's moved into a new condo in the West End with his wife, Collette, and is now working at locally based Focus Fitness when he's not curling with Stoughton. "We're starting to feel at home. It's good," said Nichols. Nichols won Olympic gold as third for Newfoundland's Brad Gushue in 2006.
Beausejour will host the 2012 Manitoba Curling Tour Championships Dec. 6-9 and the two biggest events on the MCT this season will again be the $60,000 Manitoba Lotteries Women's Classic at Fort Rouge Curling Club and the $58,000 Canad Inns Praire Classic in Portage La Prairie. Both events run Oct. 19-22.
There are a pair of notable rule changes for the provincial championships this season. On-ice officials have been given authority to immediately eject players for objectionable conduct like swearing or throwing brooms. Previously, officials could only sanction players after an event. And competitors can now wear a large sponsor's crest on their backs in addition to the ones on their sleeves.