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A top draw

The Manitoba Open's glory days may be in the past, but the annual curling extravaganza remains a must for competitors of all ages

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/1/2020 (211 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Manitoba Open Bonspiel maybe isn't what it used to be, but curlers still circle the event on their calendar each year.

The world's biggest curling bonspiel will kick off its 132nd edition on Thursday; 288 teams will battle it out at 13 different curling clubs with a total of 13 different trophies on the line. In total, more than 900 games will have been played when it wraps up on Monday.

Manitoba Open Bonspiel

Click to Expand

Jan. 16-20 

Opening Ceremony: 6 p.m. Thursday at the Granite Curling Club

Full bonspiel: 224 teams

Half bonspiel: 64 teams

Final Games: Heather Curling Club and Deer Lodge Curling Club

Winners of the Asham, Free Press and Nott Autocorp will receive a berth to the Manitoba Men’s Provincial Curling Championship on Feb. 4-9 at Eric Coy Arena and Charleswood Curling Club.

The Manitoba Open still boasts impressive numbers, but there was a time when they were off the charts. At the event's 100th anniversary in 1988, a whopping 1,280 teams participated, which set a Guinness World Record. The tournament peaked in the 1980s, with approximately 800 teams consistently participating and forcing organizers to schedule draws at midnight.

While many bonspiels haven't been able to stand the test of time, this one, which almost always takes place in the third week of January, doesn't appear to be going anywhere.

It's called the Manitoba Open for a reason, as it's open to everyone and anyone. Men, women, seniors and juniors are all eligible to play with and against one another, while also giving competitive men's teams one last chance at qualifying for next month's provincials. There are three qualifying spots up for grabs at the Manitoba Open.

Sean Grassie, 41, a competitive curler based out of Deer Lodge Curling Club, has been playing in the Open since he was 19. The event truly is one of a kind, he said. And if anyone would know, it's him as he wrote a book called Kings of the Rings in 2013, which looked back at the 125-year history of the Manitoba Open.

"You see a lot of different teams that you usually don't see during the year and everyone sort of mixed together. It's kind of what makes it unique," Grassie said.

"A team can be a regular club team, go on the ice and beat a provincial champion, which has happened lots over the years in the bonspiel. It's sort of unique to other sports. You wouldn't see that in tennis where a club player would go on the court and beat Roger Federer. It wouldn't be even close. But in curling, you can be competitive against a top team if you're just at a club level. You can even win some times."

Grassie, and, of course his book, is full of interesting tidbits about the annual bonspiel. He could tell you about how it became the world's largest bonspiel in the early 1900s, or how Blue Bombers icons such as Bud Grant and Gerry James used to participate. Also, how it wasn't until 1967 that games were allowed to be played on Sunday. In fact, between 1894-1971, the bonspiel would conduct a church service that day.

Another quirk was how teams were expected to bring their own rocks during the first 50 years of the event. Rocks were finally supplied in 1938.

Sean Grassie, 41, a competitive curler based out of Deer Lodge Curling Club, has been playing in the Open since he was 19. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Sean Grassie, 41, a competitive curler based out of Deer Lodge Curling Club, has been playing in the Open since he was 19. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Being a historian of the event, the Manitoba Open is extra special to Grassie, who finally won in 2018 after losing his first two trips to the final. But regardless if you know the history or not, the 1999 Manitoba junior champion and the 2009 Canadian Mixed champion said the Open is appealing to curlers for various reasons.

"It's unique in that it can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different curlers. For some curlers, it's really big to try to get a spot into the provincial championship, or to try to be the champion of the bonspiel is prestigious. For other teams, they can maybe go knock off a big name and win some games, then it'd be a highlight for them. Or for some teams, the experience of playing in the world's largest bonspiel for the first time is a highlight.

"So, yeah, it can mean a lot of different things to different curlers, depending on their skill level," said Grassie, whose team already earned a spot at the Manitoba Men's Provincial Curling Championship in Winnipeg next month.

"You see a lot of different teams that you usually don't see during the year and everyone sort of mixed together. It's kind of what makes it unique." – Sean Grassie, 2018 Manitoba Open champ

Curl Manitoba president Darren Oryniak has played in the annual showdown nearly 40 times. This year, he scheduled a vacation to Mexico around the event so he wouldn't miss it. While it's can't-miss for players, Oryniak said it's also vital in keeping the participating curling clubs in business. One of the interesting aspects of the competition is how it schedules teams to play at various rinks throughout the five-day affair.

"That's a big part of it. At Curl Manitoba, they work hard to distribute the ice to the various clubs so everyone can get in on it," Oryniak said.

"There's a lot more activity and energy at the clubs, whether it's the bar or food services. It also exposes people to different clubs to keep people curling and to keep the interest up. It's a great event. All at the same time, all the clubs (are involved). The ice changes a bit, the atmosphere is a bit different, so, it really has a lot to offer people. It's a great social event."

Word has gotten around, as teams from the United States, Switzerland, and even Singapore have made the trip to Winnipeg in previous years to enter the draw.

"It's got tremendous tradition," Oryniak said. "I know for me and for many others, it's a great time of year. You run into people that you probably haven't seen since the last bonspiel, but there's a strong connection built over decades... It's got a real sort of feel to it. It's a great time."

taylor.allen@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @TaylorAllen31

Taylor Allen

Taylor Allen
Reporter

Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.

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