This weekend, Jeff Stoughton has an opportunity to duplicate a feat that has only been done once before in Manitoba curling history. If Stoughton should win this week in the Tim Hortons Brier in London, Ontario, he will only be the second skip representing the province to become a three-time champion, a record now held by Ken “Mr. Curling” Watson.
As a young lad, it was from a book written by Watson (1904-1986) that I became familiar with the basics of curling. I don’t know how I came into possession of my copy of Curling with Ken Watson, but I remember the lessons in the book — accompanied by photos of demonstrations featuring “Mr. Curling” himself — were eagerly thumbed through and led to a life-long appreciation of the “roaring game.”
Before there was the Richardson brothers from Saskatchewan and Matt Baldwin from Alberta, there was “Mr. Curling,” who was the game’s first true celebrity, attracting crowds whenever he toured the country or journeyed overseas to promote his beloved sport.
“There’s no expert in the Dominion (of Canada) better qualified to write on the technique and strategy of the great Scottish game than Ken Watson,” wrote Scotty Harper in a December 30, 1958, Free Press review of the curling legend’s book.
As one of the game’s great innovators, Watson provides advice in his book that still holds true to this day. “When a green curler grabs hold of a 40-pound chunk of granite and tries to throw it a distance of 136 feet on a sheet of ice there are bound to be some weird contortions of the anatomy during his first attempt.” In his book, Watson set out to rectify imperfections. When explaining the right way to hold a rock, Watson wrote: “A too common mistake made among curlers is to grasp the handle of the rock in the palm of the hand, which results in a ‘push’ delivery and missing the skip’s broom. A stone should be held lightly with the fingers curled around the handle.”
This is a technique that all the
elite curlers in this week’s Canadian
Men’s Curling Championship, such as Stoughton, Kevin Martin and Glenn Howard, still use, but it took Watson’s understanding of curling to demonstrate how effectively a gentle touch contributed to success on the ice surface. It was because of his deft handling of a curling rock that Watson was known in his day as the “Master of the Draw,” a title bestowed upon him by Eastern Canadian sportswriters. Annis Stukas, a CFL Hall of Fame football player and coach, when covering the 1949 Brier for the Toronto Star, posed the rhetorical question: “Take Ken Watson out of this show and what have you?” Later, Warren Hansen of Curl Canada would call Watson “the most technically complete curler in the long history of curling in Canada.”
Watson, with his brother Grant at third, Marvyn McIntyre playing second and Charlie Kerr at lead, won his first Brier in 1936. But before curling in the national championship in Toronto, they had to beat a rink from Glenboro skipped by Ab Gowanlock, a great curler in his own right who won the Brier in 1938 and 1953. The Manitoba championship was a nail-biter that came down to an extra end, with the Watson rink emerging with a 9-8 victory in 13 ends in front of over 1,000 spectators at Winnipeg’s Amphitheatre Rink. It was marathon match that Watson almost missed since he was ill. Only after receiving medical attention could he play in the game.
At the Canadian championship, Watson with an 8-1 record was tied with New Brunswick entering the last day of the competition. In the final game, Manitoba handed New Brunswick a 11-9 loss and claimed the Brier Tankard.
The one controversy to arise during the 1936 Brier was the Watson rink’s long slides when delivering rocks. It was a technique developed by accident, but proved to be another revolutionary innovation perfected by the Manitoba skip. As teenagers, the two brothers originally from Minnedosa, were curling when the toe rubber came off Grant’s foot while delivering a rock. Sliding on the leather sole of his shoe, Watson’s younger brother managed to zigzag out to the hogline. The skip recognized the potential of this technique and began to work on its development. At first, solder was applied to the bottom of the sliding soles, but then Watson came up with a smooth slip-on slider to extend a curling delivery to the hogline and beyond.
The Watson rink wasn’t the first to use a longer slide — it was introduced to the Brier in Toronto by Manitoba’s Gordon Hudson in 1928 (Hudson was a two-time Brier champion) — but they were the first to expand its range and effectiveness.
Sportswriter W.G. Allan, when reporting on the controversy for the Free Press in his March 7, 1936, column called Snap-shots on Sport, wrote that the long slide was common in Western Canadian clubs. And that the Watson slide “is not as long as it looks, but is particularly obvious because the players kick off a rubber before they shoot and also slide quite a bit after they let go (of) the rock.” Allen commented that the Watson slide was leading to greater enthusiasm for the game among youngsters who were eager to employ the flamboyant technique.
The Watson rink went on to repeat as Brier champions in 1942 and 1949. Watson also holds the record for six consecutive Manitoba Curling Association grand aggregate titles, a feat so difficult to duplicate that it is unlikely to ever be beaten.
In a 1978 Free Press interview with Maury Bay, Watson was asked which was more difficult, winning the province or the Brier? “Actually, the biggest problem wasn’t getting out of the province, but getting out of the Strathcona Curling Club (in Winnipeg — now long gone). We had to fight our way past five or six other Brier winners at the Strathcona to get to the provincial consuls.”
If not for such national championship skips as Bob Gourley and Leo Johnson playing out of the Strathcona (Manitoba rinks won 12 of the first 20 titles up until 1949, and hold today’s record of 26), Watson might have played in more Briers and at least matched the four national titles of Ernie Richardson, Randy Ferbey and Kevin Martin.
If Stoughton should duplicate Watson’s record for a Manitoba skip at the Brier, he will have joined the company of an extraordinary player. In an era of such great Canadian curlers, a Stoughton three-peat in nine national appearances would be a truly remarkable accomplishment, but Watson’s earlier record of never having lost a Brier he entered confirms why he earned the title of “Mr. Curling.”