by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
George J.Cameron dreamed about the day when curling would have its own national men’s championship. In 1924, the Winnipeg curler discussed his idea of east meeting west in the “roarin’ game” with Walter Payne, the news editor of the Manitoba Free Press, who was known as the “Thane of Curling” in Manitoba. The co-founder of the Strathcona Curling Club enthusiastically endorsed Cameron’s proposal.
Cameron also outlined his proposal to John T. Haig, an MLA, past-president of the Manitoba Curling Association (MCA) and another founder of the Strathcona Curling Club, who encouraged Cameron to actively pursue his concept to its ultimate outcome.
Winnipeg was the logical place to conceive of such a “national dream,” as the city was already gaining fame as the “Curling Capital” of North America. It was an apt description of Winnipeg in the late 1800s and early 1900s, since it was then a “curling mad” city.
Every winter, the MCA Bonspiel attracted the best curlers from across the U.S. Midwest, Ontario and throughout Western Canada, as well as overseas entrants from Scotland.
The first Scots participating in the bonspiel arrived in 1903. Rev. John Kerr, the captain of the contingent from Scotland, called Winnipeg “the very fireplace or hearth of the game in the Dominion (of Canada) ... The mecca of curlers ... What St. Andrews (Scotland) is to golf, so is Winnipeg to that other major and ancient game (curling).”
When the first “Big Bonspiel”was held on February 5, 6 and 7, 1889, there were 62 rinks entered from Calgary, Stonewall, Portage la Prairie, Brandon, Carberry, Virden, Stony Mountain, St. Paul, Minnesota, and Portage, Wisconsin. By 1912, the Manitoba Free Press reported on December 14 that the bonspiel had grown so popular that it had “reached such a stage that it is about the largest sporting affair in America during winter months.”
The annual bonspiel rapidly expanded in scope, with so many entrants and such an eager fan following that it became necessary to make it a two-week-long event in the early 1900s. The popularity of bonspiel meant it took on a mid-winter carnival atmosphere in Winnipeg.
“Bonspiel specials” arrived at the city’s train depots to disgorge the mass of curlers participating in the biggest event of its type in the world. In 1898, the railways came to an agreement with the bonspiel’s organizers to extend the special return fares to families, relatives and friends of the curlers.
In their book, Curling Capital: Winnipeg and the Roarin’ Game, Morris Mott and John Allardyce, wrote that Winnipeg by 1903 “was the headquarters of a major curling association that was promoting improvements to the game and was sponsoring the world’s greatest bonspiel ... Winnipeggers could legitimately claim by this time that theirs was the greatest curling city on earth.”
Cameron, who was president of W.L. Mackenzie and Company, which was the western representative of the W.C. Macdonald Tobacco Company, travelled to Montréal to pitch his idea to the executive of the tobacco firm. He succeeded in convincing Walter Stewart, a curling member of the family who owned the tobacco company, to support the establishment of the Macdonald Brier Trophy for the annual MCA Bonspiel.
What made this trophy different from the others curlers pursued at the bonspiel is that the victors would receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Eastern Canada for a series of games against Ontario and Québec rinks. The first Macdonald Brier Trophy was to be awarded during the 1925 MCA Bonspiel, and from that year onward was meant to become the trophy given to the men’s provincial champion. The declaration of a men’s curling champion was the first such designation in Canada.
Although the MCA Bonspiel Macdonald Trophy was not the same silverware that was awarded at the first national event, it laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Canadian men’s curling championship in 1927 sponsored by the same tobacco company that fell under the title of the Macdonald Brier (now Tim Horton’s Brier).
The first Macdonald Brier Trophy presented to the MCA in 1925 was described in March 3, 1952, Winnipeg Free Press article about the history of the Macdonald Brier (Canadian men’s curling championship) as “one of the most beautiful trophies ever known to any type of competition, and some years later its name was changed to the British Consuls Trophy ...”
As the 1925 MCA Bonspiel progressed, it became evident that the Howard “Pappy” Wood rink was among the favourites to win the Macdonald Brier Trophy. By February 11, the Granite Club rink skipped by Wood, which included third Johnny Erzinger, second Vic Wood (his brother) and lead Lionel Wood (his brother), were the only undefeated team in pursuit of the grand aggregate (most wins during the bonspiel), while their closest rivals, who included Ness Wise, Gordon Hudson and Mac Campbell, had each lost at least two games.
“Mac Campbell, the Thistle veteran, who had shared the limelight with Wood Tuesday night, dropped his first game of the bonspiel in the morning draw, losing against Ness Wise, Strathcona, in the Birks (Free Press, February 12, 1925). In the evening draw Campbell suffered his second defeat, bowing before the prowess of the (Rod) McAskill quartet from Gladstone in the semi-finals of the Dingwall ...
“Ness Wise was one of the outstanding stars of yesterday’s play, and it appeared as if he would be Wood’s chief challenger for honors. But he fell before Caswell, Rathwell, by 10-7, in the 8 o’clock draw of the Purity Flour (trophy).”
At this stage in the bonspiel, Wood had 10 wins and no losses, while Campbell was 9-2, Hudson 9-2, and Wise 9-2.
Wood’s first defeat came on February 12 in the Dingwall Trophy final, when he lost to McAskill 13-10.
Wood (11-1) was closely followed in the grand aggregate race by two rinks from Fort William skipped by George Macdonald and J.E. Rutledge, who had 11-2 and 10-2 records, respectively.
By February 13, Wood and Wise were tied in the grand aggregate race.
Wise captured the Birks event by defeating St. John Curling Club (Winnipeg) skip G. Standard 9-7 “After a nip and tuck struggle.”
Wise had beaten Wood 11-5 in the semis to reach the Birks final. Wood fell behind early and trailed 8-0 after the first five ends and conceded defeat after 11 ends of the normally 12-end game.
Wood would later get his revenge against Wise, but before this happened, the Macdonald Brier Trophy came up for grabs.
All rinks that reached the semi-finals of the four major events and the John C. Eaton Trophy competition, which was a closed event only for visiting rinks (rural Manitoba and anywhere else outside of Winnipeg), were eligible for the Macdonald Brier Trophy. The fact that Eaton’s event curlers were included meant that the possibility existed that the eventual Manitoba champion might hail from out-of-province. In fact, Rutledge, the winner of the Eaton’s Trophy over Macdonald by a 10-9 score in the final, were both from Ontario and vied for the Macdonald Brier trophy.
In the February 16 semi-final games for the Macdonald Brier, Macdonald beat McAskill 12-2, earning a berth in the final.
In the other semi-final, Wood played fellow Granite Curling Club skip J. Gillespie. A three-ender in the sixth end brought Wood back into the game after a poor start. The Wood rink then stole singles the next four ends to go ahead 9-5. Two successive singles in the
11th and 12th ends were not enough to close the gap for the Gillespie rink and they lost to Wood 9-7, setting up the Macdonald-Wood final for the Macdonald Brier.
The Macdonald rink got off to a bad start in the final “due to the deadly efficiency of the Wood rink which was playing at its best,” according to the February 17 Free Press. “The Fort William men were down 6 to 3 at the end of the third but came back with a nice three that looked most promising. Wood, however, scored a single in the fifth and followed up with a three that looked good enough to put the contest on ice. Macdonald showed his courage in the seventh when he tallied a lone rock but his hopes were badly shattered when in the next when the Granite men counted three. Macdonald was somewhat lucky in the next when he tallied two but he abandoned the game on the next (10th end) when Wood had one in the house with one rock to play.”
Actually, the game was never in question, as the Wood rink had total control throughout, recording a 14-6 victory and the right to represent Manitoba in Eastern Canada.
The newspaper claimed the Macdonald rink “cracked under the strain” of the Wood “programme, but all credit must be given to the Wood boys who put up an exceptional game ...”
Not only did the Wood rink win the Macdonald Brier Trophy, but they had a chance to take the grand aggregate title, which was helped by their wins in the Brier as games played in that event added to their tally.
“(W.) Geddes, Deer Lodge, who was the only skip with a chance to beat out Wood and Wise for grand aggregate honors, was eliminated by Rutledge, Fort William, from the Walker Theatre ... after a heart-breaking contest,” reported the February 16 Free Press. “Geddes was one up coming home with the last rock, but was wide with the game in sight. Wood and Wise will, therefore, meet in a fourteen-end final for the bonspiel championship.”
In the bonspiel championship, “a large audience” had gathered at the Granite Curling Club, which was “liberal” with its applause for the “nip and tuck contest” played on February 17 (Free Press, February 18).
According to the report, the game was marked by some brilliant shooting as well as spectacular misses. Neither Wood nor Wise was said to have been at the top of their game, but the Wood rink was better in its support of their skip than those three men playing under Wise.
Wood trailed Wise 5-3 after four ends. “The Granite skip was not playing the game that characterized him throughout the bonspiel,” reported the newspaper.
The game turned around for the Wood rink in the third end when they scored a three after the Strathcona skip’s last rock was narrow and struck a guard.
Wood scored two in the next end when Wise was short with a draw, and continued to build upon his lead entering the ninth end.
“Wise got a great reception by the large gallery in the ninth, when he pulled off a great raise to cut Wood out of a four end. He had to negotiate a narrow port to raise one of his to the tee.”
Wood made the score 12-8 when his rink answered with a two in the 10th, but Wise wasn’t ready to give up.
“The Granite bunch fell down badly in the eleventh ... and when their skip came to play his first rock the Strathcona quartet was laying four. Howard chipped off one (Wise rock), but went out. Wise failed to reach the ‘house,’ scoring three and putting him back in the game ...
“Wood, with his last rock, had an excellent opportunitys to count four in the twelfth. Wise was laying one behind the tee, with his opponent’s three seconds. Wood tried to draw to the shot rock, rolled off a guard to the tee, counting one. Wise had a chance to score,but was too heavy. Wood was two up in this end (13-11).”
Three up coming home, the Wood rink managed another single to take the game 15-11 and claimed the MCA Bonspiel grand aggregate title.
Wood, who played in 71 consecutive MCA Bonspiels — a record in the Guinness Book of World Records — and was born in Winnipeg in 1888, played his first “Big Bonspiel” in 1908. He later related that he entered by accident as a visiting team from Oak River found itself a player short
Wood and his three brothers was encouraged to curl by their father, D.D. Wood. As a youngster, he was introduced to the game in 1903 when his father built a backyard rink. But he was more than just a curler, as he also played hockey, lacrosse and soccer. In the latter sport, he was a member of the Winnipeg Scottish squad that won the 1915 Canadian Senior Soccer Championship. Wood was only one of two Canadian-born players on the team.
(Next week: part 2)