by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
Howard “Pappy” Wood, Sr., told his fellow curlers in 1940 that he did not want to play competitive curling again, so he declined to enter the 1940 Manitoba Curling Association (MCA) Bonspiel, an annual event he had participated in since 1908 when he subbed for a rink from Oak River that was a man short.
His son, Howard “Howie” Wood, Jr., tried to convince his father to take broom in hand and skip a team in the “Big ’Spiel.” According to a March 8, 1940, Winnipeg Tribune article, Howie approached his father, informing him: “We’ve got Ernie Pollard and Roy Enman. Roy will play lead. I’ll go second and Mr. Pollard will play third.”
Just when the younger Wood “got” Pollard is uncertain, as just hours before the entry deadline, Pollard was apparently still not committed to the bonspiel. Since the stories about the 1940 MCA Bonspiel are not from the players themselves, but others who were alleged to have talked to them, the details of the telling sometimes conflict, although primarily in minor ways.
Two days before the event was to get underway, the senior Wood informed anyone who asked that he would be a non-starter. After over 30 years of elite curling, he was “fed up” with the competitive grind.
Ernie Pollard, another Granite Curling Club member, who had won a national title on the Robert Gourley rink in 1931, also was a bystander. Pollard dropped out of the competitive curling ranks after his Strathcona skipper decided, six years earlier, that it was time to quit the big time. With Gourley still on the sidelines, Pollard was content to only skip a rink in the Granite’s A-group with three “youngsters” supporting him.
“I’ve had enough of curling,” Pollard was quoted as saying by Scotty Harper, Canada’s famous curling commentator, in a March 3, 1952, Winnipeg Free Press article about the history of the foursome from the Granite during the eventful year of 1940.
Steve Trewhitt, the president of the Granite club, persuaded the two curlers to commit to the bonspiel with the entry deadline just two hours away (some claim it was five minutes). Free Press sports columnist E.A. Armstrong wrote on March 8, 1940, that Trewhitt had practically “ordered” Wood and Pollard to enter the bonspiel.
According to the February 15, 1940, Tribune, Trewhitt told Wood: “Look, Howard, you can’t break that 32 (MCA) bonspiels string. I’ll get you a rink. Ernie Pollard says he won’t curl, either, but I’ll talk him into it. You can take young Roy Enman from his (Granite) rink to play lead and your boy, Howard, can shoot second.”
In 1952, Harper wrote that Trewhitt told the two curlers that he didn’t want “any arguments” about their entry in the bonspiel.
“And who were the aforesaid gents to disobey the orders of their chief executive,” commented Harper.
When Wood and Pollard signed on to compete, neither Howie Wood nor Roy Enman were aware that they had been entered. To their delight, they were later informed of their inclusion in the 250-rink field.
The senior Wood later said that it was more for his 22-year-old son than for anyone else that he decided to enter the bonspiel.
Whatever the reason behind the last-minute entry, it was a fortuitous decision.
The British Consuls playdowns, which determined who would represent Manitoba in the Canadian championship, was held annually as part of the MCA Bonspiel.
In the British Consuls semi-finals, the Ross Kennedy Rink from the Strathcona Curling Club met Bill MacTavish’s “youngsters” from the Elmwood Curling Club.
“It was youth against age,” according to the February 15, 1940, Winnipeg Free Press. “It was one of those nip and tuck affairs, but the tenth end was where the youngsters momentarily slipped and the Strathconas got a three to lead 9-6.”
The MacTavish rink was four down entering the 12th. The two they scored in the last end wasn’t enough to send the game into an extra end, and the Kennedy rink emerged as 10-8 victors, earning a berth in the British Consuls final.
In the other semi-final, Wood was matched against Jimmy Meikle’s Elmwood foursome. It wasn’t much of a contest, as the “Elmwood men failed to hit their stride,” while the Wood team played a “strong, steady” game. Meikle conceded defeat in the 10th end with the Wood rink ahead 13-5 (Free Press, February 15, 1940).
By the last day of the two-week MCA Bonspiel, the Wood rink was in a position to not only claim the grand aggregate, but a trip to the “big show” — the Canadian men’s curling championship. The added incentive to win was that the national championship was to be held in Winnipeg, the first city outside of Toronto to host the Macdonald Brier Tankard since it began in 1927.
All that stood in their way was Kennedy, who wanted another shot at the Canadian title, which was denied him one year earlier. Kennedy and Bert Hall of Ontario were tied after the completion of round-robin play in 1939 with eight wins apiece against one loss, which necessitated a one-game sudden-death tie-breaker. Kennedy and his rink of Billy MacDonald, Bob Hume and Clair Wells got off to a poor start, falling behind 9-3 after six ends, But they battled back, although in the end, the deficit proved too difficult to overcome and the Manitoba rink fell to the Ontarians 12-10.
When Kennedy met Wood to decide the Manitoba title in 1940, he was at the helm of the same team that had come so close in 1939, and already knew that Hall would be representing Ontario in Winnipeg. A chance to revenge his Brier tie-breaker defeat was undoubtedly among Kennedy’s thoughts as he prepared for the British Consuls final against Wood.
The final to decide who would represent Manitoba was played in the Amphitheatre Arena (also known as Shea’s Amphitheatre), located just west of Osborne Street near the Assiniboine River, which was to be the same venue for the Canadian men’s curling championship from March 4 to 7.
The skating and hockey rink on Whitehall Avenue (no longer in existence) and adjacent to the Granite Curling Club, had originally been built in 1909 to host horse shows. Since it had an artifical ice plant, the skating area could easily be converted to accommodate five sheets of ice for curling. At the time of the 1940 MCA Bonspiel, none of the city’s many curling rinks had artificial ice. The city’s first artifical ice at a curling club was installed at the Granite in 1953.
It was announced on February 3, 1939, that Winnipeg would be the host city for the national men’s curling championship.
“Every year,” wrote Harper in a February 4, 1939, Free Press article, “as Manitoba sent down its championship curlers to have a crack at the Macdonald Brier ... and very successful they were ... they have repeatedly said to the eastern trustees and also to the Macdonald people, the donors of the cup, there is only one place for the curling finals and that is right on the Winnipeg front. Compared to the limited number which see the Dominion curling finals at the Granite club (in Toronto), you would have hundreds looking on if they were played in the west ...”
It was very persuasive reasoning, and the three trustees of the Macdonald Brier, Tom Rennie of Toronto, Peter Lyall of Montréal and Senator John T. Haig of Winnipeg, as well as the “Macdonald people,” finally agreed it was time to take the championship to Western Canada. In fact, they also agreed that henceforth the Macdonald Brier would be rotated among other Canadian cities.
The Macdonald Brier trustees said they had earlier contacted Billy Holmes, the manager of the Amphitheatre, to confirm that the facility would be available during the first week of March 1940. The confirmation from Holmes ensured that the Brier would be moved from Toronto to the Manitoba capital.
Winnipeg was preparing to stage what would be a Canadian championship of firsts. Using the Amphitheatre, a 5,000-seat spectator-friendly facility, was the first time the Brier was held in an arena. And it was expected that using such a venue in the curling-mad city in a curling-mad province would ensure that large numbers of spectators would be in attendance for every draw. In Toronto, where the previous championships were held at the Granite Curling Club (every city in Canada seemed to have a club named the Granite), 300 to 400 spectators was the maximum that could be accommodated.
For the 1940 Winnipeg Brier, curlers for the first time would be using neutral, matched stones with coloured handles, making it easier to tell which stone belonged to what team from a distance.
In addition, painted rings would be used for the first time, which was another spectator-friendly feature, enabling the position of stones in the house to be more easily seen from the stands. All of these innovations are still in use today at all levels of curling.
Some 1,500 spectators witnessed what turned out to be a tight contest at the Amphitheatre to decide the Manitoba representative to the Brier. Kennedy was ahead 8-7 in the 10th end, which at that point was the first time his rink held a lead in the game.
“One up playing in the eleventh, the Strathconas played cannily to only allow the Granites one ...,” reported the February 15, 1940, Free Press.
By giving up a single in the 11th, Kennedy was tied 8-8 with Wood and was in the favourable position of possessing last rock in the last end.
“When Ernie Pollard, Howard’s third man, went to play his first rock, Kennedy was laying inside the eight-foot ring to the left. Ernie drew to within a foot of it for shot, and then Billy MacDonald made a couple of bad misses which allowed the Granites their golden chance to lay down perfect guards on their shot rock. They didn’t miss.”
With his first rock, Kennedy attempted a raise, but missed and Wood put up another guard. While the shot stone was effectively guarded from removal, Kennedy still had a draw to the four-foot to win.
“As his rock came sailing down the ice the gallery was up on its feet, but Kennedy’s stone hit a guard and it was over.”
The final score was 9-8 in favour of the Wood rink.
“I should have taken at least another foot of ice for that last shot,” Kennedy told Armstrong after the game. “The ice was swingy and tricky and I should have known better.”
According to the Free Press, “Old timers say that Howard Sr.’s performance was reminiscent of his play at third for Mac Braden and the years when he was Manitoba’s perennial champion.”
Tribune columnist Herb Manning wrote on February 15 that “cold and nerveless Howard” took his pick-up rink and “had the main role in two of the best shows of the bonspiel — the Dingwall final and the Consuls final.”
Despite his disappointment with his last stone of the game, Kennedy was quick to congratulate Wood and his rink. Kennedy said he would be pulling for the foursome to bring the Canadian championship back to Manitoba. Since the first year of the Brier in 1927 (when Manitoba wasn’t represented) to 1939, Manitoba rinks had won eight of 12 national championships, with the last title captured in 1938 by Ab Gowanlock, Elwyn Cartmell, Bill McKnight and Tom McKnight of the Glenboro Curling Club.
Wood had won the national title in 1930 as a skip and in 1932 playing third for Jim Congalton. In 1932, he was a last-minute substitute on the Congalton team.
“Howard, himself, claims he wanted to win solely for his son. Howard Jr.,” wrote Armstrong in his column, In the Realm of Sport on February 15, “who tossed second rocks for the rink during the ‘spiel ... we agree he wanted to win for young Howard, but we can’t concur with that ‘solely’ business, simply because Howard Sr., is too much of a campaigner ... there is too much of the ‘taste for blood’ in him for us to swallow his after-game reactions to the splendid triumph. He loves to win and he hates to lose ... and his rink lost but twice in the entire bonspiel. The spirit to win was always there ... and from the look of the results, the rink had the shots to do the necessary.”
Besides winning the Dingwall trophy and the British Consuls and a berth in the national championship, the last-minute entrants also took the grand aggregate trophy during the MCA Bonspiel.
Prior to the start of the first draw of the Macdonald Brier on March 4, curlers arrived in Winnipeg representing Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Québec, Ontario, Northern Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia (the province of Newfoundland and Labrador didn’t join the Canadian Confederation until 1949). A Civic luncheon for the curlers was organized for March 4, which was immediately followed by the curlers meeting at the Amphitheatre to participate in the opening ceremonies. Manitoba Premier John Bracken threw the first stone to commence the championship while P.E.I Premier Thayne Campbell held the broom.
The favourites, according to the curling experts of the day, were Wood along with Alberta’s Cliff Manahan, a two-time Brier champion, and Bert Hall of Ontario, although most rated Wood and Manahan as the “class of the field.”
The first draw of the day featured the Wood rink against Bill Dunbar’s Saskatchewan foursome. As it turned out, this was the decisive match-up of the entire Brier, and it was won by the Wood rink, 8-6.
On the evening of March 5, the curlers were feted at the annual Brier banquet which was held at the Fort Garry Hotel. It followed that in a world immersed in another war that the speaker would attempt to point out the fellowship among the community of curlers during a time of turmoil.
Rev. James W. Clarke, the keynote speaker, “led his subject, the man of 1940, through the struggles against militarism and pacificism, autocracy and democracy, community and individuality, before giving him solace, mental stimulation and personal independence on a sheet of curling ice,” reported the March 6 Tribune.
Rev. Clarke used the occasion to say that the Second World War “‘scared the daylights’ out of today’s individual ... driving him from an earlier state of ‘rugged individualism’ to frantic reliance on the community.”
According to Rev. Clarke: “Curling taught the lesson of co-operation, community spirit and discipline, with free play given to personality as exemplified by the skip. No other game had contrived to stick so close by its original principles of fellowship and sportsmanship.”
Rev Clarke claimed the significance of the Brier was that it acted as “a stimulater of ambition and hope for the individual, promoter of good fellowship between city and country.”
The day after the banquet, the Wood rink was “riding the crest of victory” with seven consecutive victories, including an 8-6 win over Hall’s Ontario foursome. Close behind was Dunbar with a 6-1 record, who reeled off six straight wins after falling to Wood in the first-round game.
The Calgary Herald on March 8 reported one of the more amusing occurrences of the Brier, which also emphasized the local belief in the unmatched curling prowess of Wood and his mates.
“‘Hooper’ Kent, fun-loving third man for the colorful Nick Thibodeau of New Brunswick, told the story of Winnipeg citizenry’s faith in the shotmaking of Wood ... Kent took a taxi to the rink for his match with the Manitoba rink and boasted to the cab driver, ‘We’ll skip the daylights out of Wood this afternoon.’
“The cabby, a Frenchman, was silent for a moment ... then he said: “That Mr. Wood, he won’t lose to nobody, he don’t play for fun. You put the rock there and he (will) knock it out. If you beat that Mr. Wood, just call the Beaver Taxi. I’ll drive you back to New Brunswick for nothing.’”
Of course, New Brunswick lost to Manitoba, as the cabbie had predicted.
Curling history was made on the last day of the Brier when 4,500 people turned up (some newspapers estimated the crowd at 5,000 spectators) to watch the final draw between Cliff Manahan’s Albertans and the Wood rink.
Manahan wasn’t in the running for the Brier title, and neither was Hall of Ontario, who along with Wood were the pre-championship favourites. Instead, Saskatchewan’s Bill Dunbar was nipping at Wood’s heels. When the final draw began, the Wood rink had an 8-0 record and Dunbar stood at 7-1. If Manahan beat Wood and Dunbar beat Hall, Manitoba and Saskatchewan would be in a tie for top spot, necessitating a play-off.
But even before Dunbar was to meet Hall in the final draw, he received quite a scare from New Brunswick’s Thibodeau in the penultimate eighth draw of the Brier competition.
Thibodeau scored a four in the fourth end, forcing the Saskatchewan rink to claw back. In the 12th and final end, Dunbar’s draw was just an inch better than the New Brunswick’s stone, sending the game into an extra end.
“With last rock on the thirteenth, Thibodeau needed a draw to the eight-foot ring to win. He assayed a draw on the swingy outside fringe of the sheet along the boards, missed the broom and his rock hit the board well in front of the hog line. It was a sorry finish to a great battle” (Free Press, March 8, 1940).
(Next week: part 2)