Articles

Such Goings-On at Nipawin!

Curling is undergoing a jazzy revolution in this prairie town which hands out more prizes than radio’s giveaway programs

TRENT FRAYNE January 1 1949
Articles

Such Goings-On at Nipawin!

Curling is undergoing a jazzy revolution in this prairie town which hands out more prizes than radio’s giveaway programs

TRENT FRAYNE January 1 1949

Such Goings-On at Nipawin!

Curling is undergoing a jazzy revolution in this prairie town which hands out more prizes than radio’s giveaway programs

TRENT FRAYNE

GET A man with a stack of maps looking for the spot in Canada where a $20,000 undertaking is most likely to fizzle and you’ve got a man

who’ll have trouble uncovering a more appropriate place than Nipawin. It is true, perhaps, that there are more inaccessible spots than this Northern Saskatchewan town of 2,211 people, but crossroads will never be the word for Nipawin.

It is astonishing, then, that the richest sports spectacle in Canada is an annual curling bonspiel at this remote little place where, every winter, some 500 curlers from Western Canada and the Northern United States curl the clock around for 10 days in search of fantastic prizes worth more than $20,000. This year they start hurling granite Jan. 5.

First prize is merely $12,000 worth of automobiles —four current-model Hudson sedans, one for each member of the winning rink. The rest of the prize list can be enunciated only by the announcer on one of those radio giveaway programs; it even includes the electric refrigerator. There are such other baubles as radio-phonographs, washing machines, electric stoves, repeating shotguns, wrist watches, overcoats, suits, outboard motors and sleeping bags.

All this would be less surprising if the jamboree were staged some place where the population is thicker and the bucks, accordingly, are quicker. But information-booth attendants at bus terminals and railway stations grow apoplectic as they decipher the incredible labyrinth leading from almost any place to Nipawin.

As the crow flies, the town is 150 miles northeast of Saskatoon, but that route is reserved strictly for crows. The bus trip is a matter of 12 hours and two transfers. The CPR moves 76 miles east to Lanigan, 113 miles northwest to Prince Albert and 91 miles east to Nipawin, a total of 280 miles. The CNR,

throwing up its hands, suggests traveling north to Melfort, then east to Tisdale where the CPR intersects and rolls on north30 miles to Nipawin. This is about 260 miles. If you’re driving a car it's 220 miles but sometimes the roads are blocked for short periods in the wake of blizzards.

Yet, so devoted to their favorite game—and to the small matter of rich reward—are the West’s curlers that the game’s greatest names make the annual safari and they acclaim the Nipawin bonspiel, along with the annual Manitoba ’spiel, which is the world’s largest, as the finest curling conclaves anywhere.

Nipawin actually provides more torrid competition than the annual Canadian championship, which is open only to the champion rink of each province. Weak eastern rinks can gain places in the Canadian championship by this method, whereas a score of powerful Manitoba rinks are unable to compete because they have not survived in their own province.

Partly, then, because of the lure of Nipawin’s prizes and partly because no locality in Canada is more curling-conscious than Nipawin, the event is second to none.

Nipawin’s citizenry showers adulation on the visiting icemen.

“We were treated like World Series heroes,”

recalls Howard Wood of Winnipeg, three-time Canadian champion, who, with a single shot, captured the greatest individual prize in the history of Cañadiar/sport when his final rock in the 1947 Nipawin event nullified what looked like a sun? victory for Dalt Henderson of Saskatoon, the Saskatchewan champion. The shot earned four sedans, then valued at $2,200 each, fcr his own fourman rink. If Wood were to repeat the shot this January it would lx? worth more than $12,000 because of the price spread between the ’47 and the ’49 models. Not even golfer Ben Hogan, Mr. Clutch himself, ever had so much riding on a single shot.

Stone-Throwers’ Paradise

IPAWIN is a rich little Carrot River Valley town on the Saskatchewan River in the midst of a lumbering, farming and registered seed area. It ships thousands of pounds of honey from its clover fields and many prosperous retired farmers have erected beautiful homes in the town. It appears larger than the 2,211 people with which the 1946 census credits it and at bonspiel time its wide, mile-long main street is festive with welcoming banners, parading bands which meet incoming trains and gleaming electrical signs. In the centre of the snow-covered street is a 15-foot block of ice bearing a giant lighted Christmas tree.

After Wood’s famous shot which took place at 2.45 a.m. Joe Choy, proprietor of Nipawin Welcome Cafe, invited all the curlers to his restaurant where he set up a table the length of the café loaded with bottles of rare liquid stimulant and inch-thick steaks. On the previous Sunday, an off-day in the 10-day shebang, the entire town turned out to the rink to get tips on shots, methods of delivery and advice on tactics. The curlers signed autographs until 4 in the morning.

Expenses aren’t high

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for the visitors. Service clubs spring frequently for luncheons, the sponsors throw a welcoming clambake. Hotel rooms cost $1 a night and an excellent steak dinner is 65 cents. The two hotels, the Maple Leaf and the Avenue, can't bed down everybody so the citizenry throws open its doors. The whole town thinks of nothing else for the 10 days.

It isn’t all hearts and flowers, however. Curling associations in the West frown on this virtual professionalizing of their “grand old game.” The socalled old guard of curling, gentlemen past the more vigorous stages of their lives who turn to curling for camaraderie and salubrious relaxation, are disquieted by the bloodless revolution. Men like Alex Douglas of the Winnipeg Granite Club and Senator J. T. Haig the Winnipeg Strathcona Club decry the mad scramble for prizes.

But the ever-increasing list of entrants, which this year is expected to reach 150 rinks (600 curlers), indicates that the broom-swingers themselves do not share this attitude. And sponsors of the event believe that although the Saskatchewan Curling Association is known to be against the Nipawin event, it is significant that it has not opposed it officially.

The idea is catching on. Portage la Prairie, 50 miles west of Winnipeg, staged an automobile bonspiel last month that created province-wide interest. Portage officials visited Nipawin to get promotional details. Rosetown, Sask., southwest of Saskatoon, also plans a prize-infested bonspiel, this one open only to Saskatchewan rinks and slated to open the day the Nipawin event closes, Jan. 15.

McDonald’s Big Idea

The Nipawin event sprung from the brain of Cliff McDonald, president of the Nipawin Curling Club, a stocky, seldom-sitting, greying man in his early 40’s, a garage owner and automobile and implement dealer in the town. His principal avocation in 1946, like that of a lot of Nipawin’s businessmen, was curling. Many returning servicemen had acquired an interest in broomswishing, too, and the small, slab rink with its potbellied stove and its two sheets of ice was incapable of caring for the demand.

McDonald came up with the idea that not only might eradicate the potbellied stove but could build a new curling club and attract championship curling rinks to remote Nipawin as well. Why not stage an automobile bonspiel, asked automobile dealer McDonald? Pointing out that it was virtually impossible to buy a car anywhere in Canada in 1946, McDonald said he’d start working immediately on acquiring four from the factory that could be paid for by the $100 entry fees and the admission tickets and given to the winning rink. The idea would be novel, it would attract national interest, it would bring the greats to Nipawin and, most important, if it caught on it would provide the money for erection of the new club.

Men like Maurice Belovich, general storekeeper; Archie Sinclair, garage owner; and Fritz Osbert, McDonald’s partner and a road construction company owner, got into the swim with McDonald and the rest of the town got its feet wet, too. Debentures were sold to citizens and farmers for 20 miles around during the summer of ’46 and the club started going up in the

fall. Costing $20,000, it wasn’t just a six-sheet curling rink with galleries on three sides and a waiting room with bleachers, it was part of a hockey rink that seated 2,000 people as well, the two being joined by a runway. The hockey surface, during the bonspiel, is turned into five curling sheets, making 11 in all, with close to 3,000 seating capacity, including the three galleries in the curling rink.

Four events were planned, other Nipawin merchants providing prizes at cost to reward winners of the three qualifying events which led to the grand prize. All rinks were drawn in the First Event and the losers in the first round moved into the Second Event: again, the first-round losers moved into the Third Event. The feature bracket for the Hudsons comprised 12 rinks, the four semifinalists in the other three competitions. These 12 were placed by draw into two groups of six. They played a round robin, at the end of which the rink with the best wonand-lost record in each group qualified for the sudden-death final.

Building was completed by ’spiel time and so effectively had the idea caught on, aided by a landslide of publicity handled by a Saskatoon newspaperman, Walt Riddell, that 101 rinks showed up. An entry fee of $100 a rink placed $10,100 in the coffers before the first rock was hurled and, because the prizes were provided at wholesale price, the meet was already on its feet. Admission prices added profits, season tickets for the 10 days going at $4 and single-day admission being 50 cents. The money was turned in on the debentures in paying off loans.

In curling, the four rink members are called lead, second, third and skip. Each man heaves two 42-pound granite rocks down the 165-foot strip of ice toward the “button,” a two-foot circle surrounded by two rings called the four-foot ring and the six-foot ring. A rock must be touching, or be within the outside ring, which is 12 feet in diameter, in order to be scored. The team whose rock is closest to the button counts. If the team has three rocks closer to the button than any of the opposing team’s rocks, it scores three points. The possible, of course, is eight points, since each team throws eight rocks. This is more rare than golf’s hole in one. The two teams take 12 turns, called ends, in a match and curling’s rarity is therefore called an eight-ender.

.The Big Final

In the first name match Howard Wood beat out favorite Cliff Manahan, former Canadian champion from Edmonton, by making three miraculous perfectly guided shots, the final one of which threaded the needle between two rocks, nudged out Monahan’s stone and stuck. Then Howard, who’s been curling since 1906, met Henderson in the spine-chilling final. By way of making the pressure a little tighter, showman McDonald had the new automobiles placed on the ice beside the curling strip. They were gassed, oiled and glistening. The keys were in them. The curlers merely had to drive them away. Except that there were eight curlers, only four cars.

No arrangement for the losing side’s prizes had been made in this gripping match until after the 12th end. Then the opposing rinks huddled.

“This sudden-death business is too tough on the losing rink,” said AÍ Derrett, Wood’s second. “We figured we might arrange some kind of a reward for the loser. I’m willing to give $500 if we win or take $500 if we lose.”

Wood, who had last rock and there-

fore a slight advantage, demurred. So did his son. The other pair, Bob McFarlane and AÍ Derrett, struck up $500 bargains with the Henderson rink’s lead and second men. Then the Woods relented.

“Tell you what,” suggested Howard, Sr., “the winner could give the loser $125, which would more than look after his expenses up here.”

Skinny Annable, the Henderson rink’s third, and Jack Brower, who was skipping the rink, liked that idea. Howie, Jr., said okay. So when the Wood rink won out, his men McFarlane and Derrett gave up $500 each and the two Woods mailed cheques for $125.

Henderson set about sewing it up early. He went into the second-last end —the 11th—with a three-point lead. But ice-veined Wood came through with a brilliant last rock on the 11th to score an unheard-of, in championship competition, five-end to go ahead by two points. Then the Henderson rink rallied for two points on the final end to force an extra, or 13th, end. It was here that Wood once again came in with an uncanny shot to sneak past two guards and dislodge a Henderson rock from the scoring circle and hold fast himself.

Nipawin Is on the Map

“It would take.me a month to plan out a situation as interesting as that final shot presented,” says Wood, something after the manner of a bridge player who has just made seven spades, vulnerable, doubled and redoubled, with two aces out against him. “I couldn’t see the rock I had to take out. The opposing rink had got in behind my guard and had one of its own out there, too. All I saw was young Howard’s broom flying in the air after the stone went in and I knew then we had won.”

The pulsating final was magnificent publicity for the event. It was broadcast by the CBC’s western network and attracted thousands of listeners who knew nothing of curling. In Winnipeg, newspaper offices were plagued by phone calls all night long, the sort of telephone traffic that usually follows only a well-ballyhooed world’s championship fight. The same was true of Calgary and Edmonton.

The Bonspiel did everything for Nipawin that McDonald and his cohorts had hoped. It brought the greats to the town and it started paying the freight on the new rink. Schoolkids became avid curlers, getting special hours on the ice. The ladies’ section swelled to 21 rinks and intercommunity competitions with towns as far west as Prince Albert were undertaken. At last count there were 200 club members, almost 10%. of the town’s population. Comparable would be 100,000 members in Toronto.

For 1948 the executive didn’t merely sit back and wait for the curlers to arrive, and even when the Canadian Government imposed staggering tariff regulations on automobiles Cliff McDonald didn’t blanch—publicly, anyway.

“I don’t care if we lose $5,000 on this venture,” he declared, in a visit to Winnipeg. “We’ve promised the curlers autombiles and they’ll get automobiles.”

And, instead of pulling in its brooms a little in the price-list division, Nipawin added a fifth competition, a special all-electrical event in which first prize was four refrigerators, second was four ranges, third was four cabinet radios and fourth was four washing machines. The event, of all things, was a consolation, open only to rinks which did not reach the semifinals of the three qualifying events and, consequently,

the automobile round robin. Two other changes provided for a runner-up prize in that main event (four $100 gold wrist watches) and turned the final from a sudden-death game to a two-out-ofthree conclusion. The runner-up prize was designed to eliminate the necessity of deals between the finalists and it was successful. There were none in the 1948 final.

And so 120 rinks (representing $12,000 immediate revenue) appeared last January for the 1948 event. The $4 season tickets again swelled the coffers. The ladies’ section sold steaming food around the clock in shifts as the ’spiel moved along. Entrants this time came from as far away as Vancouver and Virginal, Minn., including Walter Polski’s rink garbed like a St. Andrew’s reunion in glorious Technicolor. And there was Jack Robinson, a 65-year-old northern guide, dog trainer and fisherman, the oldest competitor; and a Chinese quartet from Wadena, Sask.

Wood started out with eight straight victories, including the championship of the First Event, and appeared headed for four more automobiles. But 1948 wasn’t Wood’s year. He was eliminated by Grant Watson’s rink from Winnipeg (actually skipped by Jimmy Guy of Kenora, the Northern Ontario skip in the 1947 Canadian championship), a rink that Wood’s four had knocked out in the first round of the First Event. That sent the Watson rink to the Second Event where it was beaten again in the first round and shunted to the Third Event. But it earned a place in the automobile round robin by filling the fourth semifinal slot in the Third Event and from this staggering start it zipped through all competition to win the automobiles handily.

One of the Watson rink’s members, who already owned a car he loved, reluctantly parted with his curling prize for $3,600.' More irony appeared in the electrical consolation division where the rink which won the cherished stoves, the Guy Johnson four, hailed from a little town called Love, Sask., which is not electrified.

Will This Last?

Wood’s rink won repeating shotguns for victory in the First Event, a circumstance that did not surprise Wood’s son, Howie. Last Christmas, two weeks before the 1948 tournament, he had consulted the prize list, noted that shotguns topped the First Event and had purchased a Labrador retriever. He called the dog Nipawin, Nipper for short, and this fall took it hunting in his Nipawin automobile with his Nipawin shotgun. This is the second manifestation of Howie’s regard for the clambake. His wife bore a son the night the Woods won the cars and he named the boy Victor Hudson Wood.

Victor Hudson Wood’s renowned grandfather, one of curling’s all-time masters, is one of those who feels that the Nipawin conclave is more than a novelty. The competition was tougher last year than in the event’s inaugural, he noted, and he feels this was a result of the bonspiel fostering interest in curling throughout Saskatchewan, a province, incidentally, that never has won the Canadian championship. Manitoba, with its scores of top-flight rinks, has won 15 times. Wood believes that if spectacular gatherings with exotic prizes have the over-all effect of promoting the game then they are good for curling.

All of which would seem to indicate that little Nipawin, the bane of the travel bureau, is rapidly becoming the biggest city on the map—the curling map, that is. iç