July 18th, 2024

The Brier brings back fond memories of bonspiels

By Lethbridge Herald on March 11, 2022.

Lethbridge  has been in the national spotlight this week with the city hosting the national mens curling championship at the Enmax Centre.

If you follow the Brier coverage on TSN, you’ll see packed stands where fans are being heralded by commentators for their strong support of favourite teams.

After two years of COVID-19 restrictions, curling fans are ready to let loose and have some fun and the Brier is showing for all Canada to see that Lethbridge does indeed know how to have a good time.

The amount the City spent to bring the Brier here is expected to reap huge financial dividends for the city. But the influx of tourism dollars is only part of the event’s success. Lethbridge is getting huge coverage nationally and it has the potential to attract more tourists here in coming weeks, months and years.

Even residents who don’t follow curling have to appreciate the significance of this event to our city which is hosting people from across Canada, many of whom may have never before experienced southern Alberta hospitality.

The Brier could be a gateway to better days ahead for the area tourism industry, which will benefit us all, even indirectly. Tourism, as we heard this week at an open house in the Coast Hotel, contributes substantially to the Alberta economy, more than $8 billion annually before COVID-19 restrictions were put in place. And the publicity Lethbridge is getting from national media coverage has the potential to attract more Canadians from other provinces to visit Lethbridge and Alberta.

The Brier, like the Grey Cup, is a national institution which has a special place in the hearts of sports fans and this year’s curling championships will surely leave visitors with fond memories and many stories to tell their friends, families and fellow curlers.

In the 1980s, some friends from Fort Frances travelled every year to the Brier to support northern Ontario’s entry and just enjoy the ambience of this national spectacle. 

Curling was huge in the Fort and area. The little  Lake of the Woods village of Nestor Falls did – and maybe still does – host an annual bonspiel on natural ice. My old pal Glen Helliar, whose family owns one of the longest-established tourist camps on LoW, was the ice maker for that event. 

My first introduction to the immense draw, so to speak, of curling came in 1980 when I covered the Little Amik bonspiel in the Fort. It attracted some of the best curlers from Manitoba and Ontario and was a premiere event for competitive curlers. Al Hackner, the northern Ontario curling legend, was just one of the many top-flight curlers who would be seen at the bonspiel.

I spent many winter weekends in Ontario covering bonspiels of one kind or another and played in a few myself – I figured if I was going to be at the rink all weekend, I might as well have some fun while shooting photos and writing stories.

For a few years, I curled in the mens league and often spared on teams that were short, one of them being a team of elderly guys who usually knew they could depend on me to show up on the spur of the moment with my fibreglass broom, the kind that could make walls shake when pounding the ice.

In 1982, the year we hosted the all-Ontario high school hockey championships, I was on a team that had seven members in the men’s two-night league. With guys working different shifts at the paper mill, having that size of crew meant we always had a body or two who could fill in on either night if the team was short.

One of those nights just happened to be the opening banquet for the all-Ontarios which I and another newspaper staffer named Rich Glennie were both covering. I was on the committee that helped bring the tournament to town and had to be there. 

But out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone waving frantically, trying to get my attention from the door of the Knights of Columbus Hall where the dinner was at.

It was Peter Jensen, one of my curling team members, and he was trying to get my attention. 

Sure enough, at the last minute we were short but not just one player, we were down two so they needed me on the ice so the team wouldn’t forfeit. I was torn between two priorities, one being part of the evening our group of volunteers had worked so hard to present to the best high school hockey teams in Ontario. 

The other priority, of course, was throwing lead stones for my curling team. And I couldn’t let the team down so it was off to the rink with the gear which never left the trunk of my car because I never knew when I was going to be needing it.

And I figured we still had the banquet covered with Rich in the room.

My twin roomies and I, thanks to my connections with the area Molson beer rep, even had our own sponsored team in Fort Frances’ annual mens bonspiel one year. 

Molson and Labatt were at the time introducing light beers to the market and my pal Max Mekilok out of Thunder Bay, supplied us with massive Molson Light labels  to slap on the back of our snazzy white shirts.

Given the competition between him and Labatt’s Stubby Dubchuk from Kenora for area beer market share, I think Max was all too happy to get some exposure at a curling event, which traditionally were sponsored by Labatt in town, mens fastball tournaments being Molson’s main focus.

Curling in the ‘80s for me was a part of daily winter life; it’s a sport that even took us to Superior, Wisconsin one winter where we landed a highly coveted spot in their big event. The draw wasn’t the prizes – it was the perks in the hometown rink of American curling icon and two-time world champion Bud Somerville. 

Those perks, first and foremost, were several kegs  of draught on the ice every draw for curlers to slake their thirsts between throwing and sweeping. We also got free meals after our games and plenty of drink tickets to the numerous establishments in Superior and neighbouring Duluth, Minnesota. 

The Superior bonspiel is probably the most fun a young guy won’t remember having except for the headache afterwards.

But from what we’re seeing here at the Brier, Lethbridge itself seems to be hosting a party for the ages, one that hopefully will make visitors want to return to our city for more.

Thanks for coming. I’m sure I speak on behalf of thousands of residents in Lethbridge when I say to our country’s finest male curlers and your legions of supporters we are so glad to have you here.

Follow @albeebHerald on Twitter.

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