Saskatchewan roots of Scotties and Brier

For most of my life, I’ve (a) watched (b) covered (c) played this sport, yet I just discovered the real genesis of curling. I mean, the curling that has made the Scotties Tournament of Hearts and the Tim Hortons Brier so big, so rich and so professional that “free-agent” curlers can province-hop for a better opportunity.

It is, of course, all about the money.

The seed was planted 76 years ago in the appropriately named town of NipaWIN. That was, and still is, a town in northern Saskatchewan, where everything north of Regina is considered northern Saskatchewan. Planting any kind of seed is impressive in a place where January temperatures once dipped to minus 55 (Fahrenheit, but when it’s that cold, pick your scale).

The seed?

“The World’s First Automobile Bonspiel”…more commonly known as a carspiel, or a bonspiel where cars are the prizes. These ones were either $10,000 and four 1946 Hudsons, or four Hudsons worth $10,000. In any case, they went to a Winnipeg rink skipped by the legendary Howard (Pappy) Wood, who’d already won three of the first 14 Briers. In an era when everybody played 12 ends, the clinching game took 13.

My source for this little historical gem is the late Jim Taylor, a renowned sports columnist who lived in Nipawin when he was Little Jimmy Taylor. Ironically, he and I once worked for the same newspaper; he was the football writer and I was the whatever-you-want-me-to-be writer, which is part of the reason I’m surprised I never heard this story until 2023, in a long-forgotten book he’d written. Even more ironically, Nipawin became a town the year Little Jimmy was born.

Many years after leaving for British Columbia, Taylor wrote a column about his hometown’s place in curling history. In it, he included this assessment from the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix: “Up until the Nipawin Car Bonspiel, there was hardly any coverage of curling beyond a local level. By gathering the world’s finest curlers and putting up cars for competition, Nipawin caught the fancy of the entire country.”

In short, the carspiel put curling on the nation’s map.

In 1947, Nipawin had 2,300 people (4,500 today), two hotels (six today) and a two-sheet outdoor rink. A six-sheet indoor rink was under construction, usable yet unfinished. When the carspiel attracted 103 entries, five more sheets were quickly flooded in the adjacent arena. World War II was still a fresh memory, so granite curling rocks were available only on a quota basis, and the curlers had to bring their own. Can you imagine what an attractive option that would be for today’s curlers at the Scotties or the Brier?

With only two hotels, accommodation was insufficient and the curlers were billeted. That means, they slept in private homes the way travelling hockey players always did as kids. Is anybody ever billeted any more, anywhere?

Nipawin’s curling traditionalists didn’t even want the carspiel until they realized profits would be used to complete the new rink. They complained it would “turn the game professional.”

Ultimately, that’s just what it did. And that’s why we’re seeing what we’re seeing this week at the Scotties and next week at the Brier.