Why curlers take nothing for granted

Unless there’s an upset of enormous proportions this week, the Brier will not be won by Saskatchewan for the 43rd consecutive year. In the mid-20th century, this would have been even more unimaginable than the Toronto Maple Leafs and their current Stanley Cup drought.

Those were the days when Saskatchewan, the heartland of a game once played with jam pails on outdoor prairie rinks flooded by the curlers, was famous for exporting wheat, universal healthcare and Gordie Howe. That’s when Saskatchewan had the Richardsons.

This province won seven of the first 51 Briers, which is probably pretty close to rep-by-pop, and none of the next 42 (counting this week). Four of the victories belonged to the Richardsons of Regina and, even today, only one skip — Alberta’s Randy Ferbey — has ever won the Brier more than Ernie “The King” Richardson.

The Richardsons were the youngest Brier champions when you didn’t have to be young to win. Ernie Richardson is past 90 now and must surely be wondering, like curling fans, what happened in the heartland. Since Rick Folk won the Brier in 1980, Saskatchewan has been runner-up only twice — 1988 and 1995. Attempts have been made by five-time provincial champions and rookies, by skips who moved to third and thirds who skipped, by 27 different teams that have gone to the Brier and come home empty. Curlers have left Saskatchewan and won the Brier, winners have come to Saskatchewan and lost the Brier.

Nobody knows better than curlers from Saskatchewan why you can’t take winning for granted. That brings up one foursome — from Manitoba — that did. It happened when there were no playoffs, when snapping brooms could be heard from outside the arenas, when there were 10 provinces and 10 teams, and when every game lasted 12 ends.

The Winnipeg team was skipped by George Sangster, whose brother Bill played third. The Brier was a four-day event: two games a day for first three days, three games on the last day. Manitoba was expected to win the Brier just by showing up: an 11-for-18 record before 1948.

On the sixth draw, Sangster scored a deuce in the 12th end to beat the only other unbeaten team, B.C., 9-8. Manitoba was 6-0 and B.C. had never won the Brier, and was represented by a skip with the unlikely name of Frenchy D’Amour.

The Brier was in the bag.

That night, the Manitoba rink celebrated its impending victory the way sports champions celebrate, despite having three games the next day. Manitoba’s first opponent, Ontario, scored nine straight points in the last four ends to win 15-7. The second opponent, Kenora’s Jimmy Guy, scored nine straight points in the first four ends and triumphed 16-10.

D’Amour, meanwhile, won his last three games and the Brier.

“The Sangster boys were off colour…” the Winnipeg papers reported. No mention of a premature celebration. Many years later, I had my own source. In their Winnipeg auto-body shop, the Sangsters regularly played cribbage after work with a friend from the Ogilvie Flour Mill down the street.

That’s how I heard the story about what really happened at the Brier. Their friend was my father.