Curling in Winnipeg? Winter wouldn’t be complete without it. But curling in Winnipeg, in the dead of winter – outdoors?
You bet. Just ask Michael Thompson, one of the organizers of Canada’s largest outdoor curling event, Winnipeg’s annual Ironman Outdoor Curling Bonspiel, where intrepid curlers rock out on the frozen river for three days every February.
First question: Just how cold is it?
According to Thompson, cold has never been an issue.
“The river is down below the wind and protected by the high banks,” he says. “It’s a dry cold in Manitoba and if you dress properly – as every child in Manitoba knows – and you stay active, you will be fine.”
Some years, curlers have tossed the fleece in favour of playing in t-shirts. It’s not called “Ironman” for nothing.
“Our curlers relish the cold,” explains Thompson. “Minus-30 Celsius was enough to close all events at the Forks, but not our event, because Manitobans know how to dress for the cold and still have fun.”
But like so many curling events, the Ironman Outdoor Curling Bonspiel isn’t just about fun: it’s about curling for a good cause. In this case, there are two good causes: a charity and a curling club anniversary.
The charity is the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Manitoba, and it’s at the core of the event.
“The idea of curling outdoors is an idea that [Winnipeggers] Eric Dawson and Kevin Wiebe have had for a very long time,” says Thompson. “The challenge of putting on such event, getting back to curling roots and having a good time were all contributing factors in wanting to make the dream a reality.”
But the dream languished until 2000, when Dawson’s father-in-law died after suffering a heart attack. This tragic event inspired Dawson to organize an event to raise funds for the Heart and Stroke Foundation with his best friend Kevin Wiebe, and in February 2002 the first Ironman was held on the Assiniboine River. That year, 12 teams took to the ice, and since then, the event has grown. This year, the goal is to see 64 teams participating.
Part of that goal is tied to the event’s other good cause: an anniversary. In 2012, Winnipeg’s Granite Curling Club will celebrate 100 years of curling at its current location.
“The curling community is small in Manitoba as you can imagine,” says Thompson. “A number of curlers from the Granite Curling club have already curled in our event and a number of our curlers are aware of the celebrations to commemorate the Granite Curling Club being at its curling location for 100 years in 2012. Both groups saw an excellent opportunity to promote curling, each other’s projects, and fundraise for a worthy cause, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Manitoba.”
By teaming up, both groups can contribute to making the bonspiel even bigger and better than ever.
“The project for this year will have two curling locations on the Assiniboine River, one at the Forks Historic Port and a second site on the river near the Granite Curling club location. The goal is to have 64 teams curling with draws taking place at both locations throughout the weekend. There are tentative plans to have horse sleds transport curlers and spectators between locations via the river,” says Thompson. “It’s exciting for both groups to share this year’s fun.”
The event is not without its challenges, of course, and the most daunting is the task of creating a creating a usable outdoor curling rink “out of thin air”, says Thompson, for committee members with jobs and families. “Imagine field of dreams,” he says. “It’s that same kind of work and dedication each winter that volunteer committee members have to put in.”
No event of this size can happen without the support of volunteers and sponsors. Thompson cites Frontier Toyota loaning their trucks for set-up and take-down, and Battlefield Equipment providing lights for the nighttime draws. It’s a team effort, and an impressive one, considering that the organizing committee has only seven (or fewer) members at any time.
Participants are also a key to the Ironman’s success. The goal is to provide a fun event that’s challenging enough to attract every age and playing level, all for a good cause. Some returning curlers adjust their annual winter vacation so that they don’t miss the event. And sometimes, people stumble on it by accident – and get hooked.
“We had a woman walking along the river trail ask us what we were doing when we were making the ice,” remembers Thompson. “She was from Quebec visiting her family in Manitoba. We told her about it, she entered her family of seven, and they won the D side event.”