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Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018
A Sudbury Brier breakthrough in 1953
2016-09-24
by Randy Pascal

There is a wonderful world of discovery that awaits when one accepts the challenge of penning a weekly sport-specific column. From unearthing the talented and youthful up and comers, to delving into the mindset of the sporting elite, and crossing paths with the myriad of folks who maintain the core of any athletic endeavour at the grassroots level, stories are everywhere.

With ice in the local curling rinks not ready for game action for a few weeks yet, there was time to mine some rich historical nuggets of this premier winter sport in the Nickel Basin. With noted thanks to the wealth of information that is “Home-Grown Heroes”, written by Frank Pagnucco back in 1982, came the news that Sudbury had first hosted what was then the MacDonald Brier Tankard in March of 1953.

A quick search of the internet uncovered an absolute “must-see” for any local who is both a fan of curling, and enjoys an appreciation for the perspective than a retrospective almost 65 years after the fact can provide.

Produced by Bristol Films Limited in Montreal, a film overview of the 1953 men’s national curling championship runs roughly a half hour in length, but is well worth the watch for curling aficionados looking to witness just how far the game has come – and the City of Sudbury, for that matter.

As noted at the very outset of the production, the 1953 Brier in Sudbury represented the first time in the 24 year history of the event that the competition would take place in Northern Ontario. “More than 85,000 people that inhabit the Nickel Basin” were anxious to showcase the “brand new Sudbury Arena, which provided a $1,350,000 setting for the national championship.”

While the Canadian playdowns were making their first stop in these parts, the hardware emblematic of men’s curling supremacy had graced the region just three years earlier, when the Kirkland Lake Curling Club rink of Tom Ramsay, Len Williamson, Bill Weston and Billy Kenny captured the Tankard in Vancouver, the first time that Northern Ontario would be crowned champions.

Yet it was Manitoba that travelled to Sudbury as the favourites, the western province producing 13 of the previous 23 championship winning teams. The field of 44 curlers that gathered that year were deemed to be the strongest field yet, with 15 curlers having prior Brier experience, including six of the eleven skips.

Ab Gowanlock, representing the Dauphin (MB) Curling Club, had won the Brier back in 1938, but returned this time with a team of Jim Williams, Art Pollon and Russ Jackman, with the latter, at age 24, “by far the youngest member of the Manitoba rink”.

Grant Watson of Port Arthur was at the helm of the host Northern Ontario quartet, having served as vice for his brother Ken Watson (from Winnipeg), a three time Brier champion. Watching video evidence of the early draws revealed a few interesting tidbits, notably that the delivery of the rock in 1953 would most resemble that of a current day recreational curler, in addition to the fact that games would run through 12 ends to completion.

That said, there was no lack of drama, as Manitoba opened with an 8-7 win over Nova Scotia, while British Columbia edged Newfoundland 9-8 in the second draw spotlighted game. Turns out that fans who packed the new arena would be treated to wide open affairs, more often than not.

Where the elite junior curler of 2016 likely can lay claim to a decade or more of experience in the sport, Quebec lead Jim Turney, a Welshman by birth, had been curling for only four years when he donned the provincial colours in Sudbury.

Skipped by Kenny Weldon of Montreal for a second straight year, the Brier entry from “La Belle Province” remained right in the thick of things, largely through the natural athleticism of its members.

Vice Ches McCance was a star halfback with both the Montreal Alouettes and Winnipeg Blue Bombers, with both he and Weldon intent on upsetting the Manitobans, since both were one time Winnipeggers.

The Ontario entry was skipped by 73 years old Pete Gilbert from the Chatham Curling Club, forming a team that included two of his sons. The ninth draw would see Northern Ontario enjoy their moment of glory, as Watson recorded ends of three and four points, handing the Gowanlock rink only their second loss of the tournament, 14-9.

In 1953, there were no playoffs, no “page system” in effect. The trophy would be handed out to the team that boasted the best record after completing the full round robin segment of ten games. Heading into the 11th and final draw, Weldon and the Quebec crew needed a win against Saskatchewan (Jim Hill) to move to 9-1, one game better than Gowanlock and company at 8-2.

But Hill and company, representing the Delisle Curling Club, were no pushovers, having recorded 31 straight playdown victories heading into the MacDonald Brier. A 9-5 loss at the hands of Hill would force Weldon into a single game showdown with Gowanlock, with a Canadian title on the line.

Tied at 5-5 in the ninth end, Weldon executes a superb draw “through a tight double port”, facing three Manitoba stones, to move ahead 6-5. Gowanlock counters with one in both the 10th and 11th ends, and when a Weldon takeout sails wide in the 12th, the large and boisterous Sudbury crowd salutes yet another Brier champion from the “land of 100,000 lakes”.

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