Manitoba Sweeps to A Win In Newfoundland

May 23, 2010 by Sharon Adams

The weather was cool, the welcome warm and the curling hot at the 54th Royal Canadian Legion Dominion Command Curling Championship March 13-19 in Stephenville, Nfld.

The Manitoba-Northwestern Ontario team of Jeff Stewart, Craig Douglas, Dwight Ferguson and Jeff Mowat of Gladstone Branch were victorious. But everyone felt like a winner during their stay in Stephenville, on the shore of picturesque Bay St. George on Newfoundland’s southwest coast.

“Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow,” Jeff Mowat, lead of the Manitoba team, said at the closing banquet. The famed Newfoundland hospitality coupled with luscious meals and opulent surroundings made the week seem like an endless party aboard a luxury liner. “We immediately thought of the movie Titanic” upon seeing the branch’s main hall, said skip Mel Bernard from George Pearkes VC Branch in Summerside, P.E.I.

For a town with a population of only about 8,000, buildings in Stephenville are pretty impressive, thanks to Ernest Harmon Air Force Base, built by the United States during the Second World War to accommodate 4,000 U.S. troops. About 132,000 military personnel passed through the air field annually. When the base closed in 1966, the property, then valued at $179 million, was turned over to Canada. Many town businesses and regional community services are located in former military buildings.

Stephenville Branch obtained the posh base officers’ club, built in 1950, for a nominal sum about 10 years after the base closed. “The structural integrity and general décor of the club has been maintained by the Legion through herculean efforts,” said branch member Fred Stagg, master of ceremonies at the official events.

Most small town Legion branches could fit in the main hall, which has a stage and generous dance floor as well as two large seating areas separated by a marvelous circular bar that would look at home in one of the early James Bond movies.

The Memorial Wall features hundreds of pictures of young men and women from all branches of the Canadian Forces. The hall is a favoured site for weddings and banquets, says President Warren Quinton. Downstairs is another generously sized bar, a snooker table, dart boards, tables for card games and video lottery terminals.

The Caribou Curling Club today occupies the former base recreation club which offered its 1,000 members a lounge, gymnasium and bowling lanes. “Bowling alley wood is unique and extremely durable and costly,” said Stagg and the curling club has recycled this treasure as flooring for its lounge.

Curlers alternated between these two splendid buildings for the week’s main events. Teams were met by volunteer drivers when they trickled in Saturday at Deer Lake Airport, about 134 kilometres northeast of Stephenville. The day was capped by a reception hosted by Molson Group Six featuring a gourmet buffet prepared and served by College of the North Atlantic staff and students followed by live music and dancing.

Sunday began with the sewing on of crests and the skips’ meeting. Then officials, guests and curlers met for a solemn ceremony at noon in the branch hall where Dominion Command First Vice President Pat Varga placed a wreath before a simple white cross handmade by local student Alyssa Gosbee. Varga was escorted by Newfoundland and Labrador Command President Stephen Pottle, a branch member.

The official opening followed at the Caribou Curling Club that evening, with introductions and speeches by dignitaries including local politicians as well as Barry Lomond, president of the curling club and former curler at the dominion nationals, and Local Arrangements Committee Chairman Charlie Earle.

The first stone was thrown by Honorary Colonel Richard Alexander, veteran of the Second World War and Korea, assisted by President Quinton. It was followed by the first of seven draws.

Teams were so evenly matched that leaders were slow to emerge. The British Columbia/Yukon Command team, which seemed a shoo-in for second, ended up being beaten by not only the winning team—but also the two with the lowest scores.

By the beginning of the middle game Tuesday morning Manitoba, P.E.I, the B.C./Yukon team from Cowichan Branch in Duncan on Vancouver Island and the Stephenville Branch team representing Newfoundland and Labrador, all had two wins, while the teams from Lancaster Branch in Saint John, N.B.; Meadow Lake, Sask., Branch; Bridgewater, N.S., Branch and Col. John Bourque Branch in Sherbrooke, Que., had one win apiece. The Manitoba team had just suffered its only loss—an 8 to 1 drubbing, with potential big saves for Manitoba turning into P.E.I.’s multiple-point ends.

“We had a wake-up call,” said Manitoba lead Mowat. “Sometimes I think that’s what you need; it makes you dig deep and makes you focus.” Second Dwight Ferguson added “We came up flat, and P.E.I. was on their game.”

In the fourth draw, it was Manitoba’s turn to rack it up, scoring three in the fifth end and stealing three in the eighth, for a 9-4 win over Saskatchewan. P.E.I. lost an 8-to-9 squeaker to New Brunswick. B.C., Newfoundland and Manitoba began pulling away from the pack, with three wins each.

In Draw 5, B.C. and Manitoba emerged clear leaders with four wins each—and they faced each other in the sixth draw. The two teams seemed evenly matched at first, with B.C. scoring one in the first end, Manitoba picking up a pair in the second and B.C. scoring two in the third.

The fourth end was “the highlight of the week for me,” said Mowat. “Our skip (Jeff Stewart) had to just come by a rock in the top four and hit a rock in back of the house. He did it and it was a slash takeout for three. It sure changed the momentum of the game.” Manitoba gave up just two more points in the rest of the game, while scoring five more themselves.

“It was a big end for us,” agreed Stewart. “That got us control of the game and we kept control of the whole game after that.” The final score was Manitoba 10, B.C. 5.

As teams entered the seventh draw, a tie-breaker was anticipated. Although Manitoba was in the lead with five wins, they were facing Quebec, which had won only once, but B.C., then sitting second, faced Saskatchewan. If B.C. and P.E.I. won their games, there would be a playoff for second. If Quebec won against Manitoba, a three-way playoff might be necessary to determine the champions.

In the end, no tie-breaker was necessary.

Manitoba handily defeated Quebec 8 to 2; P.E.I. won 7 to 1 against Newfoundland; and B.C. unexpectedly lost 5 to 8 to Saskatchewan, who managed a ninth-end triple and a single steal in the tenth.

B.C. skip Bob Gallaugher, who recently recovered from bypass surgery and a knee operation, said win or lose, it was a special treat to play in a national competition with his daughter Shannon and son Robbie. Paul Little rounded out the team.

“We’re pretty happy. We had one bad game and the rest of the games, we’ve played pretty well,” said P.E.I. skip Mel Bernard, who’d expected to place third behind B.C., but was pleasantly surprised to end second. It’s a familiar finish for Bernard who was with this team when they placed second in seniors curling in Surrey, B.C., four years ago. Over the years he’s been on four teams placing second at dominion curling.

“We had great fan support,” said Manitoba second Dwight Ferguson, who with Douglas and Mowat placed third in the 1998 championship in Chester, N.S. The players brought along their significant others: Val Parayeski, Tracy Stewart, Sheila Douglas and Tracey Dobchuk. The team pitched in to bring along “Coach” Joe Fraser, a former Manitoba-Northwestern Ontario Command president who is looking forward to receiving his 60 years long service award next year. The five were always front and centre, their “wave” marking each Manitoba win.

Social events were just as rewarding as the curling. Scrumptious meals, including one at St. George’s Branch about a half-hour away around the bay, included flavourful stews of caribou and moose, Cornish hen, stuffed pork roast, seafood, local favourites bologna and beans—and toutons, a sautéed bread dough delicacy reminiscent of central Canada’s beavertails and dough gods in the West.

The nightly entertainment showcased live musicians each evening, a skit featuring local comedienne Susan Fowlow and a hilarious screech-in during which curlers and officials were inducted as honorary Newfoundlanders by Dave Rex, dressed as a fisherman. The ceremony involved kissing a cod, downing a tot of screech (the local and particularly strong rum) and liberal use of the term “me old cock.”

As good as the food was, it was overshadowed by the friendliness, kindness and thoughtfulness not only of the 70 branch and curling club volunteers, but also of local residents. “What can I say about the hospitality?” Varga asked at the windup banquet. “(We) expected it to be fantastic, but Stephenville, you’ve done one better—you’ve absolutely blown us away.”

The local GM and Ford dealerships donated cars for each team; local artist and entertainer Lloyd Pretty invited New Brunswick members to tour his workshop; Stephenville team members invited some of the Quebec team to snowmobile; shoppers were surprised that traffic stops in both directions for pedestrians, even jaywalkers; and everyone was charmed to be called “my darling,” “my dear,” or “my love” by strangers in ordinary, everyday encounters.

Curlers, said Varga, go home having experienced new places, making new friends and renewing old acquaintances. “That’s what the Legion is about…friendship and comradeship.”

“Camaraderie comes first,” agreed Mowat. “Winning is a bonus.”

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