Within my first few weeks of joining a curling club, I thought I had seen it all. I was happily curling in three different leagues at the time, and figured that’s what the sport was all about. The leagues were fun, the competition was good, and I didn’t think it could get much better. Then something came along that changed my curling mindset forever...
My first bonspiel.
What is a bonspiel, you ask? At its most basic level, a bonspiel is a curling tournament. At its most complex, it can be a riotous celebration that combines blustery competition with festive regalement.
Now, I don’t remember the exact details of my first bonspiel. (This may be a result having too much “fun.”) But suffice it to say they’re all quite similar in terms of entertainment value. Although curling is at the heart of every one, bonspiels are designed to keep everyone entertained off the ice as well.
A typical bonspiel starts on Thursday or Friday, and continues until the finals are held on Sunday. The average number of competing teams is around 20, but a bonspiel may contain as few as 12 or as many as 50+. The more teams that compete, the more likely you are to have a good time.
The curling competition usually follows a standard bracket-style format. It’s kind of like March Madness, but if you lose one game, you’re not knocked out of the tournament. In fact, most bonspiels guarantee a 3 game minimum for each team. This makes sense, considering most teams are traveling from out of town to compete. You wouldn’t want to drive 3 hours to get there, lose your first game, and then be forced to drive home. The team that wins all of their games is eventually crowned champion at the awards ceremony on Sunday. This team is considered the A-Event champion. What happens to the teams that lose one or two games? There’s awards waiting for them in their respective brackets, usually called the B-Event and C-Event, etc.
Since each curling match only lasts about 2 hours, there’s plenty of down-time at a bonspiel. When not on the ice, you’ll spend your time having a few cocktails at the club, eating and drinking from the feast that they provide while socializing with other teams. Oftentimes, the host club hires a band for evening entertainment, or puts together a poker tournament, or a scotch tasting, etc. The general idea is to keep most teams at the club, well-fed and having a good time. The more fun any particular team has, the more likely they are to return to the same event next season.
Bonspiels vary in degree of difficulty. There are ‘5 & Under’ events, designed for curlers who are relatively new to the sport. The only stipulation is that no member of a team can have more than 5 years of curling experience under his/her belt. Once you’re in your 6th year of curling, you ‘age out’ of the 5 & Under events, and are no longer eligible to participate in them.
Some events are quite serious and prestigious, like the GNCC Championship that’s held in Schenectady each year. What makes it so prestigious? The trophy/award is over 140 years old. You get your name on that, and you’ve become part of a very historic tradition.
Other bonspiels are just for fun, like the famous ‘Bonsqueal’ held in New Jersey each year. The games are shorter than usual, and everyone tends to wear vacation/resort style clothing. Lei’s and a pig roast are common at this event.
The sport of curling thrives from the camaraderie developed during bonspiels. If you’re a new curler that has not yet experienced one, I highly recommend doing so. You’ll find a new appreciation for the game, and all the peripherals that go along with it.
Below are some common examples of bonspiel posters. Enjoy!
Richard lives in Schenectady and is a member of the Schenectady Curling Club.