Kiwis fine-tune game

TED WYMAN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 7:25 AM ET

Anyone cursing his luck at having to travel all the way across the city for a game during the MCA Bonspiel might want to consider just how far Sean Becker and his New Zealand mates have come to find ice time and decent curling competition.

"We're used to doing a lot of travelling to get to our curling because until July of this year we didn't have a single sheet of actual curling ice in New Zealand," Becker's lead Lorne De Pape said.

"We just curled outdoors or out of the country."

Becker's foursome arrived in Winnipeg this week to compete in the 118th annual MCA Bonspiel, an event unlike anything the curlers have seen in their home country.

With 441 teams and more than 1,700 participants, the MCA features more curlers than there are in the entire Pacific region.

"There's double the amount of curlers that we've got in New Zealand competing in this one bonspiel so that's something special to be a part of," Becker said yesterday after his team practised at the St. Vital Curling Club.

Becker, third Hans Frauenlob, second Dan Mustapic and De Pape are on an eight-week, around-the-world curling tour which will end next month in Turin, Italy.

MANAGED TO QUALIFY

You see, this isn't just a bunch of knee-sliding Kiwi's we're talking about. These guys are Olympians, who managed to qualify for the Turin Games despite the fact that New Zealand's first indoor curling facility (actually, it's the first in the southern hemisphere) was opened just last summer.

"We're not far away (from being medal contenders) and it's only really been lack of practice that has affected us," Becker said.

Becker is a native New Zealander, as is fifth player Warren Dobson, but the other three are Canadians. Frauenlob is from Toronto, Mustapic from Thunder Bay, Ont., and De Pape? Well, this a homecoming for the former Winnipegger.

"I've never competed in the MCA before," said De Pape, who moved to New Zealand 14 years ago as part of his job at Monsanto. "When I lived here, the only bonspiel I was in was an Agriculture (University of Manitoba) all-nighter and we wore cowboy boots and duct tape."

HOPE TO IMPROVE

The foursome needs all the practice it can get but these are hardly raw rookies. They competed at the World Curling Championships in 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2005 and had a 5-6 record last year in Victoria. They hope to improve on that with a little fine tuning.

"The MCA seemed like the perfect place to get in lots of games on lots of different ice in lots of conditions," De Pape said.

"Coming to Winnipeg is one of the highlights of our trip. This is certainly the heartland of curling. It kind of blows the guys away when we talk about there being something like 22 curling rinks here and over 120 sheets of curling ice."

New Zealand has never qualified for the Olympics in curling and generally sends a small contingent to the Winter Games. So far, only 11 athletes (five curlers, three snowboarders and three alpine skiers) have qualified but that will constitute the country's largest team ever.

"It won't be until we hit Torino and get our accreditation and get into the village that it will really hit home."

Whether they win a medal or not, the New Zealanders have one distinction they can celebrate.

At 50, De Pape will be the oldest curler at the Olympics, if not the oldest athlete, period.

"I'm 10 months older than (Canadian second) Russ Howard. I thought there would be no one older than a curler, but rumour has it that there's a couple of luge athletes who are older. It doesn't matter to me."


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