Tax man rocks curling

PAUL FRIESEN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:10 AM ET

Wayne Middaugh calls it a nightmare. Jeff Stoughton never thought it would get this far.

And Randy Ferbey is holding his breath, hoping he's not next.

It's Curling vs The Tax Man, the biggest fight this game has ever seen, with ramifications for serious rock-throwers across the country.

The first punch was thrown by the Canada Revenue Agency, which a couple years ago slapped Ontario's Middaugh with a bill for $50,000 in back taxes from his winnings between 2003-05.

A former Brier winner, Middaugh refused to back down, launching appeal after appeal. Now he's rounded up a topnotch tax lawyer to fight back.

The showdown should come later this year.

"It's heading to court," Middaugh, in town for the Grand Slam's Canadian Open, was saying yesterday.

What happens in that courtroom might be the most-watched curling event of the year, never mind the Olympic Trials in December -- at least for most of the top players.

Because if the bean-counters at the CRA win their case, and Middaugh is forced to cough up $50,000, there will be more than a few players on pins and needles.

"That's the general feeling -- nervousness about it," Winnipeg's Stoughton said. "Who's going to get the next phone call? I'm sure they'd go after (Kevin) Martin right away, and they'd go after (Glenn) Howard, Ferbey, and then we'd probably be next. It's amazing it's gone this far."

Ferbey might be feeling particularly vulnerable this week.

The four-time Brier winner and three-time world champ from Alberta just cleaned up at last weekend's TSN Skins Game, pocketing a cool 70 G's.

"Not bad for a weekend," Ferbey admitted. "That's as good as it gets."

And having an auditor at your door is about as bad as it gets.

If you're wondering why curlers shouldn't pay taxes on their winnings, consider this: the expenses for a team to travel the competitive tour are enormous (Ferbey estimates at least $70,000 a year to play).

Only the top teams make a significant profit. For every one that ends up in the black, there are dozens that lose money.

Common sense, then, would dictate that all players, money winners and losers, could deduct their expenses from their annual income. The net result would be a loss to the government.

"There's been no common sense since the start of this situation," Middaugh said. "I've had lawyers and accountants look into it ... at the end of the day, (the CRA) keeps saying the same answer: curling is a business.

"It's been a nightmare since Day 1. And we've become a test case."

Hiring a lawyer to go to court is going to cost Middaugh an estimated $50,000. So if he were to lose, he could be out $100,000.

"He's asked for the curlers support, and obviously he has it," Ferbey said. "From everybody. Hopefully, it's going to get tied up in the courts for about 15 years and we won't have to worry about it."

Most weekends, teams play for a top prize of around $15,000. The winner of this week's Slam event will pocket close to $25,000. Split four ways, of course.

If it got to the point where the CRA was going to tax all the money winners, you wonder who'd bother going on tour anymore.

"It would (threaten the tour)," Stoughton said. "It's hard enough to go play in the fall. You're playing for anywhere from $12,000 to $16,000, first prize. If 30% to 40% of that is going away, you're not really playing for anything."

Stoughton and Ferbey say it could kill the tour.

And if all the best players stay home, what does that do to the sport?

"I'd hate to see that," Ferbey said.

Part of him can't believe the tax man will persist.

And part of him wonders if he's next.

"It could happen next week," Ferbey said. "Cross your fingers and hope it doesn't."


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