Red Deer’s Mike Shea was an unlikely finalist in what could be the world’s most unusual game.
On the August long weekend, Shea was tossing horse ankle bones at other horse ankle bones while going for the bunnock championship in Macklin, Sask.
Lured by the legendary camaraderie of bunnock players and the promise “if you can throw a rock you can play,” Shea had been coming to Macklin to try his hand at a game (described as a cross between bowling and horseshoes) for the last decade.
This summer, Shea teamed up with his wife’s cousin-in-law, Mike Tryhuba, and his teenage kids, Racquel and Braden. The four went on a winning streak, taking some veteran bunnock players out of contention. They ended up in eighth place out of 320 teams.
“I got lucky,” said Shea, who not only took home his share of his team’s $500 prize, but gained some bragging rights.
Somehow, he managed to put enough spin on a toss to knock over five bones in one shot. “I knocked two bones down, and then it spun around and came back, missed the next two bones, and hit three more…
“I thought it was great!” added the 63-year-old — though somewhat unbelievable.
“I’ve never been much of a sports guy,” Shea confessed. “My dad was a ball player and he coached baseball, but I never made a team… when they threw the ball, I would shut my eyes.”
Fortunately, there’s nothing to catch in bunnock.
The goal of the game, invented by bored Russian soldiers in the late 1800s, is to knock over a row of 20 horse ankle bones that have been carefully lined up like bowling pins — after first taking out two “guard” bones at either end of the long row.
Each of four players on a team stands 10 metres away from this target and gets two throws with — guess what? — more horse ankle bones.
The team requiring the least amount of tosses to knock over all the bones wins.
It may not be the most imaginative of pastimes, but Shea said he’d never miss the chance to play an inclusive game that involves participants from ages four to 90. “I’ve met a lot of nice people, and everybody’s so fun…”
Shea and his wife were driving through Macklin in about 2006 when they stumbled upon the annual bunnock tournament. “Someone said ‘Give it a shot,’ so I did,” recalled Shea, who works as a compositor at the Advocate.
He quickly grew to love bunnock, which had been brought to Saskatchewan by immigrants in the early 1900s. He began looking forward to coming back to play every year. “My niece is getting married this summer and I told her it better not be on the August long weekend!” he admitted with a chuckle.
The tournament, which is a fundraiser for Macklin-area service clubs, involves raffles, food sales, music and community dances. Shea particularly likes that the small town of 1,500 people manages to double its population that championship weekend.
The centre near the Saskatchewan-Alberta border has hotels and campgrounds that fill up as about $1 million is pumped into the local economy over three days.
As someone who hails from the declining town of Campbell’s Bay, Que., Shea believes what Macklin has done with bunnock is inspiring. “It’s wonderful for a small town to grab onto something like that, to involve everybody, and to keep it going.”
Shea wishes every rural community could think of a unique way to keep itself on the map.