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Alma Optimist Plunger Toss: A community  tradition

Alma Optimist Plunger Toss: A community tradition

by Kelly Waterhouse

MAPLETON

When Jim de Bock was flushing out ideas for a fundraiser to support the Alma Optimist Club, he wanted to create something that was spot on.

The original concept, a Tin Can Curling bonspiel, had begun to circle the drain (pardon the pun). It was time for something fresh and new. The idea came to him late one night, on his way to the loo - and the Alma Plunger Toss was born.

“The tin can curling was a cultural kind of thing. It was a fun community celebration,” said de Bock, adding its demise was a “pivotal point” for the impetus to replace it with something unique.

“We needed something different,” recalls de Bock. “I thought to myself - what’s the one thing everybody finds funny?”

After 35 years as a public school teacher, de Bock knew the answer: toilet humour.

“Toilet humour has always been toilet humour,” he shrugs.

“Ultimately, I created the event as a fundraiser for the Alma Optimists. My motivation for doing this was to bring some flavour to the community,” de Bock added, with a smile and glint of mischief in his eye. “It was sort of, je ne sais quoi? ... It was meant to be fun.”

When he brought the concept to his fellow Optimists, he knew humour would be his best tool.

“The first reaction was dumbfounded silence and then disbelief,” de Bock recalls, adding that quickly turned to the pragmatic concern for the infrastructure required to pull an event like this together.

In other words, where would they get the toilets?

With a little help from fellow Mapleton resident and local politician Carl Hall, who just happened to know a building contractor renovating an apartment building with toilets to recycle, fate was on a roll. Hall and de Bock loaded a pick-up truck full of disposed potties and headed home.

 Now in its 31st year, it is fair to say the plunger toss has hit its mark not only as a fundraiser for the Alma Optimist Club, but as the cultural event of the winter season for the people of Mapleton Township, and beyond.

One might assume that, given the small-town nature of the plunger toss, it is a tiny event, but the line-up to register a team at the Alma Community Centre begins early.

“We opened the doors of the community centre at 6:35am,” said de Bock, who notes many of the participants are farmers who needed to register in-between chores.

“In previous years, I’ve had people even camped out on my lawn,” he joked. “We’ve done things differently this year.”

People were to arrive early to get a number for registration and then return at 1pm to officially register a team. People could register up to four teams each.

By the 1pm deadline, 56 teams were registered and a waiting list had begun.

“We were sold out right away, which is wonderful,” said de Bock.

One of the first in line was Jeff Fines.

“I’ve been involved in this since I was in grade school,” said Fines, who is now in his 12th year competing. “I wouldn’t miss it. I’ve won it twice.”

In 2006, Fines made a YouTube video (found by searching “Alma Plunger Toss”) as part of a college class project, capturing the event’s spirit of fun and camaraderie.

Alma resident Alf Thiessen said this event is one of his favorite local traditions, dating back to its origin as the Tin Can Bonspiel.

“I’ve lived here 35 years and have done the Plunger Toss every year,” Thiessen said. “This is about the community getting together. It’s small-town fun.”

Deb Phillips, who lives near the rink where the event takes place, said the occasion has become an important family event in her household.

“Our kids bring back friends from university and they think it’s just great,” Phillips said, noting the festivities carry on in homes throughout the community long after the plungers have been put away. “It’s about getting everybody together.”

It’s about legacy too, de Bock would add.

“It’s for posterity,” he said, noting that when the winners are handed the trophy, people check to make sure their names are on the trophy. “It’s all about winning that trophy. It’s history … something you’ll pass on to your grandchildren.”

He notes the event is “a balance between absurdity and humanity,” or competition balanced with community building. It may be fun, but participants take the competition seriously.

Well, as seriously as you can with a team name like “The Soggy Bottom Boys,” “The Alma Turds,” or “The Incredibowls,” or the “Super Poopers.”

The names are almost as fun as the costumes, de Bock said.

“We’ve always kind of established a plunger protocol,” he said, noting costumes are encouraged. “I mean, how do you dress for a plunger toss?”

The only rule - farmers take note - is,  “We discourage manure on boots, because you can’t get the slide if there is manure on the ice.”

Perhaps these are the reasons why some people have ranked the Alma Plunger Toss as one of the most unique community events in Canada.

It certainly has a reputation to uphold.

“It’s competitive, but everybody smiles. Everybody who has ever played the game smiles,” said de Bock. “It always kind of gels the community.”

De Bock describes the crowd best: “Dressed in John Deere coveralls, plaid lumber jackets or, in some cases, penguins or others with toilet plungers glued to their hard hat, they mingle about in a herd-like circle until the tall, bearded organizer of the Alma Optimist Plunger Toss shouts for their attention …

“They take one more quick sip from their thermal mugs of coffee that smells of a mixture of chocolate and transmission fluid and pull back hats that mimic road kill to listen. There are rules to throwing plungers to a toilet from one side of the rink to a toilet on the other side.”

Played on a sheet of ice, if the weather cooperates, the game has elements of curling, only players slide the plunger into the house, as opposed to sweeping it in.

“Two teams of four players challenge each other as the plungers soar in rainbow arches across the width of the ice rink plopping in the painted circle or into the sweet spot inside the bowl each one of us is familiar with,” de Bock said.

There are 14 sheets, with a toilet at each end, set approximately 35 feet apart. The centre of the toilet bowl is “the house,” and players can actually curl their plunger into the house, but the plunger must be airborne when it goes across the centre ice.

“Exuberant cries direct the plunger to its place in or beside the bowl, and after 16 plungers have been played back and forth for 15 minutes, the winning team reports to the scorekeeper,” said de Bock.

Each player gets two plungers per round. Like stones in curling, plungers can cancel each other out. There is one point awarded for a plunger that goes in the house, 10 points if the force-up (or rubber end) lands in the toilet. In the event of a tie, closest plunger to the toilet wins.

“The 56 teams will compete on two sheets of ice, broken into 28 teams at a time,” de Bock said. “Each team will play four games in the morning before the knockout tournament in the afternoon.”

Teams are ranked in their final positions, with top trophies for the gold, silver and bronze winners, with prizes for each of the 226 participants.

Thiessen, who is on the waiting list for a spot in the tournament, insists luck is a factor.

“It doesn’t take any skill at all,” he said, laughing.  

The event takes place at the Alma Cow Palace, an outdoor ice rink located in the heart of the village. De Bock explains the name originates from the history of the site.

“When Alma was small, it had three hotels. The farmers would come to town with their cattle and put them in a holding pen, which is the location of the current rink, where the animals would wait until the train arrived and the farmers would walk them down to the station.”

For years the Cow Palace ice has been taken care of by community volunteers, some now several generations in passing the duties down, including Thiessen.

Phillips is proud of the location, adding, “We even have a Zamboni and boards and lights at the rink.”

The Ice Cow, a refurbished Olympian Zamboni housed in its own shed, is important to the event.

“Different people in the community do the flooding. It’s a community effort,” said de Bock adding, “It’s a true labour of love.”

Investing in the event’s success, $9,000 in upgrades have been added to the rink this year, requiring the fee for plunger teams to go up by $5, for a total of $40.

“Forty dollars is so incredibly cheap,” said Thiessen. “The Alma Optimists are a wonderful organization. Whenever we [the community] need them, they have been helpful. They are very community-minded, and kid-minded in what they do.”

All money raised will go to support Alma Optimist projects for youths, such as T-ball teams, swimming events, school projects and sports.

“I believe if you teach a child then [they] will teach more children and that is the circle. I believe in the circle,” said de Bock.

His passion and pride are clear: “I do it for the community. That’s it. Period.”

Tradition is at the heart of the event and it all begins in the defining moment of the coin toss.

“There is a moment when the sun just cascades over the Presbyterian bell tower, as the coin toss is thrown into the air and the sun hits the coin as it spins in the air … and they all watch the coin. The crowd falls silent and all heads follow that coin in unison. I get the call – heads or tails. There’s a big cheer and it’s game on.”

The Alma Optimist Plunger Toss begins at 9am on  Feb. 2 at the Cow Palace, located on the corners of King Street North and Graham Street East.

For more information contact Jim de Bock at 519-846-5124.

Vol 46 Issue 04

January 25, 2013

ReliableFord

Cherry Hill

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