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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Nothing Personal, it's Just Business.

Team Fournier Update

Team Horses (which sounds way better than Team Fournier) had a pretty great year. With the exception of our last game, a tough-to-swallow defeat at the hands of Martin Crete, it was a good season. We won about 14K, finished the year ranked 34th in the World (and tops in Quebec!). More importantly, we played well. We got to play more games against the top teams in the world, and even beat some of them.

The good news is that we will be back for next season. And we will be looking to continue climbing the world rankings and play in better and better events. And we want to get back to the Brier. And we now find ourselves within spitting distance of a place in the Olympic pre-trials, which are but a few short years away.

I like this team a lot. Felix is getting better and smarter every year, and Will and JF have taken their sweeping to a new level. But perhaps more importantly, everybody looks to be having fun, both on the ice and off. Increasingly we see the teams around us treating curling as if it was their day job; joylessly throwing and sweeping with painfully few visible signs of enjoyment. I like to think we look like we enjoy what we are doing (and we are!).  Amazingly, we also seem to play better when we are having fun.

So how much will we play? Unfortunately, my lottery tickets have yet to convert, so I do need to keep my day job of figuring out how much your next Big Mac should cost. So that means we will play as aggressive a schedule as possible while holding down our lives. This means we will not be playing in the Slams (unless we somehow squeak out an invitation to one later in the season).
It also means we are looking for sponsorship.

Curling Sponsorship in Canada

For the top handful of teams in Canada, being a pro curler is now an option thanks to sponsorship. 
Curling used to be very quaint in that you would watch the top teams at the Brier, and they would actually show you their profession: mailman, dentist, beer store manager, whatever. These days are gone. The top few teams in the country are now professional curlers. 

How does this work? The top few teams now have sports agents, and reasonably lucrative deals with some big sponsors. And if your team is regularly in the Slams and Sportsnet, then there is clearly a benefit for a company to pay some big $$$ for some TV visibility. The top teams will spend somewhere around 100K-200K per season, which is mostly spent on travel costs. So how do they pay for this?

The top few teams will receive hundreds of thousands in sponsorship money to offset the travel costs (and pay a few bills at home), as companies like Pinty’s, Kubota, Northern Credit Trust, Princess Auto and WFG are willing to pay to get brand exposure at the Slams. The top teams also are receiving funding from the National and Provincial governments through their Elite/Olympic Athlete programs. And of course the top teams win money. The top teams on tour are winning anywhere from 100-200K per season. Elite curling in Canada has become big business. 

Knowing this helps you put into context the recent player moves you have seen on tour, like Savill being replaced by Fry. The moves go beyond friendship, and highlight the business-like approach the top teams have to take to maintain their spot and chase down the Olympics. The money is what gives them the chance to pursue curling full time, and the money only comes if you are winning. There is only room for a handful of teams to receive the kind of money that allows them to curl full time, so the pressure is on to stay in that elite few. Anything they can do to be better, they will do.

But for a Tier-2 team like ours sponsorship is a tougher ask.  The pinnacle of our TV exposure would be the Brier, where your season-long sponsor logo cannot even be displayed on your jackets, as visibility at National-level events are owned by the companies that pay for these events. “Visibility” for our team means you get to see your company logo displayed on our jackets around the Clubs and Arenas where we will play our games throughout the season. Yes, this can still be interesting for a company and has some value – but obviously not as interesting as the Slam Teams that play on TV almost every second week.
A curling season will typically cost us 20-30K in travel, equipment and entry fees. As I mentioned last year we won about half of that in prize money, so the remainder has to be paid for by us, with some help from our sponsors. We are very much amateurs, playing the game without any sort of financial reward.

We do have some sponsorship that allows us to do what we do, for which we are very grateful:

  • Of course we benefit from our long-time relationship with Hardline Curling, who are now the Titleist of the curling world with virtually all of the big teams using their product. They have been a big part of our success.
  • If you are looking for curling jackets like the cool ones we have, Dynasty Curling makes awesome on and off-ice gear. Love their stuff.
  • And big thanks to our other sponsors:  Cedar Springs Landscaping (514-453-4662), Assurances Leclerc, and Injection Classique foundation repair. If you are looking for landscaping or snow removal in the West Island, if you need home or auto insurance or if your foundation has cracks – please use our sponsors and mention Team Fournier!  The links above take you directly to their websites.
But our reality (and the reality of most Tier 2 teams), is that most sponsorship dollars typically come from friends looking to help us out as opposed to businesses looking for visibility for their brand.

So if you are able to help out Team Horses – and get a little visibility for your brand and the joy of supporting a team still chasing the dream – then please reach out to any of us on the team! Competitive Curling is an expensive endeavor, and every little bit helps. 

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Why Does Twitter make me Angry?

How is it that a small handful of hateful humans have ruined the internet?

So Chelsea Carey is having a bad week. It happens. It has happened to me countless times. It happened to Rachel Homan and Kevin Koe at the last Olympics. It happens to curlers everywhere.
The week is not yet over – as I write this she is at 5 losses, so she will need to win out and get some help to make the playoffs, which seems kind of unlikely – but who knows.

But the story that seems to be gathering attention is the focus on a handful of hateful and mean comments on Twitter. Basically a bunch of asshats said mean things about Chelsea and their team – calling them chokers, or implying that they are not fit to represent Canada.
I am also a follower of politics. From US politics, to Trump to Trudeau vs. Scheer, to Ford, to Notley vs.Kennney. I enjoy reading about it. But it has become impossible to be on Twitter without reading a constant barrage of hateful comments that are not based in disagreement on policy – but on just being mean.
I also follow hockey. I follow les Canadiens. But when I read Twitter, it’s like people think that calling Jonathan Drouin lazy or pathetic will somehow make him better. Or people saying Bergevin is an idiot for trying to do his job.
I just don’t get it. Does this come from a need to feel superior? The critics in all of these cases are in no way qualified in any way to ever manage the country, skip a team at any serious level of competition or play hockey in the NHL.

But Social Media just seems to have brought out the worst in people – making it impossible to read anything these days without getting angry or defensive. I am finding it truly a challenge to stay informed and connected without getting triggered by a barrage of people that seem to just want to make me angry. The worst people seem to yell the loudest.

Do you want to try to understand what is actually happening with the SNC Lavelin affair? Good luck filtering out the hate-filled, all-caps commentary that calls for Trudeau’s resignation, death or prosecution.
Do you want to read what people are saying about the Canadiens? Okay – good luck filtering out the comments claiming that they should all be traded and they don’t care and Bergevin is an IDIOT.
Want to read what people are saying about Carey at the World’s? Have fun reading all the dumbasses who think they are better than a 2-time Canadian champ who is just having a bad week on a big stage.

So here is my Golden rule for Social Media and my blogs:

I will only write things that I would be comfortable with saying to the person FACE TO FACE.

My policy on Social Media is to never say anything about anyone that I would not say to them if they were standing in front of me. Whether it’s Trudeau, or Chelsea Carey, or Jonathan Drouin, or Tiger Woods. That does not mean that you can’t criticize – or that you can’t disagree. But you need to always own what you say. Be prepared to answer for it. I am comfortable saying Carey does not look at ease this week – and I would feel okay saying that to her if she were standing right next to me. (I am not sure why she would care what I thought – but that’s another question). I think your right as a fan in any sport is to be critical of performance. But you have no right to make it personal.
Whenever I have deviated it from this – whether in my blog or on Twitter or Facebook – I have regretted it. 
I wrote some mean things about Brad Jacobs’ team a few years back in my blog. A lot of it was fair, but some of it crossed that line. Some was stuff that I would not have said if they were standing in front of me. Even though I had a lot of people agreeing with me, it was wrong. I apologized – but it still irks me. I should have been better. 
Since then I have stuck to this policy – but it definitely has not kept me from being critical or from making fun of curlers. But there is nothing that would not say if they were sitting across from me as I typed. (and has my blog has gotten more popular – this has become more likely). I also do not delete comments from my blog, even when they are mean and anonymous. I own what I say, and if readers choose to call me out – I am okay with that (even if they do not follow my golden rule).
I wrote last year that Matt Dunnstone’s sweeping looked like a llama playing tennis. Some accused me of being mean and too critical. But that comment passed my test; I would have said it to him live and in person. And guess what, Matt read it, and laughed, and answered me on Twitter.
I wrote a piece talking about Rachel Homan’s poor showing at the Olympics. It was critical, but not mean and not definitely not personal. I still stand by it, and it definitely passed my test.

So I know this blog is not likely to quell the tide of hateful comments that make up most of my Twitter feed – and if you are one of those people that feel compelled to be hateful and critical – that is your right.  But remember that it is our right to hold you accountable for what you say. So next time you Tweet something or post a comment, picture the person you are tweeting about reading it out loud right in front of you. If it feels wrong – don’t hit enter. If you can't be civil, stay out of civilization.

And if you are reading and following along on Twitter, ignore the extremes. Ignore the comments that are not thoughtful, that aim to hurt. Try to remember that they represent the worst, not the silent majority.
If you are Chelsea Carey, or Rachel Homan, or anyone else that dares to be great at something...when you step out on stage, it is fair to assume that your performance will be put under public scrutiny. Part of the reason you get to do this and not have a day job is because people DO care. They do want you to win, and they want to watch. Fan passion is the fuel that keeps the curling world running.
But you should give exactly zero f$%s about the musings of anonymous twitter heroes. Their words are like a stinky fart - unpleasant for a few seconds but soon gone and forgotten. And rest assured that the vast and overwhelming majority of Canadian curling fans cheer for your wins, and sympathize with you in defeat, just maybe not on Twitter. 

The internet has given us such a powerful tool to connect with people who share our passions. Curling fans now have direct access to the game’s best players - and in real time. We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater – but we have to be able to filter out the hateful dumbasses who are making our connectivity an exercise in anger control. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

A New Brier Format, Residency Rules and burning Mike Fournier in Effigy

It seems everybody and their dog is giving their opinion on the format of the Brier (and the Scotties), and the impending debate on residency rules.

For those not in the loop on this – here are the issues:

The Brier used to be about representing your Province at the national championship. The Brier has a rich tradition of pomp and pageantry that seemed to draw curling fans and viewers like no other event. It was the ultimate curling experience – it dwarfed the World Championship.
Then the Olympics came to curling. At first, the curling world did not change much. Mike Harris was the first team to go in 1998, and the qualifying process was basically just another bonspiel. You had to win a qualifying event to get to the Olympic Trials – but the teams remained Regional/Provincial.

At around the same time, around the early 2000s, the emergence of pro curlers came about. The best teams in the country decided that the Canadian Curling Association was keeping too much of the spoils of running the Brier, and decided to form their own pro tour and boycott the Brier. They got fledgling Sportsnet on Board, and found enough sponsors to run a Grand Slam of Curling. This was the beginning of the notion that there could be pro curlers. The boycott lasted a few years, and eventually was resolved – but the Brier and the game would no longer be the same.

The big prize became the Olympics. This was the new gold standard of curling – the new goal of serious teams. And from this emerged the notion that the best teams should not be bound by provincial borders. If your goal was to play on the pro tour and represent Canada (not your Province), then why should you be limited in playing with guys from your province?

This trend has continued and evolved until today, where the top 5-6 teams in men’s curling and the top 3-4 teams in women’s curling are essentially pro curlers, and not always from the same province.
From East to West: Gushue, Epping, Jacobs, McEwen, Koe, Jones, Homan, Fleury and Einerson.
These are pro teams. Yes, you can argue that a few other teams should be on the list. And yes, I am sure that a few of the players on these teams have day jobs. But for the most part – these are pro curlers. If they need to make a team change, they will not seek out the next best player in their home province, they will look for the best player in the country.

Example, when Rachel Homan’s 2nd left the team a few years back, she went and got super-sweeper Joanne Countney from Alberta to play 2nd. She did not pick the best player in Ontario, she picked the next best player in Canada.

But while the Pro-Teams have evolved, the rest of us have struggled to keep up. The rest of the curling world continued to play, but opportunities to do so have dwindled. The Slams are an exclusive club; they only invite pro teams to play, plus International Olympic Teams and maybe a couple of other spots to fill out the field. The big cashspiels of old have died off, with only a handful of events remaining.

And what has happened to the Brier? The only way to get to a Brier is still through the provinces. So the pro teams need to playdown just like the rest of us. They have to beat the local amateur teams. 
The Brier (and the Scotties) accommodated the pro teams by allowing one “import” player not from your province. The other 3 players have to be residents of the province they play in. This goes against the idea of finding the best 4 players available, which is why the top teams are pressuring Curling Canada to drop the residency rule altogether.

This has also created some heartburn on the women’s side at Ontario Provincials a few weeks ago, where Rachel Homan got booed and sarcastically nominated for the Sportsmanship award because some say her team violates the residency rule. (Rachel Lives out West, but still plays out of Ontario because of a rule in Ontario that allows you to play for your Province when you are attending school in another province). So despite 2 players on her team “living” in Alberta, she plays out of Ontario. I can see why some teams might be annoyed, but she has to play somewhere! And the idea of Rachel in an Alberta jacket just seems wrong to me.

All this to say this is getting complicated.
So here is the conflict. The Brier (and Scotties) is our National Championship. It is supposed to determine the best team in the country. However, to get there, we still have a structure that is based on Provincial qualification, (with rules that vary by province) and require you to pick players from that given province.

The fear is that if we give up the notion of provinces, we give up what makes the Brier special. Yet if we hold on too tightly to the notion of provinces, we risk making the Brier a 2nd class event.

All of this raises a number of existential questions, and the answers lie at the core of finding a way forward:
  • What makes the Brier magical? What makes it so special?  
  • Do fans need to see the best curlers, or do they want to see their province represented?
  • What do we do with the “Fringe” provinces (like PEI, and the Territories), where only a handful of teams are even signing up? Do they “deserve” a spot at our National Championship?
  • If we started over with a blank piece of paper – how would we do this?

So here is my proposed Brier:

First, let’s start with what we need:

  • We need to have the best teams there. A “Tier-2” Brier just will not sell. If we exclude the Pro teams – the Brier is lost.
  • We need to have some notion of Provincial / Territorial / Regional representation.
  • I think we need to make it somewhat fair from a qualification standpoint. I think one of the biggest problems with the current Brier is the fact that qualifying is unbelievably hard in some provinces/territories and painfully easy in others. This has always been the case, and for sure it is one of the weaknesses of the Brier. It means that you sometimes have mediocre teams at our National championship, and this is not in anyone’s best interest. There is nothing magical about a team that you know will go 0-11 before the week starts.

So here is The Mike Fournier Solution:

12 Teams (screw the pool format):
1.      The 4 top teams in Canada – CTRS – as of January 1st. No residency rules required for these spots. Just 4 players from anywhere in Canada.
2.      7 Regional/Provincial Spots:  Ontario, Man/Sask, Alberta, BC, The North (NWT, YK, NU), QC + NB, The Coast (Nfld, NS, PEI). (same residency rules as today – 3 from the same province + 1 import allowed)
3.      Team Canada -defending champs (no residency rule)

Is this perfect – hell no.

It gives up on the idea of Provincial representation, which kills me.
But I think the ship has already sailed on this one. Provinces just do not mean as much, and at least this addresses one of the big problems: the fact that there is such a monumental disparity between provinces.

As a purist I detest the idea that 4 teams get to go without winning their spot at a Provincial – but the fact is we need to have the best teams in the country there. Look at this year: either Epping or Bottcher will not be there, while there will be a team from Nunavut that would likely not be above .500 in an Ottawa men’s league. As a fan, this makes no sense.

I think there are two principles that we need to hold above all else when qualifying teams for the National Championship:
  1.         The Brier needs to be open to all. You need to be able to sign up, pay your $300 entry, and somebody, somewhere has to beat you for you NOT to go. The fact is – for all the “Joe” teams in Canada, the Brier is the ultimate goal. We need to be able to get there or we will stop playing.
  2.       It needs to be hard to get there. Being in the Top 4 CTRS is damn hard. You need to devote your life to curling. As far as I am concerned, Top 4 means you have earned your spot. And the regions I have defined above would all be very hard to win. There would be no weak teams at the Brier, and every part of the country would be represented.

My solution meets these 2 criteria.

The purists reading this are surely going crazy by now, burning Mike Fournier voodoo dolls in effigy – and trust me I feel your pain. Those who know me know that I love the game, and I am a purist at heart. I cherish my Purple Heart - and what it took to earn it. I love the way the game was, and I am not convinced the way it has evolved is “better”. I railed against relegation, and shudder at the idea of removing residency rules.

But guys – I think the train has left the station; the writing is on the wall. The game has changed – and I am afraid that if the Brier continues trying to please everyone it will end up as an irrelevant 2nd cousin to the Canada Cup, or even worse an 8th Slam that nobody gives a shit about.

Other Good things that might come from this:

  •       It would help get participation back up in the provinces that have a pro team or 2, like Alberta. It has to be pretty discouraging to know that you live in a province where you need to beat Koe to get to the Brier. Look at what has happened to participation in Newfoundland now that Gushue has not been in their provs. for the last 2 years – they actually have teams signing up!
  •       It will make the weaker provinces better. In the East, it will make the Regional events into a big deal – and likely big enough events to hold in arenas –as opposed to a curling club. It will be more competitive, and the team that comes out of it will be more battle-tested. (BTW this is clearly not-in my self-interest - as my road to the Brier will now include beating the best from NB - but I still think it makes for a better event.)
  •       It gets rid of the painful 2 pools system at the Brier
  •       It pretty much solves the residency debate.

Anyway – let the debate begin.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Grumpy Post-Provincials Blog

So a couple of weeks have passed since the Quebec Provincial Curling Championship…so I guess it’s time to come out from my cave and start blogging again!

Quebec Men’s Provincials

Argh. That sucked.
We lost the Provincial Final to Martin Crete on an agonizingly good shot: a 4 foot angle tap to the pin. I keep seeing it playing over like an ever-repeating GIF in my brain. It haunts my dreams. It still hurts. My second says he has PTSD.

Of course congrats to Martin and team and all that. Quebec will be well-represented at the Brier in Brandon in March (*he begrudgingly mumbled halfheartedly).  But damn, I just wanted it to be me.

Unfortunately, as a Tier 2 team, our season is now O-V-E-R. We could not find a spiel to play in if we tried. I looked on the World Curling Tour website for possible events between now and the end of the season – and all I found was the Red Square classic in Moscow. Seriously. Moscow. The prize money is paid in Kompromat, and 2nd place is a month in Siberia.
Of course the Slam Teams will play in a number of Slams before and after the Brier, further distancing themselves in terms of points and experience from the rest of us mortals, but for us it’s already golf season. It’s -17 with 50 cm of snow on the ground, but it’s golf season.

So if we actually want to curl, we either need to play in the Mixed or the Mixed Doubles, play in some late season drinking-spiels or just start practicing for next September. Damn. I miss curling already.
I think I need to organize a giant cash spiel this time of the year for all the teams that are not at the Brier and who don’t want to stop curling in January. I will put that on my to-do list for next season.

Quebec Women’s Provincials

I have to admit I was a bit dismayed watching the Quebec Scotties this year, which was going on at the same time as the Quebec Men’s provincials in Grand-Mere.

What the heck has happened to women’s curling in Quebec? There were all of five teams competing for the right to represent Quebec at The Scotties. Five. And guess what: 2 of the teams were junior teams!

The Quebec Scotties Final this year featured 2 junior teams, and not even the best junior team. Gabrielle Lavoie defeated Emilia Gagné in the final – and I wish them well at the Scotties. Both of these teams are very dedicated junior teams. Laurie St-Georges meanwhile won the Junior Championship, and was busy during Quebec Provincials playing at Junior Nationals. So Quebec is (again) sending its 2nd best junior team to the Scotties.  

With all due respect to these teams – I know that they work very hard to be as good as they are - but they are junior teams. They are young, dedicated and enthusiastic – but have all the weaknesses that junior teams typically have.

So what the hell happened to anyone over the age of 21? I know women who curl. I know lots of them. I know lots of them that would likely have beaten the teams that won. But for some reason they CHOSE not to sign up.

Amélie Blais had a serious women’s team this year – but they had a bad week. They are arguably the only women’s team in Quebec that actually practiced and played – and even then their schedule seemed rather light for what they hoped to accomplish. Verreault and Perron rounded out the field – I love both of these teams but I am not sure either is really putting in the time and effort required to take a serious run at the Scotties.

So what happened? How can we fix this?

The first step in solving a problem is usually to understand it. Why are so few women signing up to play competitively?

Some theories:
·        The “Pro” teams like Homan, Jones and Einerson have gotten so good that it discourages the Tier 2 women’s teams from signing up to go get pounded on National TV at the Scotties.
·        There are not enough Women’s events within a reasonable distance of Montreal/Quebec to allow the teams to even conceive playing a schedule that would allow them to be good enough.
·        Women in Quebec just don’t like curling anymore. (I hope it’s not the case!)

I don’t portend to know the answers. I must admit it is weird that there are still a pile of Men’s teams that would give their left nut for the chance of playing in a Brier (and I am one of them), yet the idea of playing in a Scotties is so uninspiring that we can’t get more than a couple of teams to even try out! I think the problem is worse here in Quebec, as most other provinces still have actual playdowns to get to provincials. In Quebec you just sign up to go to Provincials – and even if you don’t sign up Curling Quebec might call you to play to fill the draw!

So here are some solutions:

-         Let’s fund a Quebec Women’s Curling Tour. I think there might be some money left from when we hosted the Scotties in a Women’s curling development fund – or maybe we can convince some corporate benefactor to throw a few bucks at this. But there needs to be something – a series of events – a tour – a carrot – that can provide some competition and get more people into the game.
-        20 Years ago – we used to have the Montreal Open – a big spiel that brought the best women curlers in the country here. Let’s do it again.
-         Let’s offer coaching to any women’s team looking to get better. Curling Quebec can do some matchmaking here – but let’s offer mentorship to teams that want help. And not just technical coaching – but coaching from teams/players that understand competition – and can help them build a plan and a schedule to reach their goals.
-         To all the women who have proudly represented us at the Scotties in the past– I issue you this challenge: Get involved in this. The sport has given you a lot – it is time to give back. I am not going to name names – but I seem to remember during the Scotties in Montreal  a herd of 40 or 50 Blue-jacket wearing women that showed up for the Thursday night draw. You all should be involved in this. Get to work. If you don’t want to play anymore, then get involved in coaching – or helping to run a women’s event at your club.

Anybody else have any ideas? Or do we just shrug our shoulders and hope that the next generation of junior teams will save us from the current sad state of women’s curling in Quebec. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Welcome to the World Canada Grand Slam Tim Hortons’ Home Hardware Tankard Cup Scotties Championship Classic

Some random venting…

Welcome to the World Canada Grand Slam Tim Hortons’ Home Hardware Tankard Cup Scotties Championship Classic

Okay – let me preface this by saying that I love curling. I love playing in big tournaments, and I love watching the game on TV.
My question is – have we gone around the bend in terms of the number of “big” event tournaments? Have we gotten to the point where we are losing the impact by burning out both the fans and the players?
This weekend, there was the Canada Cup. At the same time, there is World Cup of Curling. Next week – there is a Slam in Conception Bay Newfoundland. As a curling fan, what am I supposed to care about? What does it all mean? At what point do fans start to say: really? Another event? Why should I care about this one?

Pros vs. Joes

Much of the answer lies in the fact that there are about a dozen teams in the world right now that are Professional Curlers. Let’s call them the Pros. There are 6 or 7 of these teams in Canada, the rest are Olympic-funded athletes from Europe, the US or Asia.

The life of a professional curler is not easy. While you do not have to worry about such petty concerns as a day job, you spend your time traveling from event to event. Yes you sometimes get a week off – but not often. You find yourself on a flight from Esteban Saskatchewan or Omaha, Nebraska to Conception Bay, Newfoundland. That can’t be a fun commute. You need to be at the gym and on the practice ice in your spare time. And the payout is not spectacular.  If you are one of the top few teams in the World, yes you likely are pulling down some decent money – but definitely not “pro-sports” level money. And if you do not win, the money dries up pretty quickly.

The Grand Slam events, of which there are now seven (!), are catered to these teams. The schedule usually is set up to be pretty light and run from Wednesday to Sunday– with a game or two per day for 3-4 days followed by playoffs on the weekend. The Slams are a pretty restricted circle, because only the top teams in the world are invited, and only the top teams in the World make the big points and the big money that these Slams provide. Few new teams can break into the invite list. Usually you see the one or two “non-Pro” teams that have curled in EVERTHING and played really well get an invite somewhere (like Scott MacDonald this week). But otherwise, the same teams will play in all the slams.

The Pros ultimately are aiming at the Olympics, which are the new pinnacle of the sport. Since curling has been included in the winter Olympics, the focus of the best curlers has been to bring home the Olympic Gold. The “system” is set up to help the pros attain this goal. Teams are no longer set up to last one or two seasons - they talk about committing for the "quadrennial".
The Slams give them a platform so that they can curl full time, Curling Canada and the Canadian Olympic Program do their part by providing additional tax-free subsidies and training support to the top teams.

The other group of curlers are the Joes, of which I am a member. You can call us the wannabees, or the dreamers, or the silent majority. We are the teams that fill the spiels every other weekend. We have day jobs, and are usually burning through precious vacation days to play in spiels. I do not mean to ennoble us, or say that we are the true heart of curling or any bullshit like that, but we are the base of the pyramid.

Joes grind it out. We drive to spiels. We fit practice time into our days. Tournaments usually run Friday-Sunday, with a much more compressed schedule. In spiels, we often end up playing 3 games per day, including the last day of a spiel where they usually fit quarters/semis and finals in the same 12 hours.

For us Joes, there is no financial incentive. Sponsorship is haphazard and minimal, so travel costs often have to be funded by our winnings. For most teams, break-even is a pretty good season. So why do we do it?

The Brier

The Brier is the likely the one remaining event that is attainable for both Pros and Joes. If you are fortunate enough to live in a Province without a “Pro” team, (like Quebec), then the best Joe team will go to the Brier and compete on TV with the best of the best, like I was fortunate enough to do last year. While the Joe teams rarely have a shot at winning (arguably no Joe team has won since Ménard 13 years ago), the Brier is still enough to fuel our passion for the game and to keep us curling. The Brier is the ultimate open. If you have the $300 or so to sign up, you have a shot. Someone has to beat you for you to not go.

This is what makes the Brier stand out. While literally every single other big event is structured to favor the Pro teams, the Brier is a democracy. It is the ultimate open bonspiel. I can win the Brier. I realize that this is unlikely, but while I might have a 1 in 1000 shot at winning the Brier, I have a zero in 1000 shot at winning a Slam, because I am not invited, nor can I possibly hold down a job and a family and curl enough in Tier 2 events to make enough points to possibly, one day, squeak into a Slam.

This brings me to the Brier format. John Morris wrote an excellent article in the Curling News this month about the Brier and suggested formats, and surprisingly I find myself agreeing with a lot of what he said. Some highlights:
  •      NO wildcard
  •      A full round robin
  •         Only 1 team from the “North”.
  •      Team Canada
  •      Better “perks” like a players/family lounge

He has some other thoughts that I am less sure about, like eliminating Northern Ontario or dropping the last place team from the following year, but I like the direction of his thinking.

The Brier needs to be different. The Brier is not a Slam. If there is one event that needs to cater to the Joes more than the Pros – it’s the Brier. It needs to be an accessible dream. I would argue that the very survival of the Brier depends on Curling Canada realizing this.

Regular readers of my blog know that I see the death of “Joes”-level curling as a bad thing. To me, a lot of the charm of curling was that it was a game played by Joes. The guy who won the Brier often had a day job. Curling was a game, not a job. I am now a relic in thinking that this was good thing. The Olympics have moved the game into the realm of Pro Sports, with sponsorship and TV deals and contracts (and even our own pro-sports bad behavior scandals - see Red Deer).

But has it made curling better? Of course it has. The quality of play is not even comparable. (If you don’t believe me – go back and watch a Brier final on Youtube from the late 90s. It looks nothing like the game today). But is “Curling” better? Meh. Not so sure.

Don’t get me wrong here folks. Please do not say I am against the Pro teams, or that I am anti-progress. I swear I am not. I am just trying to take a step back and ask what progress really looks like. Where do we want to the game to go?

I also hope I am not the only guy asking these questions!

Monday, November 19, 2018

There is Drinking in Curling! I Am Shocked!

If you have not yet heard, curling made the news this week for the wrong reasons:
Jamie Koe, and a pickup team made up of Ryan Fry, DJ Kidby and Chris Shille were ejected from a WCT event in Red Deer over the weekend for unsportsmanlike behavior.

Curling Team Ejected

You can read the articles on this, so I won't re-tell the story. And I was not there.
But from what I understand, they (and I don't think it was the entire team) behaved really badly on the ice, smashing and breaking brooms, then damaged the locker room. They were all pretty drunk at the time.

So I certainly did not want to be writing on this topic - but I am at a work conference today and I have already been asked about it by non-curlers about a million times already. So first of all - thanks for that guys. You have now made it tougher for every team looking for sponsors across the country to convince people that curling weekend are not drunken escapes from our wives.

This is definitely not the kind of attention that our sport needs.

But I am pretty sure they are getting an earful from just about everybody in the curling world today - so I will hold back from further criticism.

But I will talk a bit about drinking and fun in curling.

So here is the deal. Curling is a sport that has often been associated with drinking. And I certainly grew up in that generation.

So full disclosure:

I have gotten drunk at so many bonspiels, I can't even begin to count. I typically have not curled drunk very often (mainly because I am not very good at it). And I have curled hungover, in more important games than I would like to admit.

But when I started curling in the late eighties, that was what EVERYONE did. We drank. We partied. We did stupid stuff. The best teams in the world were doing it. Ed Werenich, Paul Gowsell, Hackner. They all drank and partied until the weee hours of the morning, then got up and curled. And usually curled pretty well.

In Quebec we had the Buckingham guys, who were half in the bag or hungover while playing at Provincials to go to the Brier, let alone a weekend cashspiel. And they won. A lot. When we played, our team physician/therapist was Doctor Bacardi  - he could cure all ills.

But somewhere along the way that changed. It seems to coincide with the notion that curling is an Olympic pursuit and not just a game. It coincides with the notion of "professional" curlers, or guys who now make their living curling.  It coincides with the emergence of coaching, because it is hard to convince your coach that you are mentally preparing for a game when you are really trying to focus on not throwing up. It coincides with binge-drinking becoming far less socially acceptable than it was 20-30 years ago.

Somewhere along the way, the teams that drank their way to success faded away, and were replaced by teams that would have a protein shake instead of a beer before the game. They were replaced by early morning visits to the gym, instead of the floor of the hotel room bathroom.

I look back and wonder why we did it. I think part of it was the lack of coaching. The fact is, one of the most important secrets to the higher levels of curling is to learn how to "turn your brain off", in other words, how to not overthink your delivery. Coaches work hard with teams teaching them this point.  The way we used to do this was by occupying the right side of your brain with the task of holding down your breakfast. So we drank. We drank to forget, and to exorcise the demons that haunt you after a game. And we drank to make sure we were not thinking about being nervous. And we drank because it was fun.

Now most of the great drinking of the past is long gone from the game, relegated to end of season drinking spiels like the Glenmore Intermediate, the Kenogami spring tournament and countless other relatively meaningless but immensely fun events across the country where drinking still plays a big role in curling.

But there are throwbacks. Jamie Koe is a thowback to another generation. He drinks. And plays. And plays well.
Jamie and Chris Shille played me last year at the Brier in the "placement game" which was relatively meaningless but was still televised on TSN.
I don't think they slept much the night before, and I am pretty confident that they did not have any water in their water bottles.
But we had a fun game, and they out-curled the shit out of my sober team.
(you can actually watch a replay of the game on Youtube, in case you want to watch some drunk guys beat the crap out of us:  Fournier vs. Koe Brier 2018). Jamie and Chris did not miss many.

I have hung out with Jamie at spiels before, and they have made a career out of being not only good on the ice, but great at the bar. And nobody loves curling more than Jamie Koe. He is a popular draw at charity spiels, and readily gives his time to a number of causes.

So Jamie signed up to play at the Red Deer Classic, which seems to be a Tier 2- level curling tournament. It is not a drinking spiel. This was a real event, with sponsors and volunteers and teams competing. And like most spiels, Jamie did what Jamie does: drink.
But I have a tough time seeing Jamie as being "unsportsmanlike". Drunk yes, unsportsmanlike no.

But make no mistake, this team did not get kicked out of the tournament for being drunk. Jamie is drunk at most spiels he plays, and has never gotten kicked out of anywhere. His team got kicked out for being assholes (at least one of them).

The issue by all accounts seems to have been Ryan Fry, who has been known to smash a broom or two while sober. Fry is on a week off from Team Jacobs, who are between 2 Grand Slam Events. So he likely signed on to spare with Jamie, thinking it would be a fun week of a more casual style of curling. Ooops. Ryan apparently behaved badly, both on and off the ice.

By all accounts, Fry seems to know how bad he screwed up, and this will more than likely end up being a trans-formative experience for the guy. I am not saying he will find Jesus or join AA, but I think you have to take a hard look at yourself in the mirror when you get kicked out of a bonspiel for being an asshole. His apology on Twitter today seems contrite. And I wish him the best. We have all screwed up at times, this occasion is just a bit more public than most.

As for Jamie, he is one of the true characters of the game I love, it would be a shame if this tarnishes his image as a lovable and highly-skilled party animal. I doubt it will.

My lead, JF Trepanier, made a great point this weekend - before we even knew about the whole Koe-Fry thing, and I think it is especially relevant today:
As competitive curlers, we owe a debt to the game. The Game gives us a lot: it gives us fun and excitement and the chance to have fans actually cheer for what we do. Sometimes it even gives us money. What a privilege.

But the trade-off is that we have to make it fun for the fans to watch as well.
We have to make the people watching the game love curling as much as we do. We do that as much with how we act on the ice as we do with our curling ability - if not more so.
This is why a Guy Hemmings was always so popular with the fans. You did not just watch him play, you shared in his joy of curling.

I think this is a good thing to keep in mind for the uber-serious competitive teams of today, and especially for Ryan Fry.


So in less exciting news, Team Fournier had a good weekend in Halifax - losing in the Semis to eventual winner Scott Howard.

The spiel itself was awesome. This was the inaugural Stu Sells 1824 Halifax Classic, and we definitely plan on returning. The hospitality was typically Maritime, the ice was flawless and the party was a blast. The curling world needs more events like this. Big thanks to the organizers - and to Stu Stankey, who is now sponsoring some of the best events in the country.

We are now off to Charlevoix this weekend, one of my favorite places in curling despite how it has treated me in the past, and usually on my birthday no less.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Winning isn't everything - or is it?

So this has been bugging me for a while. This will be a curling and non-curling post – as a few events in my life seem to be hitting on this this point lately - so forgive me for venting a bit.

So my son plays house league hockey. He is pretty good for house league – he scores a lot and is fun to watch. He has no allusions of being a professional hockey player, but he genuinely loves the game. He tapes and re-tapes his stick before every game. He looks at standings from his league on-line (probably instead of doing homework). This year he is playing Bantam B. In house-league hockey – there are two levels – A and B. The better/bigger kids play in A. The smaller or less-skilled players play in B.

So this year my son got put in B. Fine. He will enjoy it, he will score a bunch of goals.

But predictably, the league in which he plays, like a lot of kid’s sports, was affected by parents and politics. Somehow – the league decided it was better to load up and stack the A teams with 17-18 players and leave my son’s team undermanned with 12. Strange. Also, the balancing of the teams was horribly biased, and seems to have resulted in my son’s team getting the short end of the stick.
But what disappointed me the most is the obsession people seem to have to win at all costs, vs. the notion of playing in leagues that are well balanced with players of equal abilities. If your goal is to produce young athletes that enjoy the game, should we not be obsessed with making the games fun for all, not just the team that wins the trophy at the end of the year? 

So now let me bring this back to curling.

I read an article by the excellent Devin Heroux on the CBC site where he interviewed Mark Kennedy, who has switched from a playing to a role in Curling Canada’s high-performance development team.
Mark basically said in the interview, that he thought it was unpatriotic for Canadian coaches to be doing such a good job at making other teams from around the world better. We should instead keep our knowledge of high performance curling secret, presumably so that we can win more.

I love Mark – have always been a big fan, but Ugh - what a misguided thing to say! I was dumbfounded that a curler in Canada, especially one who has won a gold medal, would say something like that.

Is winning more important than developing the sport we love around the world? 
Would a gold medal mean as much to us if it was easier – because the rest of the world failed to get better?

To me, it comes down to the scourge of winning.

Let me make this clear: I play sports, and I love sports. I play golf, soccer and curling a lot. And I hate to lose at any of them. Every time I step on a field/rink/course I really, REALLY hate to lose. To quote Billy Bean of Moneyball fame: “I hate losing more than I like winning.” 

But here is the thing, for there to be sports, someone has to lose. 
And for it to matter to anyone - the fans or the players, the outcome of the game can't be predetermined. For every winner, there is a loser.

For kids, sports is an awesome learning experience. But that experience is not all about winning, or stacking your team so that it’s easy. Winning builds confidence, but losing builds character.
If we make it all about winning all the time, and if it’s the same team or guys that win all the time, the losers will start staying home. I think this is part of why the majority of kids (not all but the majority) seem to lose interest and stop playing team sports as they get older. The fact is – out of a league of 10 teams, only one team will win in the end.

To bring it back to curling, if Canada wins every Olympics easily, then why should other countries play? Would we care as much? Would it be as interesting? I don't think so.

Anyway, this is just me venting. My son will likely enjoy his season anyway, and I am hoping his team will use the whole biased balancing process as a motivation to have a Vegas Golden Knights kind of year. If they win, he will build his confidence, if they lose he will build character. 

And I’m pretty sure that Canadian curling coaches will not be turning down lucrative coaching contracts from outside of Canada because Mark doesn’t think it’s a good idea.

But please if you are involved in sports at any level, let’s always remember the bigger picture and not get all hung up on who gets to bring home the trophy at the end of the season. It's bigger than that.

Venting Over.


So we are off to Halifax this weekend to play the Stu Sells 1824 classic. Should be a fun weekend, with Gushue, Howard and Murphy in the field! We get to fly to a spiel – which is a big deal for us. We have decided to not take chances with Felix this time after he lost his luggage and our rock book heading to the Brier last year, so Felix will be dressed in full curling gear on the plane, and we are making him travel in Will’s carry-on luggage just to be safe.

We were asked to do a promotional video for the event – you can see it later today on our team Facebook page (Team Fournier Facebook page )in case you want to see what I have to endure every game from my front end.