Favorite Reporter

Favorite Reporter

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Real Men, Curlers or Habs Don't Cry - or do They?

 

Sometimes I have an idea for a blog rumbling around in my head, and then something happens in the world outside of curling that helps bring it all together for me. Last week was the European Super League debacle, reminding me of the universal theme of what made a fan a fan.

This week it happened again.

I have been thinking for a while about a few folks that emerged as heroes from the Calgary Curling bubble, and not so much for their curling. Colin Hodgson and Darren Moulding emerged as heroes to me, not so much because of what they did on the ice (although both are pretty fine at curling), but for their heartfelt and genuine displays of bravery and vulnerability off the ice. More on them later.

Like many of my blog ideas, this one was vague and a bit all-over-place.  Then it came together this week with an announcement that truly broke my heart as a Habs fan: Jonathan Drouin announced he was taking a leave of absence from the Canadiens and pro hockey for “personal reasons”. I will not speculate what is the issue, but clearly he is admitting that he is not okay.

Like many fans, I have watched Drouin with a hint of frustration over the years. He is pure talent, a natural and gifted playmaker. He would display flashes of absolute brilliance; the perfect no-look pass that nobody expected, the brilliant stick handling around a defenseman, the hand-eye coordination. The man is gifted.

But for every 3 or 4-game flurry of brilliance, there is a 10 game slump where he seems lost and without vision. He has been in one such slump this season after a brilliant start. “Fans” (and I use the term loosely) berate him on social media and say things like “he has no heart”, although he surely wants to be brilliant more than anyone else wants it for him. These “Fans” who give him a standing ovation when he flashes brilliance, actually post that they hope he is injured so the Habs can bring up young Caufield to fill his place. Montreal hockey fans are both the best and the absolute worst all at once.

I watch him play and clearly Jonathan Drouin struggles with confidence. As someone who tries to play a sport at a high level and has been for a long time, I can see it on him as plainly as I can read a scoreboard. You can see it on his face, and in his play. As someone who has struggled with confidence in the past, I can tell you it takes one to know one. And while I have often struggled to keep my chin up in the narrow limelight of curling, Drouin struggles quite visibly at $5M per year in the most critical and over-hyped hockey market in the World (other than Toronto).

I do not know what exactly is going on with Jonathan Drouin, and I will not speculate. But here is a guy growing up in a sport dominated by truly toxic masculinity; a sport where might makes right. A sport that actually encourages you to take discipline into your own hands and fight if someone violates the unwritten “Code”; a sport that glorifies players who play on through broken ankles or players who return to a game after getting stitched up.

And here is a guy brave enough to walk away - a guy brave enough to put his hand up and say “I am not okay”. To me this is 1000 times more powerful than 365 Bell Let’s Talk days.

I wish him well, and I hope to see his brilliance on display again.

***

Back to curling. For those who do not know Colin Hodgson, he is the charismatic and stylish lead for Team McEwen from Winnipeg. Colin has become a clear and consistent voice for mental wellness in the sport.

After the Brier, Colin was supposed to re-enter the Bubble in Calgary to play in the Grand Slams, and spend another two weeks in relative isolation. Like Jonathan, Colin put up his hand and said No, I am not okay. He chose to stay home. His interview on That Curling Show actually brought me to tears. It was heartbreaking and inspiring, all at the same time.

Darren Moulding was of course the 3rd for Brier Champion Brendan Bottcher. He took it on the chin in Social Media as Canada went through a mid-week losing streak at the World Championship and then lost to an excellent Scottish Team in the quarters to finish 6th. Yet his interviews were always honest and heartfelt. And even after it was over, he was not afraid to put up his hand and say there were times when he was not okay. His depth and vulnerability were truly touching.

I cannot tell you how refreshing this display of humanity is to watch. I was born into the “fuck my feelings” generation. Real men don’t cry. Real men swallow their emotions. Suck it up princess.

Curling, although not as flush with the toxic masculinity as hockey, was just that way too.

If you are sad, suck it up, have a drink. I think of all the men I knew that were not okay, but just could never say so or talk about it. I think of the countless competitive curlers I have known who have self-medicated throughout the years with booze and/or drugs. I have had teammates that were alcoholics. I have had teammates that were so plainly not okay, it amazes me to this day that they showed up and curled on some days. It breaks my heart to think about it now. And it breaks my heart that I likely did not do enough to have them talk about it.

Thanks Jonathan, Darren and Colin for showing us there is better way.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Changing the Brier could get Messi

 

I could not help but chuckle this week at the death of the European Super League,  a mere 48 hours after its birth. For those of you not up on your European Soccer – here is the skinny:

The top soccer teams in the World (like Manchester United, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Barcelona) decided that they did not want to play against the other “Tier 2” teams in Europe. They wanted to create a league for only the top 15 teams, where they would only play against each other. Basically they were turning their backs on the rest of the soccer world.

So why do this? It’s all about the money, honey. The top clubs figured that their fans would be overjoyed to only watch them play against superstar-laden squads, to not have to worry every year about having to qualify for major championships like the Champions League. They figured that the TV rights and ticket sales could be split 15 ways, instead of having to support the hundreds of Tier 2 teams across Europe in the various national leagues.

But this idea only lasted 2 days. Why? Because the fans, the people who actually pay to watch, saw this idea for what it was: a cynical cash and power grab. Football fans are among the most passionate in the world, and they were in the streets this week protesting against this turd of an idea. And not only the fans of the “tier 2” clubs; fans of Chelsea and Liverpool fans were among the most vocal. 

And their protests worked. Most of the teams have pulled out following the fan backlash.

Amazingly, fans respect the history of the game, and they like that the big clubs have to support the smaller ones. The fans enjoy the competition, and the potential for an underdog team (like Leicester City a few years ago) to win it all despite overwhelming odds. The fans like that the World Cup, where the Club teams dissolve away to play for their country, is still the ultimate soccer event on the planet (despite a number of issues with residency rules).

What soccer suddenly realized this week is that the game is bigger than just the top teams. 

 ***

You might have been able to read from my not-so-subtle telling of this story that this situation might just be pertinent to curling, and worth remembering as we discuss changing the Brier and Scotties.

Of course, curling attracts 1/1 millionth the money and attention of European Football, but I still think there are lessons to be learned.

Some pundits have suggested that like the ESL, the Brier should limit provincial representation, and turn the national championship into an invitation-only event for the top-ranked teams. Forget about the Tier 2 provincial teams, nobody wants to pay to watch them play anyway. 

What became obvious this week in Europe was that the Top Teams and players often have no idea what actually makes the average fan watch a sport. The Christiano Ronaldos and Manchester Uniteds of the world inevitably think that it is about them; that fans pay to watch the best players because they are the best players. 

For sure this is a part of it, but history and competition play a key role in what makes true fans stick with a sport as well. 

Fans like unpredictability. Fans like underdog stories that no one saw coming. Fans like feeling an attachment to their teams as they struggle to prove themselves. 

And as much as the soccer in the new European Super League would have been spectacular, the fans realized that the same teams playing each other over and over again would get BORING.

Let's hope that the powers that be remember this when deciding how to evolve the Brier and Scotties in the coming years. 

 

***

 

So, a little over a month has passed since I checked out of the Calgary curling bubble, and it feels like a year ago. I miss curling. 

I only got to play 8 curling games this season, and I really miss it. I miss big cashspiels. I miss the end-of season fun party/charity spiels. I miss having my knees ache from having to play a three-game day. I miss sleeping in sketchy AirBNBs on squeaky mattresses. I miss long car rides home from losing a C-Qualifier on last rock. I miss the irreplaceable taste of a rye-and coke after a hard-earned win. I miss having to draw wide against three in the first end on a fresh path. I miss peeling the other team out of rocks. I miss staring at the draw sheet trying to figure out who we would play in our next game. I miss practicing.

I miss it all. 

Here is hoping that the vaccines and the summer wind finally blow this damn virus back to the depths of hell.

 

***

 

One of the casualties of the pandemic this year is once again one of my favorite events to support:  Kurling for Kids, an annual charity spiel that raises money for the Montreal Children’s and St-Justine Hospitals. 2021 would be the 23rd year of this event that has raised an astonishing $4 million over the years. Of course the pandemic has cut the legs out of the curling part of the event – but if you would still like to help you can go to www.kurlingforkids.org, they have a number of virtual events like trivia nights and poker tournaments to help you pass the time and help out!

More importantly, if you liked my blog at all this year, it is time to PAY UP, buster!!! Donate a couple of bucks to the cause here:   Click here to donate! 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Back from the Bubble

 

The strangest curling season I will likely ever know has come to an end.

My 2020-2021 season consisted of a total of 8 curling games, all played on the biggest of stages in front of a handful of officials and a panoply of cardboard cut-outs.

Now that the season is over and I have returned to my “normal” existence, I can look back at what was the weirdest of curling seasons.

First, there was a fall of cancellations and frustrations. We went from the excitement of a full season of cashspiels planned across 4 provinces, to the disappointment of realizing that it was all cancelled, weeks before we were to leave for our first tournament.

Then there was practice. Lots of practice. Practice without even knowing what we were practicing for. There were rumours that they would still try to run a Brier, but who knew anything? My kids were in on-line school, restaurnats and bars were closed, all sports were cancelled, and we had been confined to working at home for months. Would there even be a Brier? And if so, who gets to go?

Then some announcements: first in December that there would be a Brier, and then after Christmas that we had been chosen to represent Quebec! While I was glad to have found out that my hours of practice were not in vain, the news also came at the same time as the province shut down. As of January 8th, all curling was forbidden, and there were NO exceptions (or at least none for us!).

So even though we were going to the Brier in March, we would not be allowed to so much as step on the ice between January 8th and Feb 27th (2 days before we would leave for Calgary). Awesome!

This video shows how we trained:

 Team Horses Training Video

Then we needed to test. And test. And test. JF discovered that having an oft-broken nose from hockey is not conducive to easy PCR Covid testing. And I discovered that I apparently have a very sensitive gag reflex! All of this to confirm, and re-confirm, that we were Covid-free.

Then we needed to isolate. First at home for 2 weeks, then in a Calgary hotel room. 2 days of room service and Netflix. We had a team Zoom call dinner, despite all being within 50 feet of each other in separate rooms.

But then the payoff. On Friday we got an all clear from our test results, and we were good to go. We got to take off our masks and curl against the best teams in Canada.

The Markin-McPhail Centre, and the Olympic site around it, are stunningly beautiful. This is the home of the national ski-jumping team, the snowboard half-pipe and mogul training. We would drive by people skiing and snowboarding everyday to get to the curling. The arena itself is a smallish yet incredibly modern arena. I am guessing it holds around 2000 fans, although this week there would be none. There were only cardboard cut-outs (I swear I heard them talking to me sometimes) and a small army of volunteers and officials.

The curling itself was an absolute blast. If my season entire season was going to be one week, then we were going to go all out. Our team motto was:on est pas venu icitte pour bunter, or loosely translated - we didn’t come here to bunt. We would go down swinging for the fences.

All our games were all fun, and we never felt outclassed.

Our lone TV game vs. Nova Scotia was if nothing else entertaining, as well as incredibly frustrating. Versus Gushue, and Koe, we were very well positioned until a few late misses sealed our fate.  

We finished a respectable 4-4. We let a couple of games get away from us and won one we were not “supposed” to against Epping. We beat all of the teams that we were expected to. All in-all a good week.

And in the context of 2021, spectacular. We spent the week in compete awe of the fact that we were CURLING, and that we were the luckiest 4 (or 6 with Will and Ben) curlers in Quebec.

Hell, I was just excited to be able to eat in the hotel restaurant, as Quebec restaurants have not been open since the summer. Sitting and having a few beers with friends in a bar while watching sports on TV was like heaven. On our last night – we took advantage of that privilege:

 




 ***

Are you not Entertained?

Curling Twitter this week was ablaze with numerous comments about TV games, and about the entertainment level of the games shown.

A few of the TV feature games showed one team trying to play, while the other team blanked and blanked and blanked. While many of the blanks usually were the result of some impressive hitting, I think even the cardboard cut-outs were napping after 5 ends of scoreless curling.

I think this will inevitably raise questions of further rule changes. The fact is, the aspiring “pro” teams will often be the least fun to watch, as they take less risk to keep control of games. While having your second make a triple peel to get rid of all guards is impressive, the fact is it makes for lousy TV. The rest of the end has all the drama and excitement of a library visit.

Some food for thought for the “pro” teams: if your goal is to make the game less risky and less exciting once you have a two-point lead, why do you expect sponsors and fans to shell out money to watch? The New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup in the mid 90s by playing a boring and defensive style of play, but they seriously hurt the game in the process. The “trap” put teams and fans to sleep, leading to games with no flow. Big hit curling teams do the same.

Don’t get me wrong, I know how tough it is to do this. And with the stakes as high as they are, it is naïve to think that teams will not do whatever it takes to win. I think we will need to invent some new rules at the elite level to protect the best teams from themselves. Maybe a no-tick zone, or maybe the blank end should be banned. I know this would change the game, but probably not as much as the 4 or 5 rock rules. Either way, if curlers are hoping to be able to make a living at the game, then they have to figure out a way to put on a better show.

The fact is, when teams decide to play – like in a last end, the curling is awesome. I am writing this after having watched the 10th end of the Bottcher-Dunstone Semi-final. When both teams want to play, it is spectacular.

 ***

In closing, there are a number of thank yous that feel especially relevant this year:

  • Thanks to Curling Canada for pulling off what will be remembered as one of the greatest Briers (and Scotties) ever. Creating an incident-free bubble in the context of the current crisis is nothing short of miraculous. Havnig lived through it from the inside, I can assure you all that you have no idea how much work, preparation and diligence went into planning this event. And it all worked.
  • The ice, as would be expected, was amazing. To all the ice techs, who took on the isolation and health risks to deliver Brier ice; I say a sincere thanks.
  • To Curling Quebec, for giving us the honour of representing Quebec on this stage and for the support and effort.
  • To our sponsors, especially Hardline and RBC Dominon Securities for standing by us this year. We honestly can’t wait to get back on the ice next year.
  • To the folks at Glenmore, Pointe-Claire, Victoria, Val d’Or and RCMP Curling Clubs who kept the lights on the compressors running so that we could practice as much as possible this season. The motto on our Quebec jackets says Je Me Souviens, and trust us, we will remember.
  • To my teammates. I have the best team a 49-year old journeyman curler could possibly ask for. I am heartbroken that we only get to curl eight games together this season; I can’t wait until next year.

  • Lastly: Thanks to all our fans who reached out with words of support during the Brier this year. I can’t tell you what it meant to us that we were not alone, especially in an empty arena under the strangest of conditions. We are so grateful for your support.

I am now pouring a rye and coke and settling in front of my TV for what should be a barnburner of a final.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Elsa and The Catchy Toilet Paper Commericial


I watched more of the Scotties this year than any other year. I am home, we still have an 8PM curfew, and pretty much everything is still closed. So having some curling to watch was amazing.  And what a week it was!

I am writing as I watch the final.  Both Einerson and Homan have been outstanding all week, and clearly deserve to be playing in the final. Einerson looks to be the most complete team in women’s curling right now; they are consistently outplaying their opposition by 10% or more. Homan is also outstanding, and Rachel is a steely-eyed missile woman.  I give a slight edge to Einerson, but it should be a tight one.

 ***

But somehow I feel that despite all of this, the big story of the week was a Team that finished a mere 6-6.  Okay I am a bit biased here, but my highlight as a fan was Team Quebec.

They ended up 6-6, but this was the most inspiring run I have seen from a Quebec women’s team in a long while. Curling-wise, they played well beyond anyone’s expectations, especially given that they were barred from practicing anywhere but in their Dad’s pool since January 8th.  Laurie was lights-out amazing, throwing big shot after big shot, and seemingly without any fear.

Full disclosure, again I am biased here. I know this team very well and have watched them develop for years now. It was fun to watch the rest of the country discover what I already knew.

Yes, they still have a LOT to work on. Their percentages were not where they needed to be to play the big game. And as would be expected, they made some bad strategy calls that cost them dearly. But that is how you learn. Russ Howard referred to “scar tissue” that you get from losing tight games at this level. I think the only way to learn how to play tight end-games is to live and learn. She will learn volumes from her games against, Anderson, Homan and Walker. Those losses are invaluable for a young team.

But enough about their curling. Let’s talk about attitude for a second. This is where Laurie won legions of fans. The Quebec girls were just plain fun. They were positive. They were engaging. They were authentic. They were fearless. As the week progressed, I could not help but think of a past Quebec team that won its fair share of fans…

This week had a Guy Hemmings circa 1998 feel about it – although Laurie was not yet alive when Guy Hemmings was apprearing in back to back Brier finals. (Just typing that made me feel old).

And like Guy Hemmings, hair was a big part of the story. Guy was known for his out-of control hairdo, and it became his trademark. Laurie and her platinum blonde hair became Elsa the Ice Princess from Frozen. And it became her trademark. It was her hook.

I have spoken about something a few times in past blogs: the delicate balance between being fun to watch and being good at curling. Very often, the best teams end up looking a bit robotic and unemotional. Look at Bottcher, Gushue, Homan. They are icy-cool. They stay in control of their emotions, and that is a big key to their success. Great for their curling, but less engaging to watch. Often the more emotional, engaging teams struggle with controlling it, and it affects how they play. But a few teams manage to do both. Don't get me wrong, I am not criticizing the big teams. You need to control your emotions to win at curling. It is a delicate balance between leveraging emotion and it becoming a distraction.

Guy was fun to watch. He was funny. He got angry. He engaged with the crowd. You had to cheer for him. Somehow they managed to be both fun AND good.

Then you get a team like Laurie. Emily smiles from ear to ear after making two peels. You can feel the big-sisterly love when Laurie talks to Cynthia. And then they effortlessly switch to English to bring Hailey into the conversation. They laugh when they make shots, and they laugh when they miss shots. Like the catchy toilet-paper commercial keeps reminding us, we are HUMAN (that has been stuck in my head all week). As a fan, we love the humanity of this team.  

Even though Guy never managed to win a Brier, he likely did more to grow the game then any player of his generation. He would travel on cross country tours bringing out fans. I was at the Brier in 2018 from Quebec, and still the most common question I got from every fan was “what is Guy Hemmings doing now?”. Being good AND fun is amazingly such a unique gift for a curling team.

Laurie pulled that off this week. Will they be able to keep this up as they continue to grow and develop into a competitive team? I sure hope so.

I know those are big shoes to fill. But damn, Quebec was fun to watch this week. And it was great to be reminded that we are only human after all!!! Argh I can't get this song out of me head!


***


I am going insane waiting to leave for the Brier. We leave on Wednesday to enter the Canadian Curling Bubble in Calgary. I have had my brain probed with a pipe-cleaner to determine that I am virus free (I am!!). I have packed my 12 pairs of socks, 6 pairs of underwear (you can wear them inside out) and a bottle of medicinal rye. Just 2 more days of work from home then I am gone!!! Can't wait.

Some good news! We actually got to practice just before entering our pre-event quarantine for the first time since early January. Thanks to our friends at Pointe-Claire Curling Club and Mirko and Karl for giving us some top-notch ice to play on. Our practice felt like I was last-minute cramming for a university final exam after I had skipped the entire semester. Fortunately, Will said that that is how he made it though university, so if it worked then it should work now!


Friday, February 19, 2021

Let the Curling Wash Over Me

 

OMG there is curling on TV. I am 11/10 excited to leave for the Brier in a few weeks, but for the next 10 days I will be watching the Scotties Tournament of Hearts Women’s Canadian Curling Championship.

Seriously, I have never been so excited to watch women’s curling in my life. In a normal year, I would watch the Scotties selectively, watching only the occasional game during the week and then most of the playoffs. But this year is different. I am not likely to leave my house very often in the next few weeks, so there will pretty much always be curling on for three draws a day, even if only in the background as I work.

I could be wrong, but there seems to be an insane level of anticipation and social media buzz around this year's event. I mentioned in an earlier blog that this coudl be the most watched Season of Champions ever, as this is providing welcome relief to the curling world which has essentially not had a lot to feel good about in  awhile.

This just feels good.


***


What should we expect as fans?

The Atmosphere:

First of all, this event will be in the bubble. It will be weird. There will be cardboard cut-outs of fans instead of fans, and cardboard cut-outs don’t cheer great shots. There will be no 5th end interview. There will be no handshakes, no patch or lounge, and no SOCIABLE.

But I think it will work. Most curlers have spent most of their lives curling in clubs, where the fans are usually on the other side of a window. Will it be that different to have them watching on TV instead? I think once the curling starts, it will feel normal for the players. It might not feel like the Scotties, but it will feel like a curling tournament.

Will it be as cool as a normal Scotties? No.

Is it a million times cooler than what most of us have been doing for the last 11-12 months? Hell yes.

BTW -  I absolutely love the uniforms. Dynasty curling has done a crazy job re-creating a vintage curling look with modern materials. I await my box of unis with bated breath, hoping that the men’s designs are as cool.  

 The format

This year the event features 18 teams, as Curling Canada did not want to leave anyone out during the pandemic. Strangely it did end up excluding a couple of big name teams in Kelsey Rocque and Robyn Sylvernagle, who were left on the sidelines because they had just shuffled their teams prior to the season. Unfortunate for them.

The field of 18 is split into two pools of 9. The top 4 advance to next stage where they play the top 4 from the other division. Then the top 3 end up in the playoffs. No paige this year.

Who are the favorites?

The Big 4: Einerson, Jones, Homan and Fleury. It will be tough for anyone other than the top 4 to win this week. I would give 10-1 odds against someone outside the top 4 winning. (if I were the kind of person that bets on curling!)

  • Tough to bet against Einerson wining. They looked great last year, winning in dramatic fashion in an extra end over Rachel Homan. They are without a doubt the odds-on favorite.
  • Rachel Homan would normally be my pick, but she finds herself 7 months pregnant at the event this year. I honestly have no idea how this will affect her. I played a Mixed Provincial with my wife who was 5 months pregnant at the time playing lead, and she played well except for having to pee about every 10 minutes during the game.
  • Fleury/Carey: Tough to bet on a team that has never played a game together, but weirder things have happened. Carey is a pro and can likely take over and start playing well from the 1st minute. The strange fact is that when you pickup a new player, there is usually a honeymoon period before you get on each others’ nerves. Sometimes new is an advantage.
  • Jennifer Jones: JJ will surely be around for the playoffs. I think their experience will pay off in this wacky environment.

Other storylines:

  • Eager to see Zacharias, the junior champ from Manitoba. Despite their lofty pedigree, I think they will find it tough, and will take a bit longer to get going. They have very little experience in women’s curling, and the Scotties ain’t juniors.
  • I will be cheering hard for Laurie St-Georges. They are good people. They work as hard as any team I have ever seen. They are as dedicated as any team I have ever seen. There is no doubt that they will be good and will contend, it is just a question of when. It might be a bit soon to expect that for this year, but this is a great no-risk chance to learn and get better. I can’t wait to watch them.
  • Laura Walker is a bit of an unknown, but I am always partial to tattooed toe-tuckers. I rank them just outside of the top 4, and likely to make the final 8.
  • Kerry Galusha will surprise some teams. They are playing well since adding Joanne Rizzo to the mix, and they have actually curled a few games this year!
  • I hope that a team from the Atlantic provinces does well, if only because they will be forced to quarantine for 2 weeks when they get home! Suzanne Birt and Jill Brothers have the most potential to crack the final 8.

Who wins?

I pick Jennifer Jones to use her experience and guile to beat Einerson in the final, 7-6.

 

Update on MY TEAM as we prepare for the Brier:

Unfortunately, restrictions in Quebec have limited our ability to practice in Montreal and Quebec City since the 8th of January. I am still forced to be the #practiceninja, stalking outdoor rinks and abandoned curling clubs to find ice to practice on. More to come on this in a future blog.


In the meantime, we will sit back and enjoy some curling for the first time in forever. It was almost a year ago that I was at the Brier in Kingston, (unfortunately in the stands, not on the ice), just before all things fun and sociable came to an abrupt end. I miss it deerly, and this week already feels like a much needed return to fun.

So tonight I will pour myself a rye and coke, make some popcorn and surrender to the dulcet tones of Cheryl and Russ talking strategy. I will let the syrupy-smooth voice of Vic Rauter wash over me, covering me like a heavy blanket on a cold day.

Make the final...

Friday, February 5, 2021

Bubble bound - and Beware the Practice Ninja

 

I am off to the Bubble Brier! Team Fournier - aka the Horses - has been selected to represent Quebec at the 2021 Brier to be held in Calgary March 5-14.  

The whole thing has a very surreal feeling to it. I have to admit that I really wanted this. I know I am not alone in finding the pandemic tough, but being picked to curl in a Brier seems like the first good news that I have heard in a long time. Of course, I would rather have won my way there, but given the circumstances, I will take what I can get.

Why were we chosen? The process defined by Curling Quebec was to rely on a committee of experts to pick "the best" team from a list of applicants. I am guessing that the fact that we have been the #1 ranked team in the province for a couple of years now, coupled with our experience weighed heavily in the final decision. 

I am sure this feels like a kick in the teeth for Alek Bédard and Team, our 2020 Brier representatives. They would have made for fine representatives this year as well, but the selection committee seems to have placed more weight on the fact that we have been the #1 ranked team for a few years now.  Was this the right choice? Who knows.  As I said in an earlier blog, there is no fair way to “pick” a provincial representative. Obviously, I am a bit biased, but I think we are a good choice, and I am grateful for the opportunity.

***

Now I have to figure out a way to practice despite a lockdown. I was practicing almost daily up until January 8th, but since then our government has continued to keep curling in lockdown, no exceptions! 

I am not "allowed" to practice anywhere. I have had to become a practice ninja, stealthily stealing practice hours when nobody is watching on vacant fields of ice. If you have a backyard skating rink for your kids – beware! the practice ninja might strike in your yard soon!!! 

*** 

 I have been reading a lot on-line from people asking if we should even try to hold a Brier or a Scotties amidst the chaos of a pandemic.  Opponents make a number of compelling arguments:

·       It is not fair. This is true. Some provinces have 2-week quarantine periods upon returning form the Brier, making it impractical for many amateur curlers who would need to skip 2 weeks of work upon their return. Teams like Krista McCarville have backed out, and nobody can blame them.

·       We are putting people at risk. This event will require players, volunteers, TSN crews, and others to travel, at a time when travel carries risk.

·       We are taking up testing and health care resources, at a time when most places do not have any to spare.

·       Restrictions in many provinces (including mine) are keeping the participants off the ice, so many teams will show up cold, without having thrown a rock in a couple of weeks or even months.

I get it. There are a pile of good reasons to cancel or delay the event.

But I say: screw it, let’s do it.

I think by March, we are all going to need something to distract us. Winter is long in Canada. If you are like me, you are so sick of watching Netflix that the chime that comes on when you open it makes my eye twitch. Geez, I even watched Bridgerton last week. Do you know how desperate for entertainment I needed to be to watch a show based on Jane Austen meets the Bachelor? I hate Jane Austen novels, and I hate the Bachelor, imagine both together. And yet I watched it. I am counting the days until I am able to watch the Scotties!

Canada needs the Brier. I am struck by the number of fans who have reached out to me to tell me how they will be glued to their TVs in March. In a nation of millions of curling fans, we need this. Winter is long, and by March we will be even more fed up with lockdowns, restrictions and social distancing. 

Curling needs the Brier. This is an opportunity for the game to pick up a new audience. People are ravenous for something to watch. A Brier that is even half as compelling as last year will surely garner some new eyeballs, and provide the sport a much-needed shot in the arm (excuse the term!).

Sure, it could all turn to shit if only one poor soul brings that nasty virus into our fragile bubble, but I still think it is worth the risk. The safety and testing protocols I have seen so far seem exhaustive. I think the bubble is way less risky than my grocery run to Costco on a Saturday morning. Fingers crossed.

 ***

 

I wanted to end with a few sincere thankyous.

First to Curling Canada and Curling Quebec (and all the Provincial Associations), who have both worked incredibly hard to make lemonade from a pile of rotten, stinky lemons. This is certainly not easy for anyone, and the work they have done to keep things moving is remarkable.

Thanks to our sponsors for their ongoing support. Hardline, RBC, Cedar Springs, Dynasty, Injection Classique and Wesdome. We have fancy new jackets with our sponsors’ logos on them that unfortunately will likely not see a single game this year. At least they are ready for next season!

I also need to thank the folks at Glenmore, Val d’Or and Victoria Curling Club for keeping their ice in for practice with the hopes of resuming a season. It would have been easier for these clubs to close their doors back in October or November as many clubs have done when the second wave hit, but a few employees and many volunteers worked tirelessly to keep things going. This has made it possible for us to be as prepared as possible for what is to come. Thank you!

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Brier is Broken! (and other Fake News)


Somehow, the debate on the format of the Brier/Scotties has bubbled to the surface amidst this pandemic. Once again, the debate of what the Brier is, and how we should qualify teams for our National championship has been the subject of podcasts and newspaper articles.

Curling Canada, understandably desperate to run its most lucrative events has scheduled a Brier and a Scotties to be held in a NHL-style bubble.

Some curlers and media types have emerged from isolation to suggest that Curling Canada should use this occasion to finally eliminate all the weaker teams from the Brier and just invite the top 10 or 16 CTRS teams in the country. The current format guarantees a spot at the Brier for each of Canada's provinces and territories. Changing the format to the top 16 would eliminate many of the smaller provinces that do not have a team in the top 16 (including Quebec!). The proponents of this change would hope to make it permanent.

The arguments I have heard in favor of eliminating the quaint idea of provincial representation go something like this:

  • The first few days of the Brier are crap, and nobody watches because there are too many crappy teams from crappy provinces in the field.
  • Good young teams in tough provinces never get a chance to be at the Brier, depriving them of the fame and glory that come from curling’s biggest stage (other than the Olympics)
  • Teams now cross provincial boundaries; many of the top teams are made up of players from across the country, so why should we still define teams by provinces?

The Inside Curling Podcast, featuring Kevin Martin and Warren Hansen, which I really enjoyed at its onset, has now shifted to pretty much every week inviting guests on to discuss how to “fix” the Brier. They paint anyone who actually likes the current format into the corner of being “against change”, or at very least as failing to see the evolving demographics that drive the game.

Let me say this clearly: Abandoning the provincial structure will kill the Brier.

To understand this debate, you need to understand that the current world of curling has split into Pros versus Joes. If we go back 20 or 30 years, there was no such thing as a “pro” curler. When I got out of juniors, I would never have considered a career in curling (not that I was that good anyway). Even the very best curlers I knew went to university, or got jobs. We were all Joes, not Pros.

Today, thanks to the Olympics, the World Curling Tour and Grand Slams, elite curlers can now make a modest living at the game. Make no mistake, there are no millionaires in curling (or if there are, they likely made their money elsewhere), but the top 4 or 5 teams in the country can likely “get by” on what they make from winnings, sponsorship/endorsements and Olympic funding for the elite few. Even then, many of the top teams still find themselves working summer construction contracts, running side-hustles or actual businesses to make the mortgage payments and support their families.

Pretty much the entire competitive curling world now revolves around these elite 4-5 teams in Canada, who are now joined by the top 10 international teams from around the world that get together to play in the Grand Slams. The Grand Slams are high payout, Sportsnet-covered exhibits of the best curling in the world. They have been successful at allowing the top teams in the world to play each other on a regular basis, and the Slams provide the funding for them to continue doing so. Beyond the Slams, the Canada Cup (run by Curling Canada) now provides an event for the top 8 teams in Canada to play for some big money and a berth in the Olympic Qualifying.

This system has emerged as the way to support the elite curlers that aspire to play in the Olympics. The Slams are an exclusive club that is incredibly tough for young and emerging teams to break into. The rankings are stacked to favour the teams already in the Slams, meaning that teams outside of the top 7 or 8 in Canada need to play in about 20 events per year all over the world with the hope of getting enough points in the smaller events to crack the elite.

While the Slams and the Olympics have done a good job at supporting the top teams, they have helped all but kill competitive curling at  the level below. This system has all but eliminated the “middle class” of curling. The Tier 2 events shrink in both number and importance every season. 20 years ago, over a thousand teams would enter to get to the Brier, now that number is now in the low hundreds. The money has filtered to the top. For teams outside the elite 7-8 in Canada, the climb to reach the top tier is just too steep. 

So why do teams keep playing? What keeps the Joes from packing it in, and just playing in club-level curling? Why do teams like mine keep working and practicing?

The answer, at least for now, is the Brier.

The Brier is special. Whereas the deck is permanently stacked against the Joes when they try to climb the world rankings, getting to the Brier has always been egalitarian. The Pros have to beat the Joes to get there. John Epping has to win Ontario. Gushue has to win Newfoundland. They have to beat all comers. Anyone willing to enter the ring and pay the modest entry fee can take a shot at it. Some say that this is unfair; that the top teams deserve to automatically get an invitation to the nation’s biggest event. I see their point, but there is certain charm to the notion that this is the one event with no free rides. You have to win your province.

Is this a raw deal for teams from Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario? Absolutely, it always has been. But there are perks to curling in Canada’s curling meccas; you get better games, better instruction, you have spiels in your backyard that help you get boatloads of CTRS points, and you regularly get to test your skills against the best, which makes you better. Curling in Alberta, Ontario or Manitoba has its advantages to offset the tougher road to the Brier.

This higher level of competition is evident when you look at the curling world today. Bottcher has gotten better in part by taking his lumps against Koe.  Epping gets no free pass to the Brier, he knows he has to beat Howard, MacDonald and some other teams that will likely never make the Brier, but are damn good. Being from a strong province makes you better. Yes, it will be tougher to get to the Brier, but hey as Tom Hanks said in a League of Their Own: It’s the hard that makes it great.

I would not suggest that the current Brier format is perfect, but can we at least acknowledge that at least part of the magic of the Brier is the provinces, the colours, the flags, and the regional charm of our nation put on display for all to see?

Can we acknowledge that turning the Brier into another exclusive Slam will all but kill curling in a number of smaller provinces? Try cracking the top 15 in Canada if you play out of New Brunswick or Nova Scotia. The CTRS (Canadian Team Ranking System) inevitably favors teams from the West. If you live out East, in order to climb the world rankings you would need to be on a plane pretty much every weekend from September to December, trying to get to the higher-payout CTRS events in Ontario or out West. The additional travel time and cost make it all but impossible. 

Provincial representation gives teams in smaller provinces a reason to keep playing competitively. It gives them a reason to get better. Yes, it inconveniences the top 5-10 teams in the country, but it serves to drive the next 100 teams. 

The best team in the country right now is from Newfoundland. NEWFOUNDLAND!  The national champs are from an isolated, far-east province of a half a million people. If ever there was a perfect argument to let all the provinces play - that would be it. Who knows where the next great team may be from? Maybe the Yukon? Maybe there is some 12-year-old kid sitting in New Brunswick that will be dominating the game 15 years from now. 

So let me now acknowledge that I am completely biased in this debate. As I write this, I am currently ranked 19th in the country, so changing the Brier would likely exclude me from the mix. As the expression goes, its usually tough to get the turkeys to vote in favor of Thanksgiving. So my case for the current Brier is very much in my own self-interest. But heck, I am 49. I clearly do not have many Briers ahead of me, regardless of the format.  I just feel that someone needs to speak for the many competitors from across the country who now find themselves on the outside, and who might soon find themselves excluded from our National Curling Championship.


So what about the current format?

Is it perfect? Hell no, but it makes an effort at walking the fine line between provincial representation and elite pro curling.

Yes, you have teams from PEI, Nunavut, the Yukon, Northwest Territories, the Maritimes and Quebec who are not likely to win (but you also have a Wildcard and Team Canada).

Yes, it means a few very good teams will find themselves sitting at home in March watching because they happen to live in a tough province.

Yes, it means you have some mismatches early in the week.

Yes, it means you have to have complicated residency rules that will inevitably result in curlers dancing between provinces.

Yes, all of this is true, but the Brier works anyway. The Brier last year was awesome. It is by far my favorite TV event to watch, even if the curling at the Slams is better. And it was fun to watch all week: the early week provided gems like the Gunnlaugson shot to beat PEI, and Dunstone making a quad to beat BC. Both of these were early in the week, against provinces that likely would not be there if the format was changed. 

The Brier is Canada. It is a collection of very different people from all over the country, whose love of the game brings them together for 10 special days in March. If we start excluding parts of the country, it would be like amputating the very soul of the event.