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Friday, January 13, 2023

TEAM FOURNIER ANNOUNCEMENT: Namaste, Salvadore

 

TEAM FOURNIER ANNOUNCEMENT




After much thought and careful consideration, Team Mike Fournier has decided to part ways with team Astrologist and Meditation Consultant Salvadore Zabat-Kihn.

This decision was far from easy, as Salvadore has been a part of the team since his spiritual chanting of "Boom, Boom" was instrumental in the team winning the Kitchener-Waterloo bonspiel earlier this season, but as the team prepares for the upcoming Ontario Provincial Championship, we felt the need to seek out a new spiritual and mental direction.

We wish Salvadore all the best as a curling advisor, as a spiritual being and most importantly as a human, on both this plane and the next.

As a team, we will take a moment to assess our spiritual state before seeking out new guidance and will produce a similarly artificial press release once we have chosen Salvadore’s replacement.

Thank you, and Namaste.

***

 

But seriously, I am very excited to be headed to the Ontario Provincials next week.

After having curled in countless Quebec provincials, I get to try my luck in the land of Trillium. We qualified by the skin of our teeth via some moderate success on the Ontario curling tour. But it’s a new game, and everyone starts at zero wins and zero losses.

Honestly, for a hard-core curling lover, the idea of playing Glenn Howard in a likely-full arena in an evening draw at an Ontario Provincial is goosebump-inducing.

For those following along, I believe the event will be streamed on www.curlOnTV.ca.

The Provincial Season is my favorite time of the year. You can talk about Slams, and Worlds, but nothing beats the drama, the passion and the pressure of trying to get to the Brier or Scotties. The finals from most provinces are usually broadcast on Sportsnet or via streaming, and unlike many televised curling games, you can usually feel the anxiety and nervousness of a game where finishing second sucks (trust me on that one).


Thursday, June 30, 2022

An Indecent Proposal: let me sponsor your golf/curling tournament.

 

In the classic eighties movie Indecent Proposal, Robert Redford offers Woody Harrelson a cool million bucks to spend one night with his wife, Demi Moore. Many of my favorite sports now find themselves in the role of Woody Harrelson, wondering if the big cheque you are getting is worth having some creepy dude screw around with something you love.



I have been a sports junkie my whole life. Whether its playing, watching, discussing or watching sports movies, I have always thought that sports provides a great common reference point for us all. Sports has become the new religion, it often provides us with role models, and I have always loved the challenge of having to deliver under pressure. It has what has made me love watching curling, watching golf, or pretty much any other game where dedicated athletes have trained to put themselves in a position that is compelling to watch. I love the drama.

But lately, I have become a bit disillusioned by some of the implications of money and sponsorship in the sports I love to watch. Hey, I get capitalism. I am all for athletes getting paid. I understand that money and sponsorship allow sports to reach a national audience. But damn, the last few weeks have been tough on the sports I love, and the influx of questionable money is making it harder and harder to be a fan.

Some are excited by the influx of cash – but I find myself asking myself if we are willing to take money from anyone? And is it making the sports better?

First, let’s talk golf. In case you have not been following, let me fill you in. The LIV golf tour, created by a disgruntled Greg Norman has begun poaching away golfers from the incredibly lucrative PGA tour by offering them insane amounts of money. Phil Mickelson, whose best days of golf are likely 20 years ago, was offered 200 million to leave the PGA and play in events that look more like a charity pro-ams than golf tournaments, with a few other top golfers. The money is being fronted by Saudi Arabia, who apparently are compelled to drop billions of dollars into golf for no other reason than to show that they can. Some call this “sportswashing” their money -  trying to help out their country’s tarnished reputation as a religious autocracy with a sketchy human rights record by transforming it into “magnanimous sports promoter”.

Some of the game’s best are cashing in. Dustin Johnson, Bryson Dechambeau, and likely Brooks Koepka will join the tour and cash in, reportedly receiving amounts in the hundreds of millions just to show up. I guess I get it. If someone offered me life-changing money to go and curl (not likely), I guess I would take it. But golfers like Tiger, Rory, John Rahm, Jason Spieth and Justin Thomas have turned down the money, saying that history, legacy and competition are more important to them.

It’s easy to judge the sell-outs. They have no heart, no soul and no appreciation for the PGA tour that made them rich and famous. They now have enough money for their 2nd yacht, another private jet. It is hard to cheer for multi-millionaires, who had more than any of us will ever have, who now need MORE money. But they are not the problem.

My ask is why would anyone want to dump billions of dollars to create a tour to rival an existing tour? In marketing, they say if you can’t tell what someone is selling you, then you are the product. The Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund is buying credibility, image and wholesomeness. They know their target market: they want rich, western citizens to know them and like them. Golf gives them that. Phil and DJ give them that. The financial model of giving away that much money cannot possibly make sense. This is not about business; there is no way this tour would be financially viable; its revenues will be but a fraction of the amounts it is paying out. It is all about spreading wealth to make people like them.

Of all the uses I could think of for a few billion dollars, giving it to wealthy PGA tour pros is at the absolute bottom of my list.

The PGA Tour, love it or hate it, has created a feeder system to develop the grassroots of the game. It is also a true meritocracy; you have to earn your way in and you have to keep playing well to remain. It is hard to get there, and it is hard to stay there. That is what make me appreciate the athletes who have made the choice to be that good. LIV golf is a showcase, providing guaranteed money to players.

In no ways does the LIV golf tour make golf better for the fans. Idon't know how all this will end - but I guuarantee it will not end with a "and they made the game of golf better and all lived happily ever after."

From golf to hockey…

I was watching ads for sports betting the other night. Oh wait – I was actually watching the Stanley Cup playoffs, which has seemingly become an informercial for sports betting sites. There was commentary on the betting. And then “celebrities” talking about their bets. I now know what a parlay is. I now understand odds. How have I lived this long without being able to engage in state-sponsored gambling?  

I get it. Betting on sports can be fun. Dropping a few bucks into a hockey pool is awesome. Betting with your friends, awesome. But sports betting always comes with an ugly underbelly. We know that gambling is an addiction like many others, and can ruin lives. So the incessant marketing of this, making us feel like there are riches to capture if we only play, normalizing gambling as something we all should do, feels wrong, and way over the top.

Which brings me to curling.

Curling Canada just announced its deal with Pointsbet Canada, and has created a new event: a March madness-style, single-knockout spiel in NB next September. Don’t get me wrong; I love the idea of trying new formats, and creating new events. And admittedly, this format sounds compelling, apart from making teams fly to New Brunswick for the possibility of being out in one-game (I believe they are giving the invited teams $5000 each to play to cover travel). The prize money is pretty big as well. They are also inviting the reigning Junior and Club (amateur) champions to play. And they will of course have sponsor exemptions.

But here is where I have a few problems with this.

·       Sports betting start-ups in Canada are using the same technique as the Saudis; they are normalizing their existence by throwing money at a sport with a good reputation for being ethical.

·       Gambling in curling is fraught with the potential for fraud. I blogged about this last year – and got a lot of feedback from people calling me a Debbie Downer for pointing out what seems to be obvious: there are serious motivations for teams to manipulate the outcomes of games to win or lose bets.

·       Inviting a junior team to an event sponsored by and encouraging sports gambling? Kinda sketchy.

Sports betting has always had problems in sports where the money being bet is misaligned with the money being made by the participants. For example, in the US, betting on college basketball had a massive points-shaving scandal, as the athletes do not get paid, but the money wagered was HUGE.

This is the wrong direction for Curling Canada. For an organization that has done so much good work of late to encourage inclusiveness and diversity in sport, the move towards gambling and monetizing the game is outside of what they should be doing, or sanctioning.

I can hear you reading this and calling me an old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud, and I hear you pointing out that the game used to be sponsored by tobacco and other vices. But it isn’t anymore.

Like golf, part of the charm of curling was that it has a solid ethical message built into its traditions and heritage. Players call fouls on themselves. We shake hands at the end of games. We say “nice shot” to our opponents. The unholy marriage with the sports gambling industry just does not fit.

 

I know that sports today is all about business. I am in no way na├»ve enough to not recognize that money is hard to say no to, and money is required to make bigger events, bigger purses and generate interest for the games. But if we truly love our sports, I expect us to be able to recognize that money never comes in for free; it always comes with expectations and conditions. Whether its hockey, golf or curling, the recent influx of questionable money is a threat to the very soul of these games. That is why it just feels so wrong to many fans. And just because it’s now legal does not make it right.

To be honest - I can't remember how Indcent Proposal Ends, but I am going to guess that it is not "he took the money and they all lived happily ever after".

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Thanks Lethbridge, and Let's not let the Arsonists write the fire safety rules

I am back from Lethbridge, struggling to jump back on the moving train that is my life after escaping into curling nirvana for 10 exciting days. The Brier this year, and everything leading up to it has been an emotional rollercoaster.

First, I was not supposed to even be on the ride. I had said that I was stepping away from the game back in November, only to find out that my team still needed me after my replacement went down with a wrist injury. After thinking my competitive career was at an end, I was called back into service.

We then won Charlevoix a few weeks later. I had never seen a team play so well. Felix was on fire, and everything was falling into place. I was back to practicing, and I could not wait for a week at Provincials with my team.

But then, a wave of Covid hit. Events cancelled. Clubs closed. And provincials delayed. I spent January throwing practice rocks into empty houses, once again prevented from practicing as a team, all for provincial that was looking less and less likely to occur.

We were in a very awkward spot. We were without question the top ranked team in the province by a pretty wide margin (if you go by the national raking system), but we were told that if there were to be no provincials, there would be a selection process to pick a team to send. And who knew what that meant.

We waited. We practiced. We waited some more, for what felt like an eternity. As restrictions started to loosen, there was hope that Quebec could run a provincial. We practiced. We waited. We had Zoom calls. Then they announced there would be no provincial. And we waited some more.  

I know it sounds self-serving or disingenuous to say that we wanted a provincial, but we absolutely wanted a provincial. We wanted to earn our spot at the Brier, and we honestly believed we would win it fair and square. Also, I know that the intensity and pressure of a Provincial would be a great way to prepare us for a week against the country’s best. And if somebody beat us at provincials, then so be it.

If my house was on fire, and I had to choose a single possession to save from the flames, it would be my purple heart from 2018. (A Purple Heart is the crest given to provincial winners). That crest represents years of hard work and perseverance. I earned it. And I damn sure wanted to earn another one this year.

But instead, we were anointed Quebec’s representatives. Some in our province complained at the choice, given that I had announced my retirement earlier this year. I think that is massively unfair to both me and especially my teammates, who worked so hard to get to the level they are at, and who I expect to keep winning long after I am gone. I believe we were the right choice for the Brier. 

Then, with the selection process behind us, we then found out that Martin had contracted Covid, within a week of us leaving for Lethbridge. Our last week was spent learning about CT levels, isolation protocols and incubation periods. Not exactly the ideal pre-event prep.

We found out all of 6 hours before our televised game against arguably the Best Team in the World that Martin would even be able to play. We struggled to find our legs against Gushue in that game, and got thoroughly schooled. We then won vs. the Territories, then got demolished again, this time by Brad Jacobs.

We then lost a game that we should have won. We played a brilliant game against Jason Gunnlaugson, only to blow it on a very bad call that will haunt me for many years to come. We dropped a game to BC where we should have been better. We finished strong against Nova Scotia and Manitoba, and got the added bonus of having our last 5 ends televised, as we put together a crafty 4 in the 9th end to knock Mike McEwen into a tie-breaker.

In the NFL, there is an expression that says: “You are your record”. We were 4-4. We could have won one or two more had we been sharper, and we could have lost one more had our opponents been better. All in all, 4-4 is fair for how we played. We finished a game out of the playoffs.  Unfortunately, I felt like we were finally hitting our stride as the tournament ended for us.

 

A few other observations/stories from the Brier:

  • I have no idea how I do NOT have Covid. Mark Nichols and the rest of Team Gushue were safe all week, avoiding crowds and wearing masks off the ice, while we were in the Patch, singing karaoke and signing autographs. And he gets Covid. Life is not fair. I feel for them, and I am cheering for them to become the first team to win the Brier 3-handed
  • I had forgotten how amazing it is to play this game in front of cheering fans. It is indescribable to the average curler. It is both terrifying and exhilarating, but mostly just fun
  • I need to say that I love JF Trepanier. I just want to highlight that he put up 1st all-star numbers at lead, and is the funniest person I have ever played with. And he got kicked out of the Brier patch for dancing with a cardboard cutout of the Rock (I mean Dwayne Johnson, not an actual rock). Epic.

 

Changing the Brier

Here we go again. As predictable as the spring, Curling pundits and some TopTeams will now call for sweeping changes to the Brier.  They will poo-poo provincial representation and point to the crappy records of the weaker provinces / territories as proof positive that the current format is broken. Kevin Martin & friends will wail on poor Nunavut, and point out that PEI, Newfoundland and the Yukon only managed one win apiece, all against each other. They will talk about the “entertainment value” of the product being the main goal, and point out that residency restrictions put limitations on our best teams.

In short they will call for the Brier to be better, and point to its declining ratings and attendance as proof that the current format is broken. 

This is like the arsonist who set fire to your house giving you a lecture on fire safety. 

I call bullshit on this need for radical change.

Yes, the Brier is at a crossroads. The consensus seems to be that change is necessary, as attendance and TV ratings continue to decline. (although I suspect this year’s attendance issues are likely more about Covid than lack of interest)

We all agree that making the product more entertaining will help, but where views differ is on how to get there. Some would say to make the Brier more exclusive, with only the top tour teams invited and limit provincial reps. Others would have the Brier go back to its roots, and be an event only for “amateurs” (like the US Amateur is for golfers) and discourage the pros from even playing. I think moves in either direction would hasten the decay of the Brier.

I am of the mindset that the current format/number of teams seems like a good compromise. They say the measure of a good compromise is that nobody feels satisfied, and this seems to be the case here. You have provincial representation, but you have some spots available for the hadful of "pro" teams. Perhaps the only change I would suggest would be to include the Wildcard teams BEFORE the provincial playdowns. This would help grow the game in places like Newfoundland and Northern Ontario, by giving more teams a hope of making it, and give the stronger provinces more representation.

In short, the current format is not perfect. (I would also suggest that new playoff format is unnecessarily complicated). But removing provincial representation will kill the event. Look at a team like Colton Flasch this year. Look at the pride they take in wearing the Saskatchewan green. Look at McEwen with the Manitoba Buffalo on his back. Provinces are what made the Brier into what it is, and are still an essential part of the show.

But we also need to ensure that the top teams in the country are part of the solution. A Brier without the best teams is not sustainable. It would be destined to become a Tier B event if held only for the "amateur" teams.



I was lucky enough to spend some time chatting with Gerald Shymco at the Brier this year. For those of you who do not know Gerald, he lost the Brier semi-final to Guy Hemmings on an amazing draw to the pin in 1999. Gerald is what the Brier should aspire to be. His love for the game, his genuine love for the traditions and his disdain for how the game has evolved should give pause to all curlers screaming for change. The Brier works because it is the one event that is still bigger than the players. It still draws thousands of fans (and volounteers!) and can produce moments like the one he had with Guy in 99. (here the link to the shot, and watch the post-game bear-hug he gave Guy after losing to him).

Guy draw against Shymco

A few other points:

  •  I sadly agree that Nunavut should not be at the Brier. As much as I love Peter and his crew, they are just not ready and need to take steps to get better. In their defense, they told me that their club was not even open for most of this season, and obviously spieling is not an option. But I think the Nunavut association has to look at some alternatives to sending lambs to the slaughter every year. Maybe they should give up their spot for x years in exchange for some funding to repair/upgrade their curling club or for junior development. There are better ways to grow the game in Nunavut  than to have a team be cannon fodder at the Brier.
  • A few words on entertainment. Here is a controversial statement: the best teams are evolving towards a more boring style of play. I say this not to as an insult: if anything, I mean it as a compliment. I aspire to be good enough to make my games be boring. The top teams are so good, so disciplined, so methodical that I find they can become boring to watch, and it can lead to boring games. I do not mean to be disparaging to what they have accomplished, and the hard work it takes to be as good as they are. But if your main concern is the entertainment value of the product, then you need to protect the game against the idea that boring is the best way to win. This same evolution towards boring is what drove the game to the free guard zone 30 years ago. The best teams were too good and made the game boring. The same is true now. Maybe we need to go to a 6 or 7 rock FGZ. Or maybe just no takeouts on the first 6-7 rocks, even on rocks that are in the rings (like Mixed Doubles). And maybe we should use rocks that are LESS lively and harder to take out. And let’s remove stopwatches. In short, anything we can do to make the best teams shoot slightly lower percentages would be good for the game. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but the possibility of missing every once in a while makes for entertaining content. We need to find ways to fight boring.
  • It is not good for a sport when your overtime, which is supposed to be the most exciting part of the game, has all the drama of an NFL extra-point conversion. The best teams are winning 90%+ of extra end games when they have the hammer. The no-tick rule coming soon will help. It should give a bit of a fighting chance to the team without the hammer, to create a bit more entertainment.

 

***

 Anyway, as I reflect on my 3rd and hopefully not last Brier, I am just so grateful for the experience.

A giant thank you goes out to those who supported us throughout our journey, both our sponsors and our fans. Thanks to the volounteers and fans in Lethbridge that helped make the event feel like the Brier after what has been 2 long years. 

The Brier is a tradition that I grew up watching and aspired to my whole curling life. The chance to be a part of it again is something I will remember forever.  

Monday, October 18, 2021

Bet...bet...BET...BET!!!!

 

As I eagerly await the start of the pre-trials next week in Liverpool (which Kevin Martin apparently thinks I should not even be playing at!), just a few thoughts on pervasive trend that has developed in the last few years.


Bet…bet…BET, BET, BET!!! Fred Flintstone’s eyes rolled back into his head, and he lost all control, as this cartoon from my childhood so elegantly addressed gambling addiction.

Fast Forward to 2021. Like Fred Flinstone, my beloved sport of curling is getting into the gambling game. Years ago it was just some hard-core sports gambling sites giving odds on the Brier and Scotties. But now more and more sites have started providing action on games from the Slams and Curling Canada events. Betting sites have started sponsoring curling teams, encouraging the use of their platforms to make a few bucks on curling. And now even the traditionalist Curling Canada is getting its piece of the action, announcing a partnership with a sports betting site for their events.

On the surface this makes a lot of sense. Sports gambling is big business, and its involvement in the sport will surely bring in some dearly needed excitement and money to the game. Curling is trying to be Big League, and that means money and gambling.

But at the risk of being called a pearl-clutching doomsayer, I have a prolem with Curling Canada condoning gambling on its events.

I have a few real problems with this. First of all, many (most) of the teams at the Brier are amateurs. We do not make enough money at curling to make a living, and to be honest, our dedication to the sport also often limits our ability to make a good living away from the game. Put simply, curlers don’t have a lot of money. Only a handful of teams are truly financially stable. I am on the 30th ranked team in the world (give or take a few spots), and we are AT BEST financially break-even as a curling team. Unlike a lot of pro sports - there are no curling millionaires. 

So here is the scenario: Province A is playing Province B at the Brier in a game where we are both teams have already been eliminated. Province A is a heavy favorite. Province A skip gets a call from a friendly gambler, and an offer for a $5000 sponsorship for the season if he were to lose.

To be clear if I am skipping Province A – I would say no. But when you have games that are meaningless, with amateur participants who are financially needy, you open yourself up to questions. Let’s say in my scenario, Province A skip says no to the offer, but then loses the game anyway. As a fan, would you not ask questions about the integrity of the game?

I get that for some, having a few bucks riding on an outcome enhances the viewing experience. But is this something Curling Canada should be condoning?

Look, I know gambling is going to happen whether Curling Canada or some of Canada's leading teams get involved or not. But curling jumping into this industry with both feet just feels wrong to me. As the gambler wisely advises: You gotta know when to walk away, and know when to run.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

The Dreaded "R" Word.

I always swore that when I would decide to hang up my curling shoes, I would not do some sappy Facebook/Twitter post announcing it to the world; I would just quietly exit, stage right. But I kinda feel the need to share some news as we head into the start of what will hopefully be a more conventional and social curling season:

Once the Olympic Trials are done for this year, I will be stepping back from competitive curling.

I was getting to the point in my career where I have started to notice the game passing me by. I am 49, about to turn 50, and as much as I have tried to stay in shape and keep my game up to the level of the some of the best curlers in the world, it keeps getting a bit harder year after year.  

Covid has not helped; I have not thrown a curling rock since the 2021 Brier, and find myself having to remember how to get my not-so flexible legs to tuck back into curling position. The sad and inescapable truth is the amount of practice I need to do to be able to make the shots I need to make is now beyond the time and energy I have to give.

And, as I often pointed out, sometimes life can get in the way of curling. I have taken on a new role at my “day job” that will require me to relocate to Toronto (or “The Six” as the cool kids call it) and spend a bit more of my energy at work. It was probably already time to step away gracefully, but the combination of Covid and work have made the decision to retire that much easier. Therefore, once our Olympic quest comes to an end, (which will ideally be after closing ceremonies in Beijing early next year!), I will step back from the game I love.

I will miss it dearly. I will miss that excitement you feel competing at a high level. I will miss playing down for the Brier, still one of the greatest sports traditions on the planet. I will miss my team. I will miss that satisfying feeling of sitting down for a postgame rye and coke, knowing that you just competed against the best in the World at a game. Most of all I will miss my team.

I am incredibly proud of how this team has grown over the past years, from starting with Felix and Will five years ago, then adding Ben and JF and now Martin. There are times, rare times, in sport when a team becomes more than just a collection of guys playing the game. It becomes something indescribable, a bond towards a common purpose that unifies in way that nothing else can. This team is that. #feedthehorses

So what does this mean for Team Fournier?

Well, I will leave it up to them to tell you. But Team Fournier will live on for at least a couple more months.  As a result of our national ranking pre-Covid, we have been invited to play at the Olympic Pre-Trials. The Pre-Trials will be held October 26-31 in Liverpool, Nova Scotia. 14 Teams will play down for 2 spots at the final Olympic Trials to be held in Saskatchewan in late November. Then the winner heads to Beijing 2022 wearing the maple leaf.

If the pre-Trials/Trials is to be my last big men’s competitive run, I can think of no better way to go out. The Canadian Olympic Trials are the pinnacle of the sport. I would argue it is harder to win the Canadian Olympic Trials than it is to win the Olympics. I absolutely can’t wait to get back on the ice to work towards October.

 ***

 My recent decision to step back has left me rather reflective on the past 30 years of competitive curling. I have borne witness to so many changes in the game, from the introduction of the free guard rule (thank God!), to the inclusion of the sport in the Olympics, to the directional sweeping era where we all faced the bizarre notion that we had been sweeping wrong for the past 50 years. The game is barely recognizable to when I started out 3 decades ago.

The highlights are many. Obviously going to the Brier in 2018 and 2021 top the list, and especially winning the Quebec Championship at Glenmore takes the top spot.

But I can’t help but to think back to how much fun it was just to even make it to Quebec Provincials when I started out. I think I was two years out of juniors when I qualified A-side out of Montreal, where we were one of 4 teams out of 80 or 90. It was different time.

And so many of my best memories will come from playing in obscure cashspiels in small towns. The tour was fun, and every spiel was an adventure.

 ***

Anyway – more to come. My imminent retirement will surely not mean the end of the blog. I might not be writing as an insider anymore, but it will be much more fun to write about the big teams without having to worry about them reading it before playing me!

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!