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Sunday, April 26, 2020

"Dad, Russ Howard is Licking Himself Again!!!" An Isolation Blog


After 6 weeks of isolation, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that I miss curling.

I miss throwing practice rocks. I miss the taste of a pre, post or mid-game rye and coke. I miss my teammates, both my competitive guys and by hall-of-fame great club team.

I miss staying a bit too late after a Tuesday game. I miss throwing a few extra draws at the end of my lunchtime practice to make me a bit late for a meeting at work. I miss showing up early for a ladder game, and hanging out at the end of the bar listening to whoever had a curling story to tell about their weekend. I miss gossiping with the club manager. I miss the Glenmore Intermediate, an event that usually would have occurred last weekend and would have helped ease the transition into spring with the help of dancing, karaoke, Jello shots and late night poutine runs (and curling).
After our competitive season comes to its end, (unfortunately in January for the past 2 seasons) I curl from February to April only because I love it. And losing it this year has made me appreciate it that much more.

All that to say that I miss curling.

Of course, I miss other things too, like leaving my house, seeing friends or playing soccer. But with curling, next season just seems so far away, and I am not sure I will have my usual summer distractions of golf, soccer and the city pool to keep me busy until then.


***

The question everyone seems to be asking themselves these days is when this will get back to “normal”. When we will be able to enjoy the things we did before, without feeling like we need a hazmat suit? And what will next curling season look like?

I do not profess to know for sure, nor do I have any inside information on this, but here is my take:

First, we will not have vaccine by the fall, and most of us will not have had the virus yet. Therefore, a big part of the population will remain vulnerable. Therefore there is no way things will be back to normal. Sorry to be bearer of bad news if you had hopes of this ending soon, but it won’t.  

I think we will have a season next year. But it will be vastly different that what we have seen before.
On the competitive side, I cannot envision travel getting back to what it was before. Teams from all around the world were flying across Canada from September to May to curl. There is no way this can happen next season. Curlers are like traveling germ salespersons, and as the virus flares up in different parts of the country, travel restrictions will inevitably follow. Travel will need to be much more sporadic, and more teams will be playing more spiels that are within driving distance, and in their own cities and provinces.
While the slams and big events will happen, I think we might see them being smaller, and played without crowds for TV only. The fact is, a big part of curling audiences are older, and those people will be less likely to want to gather in arenas to watch. Holding events for TV will involve a different set of economics for the game, but the reality is that TV is still where the big money is, and curling on TV without spectators will be better than no curling at all. Will the Brier be the Brier? I have no idea.

At the club level, curling will happen but with a strict set of rules. Ice techs will be wiping off rocks with Lysol every game, it will become part of doing the ice. The pre and post game handshakes will be things of the past, and I am not sure if we will be sitting together after games. I really hope I’m wrong here, but the idea of eight people sitting around shoulder to shoulder, especially given that about 30-40% of our ladder is of senior age, seems unlikely. At very least, many will stay away. If you were a member of a struggling curling club before, I would worry about their capacity to survive next season, given that bar revenues will be down and some more vulnerable members will not want to join.
Whatever happens, it will certainly be different, and will feel mighty weird. But I much prefer a weird curling season to none at all, so we will all have to adapt.


***

So how is the isolation going you ask?
I think we are all getting a bit squirrelly in the Fournier household. 
I ran out of rye today, and the lineup at the SAQ was around the block, so I have resorted to drinking the little mini-bar samples I have collected over the years. I found a mini bottle of Screech I got from Team Newfoundland from the 1996 Canadian Mixed Championship. It was spectacular, and made me yearn for a fish to kiss.

My wife and I are both fortunate enough to still be employed, and are working from our home office while simultaneously failing miserably at home schooling our kids. Like many of you I often take videoconferences in pyjama bottoms, and am perpetually getting interrupted. I took a call from my boss last week while dodging Nerf gun bullets. 
But I still consider us as “lucky” as we still have jobs for the time being. And for those of you on the front lines dealing with this every day, I have nothing to say but a sincere thank you.

Sure sign the isolation is getting to me: last week we decided to adopt two cats after succumbing to ridiculous pressure tactics from my daughters. Sadly, they already had names, and I could not convince my daughters to rename them after famous curlers.  

Having my daughters say:  “Mom, Kevin Martin coughed up a hairball and Russ Howard peed next to the litterbox again” would have made my week, but alas, no. They are Seema and Stedman, pictured here.



Did I mention I miss curling?

Monday, March 30, 2020

Doing Jello Shots with my Kids - And a Team Fournier update!


I am in week 3 of isolation/quarantine/home schooling and getting a little squirrel-y. Personal hygiene has become optional. The kids have watched the entire Netflix Kids library. Twice. So I figure why not write a long, meandering curling blog to kill off some time.

Curling is of course over for this season. As is the case with many Tier 2 curlers, my season essentially ended once we lost at provincials in January, but for those of you who play in events like Slams, or Mixed, or Travellers, or whatever, now find themselves pining for next year.  

There will be no World Championships. There will be no Slams. I am not even sure that we will be starting next season! 2020 will have no Glenmore Intermediate, the usual end of season send-off party (I have had to show my kids how to do virgin Jello shots). The competitive curlers I know have resorted to on-line curling spiels!

I guess there is nothing like a global pandemic to provide us all with a bit of perspective. It is good to remember that we devote so much of our time and energy to something that is just a dumb GAME.

If you want a reminder of how dumb this game is, try explaining it to someone from South America who has never seen it or even heard of it (as I recently did). Here goes: you slide a big rock made of granite down a sheet of ice with little bumps on it towards a bullseye while yelling at people using push brooms to clean the path of the sliding granite. Make sense?

It is just such a dumb game. But damn I miss it.

***

Team Fournier news:

It was a year of ups and downs for Team Fournier in 2019-20. We had some great success, and managed to climb the world rankings, getting as high as 25th in the World before coming back down to 33rd after a disappointing Quebec provincial. We got to play in a Tier 2 Slam event, and played a lot of games against the best teams in the World! We flew to 3 spiels, went out West, got 5 speeding tickets (damn that Alberta photo radar). Unfortunately the provincials did not end the way we had hoped, but all in all a good season.

Team Fournier will have a new look next year (assuming there is curling!). We have added a new horse to the stable: Martin Crête will be playing 3rd for us next year, while Félix slides into the the 2nd position. Jean Francois will stay at lead.

As JF put it, we should be better at shooting and at shouting! With next season being the last year before the Olympic trials, we will be trying to get a spot at pre-trials. To do that we will have to get to the top 15 in Canada (we are currently 17th). So we wanted to make ourselves stronger as a team, and bring on someone who could help us take it up a notch. Enter Martin!

I really look forward to playing with Martin – I have admired him as a competitor for a lot of years. And now I won’t have to try to yell over him on the next sheet anymore! I have seen him make soooooo many great shots against me over the years (his last one from the provincial finals last year still haunts my dreams); it will be weird for him to be making shots FOR me. I am amazed that this game continues to provide me opportunities to learn from my teammates, even at my advanced age (as Felix would say).

This unfortunately means that William will be stepping back this year. We are still trying to figure out if Will can still play a role on the team, but his new baby/job made it impossible for him to commit to the kind of schedule we were looking to play next season.

I will miss him a lot. Will has been one of the best teammates I could ask for over the past 4 seasons, both on and off the ice. He taught me a lot about team dynamics, about keeping a positive attitude and about how to win. He has taught me how to translate English pop songs into French in real time. He is the originator of the term “Feed the horses” which has become part of our team psyche. 
I am hoping that our curling futures will intertwine again.

I will also miss him sweeping my outturn!
Felix will be spending the summer bulking up. Here he is with JF preparing for next season:

Pump You Up Hans And Franz GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY


***

With the end of the season – we would like to say thanks to the sponsors that helped us compete this year.
  • Hardline Curling: Have been with these guys forever – love their brooms and what they do. They have become the weapon of choice for most of the big teams in the country. They have been sponsoring Felix for so long they started with their logo on his diapers, and have been sponsoring Team Fournier for a long time now. I am grateful for their support.  
  • Royal Bank of Canada Dominion Securities – big thanks to Kevin O’Connor for his support this season.
  • And big thanks to our other sponsors:  Cedar Springs Landscaping (514-453-4662 – Grant), and Injection Classique(Marc Don) foundation repair. If you are looking for landscaping or snow removal in the West Island, or if your foundation has cracks/leaks – please use our sponsors and mention Team Fournier!  The links above take you directly to their websites.


Without their help, we really would not have been able to compete at the level we competed at. This game has gotten expensive. Even with these sponsors and all the cashspiel success we had, our season was still scarcely break even! We won’t be turning pro anytime soon.

***


If you are looking to kill some time, a couple of guys from Abitibi have started a podcast interviewing Quebec curlers! Sonny and Adam’s podcast is available (en français) at the following link:


They interviewed me last night, JM Ménard a few days ago and  Laurie St-Georges (OMG! - THE Laurie St-Georges) will be on Tuesday, (with some other guy I have never heard of). 
The great thing about a pandemic is that pretty much everybody is available to appear on their show! They are doing interviews every 2 days.
Great idea! As I have said in the past, every sport needs storytellers to make the game great. Podcasts like this one and From the Hack and  2 Girls and a Game help fans better relate to the game, and are an awesome way to pass the time, especially after you have gone through everything good on Netflix!

Sunday, March 8, 2020

I Think I Need Some Crop Insurance and a New Tractor


What the hell was that?

I just watched the Brier final – and to be honest watched a bit too much curling this week. But how could I not? The Brier this year was ridiculous. It was like bacon-wrapped filet-mignon. It was simply the best curling I have ever seen.

It absolutely killed me to not be there.

Seriously, I have watched curling all my life, and I can’t remember anything even remotely comparable to the level of play this year. They talked about this being the best field ever, but damn. McEwen, Epping and Koe were amazing all week, and did not even make the final 4. The level of play and strategy was next-level. The fact that you know your opponent is going to make every make-able shot changes the way you play. The number of insanely good shots, the ridiculously well-curled games - I don’t even know where to begin.
  • Let’s start with Gushue. What can you say? The pressure of a Brier final, and this guy curls 97%. Ninety-freaking-seven percent! He simply did not throw one rock tonight that was not absolutely perfect. Nichols was awesome as well. His front end actually got out-curled in the final, but when your back end plays that well, who cares.
  • To give you an idea of how deep the field was, Mike McEwan’s team were all 1st or 2nd team all-starts, and they did not even make the final 4 of the tournament. Kevin Koe makes one of the greatest shots I have seen to win a game, and is out Saturday morning. Are you kidding me?
  • As a 48-year-old from Eastern Canada living in a big city, I realize that I am just not the target demographic for curling ads. I watched ads all week for crop insurance, tractors and denture cream. I love the ad for the kick-ass snow tires for the snowplough, I wonder if they would fit on my wife’s Prius. The National rental car guy was starting to drive me a bit crazy. Seriously, I want to support the sponsors, but I think the only one that product I could use would be a cup of Timmies – but that would get me fired!
  • Also, I have never been to a Mr. Mike’s Steakhouse, but the idea of playing Jenga next to my meal seems like a bad idea.
  • Felt bad for the kids from Quebec. I am sure they are disappointed at 1-6, but the experience will surely serve them well. They earned their spot there, and were entertaining. From what I hear they became the crowd favorites, and I am sure the experience will make them hungrier to get back. Just hope its not for a while J
  • Was cheering hard for my Tier 2 compatriots from the East: Grattan and Murphy. Was hoping to see one of them sneak into the championship pool, just to shake things up again and remind the curling world that curling does not stop East of the Ontario border (except for Gushue!). Sadly, the Brier highlighted just how wide the gulf is right now in Canada between the Pros and the Joes. When the big 5 or 6 teams start playing for real, it looks like you are watching a PeeWee hockey team playing against the Washington Capitals. I say this not as a knock on the Tier 2 guys (of which I am one), but to highlight just how good the best teams are.
  • Loved watching Matt Dunstone this week. He is a genuinely nice kid – and obviously will be back. The raise triple to win was one of the best shots to win I have ever seen in all my years watching Briers, but at this Brier it barely makes the top 3! (Koe’s triple to win was just insane, and Gunnlaughson’s double-raise-double actually made me spit out my coffee)
  • Team Bottcher is truly a remarkable curling team. You can judge a team’s character by how they react when things are not going well. They are incredibly tough. They look and act the same if they are 4 up or 4 down. Brandon had a shitty final, which I am sure will haunt him for a long time, but this is still obviously one of the top teams in Canada.
  • Okay – don’t jump on me for criticizing shot selection – but I think if Bottcher draws for 1 in the 1st end of the final it is a very different game. I mean you work all week to earn hammer in the finals, and then give it away trying too hard to blank. I think there is a stat on tour that the team that scores first wins something like 60-65% of the time. Take. Your. One. Settle the nerves.
  • It was amazing watching Jacobs this week. I have been hard on these guys in the past, but man are they a classy squad now. They were 1-3 early in the week, but you felt like they had more to offer. The addition of Kennedy has changed these guys. Even though they have not won a Brier in a long time, I would be hard-pressed to bet against them for the Trials spot in 2021.
  • Shout out to Colin Hodgson. Don’t let the Bieber-like sleeve tattoo or the greasy hair fool you; this guy is completely deserving of the sportsmanship award he earned this year. A class act, and genuinely good for the game.
  • To me, the best example of how good curling has become was the first end of Gushue-Jacobs earlier this week. Gushue basically made 8 shots perfectly, and gave up a 4. If you get a chance, go back and watch that first end.  Amazing stuff. That end was like porn for curling fans. 
  • Early week highlight: The 10th end measure in the Jacobs-Gunnlaughson game. The poor official who had to measure was like a deer in the headlights; and just as eager to get off the highway as soon as possible. Marc Kennedy was about as Canadian as you can get; I think his face after the first measure is now a meme. But to his credit, he stayed unbelievably polite and respectful. This would simply not happen in any other sport. I’m not sure I would have remained as calm.
  • So can we all agree to stop arguing about the format for a while? This year highlighted why the current format works. You get full provincial representation - but you get the entertainment value of watching the best in the business bash each-others' heads in as the week progresses. This format is working. It might not be perfect, but its getting pretty close.


Damn I have to get back. Even it is just to be cannon-fodder for the Slam teams.

Monday, February 24, 2020

I am becoming Mister Softie


Okay. I will admit it. I got a little emotional watching the Scotties final yesterday. Just a little. I am apparently becoming Mister Softie, which conveniently is the mascot of the Scotties.

Image result for softie scotties

Seriously, I have been fighting a serious case of curling depression since Quebec provincials. Competitive curling has been a big part of my life, but there are times where the sport absolutely knocks you on your ass. I wanted to go to the Brier this year. I worked harder than I have ever worked to go, and I am not going. Screw you, curling.

I have been reluctant to even think about curling ever since. I played in some club games (since our competitive season is inevitably over), and have found myself impatient and irritable on the ice. I have not wanted to be there. (apologies to my teammates over the past few weeks). I don’t think I slammed a broom once at Provincials, but last week I threw my fragile, defenseless sliding broom into a wall after missing a shot. 

This year seemed to hurt more than others.

I really rued the idea of watching the inevitable barrage of TV curling that follows losing at Provincials. The Scotties. The Brier. After a year where I felt like it was ours to win or lose, it feels like you are forced to watch the girl who dumped you on a date with her new boyfriend.  

But the Scotties this year brought me back. It was that good. 

It was a reminder of what the sport is all about. It had drama, it had tales of redemption, it had underdog stories aplenty and it had a joyous ending. The quality of curling was very high. the Scotties reminded me that I love curling. 



So what happened?
  • Kerri Einerson pulled out an extra end win. She gassed a draw to the 4-foot in the 10th end for the win, before pinning it in the extra end. Every skip in Canada has felt her pain in 10. That feeling of having let down your team; that feeling of blowing what should be an easy win. The TV close-up actually showed her soul leaving her body as she watched her rock slide through the 4-foot. For her to come back and make the same shot in the extra end to win was a beautiful and fitting end to the week. They were the best team all week and deserved the win. Watching their emotion at wining was both moving and heartwarming.
  • Team Homan is awesome. They are smart, and tough, and have only gotten better. They look so much more seasoned, and play with more feel than before. There has been a sense that they might not be as sharp - that maybe life is getting in the way of their curling. WRONG!
  • Krista McCarville and her story is the reason I still curl. She is an amateur, playing with the pros and beating them. She has shown that you can win, and have a life. She does not play in the Slams, she has no giant sponsor. She is just good at curling, and loves it. If you are not cheering for this team at the Scotties, you must be the kind of sports fan that cheers for the Yankees, or Manchester United. But if you love a good underdog story, this was it.
  • Loved watching Lori Eddy win a few games for Nunavut. She is an awesome ambassador for the sport. If you are not listening to her 2 girls and a game podcast, you are missing out.
  • My Quebec friends had a rough week and finished at 0-7. But they played some big games. They took Carey to an extra end, and were close in 3 or 4 other games. I am sure they are pissed about not getting a W, but surely grew by leaps and bounds as curlers.  
  • Loved the Aly Jenkins tribute at the opening. Aly Jenkins was a competitive curler from Saskatchewan who died in childbirth late last year. Also – the Devin Heroux piece on CBC.ca is a beautiful piece of writing. Worth a read (there must be something in my eye):    https://www.cbc.ca/sports/olympics/winter/curling/aly-jenkins-tragedy-family-1.5470246
  • Lots of discussion early this week about TSN's choice of feature games. They showed the same teams over and over again (especially Jones), while shunning up and coming teams such as BC and New Brunswick, who were also in the playoff mix. I get that they want to show the most popular teams to draw the most viewers, but it would have been fun early in the week to see some of these teams. Back in the day, there seemed to be an effort to make sure everybody got one game on TV. I don't think this can work with the new format, so I understand TSN choosing the big names...but the fact is there is so much value for new young teams to get some TV time that I think more effort should be put into balancing this. 


Monday, January 27, 2020

Hey You Kids - Get Off my Lawn!!!


Oh my God I feel old. I have curled in Quebec Provincials before, and I have lost before. But this year seemed different. In years past, I lost to my peers. And when I won, I beat my peers. I felt like I belonged. This year I felt like a damn dinosaur. I did not lose to my peers; I lost to their kids! 
Seriously. I got knocked out by Bédard and Roberge’s damn kids!!! 

For those not following – the Quebec Men’s provincials were held last week in Valleyfield Quebec. The winner was Alek Bédard (son of former competitor and current senior champion Dan Bédard), who defeated Vincent Roberge in the finals (son of 2006 Brier champ and current senior champ Francois Roberge). We lost an absolute heart-breaker to Bédard in the Semi on Saturday night. He made 2 great shots in 10 for a deuce, including a hack-weight through a port that was maybe a rock and an inch or two wide. We had lost the 1-2 game to Roberge earlier in the day, after a pick on a draw against 2 got us down early. Bédard then beat Roberge in the finals rather easily for the win.

Screw you, young people. You guys are not supposed to be so good so quickly.

Seriously, I can only vaguely remember being 25. I threw a really nice rock at 25. I was brash, and I likely thought I was better than I was. But I lacked in experience. I made dumb calls. I fell into traps set by older, wiser curlers. I choked a lot. I missed big shots under pressure.  Only after YEARS of learning (through repeatedly screwing up) did I learn the wisdom and patience required to win.

But these guys have it now! Not fair. You are supposed to be young and dumb or old and wise, not 
young and wise. WTF?

This is a new wave in curling. Curlers are better at a younger age. Look at Quebec Provincials. Look at Dunstone. And Tardi. And Calvert. And Dropkin. And Felix. And Bottcher. And the juniors that were on TV this weekend. They are amazing, and come factory-ready to win in men’s curling. I think there are 2 reasons for this:

1. Better Coaching: Young teams are better coached than we were, often benefiting from their parents knowledge and from the enhanced level of instruction offered to the elite junior teams, either from Curling Canada or their provincial associations, or even from University curling programs in some provinces (unfortunately not Quebec). The closest we ever came to a sports psychologist was Doctor Bacardi, who helped console us after a tough loss.

2. TV: More curling on TV means that you benefit from watching more elite level curling with better commentary. Back in the day – we really only had the Brier, which was once a year. Now you can watch (and re-watch on Youtube) games almost every weekend – all with great commentary. And you are consistently watching the very best week-in and week-out. Few knew what the gear effect was before, or the drag effect. But now every ladder player in our club seems to understand the basics, and will use terms like “directional sweeping” and “control zone”.

So young Alek Bédard will now be introduced to the world of curling at the Brier in Kingston. The team also features Émile Asselin, who was my 5th at the Brier in 2018 and who curled with us at the Tier 2 Slam in November. This is a classy team that will represent the province well, and will surely surprise the big teams who likely will have never heard of them. They go in as dark horse underdogs, but will surely end the week as something else.

Oh well. Another year over. The most annoying thing about losing at provincials if you are a Tier 2 team is you go from curling every day to not at all. Zero. I will not curl in a meaningful game until next fall.  Sigh.


***

Quebec Women’s curling seems to have rallied around my battle cry after last year’s under-attended Scotties. There were 8 women’s teams in Valleyfield – and the caliber of play was visibly up from last year. You can see that many teams have increased their effort level to be competitive.

The winners are some close friends of mine, and I could not be prouder of them. Noémie Verreault, Alanna and Jill Routledge and Marie-Pier Côté will represent Quebec in Moose Jaw. Alanna was my 3rd at 2 Mixed Nationals, and Jill has played with me at Glenmore for a bunch of years. I can’t wait to watch them on TV.


***

A note on tie-breakers. This year on the women’s side, 4 teams were tied for the last playoff spot at 4-3. 2 of the teams were eliminated (Tippin and Boisvert) based on the rather arbitrary criteria of their record vs. the other 4-3 teams. BTW – the 1st place team was at 5-2, so it’s not like these teams were a mile away. But the rules were clear and unwavering, so 2 teams got to go home because they lost against the wrong teams (even though both had managed to beat the 1st place team).

For reasons unknown to me, tie-breakers have gone out of style. It used to be that the unwritten rule was that you could not be eliminated from a Provincial or a National if you have the same record as the team above you. If you are 4-3, and the 5 Teams above you are 4-3, then you are not out. But lately we have added the measuring of pre-game shootouts (which I believe should only serve to rank teams that have the same record, but not eliminate) and have limited the number of possible tie-breaker rounds to 1.

I think we need to go back to the old rule. The fact is that the teams at provincials have taken a week off of work, and many have devoted a significant amount of their life and time to be ready for this week. It just feels a bit too arbitrary to send them home on such a weak set of criteria. I understand that organizers want to limit ice time and be able to commit to schedules…but I think when so much is on the line – let them play. Even if it has to be a 6 end game!

Quebec got spooked one year over a decade ago when in a 10-team round robin, there was 7-way tie for the last playoff spot at 4-5 (yes that meant 3 rounds of tie-breakers). Since then – we have added more and more rules to try to eliminate even the remotest possibility of multiple tie-breakers, as if they were some sort of plague, and there is talk of eliminating them altogether. I say let them play!

Chant it with me: Let them play, LET THEM PLAY…you get the idea.


Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Open the Chute! Time for Provs - and to Stop Watching the Continental Cup


The week before Provincials is the single longest week of the year for a curler.
You feel like one of those rodeo bull riders waiting for the chute door to open and the chaos to begin. I have thrown more practice rocks than I care to count, the crest is sewn on the jacket and I have purchased a medicinal bottle of rye for the week. I am ready. 

Any predictions? Sorry, no.

I will say the men’s field is as strong as I have seen in a while, with a remarkably deep field of teams that have put more effort and time into improving their game. Add a couple of Ontario imports, a few wily veterans and you have the makings for a crazy week of curling. Can’t wait. Definitely worth a quick drive to Valleyfield to watch if you are a fan.


***

So I was watching the Continental Cup this weekend. At the risk of pissing off my Curling Canada friends; this event should not exist.
For the uninitiated, the Continental Cup is a TSN made for TV event that pits the best teams from Europe against Canada’s best in a “match-play” kind of format, featuring numerous formats such as mixed doubles, skins, mixed and regular curling. The teams are playing for a trophy and bragging rights, with the winners splitting some token amount of cash.
I get the idea. The premise sounds exciting: let’s do a Ryder Cup, but for curling. It all sounds like a good idea. Until you watch…
Here is the rub; as a competitive curling team, there are only so many things you are mentally able to give a shit about. This is true for all level of competitive teams, and in other sports as well.
In British soccer for example, there is the FA Cup, The Champions League, the League Title, plus multiple more pre-season and in-season shields/trophies. At a certain point, big teams end up focusing on or two events at most, often fielding a “B-team” when they play in events they care less about. But curling teams don't have that option.
It is true for my team as well. I love curling, and I love playing as much as I can. But do I have the same level of intensity in every event I play in? Of course not. But nobody televises my Tuesday night ladder games.
As much as you can try to be up for every single event you play in, the fact is that there are events that get you more jacked than others. The Brier. A Slam. Provincials. Canada Cup. Trials. As hyped as the Continental Cup is, and as much as I think the teams try to get into it - they are not. I don't begrudge the teams that are there. They try their best to look like they are giving it their all.
Sure they eat donuts on the bench while cheering. They use noisemakers like some suburban hockey mom cheering on her 8 year old. They wear cool lumberjack-like jackets. I think they honestly try their best. 
But you just can’t fake caring.

Also – this year we had the added joy of misogyny! We got to watch some of the country’s best male curlers mansplaining shot selection to some top women’s skips! As the Stones Across the Pond podcast described it:  the Saturday game was cringe-worthy, and a fine example for coaches to use to highlight bad team dynamics.

I don’t want to sound too much like an old man standing on his front lawn yelling at the clouds, but this contrived made-for-TV event has done its time. Maybe its time to think of some other ways of getting exposure for curling, and better using the platforms provided by a TV audience to sell the game. I understand that TV ratings drive decision making, but I find it hard to believe that this is the most compelling contest we can put on TV.

***

A shout out to Hudson Whitlock Curling Club for putting on a great spiel last weekend. The club itself is beautiful, they had great food, decent money, great ice, big crowds of people watching and live bands on Friday and Saturday (featuring Brian Greenway of April Wine, no less)!
Funny that at the end of the spiel, as they were handing out the prizes, many of the thank you speeches from the curlers said “thanks for running a great bonspiel – this is how curling tournaments USED TO BE.” 
It should serve as a great reminder that if you want to run a great tournament, try to make sure people are having fun first.

Monday, December 2, 2019

No! Not Another Sweeping Scandal - and Pay Equity in Curling.


Home for a Rest.

Team Fournier is taking a few well deserved weeks off after what was a pretty good curling season. I love curling, but it kinda feels nice to not be re-packing my bag – taking the clothes directly from the dryer and throwing them into my travel bag to take off for another spiel.

I mentioned last blog that the “weekend warrior” idea of curler is a vanishing species. Big spiels now seem to assume that you can start on Thursday morning – which means 2 days off or often even more. Plus less spiels means that you have to travel further to play. We used to be able to do a competitive season out of Montreal without getting on an airplane: Toronto, Ottawa, Gatineau,
Charlevoix used to be as far as we would need to travel. Now we need to add events in the Maritimes and out West to be competitive.

I honestly do not know how the big teams keep up the schedule they are doing. I guess not having a day job to run home to is helpful, but for the teams that have young families at home this must be crazy tough as well. Travel is tiring. I passed by Rachel Homan in the airport on her way to Pictou, traveling with a baby, a stroller and about 700 bags. I remember how stressful and tiring it was to travel when I had young kids – I cannot conceive doing it while trying to win curling tournaments.
I assume that the big teams have very supporting entourages of helpers and families to facilitate things – but still - wow.

Some thoughts on some issues:

Sweeping Controversy – edition #37,859.

In case you missed it, there was yet another sweeping controversy at the European Championship.

Team Norway were leading a game by a lot against England and decided to give their 5th man some ice time late in the game. He unfortunately used his own broom – instead of the broom of the player he replaced. This is against the rules, and Norway was given a LOSS, as that is the penalty for playing with an illegal broom.
Of course curling Twitter lost its collective mind, pointing their finger at an over-zealous official who applied the rules to the letter.
I have mixed feelings about this one. Of course I am a big believer in sportsmanship, and the spirit of curling, etc, but brooms are such a sensitive topic. After the years of acrimony we had over directional sweeping, the rules that have been put in place are there for a reason. The yellow heads wear out quickly; and by the end of a game are way less effective than they were in the early ends. Teams look for any edge they can legally get – some even manage their sweeping to save their broomheads until later ends. Bringing in a new sweeper with a new broomhead would be a big advantage. (I know this was not the case here – I am just pointing out why the rule exists). But Ullsrud should have known better, the rule exists for a good reason.

I think the problem is with the rule, not its application. The rule has to leave some wiggle room - some language that speaks to the intention or the relevance of the transgression.

Let me give you a hypothetical example to make it clear:  Brad Gushue and Mark Nichols go to the bathroom at the same time during the Brier final, and when they return, they accidentally pick up each other’s broom. Mark sweeps a few rocks with Brad’s broom, then notices, and tells the official. Technically, unless I am mistaken, the penalty for this transgression according to the rules should be loss of game. Ouch. No thinking person would ever apply that rule, but if an official applied the rule the way it is written – then the Brier final would end right there. 
How bad would that be? 

This rule needs to be re-written. The rule exists for a good reason – but needs to give some margin of application for context.

Pay Equity

Curling Canada announced this week that the winners of the Brier and the Scotties would make the same amount of money:  about $100K for the winners and $300K of total prize money.

This makes a lot of sense. 20 years ago, this would have been a harder case to make, as the Brier used to fill 20 thousand-seat venues while the Scotties was usually held in smaller towns. But then again 20 years ago the Brier winner didn’t even get prize money!

Today, more of the money comes from TV revenues and cresting – and the ratings and sponsorship for men’s and women’s events are similar. In addition – both the Brier and Scotties are held at smaller venues with similar attendance. You could still make a case that slightly higher attendance for the Brier should result in more $$$, but I think that the difference is relatively small and not worth the acrimony. Equal pay makes sense, and it is tough to argue that Rachel Homan / JJ / Einerson work any less hard than the men’s teams.

Equality is an especially big and symbolic step for a sport that was dragged kicking and screaming into the era of women’s equality in sport. My old curling club used to have a different membership price for Ladies and for Gentlemen curlers, with the Ladies being confined to curling within very specific times -and this was not that long ago. I guess it is the old golf club traditions that found their way into curling clubs – but women were almost always treated as inferior members. The sport had an inherent gender bias at every level.

While most curling clubs have at least entered the 21st century when it comes to membership equality, there are still many remnants of past days that need to be updated if the sport is to be inclusive and modern.

The Royal Montreal Curling Club still has this as its crest:


Notice the motto in the middle: “How social the game and how manly”. I think the club founders in 1807 were being ironic, and just fighting against the people making fun of them for sweeping in a kilt. But still – your club motto excludes women. Hey, I am a big fan of tradition (and the RMCC has a fair amount of it - being the oldest club in Canada), but it might be time to update that one. And @Baie d’Urfe CC - we won’t even mention the ridiculously sexist murals still displayed on the walls of your ice shed. 

I am confident that although most of the responses to this announcement will be positive, the same old tired arguments will be trotted out on Twitter and at the end of the bar at curling clubs. Here is the one I hear a lot: “If women want to be treated equally, then we should just let them play in the men’s events.” Yes, it is a fact that the best men’s teams would beat the best women’s teams, the same way it is true that Roger Federer would likely crush Serena Williams. But that is not the point. The point is what do people want to watch. Curling is a sport where watching a women’s game can be equally as entertaining as watching a men’s game. TV ratings seem to prove this point. 

Happy to see Curling Canada taking the lead on this, and the sport will get a lot of favorable press as a result. Now we have to see if it will filter down and have a positive impact on the number of women playing the sport, especially in my home province.