Favorite Reporter

Favorite Reporter

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What the Olympics have Done to Competitive Curling in Canada

What the Olympics and Slams have done to competitive curling in Canada:


Quebec Regional playdowns to get to the Brier begin in a few weeks. This year, only 25 teams will compete to try to represent la Belle Province. 10 years ago, this number was in the 100s. I hear that other provinces are facing similar declines. I saw an article where Ontario tankard participation has fallen below 100 teams for the first time ever, from over 200 teams a decade ago. What has happened to competitive curling? I thought the Olympics and the wall-to-wall TV coverage of the Slams and the Canada Cup would result in a curling Golden Age! Instead competitive curling is becoming a niche sport, practiced only by the lucky few.  Sure demographics and society have played a part in this decline, but I believe the core of the problem lies outside of these excuses.

I am going to make a statement:

The evolution of curling as an Olympic Sport, and the development of a professional curling tour has been good for the development of the top 10 teams in Canada, but has been brutal for the next 500 or so best teams.
Not a lot of people talk about this, but the Olympics and the Slams have created 5-10 or so uber-teams of professionals who curl for a living. They cash in big sponsor cheques, they play for big prize money at Slams and receive tax-free funding from the CCA as carded athletes.

While this has resulted in teams that are better prepared, better coached and better trained than ever before, it has all but killed the next level down. 10-20 years ago, lots of teams could compete in well-sponsored and well-attended cashspiels, like Florenceville (sponsored by McCains), the Welton Beauchamp in Ottawa and a number of other reasonable payout cash tournaments across the country against the best teams in Canada. These were big, well-funded sponsored events.

These tournaments no longer exist. The Slams have eaten up all the big curling sponsor money. The top teams have eaten up a lot of sponsor money too, and there is far less left for the next level down of teams to compete for. So fewer teams can play the cash tour, and aspire to get better. Also, the big events that are left seem to assume that everyone is a pro curler with unlimited time off. Events commonly start on Wed or Thursday, with only the finalists playing on Sunday.

So teams that are ranked, say, 11th to 500th in Canada basically have 2 choices:
- give up the dream of the Brier (especially if you live in Ontario, Manitoba or Alberta)
- Try to crack the lucrative top 10 – which means extensive travel, (forget about trying to keep a day job!), practice, and competing initially against guys are far-better funded and prepared then you will be. And more practice.
 Sadly, it seems that most teams have chosen Option 1. 

It seems to me that the lifeblood of curling used to be that next level down of dedicated “amateur” curlers who played on weekend and when they could for the love of the game, not to make a career out of it. These curlers filled the clubs. The masses helped keep the CCA afloat. But these teams have gone.

I was talking to Jean-Michel Ménard a few weeks back at a spiel. I asked him why he has not played in a Slam in a while. His response disappointed me: To paraphrase him: “I need to pay my entry and travel costs, I need to get a few days off work, in order to arrive last minute at a spiel and play against guys who have not paid a cent out of their pocket, and have been at the site practicing on the ice for 2 days. I feel like I am funding them.”

If the current system seems to have discouraged the best team in Quebec, and a former Brier Champion, then I suggest the system is flawed.
What is the Solution? Not sure. But I think the CCA needs to think about how it funds elite curling in Canada, and the effect that it has on those who find themselves on the outside of the funding gravy train.

For example:

  • The Canada Cup? Really? Do we need another big payout cashspiel for the top teams - this one funded in large part by the CCA? Or should we democratize this tournament and make it a spiel for the top 64 teams, like it was a few years ago?
  • The Continental Cup? A Vegas junket for the CCA and a select few teams. Painful to watch. Not profitable. Why is money being spent here? 
  • Maybe the Brier needs to go back to being an amateur event again. There are great teams to watch that are not named Martin or Howard.

In short, less events for the chosen few, more money poured into the next level down.

Like all curlers, I love the fact that curling is an Olympic Sport. However, I love the game too much for it to become like Bobsleigh or luge or other Olympic Sports: a sport that only a few elite athletes play. The CCA and the Slams have done a phenomenal job at raising the profile of the sport, the level of sponsorship and the level of play. Maybe it is time for some teams outside the chosen few to benefit from this success for the overall good of the sport.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Trials, the Vic Open and -30 C

The Olympic Trials:


With Jacobs easily winning the Trials, there was definitely a changing of the guard moment in Canadian curling. I guess it had to happen eventually. At some point, Werenich, Lukowich, Peters, Folk, Ryan and all the great names that dominated the scene when I started curling gradually vanished from the scene. It is inevitable. But I don’t remember them leaving. They just sort of got old, and vanished.
But at the Trials, it happened right in front of us. Stoughton and Howard just got old. They looked old. They looked discouraged. They could no longer dominate the way they did before. They spent the week waving goodbye. Teams like Jacobs, McEwan and Morris looked young, looked like they could throw the rock harder and sweep it further than the old guys. Evan Martin looked tired.
Do curlers really get old? I have always believed that the peak age for curlers is in your 30s. You still have the physical abilities of the younger players, but you have developed the emotional maturity to handle the pressure and stress of competitive curling. So by curling standards, I am old.
I am impressed these days that the younger teams seem more mentally prepared than 20-something curlers were 20 years ago. IT seems that improved coaching, more curling on TV and better experience seem to have given a lot of the younger skips the confidence and craftiness that used to take you a career to develop. The Slams have probably helped, giving the top younger teams many more opportunities to play the best of the best.


Best moment from the Trials: 
Johnny Mo calling the draw to the open side, thinking Jacobs would not play the double. He then stands dumbfounded as Jacobs calls and makes what was a pretty easy looking double for two to all but seal the game.
Morris could have tried to instead bury a piece of his draw around Jacobs’ rock in the top eight, which might have left a nasty slash double for 2 or 3, but it surely would have been harder than the double he left.
Still, I liked the call, but would have put the rock about 6 inches deeper and 6 inches further off the center line to make the double tougher. Either way – it was a fascinating bit of curling psychology in action, with Morris loudly saying: “He would never play the double.” He was saying this as much to Jacobs as he was to his own team.
Shot of the week:
Despite being the weakest team at the trials, Epping made the best shot of the week; a crazy draw to beat Koe first game. He had to draw around a rock biting the top of the button to score his one. Next time you are practicing – go and try that shot. See how many times you have to throw it before you make it.


The Women’s was also interesting, but turned out to be more of a coronation for Jenny Jones. This is the best team in women’s curling.
Rachel Homan was nowhere near the form they displayed at last year’s Scotties. It could be that it meant too much to them. It came down to the fact that they could not draw. They could hit. But to win in curling, you need to be able to draw. At that level, you can miss maybe one draw per game. They were missing one per end. It got to the point where Rachel was afraid to draw, throwing hits to win games where most teams would have opted for an easier draw.
Sherry Middaugh took a nice run, but looked very much outclassed in the finals. Still trying to figure out what she was playing on her last rock in the 7th (where she gave up an easy 3). The freeze was almost impossible, and yet she had a 4 foot runback that she did not even look at. I guess the pressure got to her a bit (understandable), but I am sure she is asking herself the same question.


Still laughing at Matt English – a blogger who wrote a scathing review of all the teams at the trials. A brilliant piece of writing. Worth a read, even after the trials. It definitely highlights the soap opera of competitive curling that does not get a lot of airplay.
Here is the link:


Got a little sick of the sanctimonious Jenny Jones WFG commercial about her sponsor supporting her after she blew out her knee and got preggers with Laing’s child. I do not pretend to know how that happened or any of the back story, but if I were in her shoes I would have a hard time looking into a camera and talking about a commitment to family. Yeesh.


Meanwhile in Quebec, I will be playing the Vic Open this weekend, a tune up for Provincials with all the big Quebec teams and strangely the Chinese Olympic Team! Should be an entertaining weekend.

I hear that Quebec is once again looking to re-align the qualifying process for the provincials, which seems to be dropping teams at an alarming rate. This year I believe only 24 teams will vie for a spot at the Provincials (and 8 of these teams are from Abitibi). Not sure if this might be related to the fact that Provs this year will be held in Val D’Or.

In case you are not up on your Quebec geography, Val d’Or is located about a few hours North of, well nowhere. It is a few kilometres South of Santa’s North Pole toy production facility. Fortunately, elves who are not qualified as toymakers for Santa can find employment working as miners in Val d’Or’s open-pit gold mines, or as hunting and fishing guides.
(Expected overnight low in Val d'Or this weekend: a balmy -30 C)


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Mixed Wrap-Up and Trials Preview


Last year, after Montreal, when people asked me how was the Mixed, I told the truth. I said it was an amazing week that every curler should experience.
I told them about the people. The Mixed allows you to meet some of the nicest people from everywhere in Canada, with who you share a common love for the game. You meet people on the first night, and by the end of the week, they become great friends.
I told them about the spirit of the game, which is so well represented at the Mixed. The notion that you should play hard on the ice, and then party hard once you get off of it.
I told them about the sense of camaraderie you develop with the competitors. I told them about the fun of making shots and playing well while representing your province in front of crowds.
I told them about some of the stories. Like signing duets with Greg Balsdon, or partying with teams until 3 or 4 am, or meeting nice folks like Gary Oke (the Nfld. skip), who invited me to play his golf course this summer!

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So last year I told everyone how much fun it was...and then everyone signed up to play in the Mixed, and we had to play in one of the hardest provincials I can remember! So here is what happened this year: It was no fun. We sat in our room and watched TV. We made popcorn. The end. Nothing to see here.
No but seriously...the Mixed is a fine example of what curling should be. It is an event that brings together the best in Canada, for a week of excellent curling. Credit to the CCA for keeping the Mixed alive, and not succumbing to the pressure and diverting the funds to running another Continental Cup or some crappy thing like that.
On the ice, it seemed like the best team won. Alberta, skipped by Darren Moulding, played great all week. There were strong performances by Sylvie Robichaud from NB (the lone female skip), Shawn Meecham from Saskatchewan and of course from the defending champs, Cory Heggestad from Ontario.
As for my team, we were good but not great, finishing a game out of the playoffs. We always seemed a few shots short. And we will never ever talk about the first end steal of six we gave up against NB. (It still haunts my dreams)

Anne Merklinger, former superstar Ontario curler and current head of the Own the Podium initiative gave the keynote speech at the Mixed banquet.
Quick review: one of the best speeches ever. It was moving. It was funny. It was relevant to the curlers in the room. And it inspired. Anne has a great story to tell, and a very sympathetic way of telling it. If you get a chance, check out what she is doing at Own the Podium, and listen to her talk about the role of heroes in our society.

The trials start this weekend!
This is bar none; the single toughest curling event in world. It features the 8 best men’s and women’s  teams in Canada, playing for one spot at the Winter Olympics. For every curler, this is a life-changer. It is the ultimate prize, and is probably the only event left that can get the eight top teams to crap their pants with nervousness. So who is going to win?

Women’s: It’s Rachel Homan. It has to be Rachel Homan. It’s a lock. Nedohin or Jones in the final, But Homan is the best women’s team this country has ever seen. They are curling machines. They have quit their jobs to prepare. If they do not win, we are not sending our best team.

Men’s:  Incredibly tough to pick, but here goes.

The Favorite:
Smart money seems to be on Glenn Howard. They are consistently the best team in Canada. I think Savill and Laing are the best front end in the game, and Middaugh is the best 3rd. Probably the best chance to win gold as well.

Should be Close:
Koe: always tough to beat, and has Olympic experience on the team (Rycroft at 2nd). Simmons at 3rd might me their downfall.
Stoughton is always clutch, and has come very close in the past. The Olympics are the only thing missing off his resumé. I always cheer for the toe-tuckers.
Martin is always a favorite, but with a new 3rd (David Nedohin), I can’t see them winning.
Jacobs is the defending Brier Champ, but I can’t see these guys pulling it off on such a big stage.

The  Long Shots:
McEwen has been one of the best cash teams in Canada, and has dominated at times over the past four years. But they have not played well of late. Depends which team shows up. As mentioned, I always cheer for the toe tuckers.
Epping is a long shot. Replaced Scott Howard with Colin Mitchell (really?). Don’t think they have the game.
Morris/Cotter: Jeez, I hope not.
Should be an interesting week of curling. Every team there is more than capable of winning against anyone, so I can’t see anyone at 7-0. 4-3 might even make a playoff game.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Dear Curling Gods

With all the skill and practice and strategy involved in curling, sometimes the difference between winning and losing is just a lucky (or unlucky break). With that in mind....


 Dear Curling Gods;

I am writing you in advance of some competitions that I have coming up in the next few weeks and months. I realise that I might have said some nasty things about you, and I might have used some inappropriate and blasphemous language when referring to you over the past year or so, thus I wanted to take this opportunity to clear the air before I head off to the Mixed National Curling Championships in Ottawa next week (for those wishing to follow online, results can be found at curling.ca. . The action starts this Saturday evening)
I know you and I have not always gotten along. I seem to remember a random flat spot on an open draw a few years back that cost me a few thousand pesos, and some ever so random bad breaks that have plagued me on numerous occasions. But let’s put that behind us and start again.  
I am sure you are busy concocting cruel twists of fortune for the teams at the Olympic Trials coming up, so I would ask that you watch over my humble team at the Mixed. They are good guys (and gals). Jo and Alanna are far too young to have earned your wrath. Alanna even manages a curling club. Kennedy is a poster boy for sportsmanship.
In return for your favour (or at least a fair treatment), I pledge to teach the old ways of curling to the youth; I will teach them the unwritten, often forgotten rules of the game over which You reign:

  • This is a social game! Play hard to win, but have fun while doing it.   
  • Even though this is an Olympic Sport, it’s still a silly game where you slide rocks on ice while sweeping and yelling. Stay humble.
  •  Play hard when on the ice, then party with the opposition either way.
  • Always start and end every game with a sincere and firm handshake with eye contact.
  •  Enjoy every moment at a National, you never know when your next one will be.
  •  Always respect your opposition. Always respect the game.
  • Complement your opponent when they make a great shot (then make a better one!)
  • You should apologize to your opposition when you are the benefactor of the largesse of the Gods. You should definitely not celebrate a lucky break.
  • Frequent hi-fiving has no place in this sport.
  • Going to bed early is over-rated. Lots of fun things can happen after midnight.

Great and Powerful Curling Gods – Hear my Prayer! I would offer to sacrifice a virgin in Your honor, but I am not likely to find one at a Mixed Nationals. I would offer to burn a broom, but carbon-fiber composites don’t burn like a good old straw broom. I would offer my firstborn, but I have grown kinda fond of him. Maybe we can sacrifice a chicken at some point during the week (maybe we could go for St-Hubert BBQ chicken), we will surely raise a glass in your honour at some point.  

Thanks for your consideration,
Your humble servant 


PS – Not to be a tattletale, but I heard Balsdon talking shit about You at the Trials.