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Monday, February 26, 2018

Killing some time before heading out to the Brier…

So I am heading off to Regina later this week, which of course means that time is moving in SLOW MOTION until then. So I thought I would write a blog! And everyone and their dog is asking me what happened to Canada at the Olympics, so here is my 2 cents.

Every four years, the Olympics usually provide the ultimate affirmation that Canada is Curling. From the sports inclusion in 1998 through 2014 in Sochi, Canada was all over it. We either medaled every time, and when we didn’t, there was always an excuse or a silver medal for us to comfort ourselves with. Sure Martin missed the draw against Trulsen, but we all know he was the better team. Cheryl Bernard lost the final, but that was a helluva game. Mike Harris lost the final, but only because he looked greener than a Saskatchewan Brier fan. It was always ours to win or lose. We were the game that other teams circled on the schedule. Canada was always in the mix.

But not this time.

Koe and Homan were never even close to dominant, and in fact did not look like the best teams there. On the men’s side, Edin looked stronger, and the gritty Americans looked tougher. Homan was never in it. They looked tense and on edge, not playing anywhere near their usual level of robot-like efficiency. They lost to Denmark in a game that looked beneath the level I would expect to see in our Tuesday night ladder game.

So what happened?

First of all – let me preface this by saying that none of this is meant to be judgmental. I think both of these teams are outstanding. They had bad weeks. They lost. It happens.
I totally respect the level of stress and responsibility that goes along with wearing the maple leaf at an Olympics. If I were in their place. I would need to be wearing brown curling pants (definitely not the whites the Americans wore #codebrown, #cleanuponsheet2)

But let the post-mortem begin.

So here are my reasons why we came away with no medals (excluding Mixed Doubles of course):

1) The rest of the world has gotten better. Yes I know this is unoriginal, but it is true. I played in a spiel in Toronto on Labour Day weekend this season, and saw many of the teams that were at the Olympics. They were there with entourages of trainers and coaches, videotaping every game for future discussion. They have physical trainers. They have psychologists. And they are learning the same way I learned, by taking some beatings against better teams. But here is the thing, after a while you learn. You get better. 
Many of these teams have been at this for years. Edin, like IKEA, has been here so long you forget he’s Swedish. Sure they still call sweeping like the Swedish Chef tossing a salad, but they have learned how not to lose.
On the women’s side, this is not even a recent phenomenon. Canada does not win the women’s world championship very often. The Swedes, the Swiss, the Scots and the Asian teams have been winning for a while now.

2) Our Process is SOOOOO draining: I know a lot of ink will be spilled on the process to qualify teams for the Olympics. The Roar of the Rings is definitely the hardest thing to win in Curling (for sure tougher than the Olympics), and the process requires you to go hard for at least 3 years. Then you become Team Canada, all of 8 weeks before you leave to go to Asia to train and curl.  I cannot imagine how much of a whirlwind their lives must be.
I do not think the process is horribly flawed, I just think the cycle needs to be shortened a bit. We could play the Roar of the Rings at the end of the 2017 season (like in April-May). This way Team Canada would have 7-8 months to adopt to being Team Canada without the pressure. Then they could take a breath and rest a bit, so that their batteries are fully charged heading into the Olympics.
I think we just need to find a way to get our athletes to arrive in a better mental state, less burnt out.

3) On the women’s side, I was a bit shocked to see the entourage that seemed to be trying to get into Rachel’s head at the games. She has been working with mental coach Kingsbury for many years, but then the team was suddenly given Cheryl Bernard as a 5th, and Renee Sonenberg as a coach. So Rachel won without these people, and all of a sudden they are on and around the ice giving them advice? Really?
I am sure everyone meant well. I know everyone wants them to win. But every wolfpack needs an Alpha dog, and it never looked like Rachel was assuming this role. Renee would come out and give advice, and Rachel would listen.
I am not saying anyone else was trying to be the Alpha, but Rachel clearly was off to a slow start. Her confidence was shaken. To me the worst sign of a skip struggling with confidence was the fact that at midpoint in their early games, they always had 18 minutes or less left on the clock. Too much discussion! Too much self-doubt! You could feel it while watching.
Again, I am not judging. This is one of the toughest things to do in curling. It’s easy to play well when you are playing well. But as any skip can tell you, you are almost always a few misses away from going to that dark place where your inner dialogue is questioning instead of reassuring; where self-doubt rears its head; where you wonder about every call and seek affirmation from teammates and coaches on every move. This is where your team and coaches need to help you by stepping back. Our instinct is to try to help, but offering opinion and advice to a skip who is lacking confidence is throwing gasoline on the fire. You are making it worse.

Maybe I am full of shit on this one, but I don’t think I am.

Here is prediction: This will piss Rachel off more than anyone will know. And she will come back way stronger for having gone through this. Once you know that way back from the Dark Side, you become a lot tougher to beat.

4) Koe was not that bad. He had a few bad games during the round robin, but put himself in a great position to get to the gold medal game. Then he ran into a red-hot American side. Koe needed to be in that superhuman state that he was in when he last won the Brier. He was merely mortal, which was not good enough.


About the US Team winning Gold

The US team winning gold will be the single most important thing to happen to competitive curling since the inclusion of the sports in the Games.

They are a likeable bunch of guys, and will champion the sport well. There will be a ridiculous influx into US curling clubs, and with people comes money. There will be more money to run programs, to hire coaches, and build more facilities. The US success will create a gold rush for curlers and developers.

Every time I am in the US, I am amazed of the quality of the sports facilities that exist at a High School level, let alone Colleges. The football and baseball fields at local high schools are way nicer than most of the University fields in Canada, and even some pro fields. Imagine if they decide to add curling to their curriculum. Imagine the steel and glass structures that will make you want to throw all day long. I think I should invest in a granite quarry.

I was sitting around with my team talking about this and made the following prediction: Within 2-3 years, the biggest cashspiels in the world will now be in the US. This might be the Slam moving events south, or the WCT taking on more importance, but either way a shift is coming. It will be awesome for the sport.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A 46 Year-Old Rookie?

So I guess the first time I saw the Brier on TV, I was around 8 years old.

My Dad never really curled, but he seemed to watch it a lot on TV when the Brier was on. Apparently my Grandfather EJ Fournier used to curl, and lost the Provincial Final in New Brunswick in the 1950’s. So my Dad used to watch curling on TV. And I watched with him. And I loved it.

Looking back, I guess it was a bit unusual for an 8 year-old kid to watch curling on TV, but I guess I was just that kind of kid. I used to run around my house screaming – pretending I was making some impossible angle raise to win the Brier. Sounds downright crazy now as I write it.

It was a golden age for curling. You had the Wrench, Fast Eddy, the Ryan Express and the Ice Man. Curlers all had cool nicknames, and even cooler personas. I remember Hackner’s improbable double. I remember the Wrench throwing hack-weight triple takeouts in a house that seemed to have 26 rocks in it. I remember the whack-whack of a corn broom. And all this before I had ever stepped through doors of a curling club. I loved the game already.

Imagine my shock to discover that I lived all of four blocks away from Lachine Curling Club, a hidden-away three-sheeter with one of the coziest clubhouses I’ve ever come across – and my friend from Andrew Mackay from High School actually curled. It took all of one day at Saturday morning junior curling – and I was hooked.

My junior career was tons of fun but without any kind of championship to speak of. We were good, but never as good as the Ferland Boys, or later on that kid from Amos named Ménard. To be honest, many of my junior teams were more about playing cards in hotel rooms, trying to pick up junior girls and underage drinking (shhhh!). At least my priorities were in the right place.

But after juniors the Brier was always on my mind. Lachine had the good fortune of having a number of Purple Heart owners hanging around. Geoff Hinks, Lawren Steventon, Peter Gawel, Andrew Carter, Kevin Adams to name a few. The Brier always seemed plausible, and attainable. So I played. And a few years out of junior, I was pretty good. I managed to skip a team to provincials back in 1994 in Rouyn Noranda. But we did not win. Not even close.

Then I played with a lot of guys. Guy Hemmings, Dan Rafael, Malcolm Turner, the LeCouffes and Robertsons, Claude Brazeau, Francois Gagné, Dwayne Fowler, Tom Wharry, Mike Kennedy, Brad Fitzherbert and so many, many more. For so long, I struggled to find that magic bit of chemistry that would take me to the Brier. Many of my former team mates would of course win to get there without me, leaving me at home like the ugly stepsister, unable to find a date to the ball. It seemed like the more I learned about the game, the more I realized that I was further away from the Brier than I had ever thought.

I had all but given up. I assumed the Brier was not for me. By then I was having my 3rd child, working long hours and curling became more of a pastime. "Life" was definitely getting in the way. I started playing in the Mixed Championship, quite frankly because it seemed like something I could win.

But somewhere along the way I started practicing more, and started winning more. I fortuitously lost my job and started consulting, which allowed me time to actually throw rocks. I won the Mixed, twice in a row, and played pretty well at the 2 Mixed Nationals. And then I got asked to pick up what was essentially Bob Desjardins’ old team: three great guys from the Saguenay who were looking for a skip. One of them had even been to the Brier! It seemed like a weird mix, but what the hell.

With Gionest, Martel and Charest I would come painfully close to reaching my dream. This team reminded me the value of practice, and I started throwing a quarry full of rocks every day at Glenmore, my new home. I started seeing the value of lots and lots of practice. Sure I had practiced before, but I was now seeing the results of throwing a LOT of rocks. My in-turn stopped over-curling. Draw weight got easier and easier to find. As my buddy Greg Balsdon would say: my outturn peel was now just like my first car: automatic baby.
I spent lunch hours practicing. We even picked up a coach – Michel St-Onge, not so much for the curling but to work on the mental discipline that you need to win at the highest levels.

And our hard work paid off. We got very good; and had some promising results. We lost a soul-crushing semi-final to Ménard in 2014 in Val d’Or, and then the finals to him again the year after in Victoriaville. The dream seemed so close, and yet further away than ever.

Meanwhile, some kid from Glenmore was doing rather well in juniors. I had known his Dad for probably over 20 years. His Dad suggested we talk, and I met this bizarrely mature and confident practice-obsessed kid named Felix. I liked the way he played. I liked the way he practiced. Maybe I could give it one more shot…


And that brings me to today. That is how roughly 36 years after I fell for this wacky sport, and 32 years after first stumbling into a curling club, I find myself heading to the Tim Horton’s Brier in Regina. 
A rookie at age 46.


Looking back at the week that was the Tankard, it still seems surreal. We played great all week, we made lots of shots. But our semi-final game against Ferland will live in my memories for ever. We were 7-2 down after 4, and managed to steal an extra-end win. This comeback was a mix of skill, perseverance and plain-old luck. It felt like we could no longer lose after that.

And we did not. We won a tight final against Menard, stealing the last end as JM tried a very tough double for 2 to win. And I have had a perma-smile pasted on my face ever since.


So I will experience the Brier for the first time.
Yes – you heard right – I have never been to a Brier before, not even as a spectator. I wanted to go there as a player first, not as a fan – so I never went. Not even when it was in Ottawa. Sounds kinda silly and superstitious as I write it now. I have been to a few Scotties, a couple of World Championships, but never the Brier.

I now get the privilege of going to the Brier with Will, Felix, JF, Emile and Michel, the best team I have ever stepped on the ice with. I have no idea how we will do (and don’t expect to get any Brier predictions from me this year!), but I promise we will fight for every point of every game. I don’t think this team is capable of anything less.

And I promise I will enjoy every single minute of it.


A big thanks to the numerous people who have written/texted/phoned since Sunday. It has meant a lot to me to hear from so many old friends (and new ones) congratulating me and wishing me the best. The support we have gotten so far has been truly awesome.