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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.

Friday, November 15, 2019

The life of a Tier 2 curler, and Don Cherry thoughts

Oh the life of a Tier 2 curler! I am on a flight to Halifax to play the Stu Sells 1824 Classic after having spent a week in Nova Scotia last week as well. We were fortunate to be invited to our first ever Tier 2 Grand Slam event last weekend in Pictou, Nova Scotia. We got to play against some of the best teams in the world, and hang out with the very best as they played in an adjacent arena in the Kioti Tour Challenge.
Sadly, we lost the semi-finals to Korey Dropkin from the US, who went on to win the finals the next day against Tanner Horgan.

So how was it?

First of all, the overall experience was awesome.

It is not a Brier, but is pretty much the next best thing. The amount of volunteers needed to run an event like this is amazing. There were drivers, officials, ushers, ticket sellers, and countless other red-jacketed and perpetually smiling volunteers to help.

There are also crowds. The main arena held around 2000 people, and it was often close to full for the evening draws. The Tier 2 had virtually no crowds earlier in the week, and had a few curious onlookers by the weekend. Of course the finalists got to play in the big arena next to the actual Slam final.

It is a truly remarkable experience. The Slams have really elevated the “Showtime” part of the game, with walk-in music and entertainment. The Pinty’s pub (located behind the sheets on the arena) is actually a fun place to hang out during and after the games. I think I ate about 100 of their boneless chicken thingees. Pretty sure if you were watching the games on TV, you likely would have seen me inhaling chicken wings at some point in the background.

For a town like Pictou, you can see that this is a big deal. You had the feeling that the whole town was out to watch and support the event. They filled the arena during the weekdays with local schoolkids. ON the weekend – the arena was pretty much full. I am also impressed at how many people seem to travel from across the country to watch the slams.  

All in all, this was fun. Of course it is made to make us Tier 2 folks aspire to the big show – to give us a taste of the life of a Tier 1 curler in Canada. And of course, it got us thinking on what it would take for little Team Horses to get to the show.

To get into the Tier 1 events, you basically have to crack the top 15 in the world. So how do you crack the top 15?
  •          Easiest way is to already be there. As soon as you win games or qualify in the Slams, you are pretty much guaranteed to stay there.
  •          You can use the Gunnlaugson model – which is to play in 15-20 events per year (outside of Provincials/Brier). This is a tough one for most teams. This works well for the European/Asian teams that are funded by their local Olympic programs to travel full time in Canada and around the world accumulating points.
  •          You can win the Tier 2 Slam, like Korey Dropkin did after beating us in the semis.
  •          You can win the Brier

That is pretty much it. There is no other way to crack the top 15. If you want to play with the big boys (and girls), you have to go all-in. You need an abundance of these three things:
  1.       Talent: Everybody is so damn good now. There are so few misses at this level. There was a particularly insightful interview with Brad Jacobs on after he won the Tier 1 event. He said that the level of play is SO high in today’s game that you basically have to go all-in every-end. There is no more defensive curling. Epping played 100% against Howard during the round robin – AND LOST. It’s not good enough anymore to not miss, you now have to make better/harder shots than the other team.
  2.       Time: You need lots of time. Curling used to have room for “weekend warriors”, teams that would play weekend spiels to hone their skills and then take a run at the Brier. But these events don’t allow for that. We had to fly there on TUESDAY morning– we played 2 games on Wednesday, 2 games on Thursday, and then had Friday off. Basically – to play the Slams – you need to take the week off to play a few curling games. This is a huge barrier to entry for most curlers, limiting the field to basically pro-curlers, independently wealthy types and those fortunate enough to be able to work remotely. It seems more and more we play in spiels where we hardly play. Thank God for Netflix.
  3.       Money: You need sponsorship to play at this level, even if you are wining. I look at our past few 3 spiels. We qualified in Toronto, failed to qualify in Medicine Hat and lost the Semis in Nova Scotia. For that, we won $7500. Not bad – better than a lot of teams. But wait, our expenses for these 3 spiels: around $10000. And that includes sleeping in my sister-in-law’s basement! And that does not include the medicinal Rye and Cokes I need to consume while spieling.

So for our team, we are definitely short on #2 and #3.

But it was sure fun to forget about that for a weekend and play in the same event as the best in the world.

Random tidbits from the season so far:

-          We had a great game in Toronto against Kevin Koe. We were 2 up playing 8 and gave up a 3 to lose on a shot I did not think was even there. Damn Kevin Koe. I guess I am not the first guy he has done that to.
-          For those of you asking – Will’s baby (la petite Billie) is out of the hospital and apparently doing well! Amazing that something so small and cute could be related to Will!
-          Played against a guy named Rylan Hartley in Toronto. This guy is a curling freak. He has been playing for all of 18 months – yes 18 months, and yet looks like he has been playing for 18 years. The guy is in his late 20s, and owns his own company which allows him to practice every day. He even rents ice in the summer to keep practicing, and pays pro teams for coaching advice. Not sure where he will be in a few years, but look out for a guy that has lots of #2 and #3 from my list above.
-          Big congrats to JS Roy and his mixed team (Amelie Blais, Dan DeWaard and Brenda Nichols) on winning the Canadian Mixed, and in a perfect fashion. JS has become one of the best in the game, and proved it this week. They will be a cool Team Canada. Almost makes me want to play mixed again…almost.
-          We can’t seem to beat a Japanese team this year. We have gone 0-2 against the Japanese this year. Maybe we will have to emulate them and start doing calisthenics in the parking lot before every game. Wait….No.
-          Stu Sells – AKA Stuart Sankey is now sponsoring/running the best Tier2 events in the country. He runs every spiel like a party – our next event is the 1824 Stu Sells Halifax Classic. This is probably the best Tier2 event in the East – and word is they are trying to get even bigger next year. And I love Halifax.

Some non-curling content.

Okay will venture into the Don Cherry debate that seems to be everywhere this week.

First of all, I am not a Don Cherry fan. It is tough for me to like a guy that is so biased against the Habs, against anyone who is not like him, and clearly does not like the fact that his neighbors in Mississauga might come from somewhere other than Canada.  I don't like the fact that he does not like french. I really don’t like that he over-promoted violence and fighting, got rich off of it and then spoke out against the idea that maybe repetitive concussions are not good for your long term health.

But like most people, Don Cherry is both good and bad. Sure he comes off as an asshole to a lot of people, but he seems to have a big heart when it comes to veterans, youth hockey and animals. It’s hard to hate that.

But I think the Don Cherry firing is an issue of something bigger: as a society we have lost our ability to debate. We have people rant and rave on one side of any issue – and then they claim victory because no one is around to oppose them. Don Cherry can dump on immigrants, and no one makes the counter point.

  • Don Cherry is not unique. I have met hundreds of Don Cherrys. Don Cherry is one side of a debate.
  • Don Cherry is my uncle, who watches Fox News all day and blames Hillary/Obama/Trudeau/immigrants for everything they don’t like in the world.
  • Don is free of nuance, of listening to opposing views or self-doubt.
  • Don Cherry is that guy at the end of the bar, who reduces every issue to its simplest form, and does not waste time trying to understand or sympathize with the other side of an argument. You are wrong and he is right.
  • Don Cherry does not apologize, even when he is wrong, like he was this week. 

Does he belong on HNIC? I’d say no. His views on hockey are pretty outdated. He often does not really say much or add anything to the game anymore. And when he strays into politics – he belongs there even less. HNIC is not the place for a guy like that, he probably should have been fired long ago.

But that does not mean I am not interested in what he has to say, even if (and ESPECIALLY if) I do not agree with him? Of course I am. Freedom of speech is tricky that way.

So here is my pitch for a new show:

Put Don Cherry on a panel to talk hockey/politics/whatever. The panel should be people who disagree with him. Include Haley Wickenheiser. Have Jahmeet Singh on. Include guests that can challenge him. Let’s have some friendly debate.  Let’s stop shouting at each other over Twitter and actually see people who do not agree talk face to face. Have someone “neutral” refereeing.

I’m a big fan of the Bill Maher show on HBO. Bill is in an unabashed liberal, but the show is at its best when he has prominent Republicans on his show. The debate is fun to watch. People speak freely. I don’t think we have an equivalent in Canada. We need it. I’d watch. And either way – we would not need to fire anybody.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

4 Rye and Cokes and a Bag of Jalapeno chips - and Other Life Choices

Okay maybe 4 rye and cokes and a bag of jalapeno chips was not the ideal post game snack.

We are at the Moosehead Fall Open Classic in Ottawa, and we have qualified for the quarterfinals tomorrow morning at 11. Team Fournier is playing pretty well so far this spiel, we are 3-0 and get to sleep in tomorrow morning while other teams are still fighting to get to the quarters. But I’m up at 4 am in our crack-house AirBnB with a wicked heartburn due to my poor nutrition choices…so why not write a blog to spend some time.

Amazingly this is our second event of the year. I say amazingly because most curlers in Montreal have not even thought about curling much; my curling club only put its ice in this week, and most clubs in the area are also just kicking things off. We played in the Shorty Jenkins Classic in Cornwall a few weeks ago, and most big teams played the weeks before that in Oakville or elsewhere.

For some reason, competitive curling season seems to start earlier every year, as teams try to get a jump on the season, meaning we are walking into curling clubs more in shorts and flip flops than in winter coats. I am not sure what has driven competitive curling so aggressively into September and even August, when I feel like I should be golfing or at least enjoying our far-too-brief summer.

One thing that is stunning especially about playing in the August-September spiels is just how many teams around the world have now made curling their day job. I snuck out of work on a Tuesday morning before the Shorty in Cornwall a few weeks ago to throw a few practice rocks, and had a tough time getting a sheet of ice. All the Euro-teams and Asian teams were there early in the morning practicing with their coaches, fitness trainers, psychologists and nutritionists (who clearly would have advised me against the rye-jalapeno chips decision). As you watch them, you realize that this is their job. Curling is not a hobby, or a past time, or something they do for fun. This is their job. They are paid by their country’s Olympic committees to get as good at curling as physically possible. That means fitness training, sports psychology, video review and lots and lots of practice.

It goes without saying that when I was coming out of juniors, curling was never a career choice. Not that I was ever good enough at the time to even have contemplated this, but curling was always something you did when you were not at work. I am not sure if I could handle devoting my “life’s work” for something as potentially frustrating as curling. Don’t get me wrong – I love the game. But I love it at least in part because it is not everything. If I win great, if I lose life goes on. Either way I am still back at work on Monday. I have had some brilliant moments curling, but I have also had some soul-crushing losses, where it felt like some cosmic force is working against you.

Imaging your job is curling, and your season comes down to one game (as it often does). And you lose that game on a random “missed-shot” by the other team that creates some unintended wiki-ticky bullshit lucky result. It’s happened to me countless times in my life (both for and against). Curling is a game that lends itself to these type of conclusions; there is a fair amount of randomness that can decide the outcome, even at the highest level. The difference between two evenly matched teams can often come down to a lucky break; to an unintended consequence. Now imagine that your career success or failure depends on this!

I was thinking about this last week as well. I was watching a movie on the golf channel about Bobby Jones. Jones golfed in the 1920's and 30's, and was the best in the game at the time. But despite the financial rewards that were available, he chose to remain an amateur. He played golf as a game, and ended up quitting early to become an architect or something (I fell asleep before the end of the movie :-)). So despite being remembered as one of the best to ever play - golf was never his job. 

The pursuit of excellence in the name of Olympic glory has certainly added so much skill development and shot-making to the game. It has elevated the quality of play to the point where teams just do not miss. Even with a 5-rock free guard zone, the best teams are able to control ends – to move guards around at will and control so much of the outcome. But even with that, there is still that element of randomness to the game. It’s what makes it so much fun to PLAY and watch, but often makes me happy that I have a job to go back to Monday morning to pay the mortgage! The fact is I still curl because it is fun, I am not sure how much I would enjoy it if it was my job.

Thank God – I just found a Rolaids in the bottom of my shaving bag. Salvation.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Nothing Personal, it's Just Business.

Team Fournier Update

Team Horses (which sounds way better than Team Fournier) had a pretty great year. With the exception of our last game, a tough-to-swallow defeat at the hands of Martin Crete, it was a good season. We won about 14K, finished the year ranked 34th in the World (and tops in Quebec!). More importantly, we played well. We got to play more games against the top teams in the world, and even beat some of them.

The good news is that we will be back for next season. And we will be looking to continue climbing the world rankings and play in better and better events. And we want to get back to the Brier. And we now find ourselves within spitting distance of a place in the Olympic pre-trials, which are but a few short years away.

I like this team a lot. Felix is getting better and smarter every year, and Will and JF have taken their sweeping to a new level. But perhaps more importantly, everybody looks to be having fun, both on the ice and off. Increasingly we see the teams around us treating curling as if it was their day job; joylessly throwing and sweeping with painfully few visible signs of enjoyment. I like to think we look like we enjoy what we are doing (and we are!).  Amazingly, we also seem to play better when we are having fun.

So how much will we play? Unfortunately, my lottery tickets have yet to convert, so I do need to keep my day job of figuring out how much your next Big Mac should cost. So that means we will play as aggressive a schedule as possible while holding down our lives. This means we will not be playing in the Slams (unless we somehow squeak out an invitation to one later in the season).
It also means we are looking for sponsorship.

Curling Sponsorship in Canada

For the top handful of teams in Canada, being a pro curler is now an option thanks to sponsorship. 
Curling used to be very quaint in that you would watch the top teams at the Brier, and they would actually show you their profession: mailman, dentist, beer store manager, whatever. These days are gone. The top few teams in the country are now professional curlers. 

How does this work? The top few teams now have sports agents, and reasonably lucrative deals with some big sponsors. And if your team is regularly in the Slams and Sportsnet, then there is clearly a benefit for a company to pay some big $$$ for some TV visibility. The top teams will spend somewhere around 100K-200K per season, which is mostly spent on travel costs. So how do they pay for this?

The top few teams will receive hundreds of thousands in sponsorship money to offset the travel costs (and pay a few bills at home), as companies like Pinty’s, Kubota, Northern Credit Trust, Princess Auto and WFG are willing to pay to get brand exposure at the Slams. The top teams also are receiving funding from the National and Provincial governments through their Elite/Olympic Athlete programs. And of course the top teams win money. The top teams on tour are winning anywhere from 100-200K per season. Elite curling in Canada has become big business. 

Knowing this helps you put into context the recent player moves you have seen on tour, like Savill being replaced by Fry. The moves go beyond friendship, and highlight the business-like approach the top teams have to take to maintain their spot and chase down the Olympics. The money is what gives them the chance to pursue curling full time, and the money only comes if you are winning. There is only room for a handful of teams to receive the kind of money that allows them to curl full time, so the pressure is on to stay in that elite few. Anything they can do to be better, they will do.

But for a Tier-2 team like ours sponsorship is a tougher ask.  The pinnacle of our TV exposure would be the Brier, where your season-long sponsor logo cannot even be displayed on your jackets, as visibility at National-level events are owned by the companies that pay for these events. “Visibility” for our team means you get to see your company logo displayed on our jackets around the Clubs and Arenas where we will play our games throughout the season. Yes, this can still be interesting for a company and has some value – but obviously not as interesting as the Slam Teams that play on TV almost every second week.
A curling season will typically cost us 20-30K in travel, equipment and entry fees. As I mentioned last year we won about half of that in prize money, so the remainder has to be paid for by us, with some help from our sponsors. We are very much amateurs, playing the game without any sort of financial reward.

We do have some sponsorship that allows us to do what we do, for which we are very grateful:

  • Of course we benefit from our long-time relationship with Hardline Curling, who are now the Titleist of the curling world with virtually all of the big teams using their product. They have been a big part of our success.
  • If you are looking for curling jackets like the cool ones we have, Dynasty Curling makes awesome on and off-ice gear. Love their stuff.
  • And big thanks to our other sponsors:  Cedar Springs Landscaping (514-453-4662), Assurances Leclerc, and Injection Classique foundation repair. If you are looking for landscaping or snow removal in the West Island, if you need home or auto insurance or if your foundation has cracks – please use our sponsors and mention Team Fournier!  The links above take you directly to their websites.
But our reality (and the reality of most Tier 2 teams), is that most sponsorship dollars typically come from friends looking to help us out as opposed to businesses looking for visibility for their brand.

So if you are able to help out Team Horses – and get a little visibility for your brand and the joy of supporting a team still chasing the dream – then please reach out to any of us on the team! Competitive Curling is an expensive endeavor, and every little bit helps. 

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Why Does Twitter make me Angry?

How is it that a small handful of hateful humans have ruined the internet?

So Chelsea Carey is having a bad week. It happens. It has happened to me countless times. It happened to Rachel Homan and Kevin Koe at the last Olympics. It happens to curlers everywhere.
The week is not yet over – as I write this she is at 5 losses, so she will need to win out and get some help to make the playoffs, which seems kind of unlikely – but who knows.

But the story that seems to be gathering attention is the focus on a handful of hateful and mean comments on Twitter. Basically a bunch of asshats said mean things about Chelsea and their team – calling them chokers, or implying that they are not fit to represent Canada.
I am also a follower of politics. From US politics, to Trump to Trudeau vs. Scheer, to Ford, to Notley vs.Kennney. I enjoy reading about it. But it has become impossible to be on Twitter without reading a constant barrage of hateful comments that are not based in disagreement on policy – but on just being mean.
I also follow hockey. I follow les Canadiens. But when I read Twitter, it’s like people think that calling Jonathan Drouin lazy or pathetic will somehow make him better. Or people saying Bergevin is an idiot for trying to do his job.
I just don’t get it. Does this come from a need to feel superior? The critics in all of these cases are in no way qualified in any way to ever manage the country, skip a team at any serious level of competition or play hockey in the NHL.

But Social Media just seems to have brought out the worst in people – making it impossible to read anything these days without getting angry or defensive. I am finding it truly a challenge to stay informed and connected without getting triggered by a barrage of people that seem to just want to make me angry. The worst people seem to yell the loudest.

Do you want to try to understand what is actually happening with the SNC Lavelin affair? Good luck filtering out the hate-filled, all-caps commentary that calls for Trudeau’s resignation, death or prosecution.
Do you want to read what people are saying about the Canadiens? Okay – good luck filtering out the comments claiming that they should all be traded and they don’t care and Bergevin is an IDIOT.
Want to read what people are saying about Carey at the World’s? Have fun reading all the dumbasses who think they are better than a 2-time Canadian champ who is just having a bad week on a big stage.

So here is my Golden rule for Social Media and my blogs:

I will only write things that I would be comfortable with saying to the person FACE TO FACE.

My policy on Social Media is to never say anything about anyone that I would not say to them if they were standing in front of me. Whether it’s Trudeau, or Chelsea Carey, or Jonathan Drouin, or Tiger Woods. That does not mean that you can’t criticize – or that you can’t disagree. But you need to always own what you say. Be prepared to answer for it. I am comfortable saying Carey does not look at ease this week – and I would feel okay saying that to her if she were standing right next to me. (I am not sure why she would care what I thought – but that’s another question). I think your right as a fan in any sport is to be critical of performance. But you have no right to make it personal.
Whenever I have deviated it from this – whether in my blog or on Twitter or Facebook – I have regretted it. 
I wrote some mean things about Brad Jacobs’ team a few years back in my blog. A lot of it was fair, but some of it crossed that line. Some was stuff that I would not have said if they were standing in front of me. Even though I had a lot of people agreeing with me, it was wrong. I apologized – but it still irks me. I should have been better. 
Since then I have stuck to this policy – but it definitely has not kept me from being critical or from making fun of curlers. But there is nothing that would not say if they were sitting across from me as I typed. (and has my blog has gotten more popular – this has become more likely). I also do not delete comments from my blog, even when they are mean and anonymous. I own what I say, and if readers choose to call me out – I am okay with that (even if they do not follow my golden rule).
I wrote last year that Matt Dunnstone’s sweeping looked like a llama playing tennis. Some accused me of being mean and too critical. But that comment passed my test; I would have said it to him live and in person. And guess what, Matt read it, and laughed, and answered me on Twitter.
I wrote a piece talking about Rachel Homan’s poor showing at the Olympics. It was critical, but not mean and not definitely not personal. I still stand by it, and it definitely passed my test.

So I know this blog is not likely to quell the tide of hateful comments that make up most of my Twitter feed – and if you are one of those people that feel compelled to be hateful and critical – that is your right.  But remember that it is our right to hold you accountable for what you say. So next time you Tweet something or post a comment, picture the person you are tweeting about reading it out loud right in front of you. If it feels wrong – don’t hit enter. If you can't be civil, stay out of civilization.

And if you are reading and following along on Twitter, ignore the extremes. Ignore the comments that are not thoughtful, that aim to hurt. Try to remember that they represent the worst, not the silent majority.
If you are Chelsea Carey, or Rachel Homan, or anyone else that dares to be great at something...when you step out on stage, it is fair to assume that your performance will be put under public scrutiny. Part of the reason you get to do this and not have a day job is because people DO care. They do want you to win, and they want to watch. Fan passion is the fuel that keeps the curling world running.
But you should give exactly zero f$%s about the musings of anonymous twitter heroes. Their words are like a stinky fart - unpleasant for a few seconds but soon gone and forgotten. And rest assured that the vast and overwhelming majority of Canadian curling fans cheer for your wins, and sympathize with you in defeat, just maybe not on Twitter. 

The internet has given us such a powerful tool to connect with people who share our passions. Curling fans now have direct access to the game’s best players - and in real time. We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater – but we have to be able to filter out the hateful dumbasses who are making our connectivity an exercise in anger control. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

A New Brier Format, Residency Rules and burning Mike Fournier in Effigy

It seems everybody and their dog is giving their opinion on the format of the Brier (and the Scotties), and the impending debate on residency rules.

For those not in the loop on this – here are the issues:

The Brier used to be about representing your Province at the national championship. The Brier has a rich tradition of pomp and pageantry that seemed to draw curling fans and viewers like no other event. It was the ultimate curling experience – it dwarfed the World Championship.
Then the Olympics came to curling. At first, the curling world did not change much. Mike Harris was the first team to go in 1998, and the qualifying process was basically just another bonspiel. You had to win a qualifying event to get to the Olympic Trials – but the teams remained Regional/Provincial.

At around the same time, around the early 2000s, the emergence of pro curlers came about. The best teams in the country decided that the Canadian Curling Association was keeping too much of the spoils of running the Brier, and decided to form their own pro tour and boycott the Brier. They got fledgling Sportsnet on Board, and found enough sponsors to run a Grand Slam of Curling. This was the beginning of the notion that there could be pro curlers. The boycott lasted a few years, and eventually was resolved – but the Brier and the game would no longer be the same.

The big prize became the Olympics. This was the new gold standard of curling – the new goal of serious teams. And from this emerged the notion that the best teams should not be bound by provincial borders. If your goal was to play on the pro tour and represent Canada (not your Province), then why should you be limited in playing with guys from your province?

This trend has continued and evolved until today, where the top 5-6 teams in men’s curling and the top 3-4 teams in women’s curling are essentially pro curlers, and not always from the same province.
From East to West: Gushue, Epping, Jacobs, McEwen, Koe, Jones, Homan, Fleury and Einerson.
These are pro teams. Yes, you can argue that a few other teams should be on the list. And yes, I am sure that a few of the players on these teams have day jobs. But for the most part – these are pro curlers. If they need to make a team change, they will not seek out the next best player in their home province, they will look for the best player in the country.

Example, when Rachel Homan’s 2nd left the team a few years back, she went and got super-sweeper Joanne Countney from Alberta to play 2nd. She did not pick the best player in Ontario, she picked the next best player in Canada.

But while the Pro-Teams have evolved, the rest of us have struggled to keep up. The rest of the curling world continued to play, but opportunities to do so have dwindled. The Slams are an exclusive club; they only invite pro teams to play, plus International Olympic Teams and maybe a couple of other spots to fill out the field. The big cashspiels of old have died off, with only a handful of events remaining.

And what has happened to the Brier? The only way to get to a Brier is still through the provinces. So the pro teams need to playdown just like the rest of us. They have to beat the local amateur teams. 
The Brier (and the Scotties) accommodated the pro teams by allowing one “import” player not from your province. The other 3 players have to be residents of the province they play in. This goes against the idea of finding the best 4 players available, which is why the top teams are pressuring Curling Canada to drop the residency rule altogether.

This has also created some heartburn on the women’s side at Ontario Provincials a few weeks ago, where Rachel Homan got booed and sarcastically nominated for the Sportsmanship award because some say her team violates the residency rule. (Rachel Lives out West, but still plays out of Ontario because of a rule in Ontario that allows you to play for your Province when you are attending school in another province). So despite 2 players on her team “living” in Alberta, she plays out of Ontario. I can see why some teams might be annoyed, but she has to play somewhere! And the idea of Rachel in an Alberta jacket just seems wrong to me.

All this to say this is getting complicated.
So here is the conflict. The Brier (and Scotties) is our National Championship. It is supposed to determine the best team in the country. However, to get there, we still have a structure that is based on Provincial qualification, (with rules that vary by province) and require you to pick players from that given province.

The fear is that if we give up the notion of provinces, we give up what makes the Brier special. Yet if we hold on too tightly to the notion of provinces, we risk making the Brier a 2nd class event.

All of this raises a number of existential questions, and the answers lie at the core of finding a way forward:
  • What makes the Brier magical? What makes it so special?  
  • Do fans need to see the best curlers, or do they want to see their province represented?
  • What do we do with the “Fringe” provinces (like PEI, and the Territories), where only a handful of teams are even signing up? Do they “deserve” a spot at our National Championship?
  • If we started over with a blank piece of paper – how would we do this?

So here is my proposed Brier:

First, let’s start with what we need:

  • We need to have the best teams there. A “Tier-2” Brier just will not sell. If we exclude the Pro teams – the Brier is lost.
  • We need to have some notion of Provincial / Territorial / Regional representation.
  • I think we need to make it somewhat fair from a qualification standpoint. I think one of the biggest problems with the current Brier is the fact that qualifying is unbelievably hard in some provinces/territories and painfully easy in others. This has always been the case, and for sure it is one of the weaknesses of the Brier. It means that you sometimes have mediocre teams at our National championship, and this is not in anyone’s best interest. There is nothing magical about a team that you know will go 0-11 before the week starts.

So here is The Mike Fournier Solution:

12 Teams (screw the pool format):
1.      The 4 top teams in Canada – CTRS – as of January 1st. No residency rules required for these spots. Just 4 players from anywhere in Canada.
2.      7 Regional/Provincial Spots:  Ontario, Man/Sask, Alberta, BC, The North (NWT, YK, NU), QC + NB, The Coast (Nfld, NS, PEI). (same residency rules as today – 3 from the same province + 1 import allowed)
3.      Team Canada -defending champs (no residency rule)

Is this perfect – hell no.

It gives up on the idea of Provincial representation, which kills me.
But I think the ship has already sailed on this one. Provinces just do not mean as much, and at least this addresses one of the big problems: the fact that there is such a monumental disparity between provinces.

As a purist I detest the idea that 4 teams get to go without winning their spot at a Provincial – but the fact is we need to have the best teams in the country there. Look at this year: either Epping or Bottcher will not be there, while there will be a team from Nunavut that would likely not be above .500 in an Ottawa men’s league. As a fan, this makes no sense.

I think there are two principles that we need to hold above all else when qualifying teams for the National Championship:
  1.         The Brier needs to be open to all. You need to be able to sign up, pay your $300 entry, and somebody, somewhere has to beat you for you NOT to go. The fact is – for all the “Joe” teams in Canada, the Brier is the ultimate goal. We need to be able to get there or we will stop playing.
  2.       It needs to be hard to get there. Being in the Top 4 CTRS is damn hard. You need to devote your life to curling. As far as I am concerned, Top 4 means you have earned your spot. And the regions I have defined above would all be very hard to win. There would be no weak teams at the Brier, and every part of the country would be represented.

My solution meets these 2 criteria.

The purists reading this are surely going crazy by now, burning Mike Fournier voodoo dolls in effigy – and trust me I feel your pain. Those who know me know that I love the game, and I am a purist at heart. I cherish my Purple Heart - and what it took to earn it. I love the way the game was, and I am not convinced the way it has evolved is “better”. I railed against relegation, and shudder at the idea of removing residency rules.

But guys – I think the train has left the station; the writing is on the wall. The game has changed – and I am afraid that if the Brier continues trying to please everyone it will end up as an irrelevant 2nd cousin to the Canada Cup, or even worse an 8th Slam that nobody gives a shit about.

Other Good things that might come from this:

  •       It would help get participation back up in the provinces that have a pro team or 2, like Alberta. It has to be pretty discouraging to know that you live in a province where you need to beat Koe to get to the Brier. Look at what has happened to participation in Newfoundland now that Gushue has not been in their provs. for the last 2 years – they actually have teams signing up!
  •       It will make the weaker provinces better. In the East, it will make the Regional events into a big deal – and likely big enough events to hold in arenas –as opposed to a curling club. It will be more competitive, and the team that comes out of it will be more battle-tested. (BTW this is clearly not-in my self-interest - as my road to the Brier will now include beating the best from NB - but I still think it makes for a better event.)
  •       It gets rid of the painful 2 pools system at the Brier
  •       It pretty much solves the residency debate.

Anyway – let the debate begin.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Grumpy Post-Provincials Blog

So a couple of weeks have passed since the Quebec Provincial Curling Championship…so I guess it’s time to come out from my cave and start blogging again!

Quebec Men’s Provincials

Argh. That sucked.
We lost the Provincial Final to Martin Crete on an agonizingly good shot: a 4 foot angle tap to the pin. I keep seeing it playing over like an ever-repeating GIF in my brain. It haunts my dreams. It still hurts. My second says he has PTSD.

Of course congrats to Martin and team and all that. Quebec will be well-represented at the Brier in Brandon in March (*he begrudgingly mumbled halfheartedly).  But damn, I just wanted it to be me.

Unfortunately, as a Tier 2 team, our season is now O-V-E-R. We could not find a spiel to play in if we tried. I looked on the World Curling Tour website for possible events between now and the end of the season – and all I found was the Red Square classic in Moscow. Seriously. Moscow. The prize money is paid in Kompromat, and 2nd place is a month in Siberia.
Of course the Slam Teams will play in a number of Slams before and after the Brier, further distancing themselves in terms of points and experience from the rest of us mortals, but for us it’s already golf season. It’s -17 with 50 cm of snow on the ground, but it’s golf season.

So if we actually want to curl, we either need to play in the Mixed or the Mixed Doubles, play in some late season drinking-spiels or just start practicing for next September. Damn. I miss curling already.
I think I need to organize a giant cash spiel this time of the year for all the teams that are not at the Brier and who don’t want to stop curling in January. I will put that on my to-do list for next season.

Quebec Women’s Provincials

I have to admit I was a bit dismayed watching the Quebec Scotties this year, which was going on at the same time as the Quebec Men’s provincials in Grand-Mere.

What the heck has happened to women’s curling in Quebec? There were all of five teams competing for the right to represent Quebec at The Scotties. Five. And guess what: 2 of the teams were junior teams!

The Quebec Scotties Final this year featured 2 junior teams, and not even the best junior team. Gabrielle Lavoie defeated Emilia Gagné in the final – and I wish them well at the Scotties. Both of these teams are very dedicated junior teams. Laurie St-Georges meanwhile won the Junior Championship, and was busy during Quebec Provincials playing at Junior Nationals. So Quebec is (again) sending its 2nd best junior team to the Scotties.  

With all due respect to these teams – I know that they work very hard to be as good as they are - but they are junior teams. They are young, dedicated and enthusiastic – but have all the weaknesses that junior teams typically have.

So what the hell happened to anyone over the age of 21? I know women who curl. I know lots of them. I know lots of them that would likely have beaten the teams that won. But for some reason they CHOSE not to sign up.

Amélie Blais had a serious women’s team this year – but they had a bad week. They are arguably the only women’s team in Quebec that actually practiced and played – and even then their schedule seemed rather light for what they hoped to accomplish. Verreault and Perron rounded out the field – I love both of these teams but I am not sure either is really putting in the time and effort required to take a serious run at the Scotties.

So what happened? How can we fix this?

The first step in solving a problem is usually to understand it. Why are so few women signing up to play competitively?

Some theories:
·        The “Pro” teams like Homan, Jones and Einerson have gotten so good that it discourages the Tier 2 women’s teams from signing up to go get pounded on National TV at the Scotties.
·        There are not enough Women’s events within a reasonable distance of Montreal/Quebec to allow the teams to even conceive playing a schedule that would allow them to be good enough.
·        Women in Quebec just don’t like curling anymore. (I hope it’s not the case!)

I don’t portend to know the answers. I must admit it is weird that there are still a pile of Men’s teams that would give their left nut for the chance of playing in a Brier (and I am one of them), yet the idea of playing in a Scotties is so uninspiring that we can’t get more than a couple of teams to even try out! I think the problem is worse here in Quebec, as most other provinces still have actual playdowns to get to provincials. In Quebec you just sign up to go to Provincials – and even if you don’t sign up Curling Quebec might call you to play to fill the draw!

So here are some solutions:

-         Let’s fund a Quebec Women’s Curling Tour. I think there might be some money left from when we hosted the Scotties in a Women’s curling development fund – or maybe we can convince some corporate benefactor to throw a few bucks at this. But there needs to be something – a series of events – a tour – a carrot – that can provide some competition and get more people into the game.
-        20 Years ago – we used to have the Montreal Open – a big spiel that brought the best women curlers in the country here. Let’s do it again.
-         Let’s offer coaching to any women’s team looking to get better. Curling Quebec can do some matchmaking here – but let’s offer mentorship to teams that want help. And not just technical coaching – but coaching from teams/players that understand competition – and can help them build a plan and a schedule to reach their goals.
-         To all the women who have proudly represented us at the Scotties in the past– I issue you this challenge: Get involved in this. The sport has given you a lot – it is time to give back. I am not going to name names – but I seem to remember during the Scotties in Montreal  a herd of 40 or 50 Blue-jacket wearing women that showed up for the Thursday night draw. You all should be involved in this. Get to work. If you don’t want to play anymore, then get involved in coaching – or helping to run a women’s event at your club.

Anybody else have any ideas? Or do we just shrug our shoulders and hope that the next generation of junior teams will save us from the current sad state of women’s curling in Quebec.