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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.