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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.