The strangest curling season I will likely ever know has come to an end.
My 2020-2021 season consisted of a total of 8 curling games, all played on the biggest of stages in front of a handful of officials and a panoply of cardboard cut-outs.
Now that the season is over and I have returned to my “normal” existence, I can look back at what was the weirdest of curling seasons.
First, there was a fall of cancellations and frustrations. We went from the excitement of a full season of cashspiels planned across 4 provinces, to the disappointment of realizing that it was all cancelled, weeks before we were to leave for our first tournament.
Then there was practice. Lots of practice. Practice without even knowing what we were practicing for. There were rumours that they would still try to run a Brier, but who knew anything? My kids were in on-line school, restaurnats and bars were closed, all sports were cancelled, and we had been confined to working at home for months. Would there even be a Brier? And if so, who gets to go?
Then some announcements: first in December that there would be a Brier, and then after Christmas that we had been chosen to represent Quebec! While I was glad to have found out that my hours of practice were not in vain, the news also came at the same time as the province shut down. As of January 8th, all curling was forbidden, and there were NO exceptions (or at least none for us!).
So even though we were going to the Brier in March, we would not be allowed to so much as step on the ice between January 8th and Feb 27th (2 days before we would leave for Calgary). Awesome!
This video shows how we trained:
Then we needed to test. And test. And test. JF discovered that having an oft-broken nose from hockey is not conducive to easy PCR Covid testing. And I discovered that I apparently have a very sensitive gag reflex! All of this to confirm, and re-confirm, that we were Covid-free.
Then we needed to isolate. First at home for 2 weeks, then in a Calgary hotel room. 2 days of room service and Netflix. We had a team Zoom call dinner, despite all being within 50 feet of each other in separate rooms.
But then the payoff. On Friday we got an all clear from our test results, and we were good to go. We got to take off our masks and curl against the best teams in Canada.
The Markin-McPhail Centre, and the Olympic site around it, are stunningly beautiful. This is the home of the national ski-jumping team, the snowboard half-pipe and mogul training. We would drive by people skiing and snowboarding everyday to get to the curling. The arena itself is a smallish yet incredibly modern arena. I am guessing it holds around 2000 fans, although this week there would be none. There were only cardboard cut-outs (I swear I heard them talking to me sometimes) and a small army of volunteers and officials.
The curling itself was an absolute blast. If my season entire season was going to be one week, then we were going to go all out. Our team motto was: “on est pas venu icitte pour bunter”, or loosely translated - we didn’t come here to bunt. We would go down swinging for the fences.
All our games were all fun, and we never felt outclassed.
Our lone TV game vs. Nova Scotia was if nothing else entertaining, as well as incredibly frustrating. Versus Gushue, and Koe, we were very well positioned until a few late misses sealed our fate.
We finished a respectable 4-4. We let a couple of games get away from us and won one we were not “supposed” to against Epping. We beat all of the teams that we were expected to. All in-all a good week.
And in the context of 2021, spectacular. We spent the week in compete awe of the fact that we were CURLING, and that we were the luckiest 4 (or 6 with Will and Ben) curlers in Quebec.
Hell, I was just excited to be able to eat in the hotel restaurant, as Quebec restaurants have not been open since the summer. Sitting and having a few beers with friends in a bar while watching sports on TV was like heaven. On our last night – we took advantage of that privilege:
Are you not Entertained?
Curling Twitter this week was ablaze with numerous comments about TV games, and about the entertainment level of the games shown.
A few of the TV feature games showed one team trying to play, while the other team blanked and blanked and blanked. While many of the blanks usually were the result of some impressive hitting, I think even the cardboard cut-outs were napping after 5 ends of scoreless curling.
I think this will inevitably raise questions of further rule changes. The fact is, the aspiring “pro” teams will often be the least fun to watch, as they take less risk to keep control of games. While having your second make a triple peel to get rid of all guards is impressive, the fact is it makes for lousy TV. The rest of the end has all the drama and excitement of a library visit.
Some food for thought for the “pro” teams: if your goal is to make the game less risky and less exciting once you have a two-point lead, why do you expect sponsors and fans to shell out money to watch? The New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup in the mid 90s by playing a boring and defensive style of play, but they seriously hurt the game in the process. The “trap” put teams and fans to sleep, leading to games with no flow. Big hit curling teams do the same.
Don’t get me wrong, I know how tough it is to do this. And with the stakes as high as they are, it is naïve to think that teams will not do whatever it takes to win. I think we will need to invent some new rules at the elite level to protect the best teams from themselves. Maybe a no-tick zone, or maybe the blank end should be banned. I know this would change the game, but probably not as much as the 4 or 5 rock rules. Either way, if curlers are hoping to be able to make a living at the game, then they have to figure out a way to put on a better show.
The fact is, when teams decide to play – like in a last end, the curling is awesome. I am writing this after having watched the 10th end of the Bottcher-Dunstone Semi-final. When both teams want to play, it is spectacular.
In closing, there are a number of thank yous that feel especially relevant this year:
- Thanks to Curling Canada for pulling off what will be remembered as one of the greatest Briers (and Scotties) ever. Creating an incident-free bubble in the context of the current crisis is nothing short of miraculous. Havnig lived through it from the inside, I can assure you all that you have no idea how much work, preparation and diligence went into planning this event. And it all worked.
- The ice, as would be expected, was amazing. To all the ice techs, who took on the isolation and health risks to deliver Brier ice; I say a sincere thanks.
- To Curling Quebec, for giving us the honour of representing Quebec on this stage and for the support and effort.
- To our sponsors, especially Hardline and RBC Dominon Securities for standing by us this year. We honestly can’t wait to get back on the ice next year.
- To the folks at Glenmore, Pointe-Claire, Victoria, Val d’Or and RCMP Curling Clubs who kept the lights on the compressors running so that we could practice as much as possible this season. The motto on our Quebec jackets says Je Me Souviens, and trust us, we will remember.
- To my teammates. I have the best team a 49-year old journeyman curler could possibly ask for. I am heartbroken that we only get to curl eight games together this season; I can’t wait until next year.
- Lastly: Thanks to all our fans who reached out with words of support during the Brier this year. I can’t tell you what it meant to us that we were not alone, especially in an empty arena under the strangest of conditions. We are so grateful for your support.
I am now pouring a rye and coke and settling in front of my TV for what should be a barnburner of a final.