Friday, November 26, 2010

The Russia Affair: the coach's thoughts

I had the chance to chat with Patti Wuthrich a few days ago to get a little more detail on the Jason Gunnlaugson episode. It will appear in a Globe column, likely early next week.

Wuthrich said the entire episode was a bit of a shocker as just days before, she’d been told to get the boys visas to make the trip back to Moscow so they could go through the citizenship process. She had to break the news to them and they were, in her words, “devastated.” Apparently the news came out of nowhere. She said they “spent a fair bit of time in the bar.” That’s easy to understand when you’ve essentially just lost your job. For Tyler Forrest and Justin Richter it’s especially tough since they left good jobs to embard on this journey.

Wuthrich added that one of the biggest problems in this entire Russian episode has been communication. She says it’s almost impossible to get answers to a lot of questions she sends over adding that she’s never officially received any missive saying the Manitoba boys were fired. She was simply told that there was no citizenship awaiting them and that she should prepare the Alexey Stukalsky and Alexnandr Kozyrev, the two native-born Russians, for the Europeans and to be in Switzerland on Dec. 1. When I talked to Wuthrich, she was getting ready to take to the ice for a practice session in Gimli (yes, the two Russians are still in Gimli where they'd set up shop in preparation for the season). She did say the Russians were aware of all the press here in Canada surrounding the incident.

I asked her about the possibility that the Russians weren’t blown away by the performance of the three hired guns in the national championships where they struggled somewhat in the round-robin before easing to the title with two playoff wins. She said she had no knowledge of that but added that clearly the boys weren’t at their best in that competition’s early going, saying that sometimes you play down to the level of the competition. And let's be honest here -- it's pretty hard to imagine there's any team in Russia that is as talented as the Gunnlaugson three.

All in all, she seemed to say the entire episode was frustrating and disappointing. It's really another black mark for Russian curling which always seems to be like a hose on full blast without anyone holding it. At the Olympics, the coaches of the women's team switched lineups as frequently as a kid in a Baskin-Robbins store changes his ice cream choice. It didn't seem to make much sense.

Neither does this latest move.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Dominion Makes Dreams Come True

Just like this article in the Guardian points out, what the Dominion has done is give a lot of avid curlers a chance to experience the highest of highs.
Methinks this could be just about the most important event on the CCA's docket these days, one that might help grow the game even more than the Brier or the Scotties.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Dominion Underway

I note, with a tinge of envy, that the Dominion Curling Club Championship is underway in Charlottetown.

I say envy because I was a participant in this event after winning my club championship last spring and had visions of being on the ice in my favourite city in the world. OK, so I dream big.

The Dominion, in just its second year of operation, has become one of the most enjoyable and successful events in Canadian curling. It tapped into a great vein of curler appreciation and when the first national championship went off with so much success, word spread quickly. Now according to the effervescent Leigh Armstrong, who administers the event (among the Dominion’s many other curling championships) on Dominion’s behalf, told me that entries were up slightly this year, but I’d bet awareness has grown exponentially.

In fact, if there is any problem with this event, that’s it: it’s so popular that the boundaries of who should be eligible are stretching because so many curlers want in. So who is supposed to play? Here’s what appears on the Ontario Curling Association web site about the rules and spirit of the event:

The Dominion Curling Club Championship gives grass roots curling teams from every corner of the country an opportunity to compete in provincial and national level competition. Club curlers are those who enjoy the sport recreationally, supporting club leagues on a regular basis from September to April.
The event is formulated for true club curlers, not elite, past or present. We want to support ordinary curlers and the development of curling across Canada.

The rules also state the following:

Each team will be allowed only one player who has played in a Men’s, Women’s or Seniors’ provincial event in the current or previous year, or participated in a Grand Slam event in the current or previous year.

The Dominion also has a provision to allow individual associations to adopt more restrictive policies if it sees fit.

There were no real problems in the zone playdown in which I competed. There was one notable curler who two weeks later played in the final of a Grand Slam event, but the rest of his team qualified under the rules as stated. (and we beat him anyway!)

At the provincial final though, there were teams that were regulars on the Ontario Curling Tour, which in my mind kind of goes against the spirit of what the Dominion is all about. I don’t know if they were true club curlers but it didn’t seem so. They were more elite curlers than club curlers. So under the rules, they qualified, but under the spirit?

And that’s the question: when does a really good club curler cross over to become a competitive or elite curler? And who is going to make that decision? Tough questions, for sure.

Now this fine line isn’t new by any means. Any Toronto curler who played in the big City of Toronto bonspiel, sponsored for a century by Canada Life and now by Goldline, is aware of it. For years that spiel tried to weed out or limit the top teams from entering. In many cases, what happened was the big players, such as Ed Werenich of Paul Savage, bought in and would skip teams of knee-sliders and it would be one fun week for all. But there will always be those with some sour grapes who think someone is over-qualified.

This probably isn’t a big enough concern to be worried about just yet. The Dominion is off to a great start and is a truly tremendous event. But it’s that way because it’s for the average curler out there, giving him and her a chance to play in a national championship. Here's hoping it stays that way.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Russians chop Gunnlaugson

It was fun while it lasted.

Jason Gunnlaugson’s Russian adventure is apparently all but done after the Russian Curling Federation pulled the offer it made to the Winnipeg curler and his two mates, Justin Richter and Tyler Forrest.

The three, along with a couple of Russian curlers, won the national championship a few weeks ago and were set to represent the country at the Europeans next week. But on the weekend, rumours leaked out and I had a note from Jason late last night that the deal was pretty much dead. Apparently it all stemmed from the requirement that the three become Russian citizens before the European championships.

According to a story in the Winnipeg Sun, the arrangement fell apart when the three refused to renounce their Canadian citizenship, a move that would have made obtaining Russian citizenship quicker. They wanted dual citizenship but that couldn’t be arranged in the time frame. Hard to blame the guys, especially since they were merely hired guns.

Here’s Gunnlaugson quoted in the Sun:

"It’s disappointing,” Gunnlaugson said. “Most people, when they lose their job they think OK, well maybe now I’ll do what I really dreamed of doing. Well, that was what we dreamed of doing, going to the rink every day and working hard at getting better at the game.
“You couldn’t ask for a more fun job for the three of us. It’s obviously a big letdown, but s--- happens in life and I’m sure we’ll all make the best of it.”

You can read the full article here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tuckers won't die!

One of the more interesting topics discussed last week with Ray Turnbull and Terry Braunstein was whether or not the tuck delivery was going to die out. Of course, Manitoba is just about the only place where it’s still used and according to the two Winnipeggers, there’s no chance it’s going away soon.

My favourite description of the slide was coined by former Toronto Star curling writer Tom Slater who called them “toe-sliding bottom feeders.”

Most of the top young teams are tuckers – McEwen, Gunnlaugson, et al – and Turnbull attributed it to the youngsters following in the footsteps of the now old(er) stars such as Burtnyk and Stoughton.

It’s sort of strange that Manitoba is pretty much the only place where people use this style of delivery. It’s almost as if there’s some tribe there and they speak a different language that no one else understands. No, wait, that would be Newfoundland and Labrador.

In any case, judging by the success over the years and of late, it shows the tuckers aren’t at any apparent disadvantage.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Curling with legends

On Friday, I had the thrill of a lifetime. I spared two games in the Granite Men's Invitational playing with Alf Phillips Jr., Ray Turnbull and Terry Braunstein, all Brier winners, all legends, all with great stories. As I explained to a golfing friend of mine, this was like playing a round with Hogan, Snead and Nelson.
We split our two games, winning the first against Gareth Watson, the bonspiel's chairman, then losing in the second to John Francis and his Thornhill gang. We had lots of chances in the second, but curled pretty much like dogs, taking nothing away from Francis and his squad.
What was remarkable about these two games was just how competitive these three of these legends still are. All three are in their 70s and all want to make every shot. Now I wouldn't say they slip into the hack with the greatest of ease, nor is sweeping a priority with them. But they all still slide pretty well and you can see how they get mad when they miss shots. Of course it all stays on the ice and once the game is over, the stories started flying. And oh can these guys tell tales.
Turnbull and Braunstein, who have been curling together longer than I've been alive, can go on for hours. Alf also has his fair share too. For a loudmouth like me, it was tough to get a word in edgewise.
By the way, Turnbull says he hasn't yet started to miss the broadcasting. He thinks he might when it comes around to the Season of Champions time, but as he told me while we were nursing our beers, "It was time."
I couldn't stick around, but Vic Rauter came in later and served as emcee as the three entertained the crowd at the stag dinner on Friday night, part of what is a pretty remarkable bonspiel the Granite puts on. If you've never been to the Granite Club -- home of the very first Brier, then you're missing something.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

New Globe Column: Cheryl Bernard and Sponsors

I always like talking to Cheryl Bernard, one of the truly nice and genuine people in the sport. I chatted with her last week before she and her rink stepped on to the ice for the Red Deer spiel and penned this column in the Globe.

Monday, November 8, 2010

New Brooms: The Sky Is Falling

Ever since The Calgary Herald's All Cameron broke the news of the Super Broom Head, there has been a general sense of The Sky Is Falling from various parts. In fact, it’s almost laughable what’s transpired from icemakers and equipment dealers. This entire story has been messed up since Day 1 with all sorts of incorrect facts.

Let’s back up just a minute. A year and a half ago, some researchers at the University of Western Ontario developed a broom head that was much more effective than previous models. The technology was somewhat simple: a piece of reflective material was put between the face and the head, which caused the heat generated by sweeping to reflect back. More heat means the rocks go further and curl less.

Now contrary to what has been written in several places (here and here, for example,) this technology was not developed using Own the Podium funds, the program that was created to help Canadian Olympic athletes gain an advantage heading into the Vancouver Games. The folks at Western had been doing curling-related testing prior to the OTP funding and this was developed as part of that. OTP funding was used later in other research that helped the Martin and Bernard rinks win gold and silver respectively.

The Canadian teams did get to try the new heads and found that while effective for the women (who used them in Vancouver), it wasn’t so for the men. Ben Hebert and Marc Kennedy were so strong already, they found they would rip the pebble off the ice after three ends.

Earlier this year, Balance Plus signed an exclusive license on the patent for the broom heads with Western and is planning to bring them out very soon.

To the best of my knowledge, at the time of my writing, only two teams in Canada have these special heads: Bernard’s rink and that of Dale Matchett, who works for Balance Plus.

And that’s important to note because already there has been a remarkable amount of negative press surrounding these. Here’s a blog that’s on the Goldline web site that essentially says these brooms are going to be bad news for curling clubs and icemakers. Of course it’s important to note that Goldline is a competitor to Balance Plus so this is sort of crapping on the other guy, in my opinion. (Full disclosure: Balance Plus is an advertiser in the Ontario Curling Report of which I am a part owner, Goldline is not.)

I also spoke to a noted icemaker over the weekend who was similarly wary of the new brooms and wondered if it wasn’t time for something such as the Ontario Curling Association to establish some rules.

The general consensus of these folks is that the new brooms will flatten the ice by removing the pebble earlier in the game.
The point is that as of this moment, how these brooms affect the ice when being used by anyone not named Hebert and Kennedy or Laing and Savill is unknown. Matchett reported that when his rink used them, there was no noticeable ice deterioration. Now part of that was that the effectiveness of the brooms allowed them to use a less abrasive cloth on the face, which may be more of the problem than the heat retention.

In the limited testing that was done, elite men’s teams only managed an extra 30 per cent effectiveness with the new heads. I say only because the women saw a 100-per-cent increase.

Where this would seem to bring the most benefit would be to club curlers, men and women. And that to me, is a good thing. But the truth is no one really knows and until they do, everyone should just sit back and relax. This could turn out to be a huge benefit for average players. But until we know for sure, I’d say it’s tremendously unfair to be weighing in.