Friday, April 26, 2013

The Break-Up: All Four Players Weigh In

In the end, it was all about winning. And for five years, Kevin Martin’s team won more than anyone – Briers, cashspiels, Grand Slams and, of course, a Gold Medal.

But over the past year and a half, for some reason, the winning stopped. The rink that once dominated the ice lanes, looked positively mediocre as it trudged through big events. As the losses mounted, the tensions increased. In fact, they grew to such a level that something had to give. That something came Wednesday when third John Morris informed his teammates he was leaving.

“There wasn’t a specific moment,” said Morris when asked how he made his decision. “It was a tough season and any time a team isn’t playing well you start to question things. But it wasn’t like I woke up one day and said ‘I’m done.’ I just realized that I had to make a change.

“It was extremely tough. I’ve broken off with a few girlfriends and it wasn’t as tough as this.”

Morris informed his teammates in a conference call, leaving them equally surprised and sad for the end of the rink. It was all done without anger or malice, a clean parting of the ways.

“The bottom line is the team wasn’t playing like it should have and could have, especially with the talent we have, and when that happens something has to change,” said Martin in his first interview since the departure. “John stepped up and decided to make a change.

“John handled things really well. There was no negativity between any of the team and John. He laid things out well and said he would send out a release announcing it. It went viral pretty quick.”

“We weren’t thinking [he was leaving],” said lead Ben Hebert when asked about the call. “We knew they were leaking a little bit of oil, Kevin and John. They were just playing very poorly, surprisingly poorly. They were practicing hard and putting the time in but they just couldn’t seem to make it work. I think they were having some personality conflicts that neither one of them could get over. Either they had to get over it or something needed to happen.”

In the release, Morris said he and Martin were no longer thriving in their back-end roles as they did in the run to the gold medal and that his desire for the game had waned.

“When I play, I need to feel passion and excitement,” Morris stated. “That wasn’t there. I don’t think anyone has any fun when you’re losing.

“We were losing to teams and players we should have been beating and that was hard to take.”

While Team Martin still won games here and there, and managed to earn $70,000 on the World Curling Tour, this past season was close to a disaster. It went 1-5 at the Canada Cup, failed to make the playoffs at the Brier in front of the hometown fans, never reached a Grand Slam final and only got as far as a tiebreaker at the season-ending Players Championship.

“We were a team that was used to winning but we weren’t so there was tension that way,” admitted Martin. “I think we were all waiting for things to get back to normal and they never did.”

The tension between Martin and Morris was evident on the ice and Morris’s body language often told the story. As the year went on, it only became worse.

“The consistent losing and the way we lost, just never getting eight shots in a row any more,” Hebert stated. “Someone was missing here and there, and then there was pointing fingers and the blame game . . . it just wasn’t a good vibe. We could have tried to go through it one more year and hope for the magic to come back [but] John decided he wanted to make a change.”

“It was tough to feel like we couldn’t really control it as much as Ben and I wanted to fix things,” added Marc Kennedy. “It was tough to just watch them. We have so much respect for both of them. When we were going good, they were the two best curlers in the world so to see them not be able to get it together to play their best at the same time was difficult.”

Martin said there was no personal animosity between the two, calling Morris a good friend. But he added that the difference in ages and personal situations – Martin, married with grown-up kids and Morris single – meant there wasn’t always a lot in common off the ice. Still he noticed a change in his third.

“I could tell over the last four months that he wasn’t his old self,” Martin said.

The three players are now coming to terms with the end of one era and the start of another.

“The last day and a half has been pretty sad,” admitted Kennedy. “We were an amazing team and having a chance to reflect on the last seven years and everything we’ve accomplished and it’s just sad to know it’s come to an end.”

“I heard John say ‘We’re turning into Ferbey in their last couple of years,’” said Hebert, “because they were still a really good team and would win the odd event, or qualify and bow out. But at the same time they weren’t the same team they were when they were flying. They played together because they wanted to shake hands at the end and call it a good run. They were pretty much irrelevant at the end. We didn’t want to be that.”

Morris said he’ll focus on the good times the team enjoyed as he moves on.

“I think we had a fantastic run and to know I had a chance to play with the best player ever in Kevin is something I’ll remember for a long time.

Now the search for a replacement begins and for Morris, the hunt for a spot on a new team is likely underway. Martin stated emphatically that he’d only briefly talked to one other person prior to our conversation but that something would likely happen within the next couple of weeks.

The rumours are already flying on social media with names dropping left and right. One possibility that wasn’t denied by the team was to have Kennedy move up to third and bring in a new front-ender.

“Our goal hasn’t changed,” Martin stated. “We are still trying to get to Sochi.”

Morris said he’s going to take a deep breath and reassess where things are and what he wants to do.

“I feel like I’m in the prime of my career,” he said. “I know I still have it in me.”

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Hebert: A little sadness, a little anger

Murray McCormick of the Regina Leader-Post has the reaction of Kevin Martin team lead Ben Hebert to the departure of John Morris. The third announced he was splitting with the team on Wednesday after a seven-year run that was highlighted by a gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics. It seems the news was a surprise.

Hebert said that he was stunned by Morris's decision to move on from the Edmonton-based team that won the gold medal in men's curling at the 2010 Winter Olympics. 
"I have a lot of emotions going on,'' Hebert said Wednesday from his Calgary home. "I have a little bit of sadness, a little bit of anger, and I'm also wondering about the unknown. I've been used to playing with these guys for seven years, but all good things have to come to an end. We're going to have to regroup as a team and think about what we're going to do.'' 
These comments seem to indicate Morris’s move, announced to the other three in a conference call, took the team by surprise. While it’s not a surprise that the Martin team struggled in 2012-13, coming on the even of the Olympic Trials the shake up is shocking.

He stated that the team has no idea as of yet who will be the new third.

"We'll discuss who we want over the next few weeks and who will be a good fit,'' Hebert said. "We're in a pretty good spot because we're already in the Olympic trials. I think we have a pretty good chance of winning and now we just have to find another piece to the puzzle. The team will figure it out. Right now we don't have anything.''

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Morris parts ways with Team Martin

You always knew there was a life span on the team, that despite its success it would fracture at some point. It wasn’t the front end where Marc Kennedy and Ben Hebert looked after things, but at the top where Kevin Martin and John Morris got along, but never really saw eye to eye.

And that gave way when Morris announced he was leaving the team on Wednesday evening, ending what was one of the most successful rinks in Canadian curling history. You can read the CCA's release here. 

And what a team it was. They won a ton of stuff including that gold medal. Oh they looked happy and all team-like when they were winning – which was a lot – but Martin and Morris were never friends in the same way the members of Glenn Howard’s rink are. When curling season was over, they’d go their separate ways, Martin one way and Morris another. When the curling weekends were over, they’d part  -- heck when games were over they often didn’t spend any time together.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, just different than many teams. And it wasn’t always that way -- I was with the teams on many occasions when you could tell that Morris and Martin did get along, if only for an afternoon or an evening or perhaps it was for the cameras.

But Johnny Mo is a skip through and through. So is Martin, obviously and when you don’t win games as you once did, two skips is too many.

So it’s not really surprising that Morris left. It is surprising that he did it just a few months before the Trials for the next Olympics. Then again, they way they were playing, they weren’t going to be packing for Sochi anyway. The team was lousy at the Brier and not much better at the Players Championship. Without a big turnaround (something they were capable of), the Trials would have been just another disappointment. Why prolong the agony, might have been Morris’s thinking.

Now comes the next chapter for both sides. Morris will look for another team for next season and possibly a team that's already qualified for the Trials -- the music hasn't stopped yet but there aren't enough chairs -- while Martin, Kennedy and Hebert will have to find a third. In a hurry.

There’s a long list to choose from and you don’t have to necessarily just look at guys who play third. There may be a few skips who might get a call – hey, it worked last time, didn’t it? 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Day At The Players

Yesterday I headed down to Maple Leaf Gardens (It might be known as the Mattamy Athletic Centre, but it will always be MLG) to take in the Players’ Championship and, I have to say, I was blown away. Herewith my thoughts on the last big event on the curling calendar:

The new arena at Maple Leaf Gardens is nothing short of amazing. How they managed to build a rink on the third floor of a building that didn’t have a third floor is stunning and a reason why I’m not an engineer. What remains is the old MLG ceiling, familiar to anyone who watched a game there – minus the banners of course.
It’s bright and open and has seating for about 2,500, a perfect size for this type of event. There was beer for sale although there was no real patch, just an area at the top of the rink where you could drink.
About the only downside for curling was the lack of end seating – the vast majority of the seats are on the side.

Here’s where I was surprised, in a good way. Everyone likes to slag Toronto for, well, for just about everything, and it’s certainly never thought of as a curling town. Rogers went out on a limb, perhaps naively, by holding the crown jewel of the Grand Slam at the Gardens but the crowds have been solid. I’d say that yesterday afternoon there were about 2,000 people in the building. Now I realize that’s not exactly Brier-like, but for a GSOC event in April, it was pretty good. I heard Friday evening’s gathering was similar. It bodes well for anyone wanting to have a big curling event in this city (hello Warren Hansen?)

The curlers I talked to loved having this event in Toronto for a number of reasons. First off, the facility was given a big thumbs up. The ice was good, the lighting was good, and it was within walking distance to the hotel. There was also the cool factor of playing in such a historic building.
But the players also loved being in Toronto, where there was so much to do outside of curling. Players went to Jays games, Leaf games, went shopping (Not to be sexist but I heard that answer from every one of the women I talked to), went to the theatre and were generally enjoying themselves, often times bringing their families along.
The other thing I heard was that a great many of the teams had sponsors with offices based in Toronto whom they were able to bring out to games, something they don’t get to do too often.

With the help of Rogers, there was a huge push of getting players into the public eye be it on radio or TV. Glenn Howard, Kevin Martin and Brad Jacobs were all front and centre, something that probably wouldn’t have happened if this was in some smaller centre. It was a big bonus for the Slam even if non-Rogers media largely ignored the event.

The Future
Next year, the Players Championship heads to Summerside, PEI, as a sort of make-good for the debacle that was last year. After that, however, it appears there is a push to try and make Toronto the permanent home of the Players. With the support of the curlers and just about everyone else, look for this to happen.

Seems like this edition of the Players Championship was a hit on every level. Congrats, Toronto. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Canada struggles into the playoffs

Canada limped into the playoffs last night after losing its fourth game in the last five contests. Brad Jacobs and his crew dropped contests to Denmark and Sweden Thursday putting them in fourth spot. They’ll meet the Danes in the 3-4 game.

In their contest on Thursday, Jacobs gave full credit to Denmark, as this AP story explains:

"Nobody on the planetwas beating Denmark today," said Jacobs. "I don’t care who you are. They played phenomenal." 
A day earlier, he hadblamed himself for his Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., rink’s upset loss to Japan, a distant also-ran, and criticized himself again after ekeing out a win over Russia, another rink out of playoff contention 
"They had to come outand beat us to stay alive — and they did," said Jacobs.

After losing to Sweden’s Niklas Edin, the Canadian skip talked about how tough it’s been to end the week as he did.

 “It’s a realfrustrating way to end the week,” said Jacobs after losing the nightcap to the Swedes. “Throwing the rock well and getting very little results, just not making the right shots. It’s very frustrating. We will see what happens.”

Of course, the 3-4 game isn’t unfamiliar territory for the Canadian rink. At the Brier, when it was the Northern Ontario team, it finished at 8-3 and a spot in that same do-or-die contest. It will need to rally to stay in the event. 

Clearly, the rink isn’t firing on all cylinders. Using the WCF stats as a measurement tool (which I’m loathe to do), Jacobs is in fifth spot with a lackluster 83 per cent average. He’s had four games in the 70s.

But at the Brier, he had five there too. And for the 17 round robin games at the Brier he finished up at 83 per cent as well.

The difference is when he played his strong games. At the Brier, Jacobs ended with game of 92, 97, 82 and 83 per cent while here, his last four games are 72, 83, 75 and 80. At the Brier the team seemed to play better as the week went on. At worlds, the look to be running out of gas. 

So the boys from the Soo are going to have to find that extra gear as they did in Edmonton. Good thing for them is that they know they have it. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Frustrated Canadians, really frustrated Russians

Brad Jacobs is not having a good time in Victoria. At least not on the ice in the last few days. The Canadian skip and his team are struggling and it showed yesterday when the rink split games with a loss to Japan and a win over Russia. Here’s the skipper to Monte Stewart of the Canadian Press.

“It was another frustrating game,” said Jacobs after thevictory over Russia. “Today, I couldn’t buy a shot, it seemed like. A lot ofthe ones where we normally will make them on my last ones, we’re just not quitegetting them.

Still, third Ryan Fry had enough energy to trot out an apt cliché to describe the team’s situation.

“Our fate’s in our ownhands,” said Canadian third Ryan Fry. “If we win the morning game (againstDenmark), we give ourselves a pretty reasonable shot of being in the one-two (playoff) game, and being in the one-two game is gravy on top of making the playoffs.”

Gravy. That’s a great way to look at the 1-2 game.

Meanwhile, in Russia, a nation is disappointed with the performance of the men’s rink which has a firm grasp on last place. And there’s just a simple reason said the head of the Russian Curling Federation. Or is it association? I can never remember.

“In all the games, the difference is one or two stones and it isa good result for us,” Dmitry Svishchev told R-Sport on Wednesday.“We lack experience, some technical details, but it’s obvious that Russian curling team is ready to offer serious resistance to any opponent.”

Lack experience and some technical details . .. you know, minor stuff like that. Of course old worn out coach-for-hire Roger Schmidt, who is now running the Russian program, will have it figured out. However there is something to look forward to.

“We've got our own stadium in Sochi, thefinancing is provided, the guys are motivated, they receive win bonuses,” he said.

Win bonuses? Don’t tell Warren Hansen about that! K-Mart, Stoughty and Glenn will be lined up for that one!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Every Day Is Father's Day For Team Jacobs

Terry Jones provides an early entry for the Scotty HarperAward with a fine piece on the family connections with the Jacobs team, where, he says, every day is Father’s Day.

Barry Fry and Eric Harnden sit in the stands here watching their kids at the top of the world in the sport that was their lives. 
“That’s the best part. When I was growing up my dad was my idol. Now the roles have kind of been reversed,” said E.J. Harnden. 
Eric Harnden, who was in four Briers representing Northern Ontario, is father of both E.J. and Ryan Harnden. His Brier teammate and brother Al is, of course, their uncle. 
And new third BarryFry? 
“I’m adopted,” he laughs. 
Actually, Fry’s dad Barry skipped Manitoba to the Brier winin 1979.

The elder Fry has memories of his kid tossing rocks in the early days and just how much he love it.

“From early on, once he got started when he was about eight, he just loved the game,” said Barry. “When you grow up in a curling family and the old man has accomplished a few things … well, I remember Ryan once telling me as a kid that he was going to do bigger and better things than I did.
Eric Harnden, who never won the Brier but did reach a semi in his home town before losing to Eddie Werenich, says his boys have come a long way.

“I remember the boys at the Brier in 1990 running around the rink and watching our games,” Eric said. “They were so young. Now to grow upand to be here watching them, it’s just so awesome.”
Even back then, he said, the little guys were chugging protein shakes (OK, not really).

Monday, April 1, 2013

Jacobs: We Are Not Proud

Brad Jacobs took on the rather uh, unusual looking -- for curling that is -- Finns on Sunday and played one of the sloppiest games the team has had in some time. Despite that, he and his Canadian mates rallied for a comeback victory. After that contest, he told Monte Stewart of the Canadian Press that it wasn't a game they'll review as a how-to:

“It’s really not a performance that we’re proud of,” said Jacobs. “You never like to struggle like that. But, still, we came back, we fought hard, and we got the win.”

Jacobs gave up a four-ender to the Finns -- which feature a guy with dreads and another guy with a gnome-like beard -- the first four they've dropped in a this championship run. The TSN microphones picked up Jacobs telling Ryan Fry: "That's the worst end we've played in a long time."

And give the Finns credit: they played very well and called a strong game too. 

Then it was on to the Scots and it was back to their normal pattern of play for the Canadian squad. Here's a quote from the Al Cameron story  CCA press release: 

“We bounced back wonderfully (from giving up the second-end deuce). We got a deuce, we forced, we got a deuce, and that’s curling right there, at its best. That’s really the name of the game,” said Jacobs. 
“We did everything right today. After our first game, we ate lunch, we relaxed, we had a nap, we had a nice workout before the game. I think we all felt great going into that game. I have to give a lot of credit to my guys; they played phenomenal. They made it pretty easy on me as a skip. That was an awesome game.”

Scottish skip David Murdoch said part of the reason for their poor play against Canada was the previous contest. 

"Coming out after the extra end in the previous game and then having a 45 minute turn-around, we just weren’t sharp or came out the way we wanted to," said Murdoch.