Significant change is coming to the Canadian men’s and women’s national championships and it’s all because of three curling clubs.
Yup, decades of history and tradition are going out the window to accommodate a very tiny number of players who won’t even get much of a chance to participate in the championships they’re changing.
In 2012, the Canadian Curling Association passed a policy known as the Equitable Opportunity to Access Canadian Championships. Essentially this meant that all three Territories would receive separate entries into the men’s and women’s championships.
And since they were changing things, they went full bore; there will be a Team Canada added on the men’s side and a Northern Ontario to the women’s.
So starting next year, the Brier and Tournament of Hearts will have a field of 15 teams – at least, at the very start. Prior to the start of the official competition there will be a relegation round played by the three non-qualifiers and the previous year’s 12-place finisher to determine the final entrant to the 12-team field that will play for the title. The format for that is yet to be determined. (Next year, the 12th-place finisher will be determined by combined records over the previous three championships)
In other words, three teams will sit on the sidelines and get a thanks-for-coming-out handshake from some CCA official and maybe some Patch tokens.
You can pretty much guess just which provinces or territories will be perennial competitors to this little pre-Brier/pre-Scotties shindig. In the last three years, the teams that finished at the bottom of the pile at the Brier were B.C. PEI and PEI again. At the Scotties, it was Alberta, PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador.
Which brings us back to the three curling clubs I mentioned earlier. This equitable access policy is really all about giving the three Territories separate entries. As we know, currently, they are combined into one team. But next year Yukon, Northwest and Nunavut get their own entry. That would be Nunavut, the territory that has a grand total of three curling clubs. (Talk about your ultimate parachute location.)
Now the Brier has always had change. In the early days, there were teams representing Toronto and Montreal. At the first Brier, there was one team representing all of Western Canada. Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and the Territories were all added later. (It should be noted that Northern Ontario has had a spot in the Brier since Day 1.)
But each time an alteration was made, the essence of the Brier didn’t change. Everyone played everyone else and the fans all cheered. That won’t happen this time around. Three provinces and/or territories will not play. Their fans, which may have made a once-in-a-lifetime trek to the championship, might not get to cheer their team.
And it’s not as if curlers in the three territories didn’t have a chance to get to the Canadian final. In fact, while they had to travel outrageous distances (which has only slightly lessened), they played far fewer games to reach the Brier or Scotties than just about any other provincial winner.
It’s hard to imagine how this change can be good for any curler, province, and territory or for the game as a whole.
There’s a good chance that a weak territory such as Nunavut will never make it into the Scotties or the Brier fields. The teams from that region will be in well above their heads, likely having played very little in the way of competitive games. Will that help grow the game up there?
It also can’t be good for development in a location such as PEI or New Brunswick, where curlers are already in an uproar about the possibility of missing a national championship.
And what happens if, horror or horrors, a big province misses out, say an Alberta, Manitoba or Ontario? I fear the folks at TSN will be pulling their hair out the day that happens, as the most populous provinces tune out, sending the ratings into a free-fall.
So is there a solution? Well it could possibly be what has been done at the Canadian Junior where there are two pools of teams playing down to advance to another round and then playoffs. But that’s far too confusing.
The other idea would be to do nothing, to leave it alone and to tell those teams in the North to continue playing as one entry. And if you want to develop curling in that region, think grass roots. Perhaps start a big Territorial Championship and build that up, make it important and send the winner off internationally.
To me, that would go a lot farther than sending a team to get humbled (fully acknowledging here there are some very talented players in the North who may make it in).
Change is inevitable and these changes will take place. There will be a lot of unhappy people and a lot left wondering what might have been, or possibly what should have been.