Monday, November 17, 2014

Forgotten man in Grand Slam creation

I love reading Nolan Thiessen's columns on the Grand Slam of Curling web site. He's a thoughtful writer who has some good ideas about the game.

His latest column is on the creation of the Grand Slam of Curling and how many of they players sliding boulders in the big events don't really have a clue about where or how the series started. You can read his column here.

One thing that Thiessen doesn't mention is the importance of one guy who really was the force behind putting the Series together -- Kevin Albrecht. In my opinion, the Grand Slam wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Albrecht (later, he almost killed it off but we'll get to that shortly).

Albrecht, whom I knew from his work on the golf side of the business where he was Mike Weir's agent, had been working with some curlers and teams trying to get them sponsorship deals and was having little luck. The reason, of course, was that at the highest-profile event-- the Brier -- the players couldn't wear any sponsor cresting. Most of the other events had little TV time so trying to get any value for the sponsor was tough.

Albrecht lobbied the CCA, along with help from a number of the curlers, but without any luck. The governing body was rock solid in its stand and wasn't about to change.

I thought that the entire thing would  die a slow death. But then I got a call one morning asking if I could come to the IMG offices in Toronto for a meeting. Albrecht wouldn't tell me what it was all about, just come he said.

When I got there, I sat down with him and Kevin Martin. Something was up, I surmised.

That's when they gave me the scoop on the Grand Slam and how the players were going to play in their own events rather than the Brier and the playdowns leading up to them. Albrecht and his team had created four stops, got sponsorship money and was about to unveil it all. He allowed me to break the news in the Globe and Mail.

I remember getting all the details down and then trying to contact Dave Parkes to get the CCA's reaction. He didn't return calls and I later learned his first knowledge of the Grand Slam was while he was sitting on a plane going to Winnipeg. He saw the story that was on the front page of the sports section and apparently went into a slow burn.

The rest, as they say is history. But while Thiessen's column is right that the 18 teams deserve a lot of credit, so too does Kevin Albrecht and IMG for making the Grand Slam a business.

Of course a few years back, Albrecht left IMG, took the Grand Slam rights with him and slowly got into financial trouble. He didn't pay CBC to broadcast the events and it finally stopped. The Slam went to Rogers Sportsnet where it is today.

One interesting point in all this is that it was always referred to as a boycott. But really it was a choice. The players just chose their events rather than the CCA. That's not really a boycott in my books.

At the end of the day, what happened in that situation paved the way for big changes in the game -- prize money (although it's not really called that) at the Brier, more focus on the players and the creation of the Canada Cup.

Although Albrecht walked away from the sport in disgrace, he was vital in advancing it to where it is now.

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