Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Golden Bear

I’ve been to world championships, Briers and Scotties but I don’t think I’ve even seen such a dramatic moment as yesterday’s win by Kevin Martin.

Without being at the Games, it’s hard to understand just how much bigger everything is so when you see the gold medal won, it’s that much more impressive.

Earlier in the day, Markus Eggler and the Swiss won the bronze and to see them celebrate, you’d have thought they won gold. But that’s how these athletes feel about these medals, feel about what this is all about.

The game yesterday wasn’t Martin’s best in the first part, I didn’t think. He looked a little uptight, perhaps tense which is strange since you’d think, having been there before, that he’d be able to handle it.

But the three guys behind him were unbelievable, especially Morris who seemed to be so dialed in.

The other thing Martin had on his side was that Thomas Ulsrud and Toger Nergaard were not sharp at the start. So despite Martin’s slow start, the Norwegians were always under pressure.

I’ve covered Martin since his first Brier in 1991 and through all his wins, I’ve never seen him really overjoyed at winning, when the final shot is played. He always seems more satisfied than elated.

Not yesterday. He was letting it all out with some big yells and it was great to see.
Actually my first indication that the team had won the gold came from Marc Kennedy who stopped sweeping and started pumping his broom in the air. Ben Hebert kept sweeping right into the house and was met by John Morris who jumped into his arms.
It was a great scene.

A few other really nice moments that you didn’t see on TV. When Kennedy came into the media tribune (where the team meets us ink-stained wretches), he wanted to thank the regulars, shaking our hands. Amazing that he would think of us at such a time, I was really touched by that.

And when the Old Bear came through, the look on his face wearing that gold medal will stay with me forever. I’ve never seen him look more proud/relieved/thrilled all at once. He just looked really, really different than I’ve ever seen him.

A final note: I don’t think you could find a classier silver medal winner than Ulsrud. He was exceedingly gracious in defeat, giving the Martin team full props, almost as if he was in awe of just how good they were.

I think you’ll hear from this Norwegian team again, they are way talented.
More in the next post, but for now, it’s over to hockey.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Thoughts on the women's final

One final down and one to go. It’s been a long two weeks but the Olympic curling competition has provided some remarkable moments.

First, last night’s match between Canada and Sweden. What a crazy game and a wild finish.

It looked to me like they had things wrapped up in 10 but the team said after they hadn’t played down that spot all week. Someone sitting behind the sheet, who is a world-class curler, said she looked wide – I couldn’t tell from my angle – but the gals said after they just didn’t know the ice in that spot and were expecting more curl.

In the 11th, though, I was sort of surprised at Cheryl’s first rock. I might have played around the guard to the top 12, but that’s probably why I’m on the bench and not on the ice. If she makes the double for the win, no one is questioning any calls. And, as she admitted, it was a fairly routine shot.

Someone asked me if I’d ever seen a crazier finish to a big game and the only thing I could think of was the Bob Labonte Leap of Loss back in 1972.

From a media standpoint, most of us had our stories written about Canada winning. One writer told me he had his mouse on the send button and was just about to hit click.


After the famous Mark Dacey comeback over Ferbey, however, most curling writers have two stories in the can, ready to send the right one.

Having covered the gals for some time, you can’t help but feel for them. They are all wonderful people. The normally strong-minded Bernard was understandably in tears after the game. And she was honest with her words, saying silver was nice but it stung being so close to the gold. I’m not sure if any athletes at these Games came so close to gold without winning.

What’s interesting is that in looking back at a lot of comments over the past few months, just about every one of them has talked about how the Olympics aren’t everything, that it’s just a game. That perspective should help them when they return to their normal lives next week.

And the best words I heard out of any of them were from Susan O’Connor who said the team didn’t lose the gold, they won silver. True, dat.

On to the men’s final.

P.S. – can there be anything worse than losing the bronze medal game in the Olympics?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Outspoken Rafael and other thoughts

* Chinese coach Dan Rafael is not a guy who holds back when there’s a microphone present. The Montrealer is usually quite direct in his comments and I used to think that it was a way of charging up his team but then, I don’t think his curlers read the Canadian newspapers. If the curlers aren’t reading, officials certainly are. Rafael has been muzzled for the rest of the Games after some strong – and accurate – comments yesterday about his team’s performance. Here’s what he told the press after the team lost last night:
"They have no passion for the game. It's their job. They just take everything for granted," Rafael said. "We didn't show up. You just have to look at the stats to know. We beat Canada, and we don't show up. They looked pretty amused. They think it's funny for whatever reason - you're at the Olympics. I'm furious."
Rafael said he’s not likely to return after his contract ends this summer which is no surprise. Another coach told me last night that the word on the street is that Rafael will be turfed shortly after the world championships in Swift Current, Sask.

* So maybe this thing will turn into the shoot-out everyone expected after all. Last night, the British team played its best game of the competition, especially the skip, David Murdoch. For me, however, the key to the team is second Peter Smith. When he plays well, which hasn’t been always in this competition, the team plays well. These guys appear to be on a roll and if that's the case, we could have a barn-burner of a gold-medal game.

* Had to love this Tweet from Rainn Wilson (even with the spelling mistake), who plays Dwight Schrute on The Office: “Is there such a thing as 'fantasy curling'? Cause if there is, I'm drafting Binyu Wang.”

* Speaking of Tweets, here’s a nasty one from Amy Nixon, third for Shannon Kleibrink’s rink: “is just about done with how "fit" the canadian women's curling team is. That whole team is far from fit.” Meow!

* Food Rant of the Day: So the folks here are the fine Vancouver Olympic Centre have a really nice media set up. There’s a massive work area behind the curling rink and a cafeteria where you can have anything you want to eat. . . as long as it’s chili. For the fifth day in a row, chili is what they’re serving up for lunch. And dinner. Last night, when I asked the woman serving up the slop what was on the menu, she said: “Shepherd’s Pie.” I was overjoyed at the change of menu and ordered up a plate only to learn that it was the same old chili with mashed potatoes on top. This may be the first curling event in history at which I lose weight.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Thoughts as we hit the home stretch

Thoughts as we hit the home stretch:

* I’m sitting on the bench beside the delightful Terry Kolesar, communications director for the United States Curling Association. Every day, she gets to wade through the e-mails sent to the group’s general delivery web site. She always tells me the general themes and most are really positive such as people who just want to find out where they can try the sport.
But it never ceases to amaze me how many people think they can take up the sport and make it to the Olympics in oh, say, four years. Sure, I’ll just pick up the game and get myself to world-class in two years, then win the U.S. Trials and presto . . . I’m an Olympian.
Not that I want to be the one to crush their dreams, but folks. . . it ain’t happening. While John Shuster and his team are, for the most part, a) older and b) not in the best of shape, they have played the game at a very high level for a very long time. Yes, some of them are in their 40s and Russ Howard was 50 when he won gold in Torino, but they’ve been throwing rocks for 35 years. You’re not going to go out, take up golf and make it to the Masters in two years so why do you think you can do the same in curling?
Go out, take up the sport, enjoy the game, go to a bonspiel (the one in Chicago is a dandy) and watch the best play.

* What is it with the concessions here are the Olympics? They sell sandwiches but do you think you can get a turkey or ham and cheese or roast beef? Nope, last night my choice was cucumber dill and cream cheese or hummus on waki bread, whatever that is.

* Either it’s a slow day on the Olympic docket or it’s getting to the end. This morning, there are a number of basically nice but completely curling clueless American columnists in the house. During the game between Canada and the U.S., one said to me: “Smith’s having a good isn’t he? Of course I don’t know what the hell I’m looking at.” Give them points for honesty.

* As far as I can tell, not one other Canadian Olympian has shown up to watch a curling game.

* I’m always amazed at how technically sound the slides of the Chinese women curlers are but how awful their releases are. One of the Canadian women curlers (whose identity I’ll protect) said it was almost impossible to read the ice off them because of it. One thing you can say is that they are consistent and it works for them.

* Is it a sign of concession? Although they’re not technically out of it, the American coaches are sitting right below me as Canada and the U.S. tangle this morning and no one is taking any notes, or recording any shots.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

One Amazing Game

It’s hard to put last night into the proper words if you weren’t in the building. It was, quite simply, magical.

Now I’m not talking so much about the game itself, although it was an enjoyable one. But the building itself and the atmosphere was special.

After a couple of draws of ugly fans – who cheered during deliveries, roared when teams missed shots and essentially tried to distract certain teams – the crowd Saturday night was well behaved (with a few minor exceptions) and a ton of fun. In the humble opinion of this scribe, it was the best curling crowd I’ve seen in my 25-plus years of covering the game. The only complaint on the night came from one fan who wondered why there weren't any cupholders on the seats as it was tough holding a beer and a foam finger all night.

The best moment came in the 10th end when a group of well-oiled twentysomething shirtless guys, stood up and started singing the national anthem. At first it was just them crooning but it quickly grew and by the time they reached “With Glowing Hearts,” most of the arena had joined in, standing and waving flags at the same time. The game came to a stop and I can remember looking over at Kevin Martin who was in the house holding the broom for Marc Kennedy and seeing this huge smile across his face. It was one of those moments you’ll remember for a long, long time.

The game itself was almost weird. There were some amazing shots – especially from the thirds – some untimely picks and some flat out inexplicable misses. But it was definitely entertaining. I actually thought about half-way through that the Brits were going to win, but there were a few cringe-inducing misses. The two that stood out were Murdoch’s heavy draw in seven on his first, turning a potential two-point end into a single, and then Euan Byers first stone in nine, slipping into the rings and allowing Martin to get the blank.

As big as the win was in ending The Streak and all, it really had more significance in what it meant to both teams’ position in the standings. Martin is now guaranteed at least a tiebreaker and Murdoch can’t afford to lose.

One thing I think the loss did for the Brits/Scots was really fire them up. They’ve seemed a little lackluster thus far for some reason, but as Murdoch said last night, maybe it takes 6,000 people yelling at them to get them fired up.

We’ll find out.

Friday, February 19, 2010

US changes, Canadian photos

The breaking news here this morning is that the American team has decided to bench skip John Shuster for their game against France. This is a pretty drastic move even with the team at 0-4, although you can understand it from the American standpoint.
Shuster has looked positively average here this week, missing some relatively (for this level) easy shots to win games. With a little better marksmanship, he could easily be 3-1. So this afternoon, Chris Plys, the first Olympian to Twitter during a competition albeit from the bench, will call the game and throw third stones, while Jason Smith hurls the last brick.
I’ve never been big proponent for changing the lineup during the course of a competition. First, the four guys on the American team earned its way into the competition and should finish it out. Second, they’re playing France . . . FRANCE! If they can beat these guys, then maybe they should put Bud Somerville in.
However, Shuster, being the good guy that he is, has agreed to support the team and not raise problems.

Speaking of lineup changes, the Russians altered theirs for the game against the U.S. women this morning. This isn’t a surprise – they seem to do this in every competition. The fact that Ludmila Privovkova was scored at four per cent through the first four ends of their previous game and ended up at 36 per cent may have something to do with the change.

OK, now back to what I was going to write about today. Thanks to the generosity of Super Media Attache Karen McDonald, I have some interesting pictures of the Canadian teams and some of their travels through the first few days of the Olympics.
So in this assortment are Morris, Kennedy and Hebert with MTV guy Daryn Jones, the same three with Maelle Ricker, then there’s one of Johnny Mo on the air with FAN 590, and him again with some local firefighters.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Olympics Day 2

Day 2 at the Olympics:

• I’m not sure who made the draw for this big shootout, but did anyone not notice that Great Britain played its first two games on the same sheet with the same rocks? Even skip David Murdoch was shocked at that. The Canadian women played the same sheet twice in a row but with different rocks.

• Speaking of Murdoch, he was called for a rules violation that I’ve only seen once before. He wasn’t standing on the sheet when the first rock of the second end was thrown. That’s a violation as the person in charge of the house has to be on the sheet. Seems a little picky but it’s in the book. Then again, so is the rule about dumping and that never gets called.

• Is there a sadder story so far than the American teams here? And I don’t mean sad as in pathetic but as in you feel bad for them. Combined, the men’s and women’s rinks are 0-5 and they shouldn’t be. These guys and gals just find a way to lose when they seem to be in a position to win. Last night, John Shuster had a draw to the four to win his game but the sweepers missed the call and they ended up losing on a measure. That sent the game to an extra end where the skip missed a raise takeout for the win. To me, it just seems as if these teams are playing much better than their records although sometimes I scratch my head at the strategy. I like Shuster’s Tweet this morning though: “Not one ounce of quit in this team....and that's a promise.”

• By the way, U.S. fifth man Chris Plys, a prolific Tweeter himself, has been told to stop tweeting during the game. Seems they want him to focus on curling rather than Twitter, which sort of makes sense. If I’m not mistaken, he is the first athlete at the Olympics to Tweet during the competition. And likely the last.

• Despite all the promises, I have yet to see another Canadian athlete show up to watch curling .

• Oh and all these whining British writers/columnists who are saying these are the worst Games ever? Not one has shown up here either. I spoke with a couple of British curling media types here who are somewhat PO’ed at that, considering they have two very good medal shots here.

• Oh and those Norwegian curling pants? There’s now a Facebook Group on them that has more than 53,000 members.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Day 1 at the Olympics

First day of competition and here are some impressions:

* This is the loudest, most raucous crowd I’ve ever seen and heard at a curling competition. They scream, yell, bang the seats, wave flags and sometimes even at the right time. Yes, they aren’t the most knowledgeable folks. Sometimes they yell and scream when players are delivering rocks. Other times they yell and scream when players miss shots, but get a lot of stones moving. Still, it’s a fun atmosphere and the players seem to love it.

* I thought Kevin Matin was going to run Thomas Ulsrud out of the rink in his first game but the Norwegians battled back, especially with that three in the fifth. I don’t think they missed a shot after that and actually were set up for three in the 10th. Canada could have very easily lost that game. Instead, Martin made the clutch draw (which selfishly made writing my story with the 2002 last-rock miss very easy) with his last.

* I thought Bernard’s first game was good but there were quite a few key misses, I thought. And two really bad sweeping errors by the Canadians, one in the seventh and one in the ninth. On the first one, the TV microphones even picked up Cheryl asking Susan about it afterwards.

* Mirjam Ott’s delivery seemed to leave her a few times during the game. She was fishtailing so bad on a couple, she looked as if she was playing in the Friday Night Mixed at my club after a couple of cocktails.

* A thought: I think there are more Chinese media here covering the two Chinese teams than there are Chinese curlers.

* The weirdest tee shirt I saw today was worn by a 20ish guy who looked sort of normal. His shirt said: “Kevin Martin Makes Me Haaard.” That’s so wrong on so many levels.

* The Russian women’s team didn’t look very good. They made a few really strange calls and someone should tell them that four people sweeping a stone doesn’t really do anything more than two people sweeping.

* The novelty of the Norwegian men’s pants has worn off. Now they're just silly.

* Just in case you missed it last night, John Morris was named as one of Canada’s top 10 bachelors by Entertainment Tonight Canada.

* Craziest thing I’ve seen here so far. Well before the second draw, they start piping the teams in and I figured it was a rehersal of some sort. Nope. It’s the opening ceremonies for curling. But there’s about eight people in the stands. Seriously. Apparently they forgot to tell anyone. It became the silliest thing I’ve seen in curling. Every Olympic curling team out on the ice. John Furlong, the CEO of VANOC, there to give a speech and no fans. By the time they finished, a few had dribbled in for the evening round. But as they exited, David Murdoch looked up at me on the bench and just shook his head. I shook mine right back.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

At The Olympics

I arrived in Vancouver and spent my first day at the Olympic curling venue, which, in contrast to the rest of the venues, is freezing.

The place, officially called Vancouver Olympic Centre, is sort of tucked in beside a residential area and usually houses a neat little baseball complex.

The curling facility is a good looking, but small complex. There are seats for 5,600 and as for the media, I don’t know if I’ve ever been closer to the action. If Bob Pickering were still playing, he’d probably hit us with his backswing.

This was the first day the players have been on the ice and so far, it’s getting rave reviews. Kevin Martin said there’s about four and a half feet of swing and it’s weight sensitive, meaning if you’re heavy, it won’t move. He also said all the movement is late, good for those quiet weight hits.

I thought David Murdoch had the best line, though, when he said: Finally, the Olympic Games are going to have some curling ice.” There certainly hasn’t been much good ice in the past Games. This should be exciting if it stays like this.

Making a big impression during their session was Team Norway, who showed up wearing pants from a company called Loud Mouth Golf. You might have seen John Daly wearing this line on the PGA Tour. They definitely live up to their name, that’s for sure.

Apparently they have a second set that’s somewhat different. The pants were the idea of second Chris Svae who said there are no rules about what pants you can wear, but he added, “There might be after this.” By the way, he was the guy who brought out the pink belts last year.

Overall my experience here has been fantastic. I woke up early and headed downtown (I’m staying out by the airport) to the main media centre to get my accreditation and was in and out in about three minutes. No waiting. I then took a walk over to the flame and had to admit to being disappointed. The flame and structure are impressive but they’re behind a fence with a generator and some other junk in the way. I’ve posted a picture so you can see what I mean.

The Sky Train here is amazing and is free so that makes the transportation around the city easy. The curling venue is about a 10 minute walk from the station so as long as it’s not raining . . .as if, right?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Michael Burns Sr. RIP

I was saddened to learn today of the passing of Michael Burns Sr., the foremost curling photographer in the game’s history. Many newbies will know his son, Mike Jr., who has carried on the tradition.

Mike Sr., shot Briers for as long as I can remember. When I did my book on the history of the Brier, I spent a day in Sr.’s archives, looking through some of the most remarkable shots from decades of covering the roaring game.

In addition to curling, Sr., handled photography at the racetrack and eventually moved his business out there to a trailer. He had been downtown for years.

And, something many may not know, but he also shot other sports such as hockey and has one of the greatest shots of the famous Bill Barilko goal that won the Stanley Cup.
There’s more in this fine obituary in the Toronto Star.

I will always remember Michael as being well-dressed and professional, no matter what the day or situation. He was truly an amazing guy.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Jones, Howard and Lino

* Congrats to Jennifer Jones and her squad for another Scotties title. This one was well earned after getting off to a slow start, something that’s not unfamiliar for the foursome. I wonder if this will end any of the rumours of Cathy O-C getting the axe or moving on. After all, it’s hard to pass up another trip to the Canadian finals, especially since it’s in Charlottetown next year.
As impressive as the Jones team was, I have to guess many fans were hoping for that Cinderella story PEI team to pull it out. Kathy O’Rourke (whose haircut is probably closer to Cruella Deville than Cinderella) and her rink played solid except for that steal of two in eight. Ouch. But Erin Carmody was remarkable. My quads hurt just watching her stand in the hack and glare down at the broom for 30 seconds or whatever it was before she threw the rock. By the way, is she out of high school yet? She looks about 15.

* Glenn Howard went undefeated to win Ontario in Napanee. Brad Gushue takes Nfld/Lab. Yawn.

* Finally, here’s my story about Lino Di Iorio, the guy behind Balance Plus, who was rightfully fit to be tied when the CCA/COC started trumpeting all the top-secret results coming out of those two studies done at the University of Alberta and Wester using Own the Podium funds.
Lino’s been banging his head against the wall trying to get the folks up in Ottawa to buy in to his research with no luck. So he took his show to Scotland and other European countries, all of who have benefited. And many who were chuckling at how the Canadian media were reacting to the press conferences held to announce these revolutionary results. While we don’t know exactly what the Canadian studies came up with, a couple of people I talked to said they have a pretty good idea and they’ve known this type of stuff for, oh, almost a decade.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Scotties from my couch

So what’s going on at the Scotties? I don’t recall seeing so many missed shots in a big event. It’s not that the curling is horrible, just that you expect it to be a lot better at this stage.

I heard Vic Rauter talking on the FAN 590 radio in Toronto this morning and he was saying the ice has been giving the players fits, that it seems to change from morning to night. He too mentioned the number of missed shots. He also said that it’s very sensitive so if a player sets the rock back at all, it just never has a chance to get back. Quite often, too, the play gets better as the week goes on and the teams figure things out.

Still, while watching from the comfort of my couch, it’s easy to point out the flaws and point fingers. I’m sure it’s not nearly so easy when you’re there trying to deal with it. Still, I have seen some shaky deliveries with some drifting that almost always means a correction at release. You can get away with that in a club but not so on arena ice.

That’s another thing – the women don’t play as much on arena ice as the men. It’s a much different animal and if you’re an inexperienced team, it can be a tough learning curve. Of course that doesn’t really account for the play of PEI so far which has been the surprise. Of the teams near the top of the leaderboard, I suspect they’ve had the fewest hours on arena surface.

So far, the team that’s impressed me the most has been Ontario’s Krista McCarville. I was duly impressed with her rink in Edmonton at the Trials, with the aggressive style of play she used and the big shots she came up with. It seems to have carried forward – don’t forget she went through the Ontario playdowns undefeated, a remarkable achievement.

Still, it’s a long week and the halfway mark will only be hit today. Let’s see how things unfold today.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Chatting with Bernard

I had a chance to chat with Cheryl Bernard on Saturday as she and her team were in Vancouver for some pre-Games prep. Bernard is a classy individual who gives a great interview, offering up stuff other than the clichés.

When you talk to her, you get the sense she is very focused, very determined and very goal-oriented. So that’s why, she said, it’s been difficult since winning the Trials because her life really hasn’t been her own. She and her teammates have had to put on the leash of the CCA and COC and go here and there and do what they’re asked.

One thing she pointed out as sorely lacking has been the chance to play a competitive event. The squad went to Bern to play in one women’s spiel, but I think if I was the CCA or some bonspiel organizer, four years from now, I’d schedule a big women’s event in Canada in early January. Not only would you likely get the Canadian team, but probably most of the international rinks as well.

I do think it’s wise for the CCA/COC to have put a media attaché in place to help them deal with the crush of requests that invariably comes with being the Canadian curling team. When I did the book with Russ Howard after 2006, he talked about that as being absolutely smothering. Calls came from everywhere and a lot were from U.S. writers who knew basically nothing about curling. He and Brad Gushue had to deal with most of them.

This time out, Karen MacDonald is playing filter. I had no trouble getting some time with Bernard, however. MacDonald was superb in making all the arrangements. George Karrys/Curling Guru in the Sun has a story on the new attaché.

Back to Bernard and her mental fortitude. After talking to her and getting to know her somewhat, I think this is what will carry them through in Vancouver. While they don’t have a lot of international experience, they are so psychologically strong, they might have a big advantage over the rest of the field.

The column is here.