Thursday, January 29, 2015

Tartan Club: Hip to be cool

So how do curling clubs attract potential new players to the game? If you're the age-old Tartan Club in Regina, you open the doors up to rockers according to this story on

The club, in a strategic location, has opened its doors to a regular Friday night event called The Blender. Most of those attending are part of the local live music scene including the organizer, Piper Burns, a drummer who worked at the club as a teenager. He's put together a pretty good deal. 

Many are more comfortable playing rock music than throwing rocks, but all of them have shown up to learn a new sport, drink a few beer, and hear some good music. Ten bucks gets you a drink, two hours of curling and a local band. No experience is needed, no special equipment required, and you don't need to find a team to play. 

Not only has the event brought some money into the club, but it's also an opening to some potential new members, many who've never thrown a rock before.

Many of the young people had never tried curling until they started coming to the monthly Blender events. That makes Manager Alan Bratt a happy man. Bratt has spent the better part of 37 years hanging out at the club. He's seen a lot of changes over the years, but never anything like this.  "I'm fascinated by it. This is a different crowd. Curling's been in a kind of decline. The regular league curling that's been dominant in this province for 100 years seems to be not as successful."
The Tartan is not alone in getting the cool kids into the club. I was curling in an event at Toronto's High Park a few years back and finished up around 11 pm. We came off the ice and the lounge was jammed with 20somethings, many of whom were well into their beers, others who were well into some other kind of, um, stuff. Music was blaring on the ice and the kids just couldn't wait to get out and toss a few boulders.

The lesson here is if you make it hip and cool, then you have the potential to attract a different clientele, one that just might save your facility.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Some Sunday night thoughts on ice conditions

Bad ice. It gets the blame for everything these days. We've heard a lot about it recently and while watching the women's provincial playdowns, it was easy to see. 

In the Ontario men’s playdowns, the conditions during regional play were described as horrid. Straight and relatively slow. That was where Glenn Howard got bounced.

In the Alberta women’s championship, the game between Heather Nedohin and Chelsea Carey had some inconsistent speed and curl that seemed to confuse both teams.

Same thing in the B.C. semi-final, which appeared to have a bit of a straight spot that caught Kelly Scott’s last rock, and the Manitoba women’s semi where Einarson and Spencer were made to look silly.

Now it should be noted that none of these curlers used the ice as an excuse for the results of the game. But clearly conditions do affect outcomes, for better or worse.

And it should also be noted that ice technicians do everything they can to create great ice surfaces, understanding that conditions, experience, weather and arenas all affect the result.

If you’ve curled long enough, you’ve played on bad ice (or, in many cases with bad rocks). It happens. Sometimes during regular weekly games, other times at the Brier.

A few years ago while playing in the big Goldline, City of Toronto championship, we visited three or four different clubs and at two of them the conditions were so horrible I would quit the game if I had to play there regularly.

I’ve also covered enough Briers where the ice was a disaster, thankfully usually only for a draw or two. But before my time, in the 1970s, conditions were often bordering on unplayable – before the CCA had its own rocks and before ice technicians knew how to work in arenas.

Sam Richardson told me once in the Canadian Mixed that he saw a rock stop at the back 12, half in the rings, half out. As he turned to call the next shot, the rock suddenly sprung to life and slipped out of play. The ice had a ledge that severe right at the back of the sheet! 

For the regular knee-slider, conditions aren’t as much of an issue because most of us simply aren’t that good. But most top players are spoiled. They don’t play that often in clubs any more but rather in arenas with the top ice technicians in the game who have learned to create not only very good conditions but also very similar ones from event to event. In general terms, you know what you’re going to get almost before you throw the first rock.

I remember playing in a summer charity event a few years back where we had about a two-foot fall. Our celebrity, a noted female curler with lots of national experience but fairly young in age, had never experienced negative ice. That shocked me.

These days, it seems that late into the games, ice conditions can break down. I’m not sure if that’s because of the technology in the new brooms that simply wears out the playing surface, or body heat from sliding, or curling clubs that aren’t used to TV lights or rocks sliding over the ice – over and over – or a combination of all of those things.

It sure does give good thought for moving everything to eight ends.

I think ice technicians are really being pushed to the limit and I’m always amazed at just how good they can make things most of the time. A good ice technician at a club is worth his weight in gold, that’s for sure. (I’m lucky enough to play at a club with one of the best in the business, Don Powell.)

Bad ice is tough two different ways.  The first is that you can throw a good shot and not get rewarded. That irks curlers of all levels. You expect one result and see something totally different. You throw what you think is perfect weight and it comes up short. You expect it to curl and it runs straight. This is mostly ice that changes during the course of a game.

The other type is just very different than what you are used to. You like four feet of curl and you get half a foot. You like fast ice and you get sludge.

In my opinion, slow straight ice is like death. It produces boring curling and reduces the skill level. 

But you know what? If you are playing in a competition, you deal with it. You find a way to play on it. You won’t always get the result you want but that’s curling. If you play long enough, hopefully it all evens out.

Another ugly pre-qualifying possibility

Here’s an interesting scenario brought to my attention by reader Gary:

With “pre-event qualifying” raising its ugly head at the Scotties and Brier this year, it’s now possible for a team to be eliminated from play by its draw to the button.

Let me explain. We'll use the women's event as an example. At this year’s Scotties, teams from Northwest Territories, the Yukon and Northern Ontario will play down prior to the main event to determine the 12th and final participant in the national championship. The first game is Thursday evening with two more on Friday.

Then the top two teams will them move on to play a final that is actually held at the same time as the opening draw. The winner moves into the main competition.

However, each team plays the other two in this pre-qualifier. Let’s say there’s a circular win-loss situation where all three teams go 1-1. How do they decide which two move on? A pre-event draw to the button -- it’s officially referred to as draw shot distance.

In other words, it’s possible that one team could be eliminated by their draw.

That just adds more anguish to this entire relegation/pre-event qualifying situation. Imagine travelling all the way to Moose Jaw, playing your two games, losing one by say a pick or a great last shot by your opponent and then being sent home because your draw shot was the worst of the three teams.

I checked with Warren Hansen on this, by the way, and to the best of his knowledge, this is the first time in a CCA competition that a team could be eliminated using the draw shot distance.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Grand Slam adding more spiels over next two years

Just as promised when it took over the Grand Slam of Curling, Sportsnet has increased the number of events and today announced that it will continue to grow the series over the next two years.

In 2015-16, there will be seven events and the year following, eight.

Next year, five of the seven spiels will involve men’s and women’s teams. That will increase to six of eight a year later.

For next season, the confirmed dates are as follows:
·       GSOC Tour Challenge  (men and women) - September 8-13, 2015         
·       Masters (men and women) - October 27-November 1, 2015          
·       National (men) - November 11-15, 2015
·       Canadian Open (men and women) - December 8-13, 2015           
·       Elite 10 (men) - March 16-20, 2016  
·       Players' Championship (men and women) - April 5-10, 2016       
·       Champions Cup (men and women) - April 26- May 1, 2016

The lineup for the following year will be as follows:
·       GSOC Tour Challenge (men and women) - September 6-11, 2016
·       Masters (men and women) - October 25 - 30, 2016
·       National (men) - November 9-13, 2016
·       Canadian Open (men and women) - December 6-11, 2016
·       Event TBD (men and women) - January 5-9, 2017
·       Elite 10 (men) - March 16-19, 2017  
·       Players' Championship (men and women) - April 11-16, 2017
·       Champions Cup (men and women) - April 25-30, 2017

Two things jump out at me looking at this lineup: the first is the early start date of the kickoff event – September. The second is the last event, the Champions Cup. I’m not sure what this event is, since I always believed the Players Championship was the big finale. As well, the late date could be as much of a stretch as the early start for the first one. Oh and the 2016 Players Championship will go head to head with the Masters.

Here’s a quote via a press release from Sportsnet president and the guy who beat me on Bumper Stumpers, Scott Moore:

“Canada’s appetite for premium curling coverage continues to grow at a great rate. Sportsnet remains committed to growing the sport in Canada, adding more events to Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling that shine the spotlight on both international and home-grown talent while elevating the profile of curling’s up-and-coming stars in communities across the country.”

This is a bold move for Sportsnet but one that has obviously been made with the ratings clearly in mind. 
Simply put, curling draws respectable numbers and offers up good live broadcasts that can be slotted in to times when there are otherwise no live events. You can have live curling at 9 am on a Thursday, something that’s not always possible in other sports.

And live sports is a big seller these days in a broadcast world where Netflix and PVRs reign.

The other significant factor is that Sportsnet owns the property, meaning no rights fees although there operational costs.

If you’re a curling fan, it means you won't have many missed weekends without curling on the TV. 

For the top men's teams, this brings the dream of full time professional curling closer. If you add in the eight events of '16-'17 along with the Canada Cup, Continental Cup and a few big spiels (if those events can still squeeze in dates), it is almost a full schedule. 

OCA starts the process of change

It appears the OCA is ready for change.

This morning at 9:30 in Midland, Ont., where the provincial Scotties is being played, the OCA will hold a meeting of players -- past and present and future (although I'm not quite sure how you determine future players) -- to hear ideas for changing up the playdown process.

This is a very positive step and the association is hoping for a progressive meeting. It's asked those who plan on attending the meeting to bring ideas for change and not dwell on what's happened or gone wrong in the past.

The meeting is being seen as a big step by players; many who are in the competition plan on being there. Rachel Homan and Lisa Weagle who aren't in the competition, see it as so vital, they're coming in from Ottawa to attend it.

Here's the notice that was on the OCA web site:

At the request of curlers the Ontario Curling Association will be hosting an information session on Friday, January 23rd at 9:30 am at the Best Western Plus Highland Inn & Conference Centre, Midland (room TBA). As a Scotties participant (past, present or future) you are invited to this session which will allow the players and OCA to discuss future plans for the competition and how we declare our Champion. We are looking for positive input in a going forward approach and not a discussion of all the past perceived or actual deficiencies in the playdown system. 

The notice goes on to say that the OCA will be embarking on a full review of all its competitions beginning in the spring. But the best news is that the association wants the review committee led by past competitors, although there will be delegates from various other stake holders such as OCA board, current players and ice technicians.

Presumably there will be a similar meeting at the men's event in Dorchester.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Toronto offering outdoor curling

Ever played pick-up hockey on an outdoor rink? You know, you call the guys or gals and agree to meet them over at the ice pad? It's fun, sometimes frosty and truly Canadian.

Well thanks to the Toronto Curling Association -- which may be the most progressive and forward-thinking of any curling association in the land -- you can now call those friends and go curling. Outside. In the cold!

The TCA has arranged to put in three sheets of ice at two different locations and has a group of volunteers ready to help out. The kick-off is Sunday. Here's what's at each location:

2 Houses (the targets for the day)
16 Stones (state-of-the-art Light-Rocks)
8 Brooms (one for each player)
1 Portable hack (think starting block)
1 Rocks-Box (the steel lock-box for the equipment)

We'll see how this goes but I'd say it goes to one of the biggest stumbling blocks I hear about when people want to start curling -- "Where can I play?" So many wanna-be curlers think that every curling rink is a private club and they have no way of knowing how to get on the ice. Now they can in a fun way. 

Congrats to the TCA for this great initiative. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

Deadspin shows curling highlight, has no idea what it's talking about

Oh Deadspin.

The great sports popular culture website posted a curling highlight -- the Maria Prytz triple for five -- from the WFG Continental Cup, which is great. Any coverage of curling in the US is good coverage.

And we have to admit. It knows that it doesn't know. Deadspin had fun with the fact that curling, to many in America is a weird thing they see only at the Olympics. And it messed up the terminology of the game in its report.

We're not talking double-raise, triple-takout terminology but rather the verb associated with playing the sport. You know, to curl.

Did you know people do curling (or whatever the proper verb is) in non-Olympic years? It's true. Here's proof.
No one in America knows anything about curling, but this is still pretty impressive.

You can read the whole piece here, and realize there's a very large tongue in cheek being used.

Continental Cup headed back to Vegas -- Will Ottawa Brier organizers be pissed?

The Continental Cup is headed back to Las Vegas where it was a massive success last year. More than 50,000 fans decided gambling, curling and everything Sin City were a good mix and made the trip. Reports were that the event was fun for fans and curlers alike. And really, how can you not have a good time in Las Vegas?

So the CCA and its partners decided to run that play again, taking the event (that is wrongly compared to golf's Ryder Cup on so many levels) back to the Orleans Arena.

Here's CCA head honcho Greg Stremlaw with the announcement (complete with a cheesy gambling reference) from a press release:

“After what took place in 2014 in Las Vegas, we knew we had to bring this event back as soon as possible,” said Canadian Curling Association Chief Executive Officer Greg Stremlaw. 
“It was a gamble that paid off, thanks to the combination of a wonderful facility, our amazing Canadian curling fans who packed the arena, and the hard work of the Reno-Tahoe Winter Games Coalition (RTWGC), which was one of the driving forces behind bringing the event to Las Vegas in the first place, and making it so successful.”

That's the good news.

The other side of this is that there's strong speculation the reason the Kamloops Brier didn't sell out was because many of the folks who regularly make a trip to the Canadian championship instead chose to head to the Strip, spending their money in Vegas. That was the theory brought up by Warren Hansen who is the world's most learned man when it comes to curling championships.

So putting one and one together, does that mean next year's Timmies Brier in Ottawa should expect to lose some fans to Vegas again?

Time will tell of course, and it's hard to decide if this is a win-win or a win-lose. Any time you can showcase curling in the USA, it's a good thing, even if it means losing a bundle at the roulette wheel.

Those pre-qualifying stories raising their heads

I was wondering how long it would be before these stories started appearing. has an item this morning on the road the top team in P.E.I. will need to travel if it hopes of playing in the Brier this year. Yup, it not only needs to win its province but also come through the pre-qualifying tournament against Nova Scotia and Yukon.

Adam Casey, who skips a PEI team currently ranked 10th in the country, is voicing the concerns of curlers from the Atlantic provinces who feel they are getting the short end of the CCA's new set-up that involves a Team Canada at the Brier and a Northern Ontario squad at the Scotties.

Casey told CBC the new qualifying round is a polarizing concept, with smaller jurisdictions losing out. 
"I haven't spoken to many players that have been for it yet,” said Casey. 
“I know a lot of people from the Maritimes and sort of the small places really kind of take it like almost ruining the Brier, and it's making it tough to grow interest in the sport.”
Is suspect this will be the first of many such stories as the men's and women's national championships draw closer.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Howard pulls out of Skins Game for Challenge Round

OK, so maybe Glenn Howard and his team do want another shot at getting to the Tim Hortons Brier. It's been confirmed that Howard and the boys have pulled out of the Pinty's Skins Game and will suit up for the Challenge Round.

Don Landry had the confirmation from Howard in his blog here.

“At the beginning of the year, our goal was to go to the provincials, go to the Brier, hopefully go to the Worlds. We still have an opportunity to do that. So we felt that’s what we have to do.”
“We still really want to get back to the Brier and do the best we can.”

As most fans in Ontario know, Howard was bounced from the Regional playdowns over the weekend. It was suggested that he would forgo the last-chance Challenge Round for the possibly lucrative Skins Game, missing out on a shot to play in the Ontario provincial final.

But late Monday night, word began to leak out that Howard was going to pass on the Skins.

Howard will instead head to Bradford on Jan. 16, where he and the boys will suit up to try and make it to the Ontario finals in Dorchester.

Feedback on the playdown process

Well yesterday’s post on the current Ontario Curling Association playdown process drew a lot of reaction. There were comments posted, emails sent directly to me and a few Tweets fired out as well. 
There was a lot of opinion about what happened. Some positive, some negative. 
A few missed the point of the column entirely. 
So here is a follow-up that will hopefully deal with a number of the issues:

  1.  Ontario’s playdown system is fine. 
Really? I disagree. Why is Ontario is the only major region that doesn’t offer a spot in the provincial final outside the direct playdown process?

Take a look at this: 

* In B.C., the defending champion and CTRS leader get in;
* In Alberta, the defending champion, CTRS leader and the top two point-getters from the Alberta Curling Tour get in; 
* In Saskatchewan, the winner of the Saskatchewan Curling Tour Players Championship, the top two CTRS leaders and a wild card from the CTRS and SCT get in; 
* In Manitoba, there are two spots for the CTRS leaders;
* In Quebec, the point leader on the Quebec Curling Tour gets in and there are three spots for teams that earn points on a variety of curling tours. 

Sorry but Ontario’s playdown process is outdated and in need of change. 

     2.  Glenn Howard shouldn’t expect to get a bye. 

This was never about Glenn Howard and I guarantee you even if it was, he would never be asking for a bye. This is about the system. I haven’t spoken to Glenn but I’m sure he’d be the first to say that he lost fair and square (and congrats to Damien Villard and Aaron Squires and their teams for knocking off the curling icon). I can tell you that even when he was winning Ontario year after year he was perhaps the loudest critic of the current system. Two years ago, John Epping was bounced in the regions. Last year it was Joe Frans. Both were the top-ranked Ontario team. So this is not the first time this has happened. In any case, if there was a spot given to the top team on the CTRS, Team Howard wouldn’t have earned it. John Epping’s rink sits fifth on that list, one spot ahead of Howard (of course it could depend on the cutoff date). 

     3.  You shouldn’t give free passes to elite teams

Well really, you aren’t if you give byes via CTRS. What you’re doing is rewarding teams that go out and compete against the best teams in big competitions. It’s not free – they’re earning their spots over a longer period against better teams, which is ultimately a better test. Instead of getting spots through one or possibly two levels (i.e. zones and regions), they’re doing it over months of play. What happens is you end up with your best teams at your biggest event. That doesn’t mean they can’t be knocked off there – remember last year?

     4. Rewarding elite teams with byes is the reason why there are so few teams entering competitions. 

A few people tried to link giving byes to the drop in entries, citing the cancellation of playdowns in Edmonton as an example.

To me, um, that’s 180 degrees wrong. 

If I’m an up-and-coming team and I know that, say, Team Howard and Team Epping are already in the provincial final, I might be more inclined to enter the playdowns, knowing I stand a better chance of reaching it without having to face them.

There are lots of reasons why entries are dropping these days, but giving byes to top teams is not one of them.

     5. Howard had a chance to get to the provincials and chose to skip the Challenge Round for the Skins Game.

Again, this isn’t about Glenn Howard, it’s about the system. But you know what? If I was Howard, I’d have done the exact same thing. The chance to win a boatload of cash or beat my head against the wall? I know what I’d take. Not everyone would, and that’s fine, but this is really a moot point. UPDATE: Howard has now decided to play in the Challenge Round, pulling out of the Skins Game. 

     6. The system has changed over the last few years with the addition of the defending champion and the Challenge Round changes.

Yes, I guess adding a defending champion is a change, and while it’s welcome, it’s not the only kind of change that curlers are looking for. They want a system that’s about rewarding teams that are out there playing all season, whether it’s in Ontario or around the world. As for the Challenge Round, it’s also dying a slow death although it's still useful. It's been around since the 1970s. There used to be two of them, now there’s one. There’s a convoluted process in place to qualify, but it’s not needed because it’s never full – last year there were 19 teams. I could take my team from the Thursday night league, sign up and get in. If you want to make this work, have it before the zone playdowns. Then it will mean something. But there's nothing really new about the Challenge Round. 

Checking back on my notes about this situation, I found a column I wrote in 2013 in the Ontario Curling Report where then-executive director Doug Bakes said they held a player feedback forum at the Tankard in 2009 and got lots of great information. He added that there was another meeting planned for the Tankard that year that would include players, sponsors, TV and administrators. But nothing happened. 

Now that was the old regime that was essentially tossed out on its ear last year. The new folks have had a lot more pressing issues to deal with like, oh, getting a proper constitution in place. So they can be forgiven if they haven’t made any changes for this year. I really think there's a smart bunch in the office now including the new executive director Steve Chenier. If nothing else, I'm confident in saying that they understand the need for change. 

BTW, thanks for all the comments, both those that agreed and those that didn't. This kind of feedback will help further the discussion. 

Next, a plan on how to make it work. 

Edmonton zones cancelled due to lack of teams

What if they held a zone playdown and nobody came?

As Con Griwkowsky reports in the Edmonton Sun,  only seven teams signed up for zone playdowns in that fair city so there was no need to hold any playdowns. All the teams got a pass to the Northern Alberta playdown.

At around 8 p.m. on Friday night, the seven teams entered in the Edmonton area men’s playdowns got a phone call. They were informed that the event was off and that all seven teams would get a direct entry into the northern Alberta playdowns in Camrose. 
So, the teams came to the rink Saturday just to sit around, have a few pops and sign their forms for the northerns. 
“I got the call and they said there was a couple of zones that nobody had entered, so,” said veteran skip Wade White. “I was actually bringing in a spare because one of my guys had to work this weekend.”

Seems to be a sign of the times in curling these days. No longer are the guys from the club willing to give up their money and time to get hammered by elite curlers. So in essence, the curling is getting better but the gap between the good teams and the knee-sliders from the Thursday night league is getting wider.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Ontario playdown system embarrasses yet again

OK, Ontario Curling Association, it’s time to come into this century. Time to do what almost every other province does. Time to realize that the times have changed and the system currently used to determine how teams qualify for the provincial finals is grossly outdated.

Yet another example has come to the forefront, this time an extreme one – Glenn Howard and his rink were bumped out of the competition during regional play over the weekend and will not play the Challenge Round due to a conflict.

Take nothing away from the teams that beat Howard, but it means the guy on who you’ve hung your marketing budget (evidence below) um, won’t be there. How many tickets would Team Howard -- currently sixth on the CTRS -- sell? How many kids would get an autograph from these guys after games? Which rink in the field would have the best chance of giving Ontario a Brier title?

Sure, maybe there’s something about win to get in, but Ontario is about the only place these days where the team that wins more over the course of the year gets no help.

And make no mistake -- this is not really a Glenn Howard thing, this is an Ontario curling thing. 

By now, most regions not named Ontario have come to the realization that it’s really smart to find a way to have your best teams at your marquee event. That rewarding teams for how they play over the course of a year is a better way than how they do over one or two weekends. Not Ontario. Ontario gives only the defending champion a pass. No CRTS recognition, no money list, no Ontario tour. Only zones, regions and the infamous Challenge Round.

That’s been the path for about 30 years and sure, it’s romantic to think of a team advancing from its club playdowns to the Brier, but that rarely happens any more.

If you’re a curler in Ontario, it’s embarrassing. The province has become a laughing stock where the best in the game gather. They laugh but also have pity on those who have to compete here. Too many good teams have been left by the curb when they should be on the ice fighting for a shot at the provincial title.

Now certainly Ontario has had a lot on its plate of late and changing the playdown system may not have been the priority. But I’ve written about this for so many years and I’ve heard so many excuses from a variety of people about why there hasn’t been a change that it’s clear what’s really lacking here is leadership.

Someone needs to step up and get this done. There are a thousand proposals out there and every one of them would be better than what’s now in place.

Make a change. Now. Before this gets even more ridiculous. Step into the present and let the best play.