Saturday, February 28, 2015

A lousy two centimetres

Two centimetres. Less than an inch.

That was the difference between Nova Scotia playing on and going home.

Any way you slice it, it's a hard thing to stomach and I'm sure the CCA Curling Canada was none to happy about seeing this result, a kind of perfect storm of bad possibilities.

On Friday, PEI defeated Nova Scotia in the final game of the pre-qualifying round robin, creating a circular win-loss record. That brought into play the first tiebreaker which was the totals of the pre-game draws to the button.

Before each game, one team member threw two shots -- an in-turn and an out-turn -- with the total distance recorded. The two game total was registered and when all the cyphering was done, Nova Scotia came third, just a lousy two centimetres behind Yukon.

As a result, PEI and Yukon will play in today's final with the winner moving into the main field. Nova Scotia will head home. For the first time in the Brier's history, there won't be a Bluenoser team in the Brier. And they'll face the same task again next year. N.S. skip Glen MacLeod told it was a tough loss to swallow.

"Two centimetres was all it was," MacLeod said. "As far as the game goes, P.E.I. was the better team today. 
"The format, I'm not too fussy about. The draw to the button is a little disappointing. It's an easy shot. We had that in our hands."

It's hard to digest the change and there is understandably outrage from the curling folks in Nova Scotia.

If PEI was to lose today to Yukon, there would be equal frustration from the folks in that province.

But there would also be jubilation from the folks in Whitehorse where it would mark the first Brier for a team representing just the Yukon as opposed to the Territories.

The funny thing about this change is that judging from social media response, which understandably really isn't a perfect way of measuring things,  it isn't popular with curlers and it isn't popular with fans.

For example, here's Brad Gushue talking to about it:

"I'm not a big fan of the relegation," said Newfoundland and Labrador skip Brad Gushue. "I think it's a little embarrassing for the teams. The way they're playing out here with nobody watching and no ceremonies or anything, it's not right. 
"It's disappointing not to have one of Nova Scotia or P.E.I, who have been in the Brier since I think the '30s. It's a little bit odd."

For fan response, just go on Twitter. Or Facebook. I have yet to see a positive response to this situation.

That same article had a quote from Jean-Michel Menard saying he was now in favour of the 14-team format used at the Junior, where rinks are divided into pools. He said he wasn't a fan of that at first but thinks it's better than relegating teams.

I have to agree. I wasn't a fan of pools for a number of reasons. The primary one is that not every player plays everyone else. But the more I think about it, the more I think it's an improvement over relegation.

First is that every team gets to play. Second is that -- finally -- the Page Playoff System would be used the way it was intended when it was created.

Right now, the cut is deep and still bleeding. To be sure, no one likes change.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Pre-qualifying could come down to draw to the button

So here's a scenario that the CCA  Curling Canada -- or any curling fan -- probably doesn't want to see. But it's possible a team could be eliminated from the pre-qualifier by a draw to the button. 

So far, Yukon defeated PEI and lost to Nova Scotia. The Bluenosers beat Yukon. If PEI defeated Nova Scotia in the game this afternoon, then the there will be a circular tie. The tiebreaker? The pre-game draws to the button. 

Prior to each game a member of the team throws an in-turn and and out-turn with the combined distance to the button being recorded. Here's what's happened so far. 

Game 1
Yk 20.8
PEI 25.1

Game 2
Yk 97.5
NS 23.7

So Yukon's total is pretty high. It has to hope that Nova Scotia beats PEI, in which case Nova Scotia and Yukon go to the final. If PEI wins, it has to hope that one of the two messes up its draws to the button. 

The top two teams will move on to the final to be played on Saturday. 

Sad start to the "Prior"

Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun recounts the opening game of the pre-qualifying between P.E.I. and Yukon, describing it as sad. And hard to argue with him. Two teams that have won their region/province battling it out in front of almost no one, with no ceremony or even introductions. 

It might have been interesting. But it was hardly a happening. 
There were no bagpipes. Nobody carried a sign with the name of their team. Nobody carried their flag. There were no introductions. 
Just one P.A. announcement: “The game will begin in one minute.” 
It was sad. 
And it’s going to get even sadder.This morning Nova Scotia, a legitimate province that won the very first Brier back in 1927 and interrupted what would have been a five-in-a-row run by Alberta’s Randy Ferbey to win its most recent one in 2004, will play the Yukon. That’s the territory that didn’t even bother to send a team to compete in the Territories finals last year in Yellowknife.

If you think there's pressure on guys like Koe, Morris  and Jacobs, think about these guys playing just so they don't have to go home on Sunday. Here's Adam Casey:

“P.E.I. has been in every Brier since 1936 and everybody I talk to in P.E.I. is saying ‘Get us out of this relegation.’ I’m looking at it as a hurdle on my way to a full Brier.”

In the Free Press, Paul Wiecek outlines just how significant the changes to the format are:

To put the magnitude of this change into context, consider there has never been a Brier that has taken place without Nova Scotia, a charter participant and the winner of the first Brier in 1927. 
It's been almost as long a run for P.E.I., as the province has participated in the Brier every year since 1936. 
But all that tradition ends this weekend as a new era for the Brier begins in which the four lowest-ranked teams from the previous year must take part in a play-in round immediately prior to the Brier.
And kudos go to Jeff Mackinnon of the Calgary Herald for putting in print what social media has been calling this event -- the "Prior." And he tells the story of how the PEI team just made it to Calgary in time for its game.

Casey’s gone on record as saying the new Brier pre-qualifying is “stupid.” He arrived in Calgary four days before the start of play Thursday to workout at The Glencoe Club, but struggled when he moved over the Saddledome. His team arrived in Calgary at four hours before Thursday’s game because of flight delays.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Stoughton announces his R . . . . .

He has trouble using the word, but Jeff Stoughton announced on Twitter that he is calling it a career.
The three-time Brier winner and two-time world champ said the time is right for him to step away and perhaps seek off-ice opportunities to stay close to the game.

In the Winnipeg Free Press story, he said he won't ever leave curling completely.

"I still want curling to be a part of my life in the future," Stoughton said. "I still want curling as a big part of my life. Hopefully, now that I’m stepping away, this opens up some doors for me."
I'd think that probably means he's hoping to do move to TV, but if so, that field is a bit crowded right now. Mike Harris and Kevin Martin are all over Sportsnet and Russ Howard is locked in at TSN. However, if there's a second feed at TSN as reports indicate, maybe Stoughton could join the second team.

In any case, Stoughton's retirement (there, I said it if he won't), marks the end of a tremendous career. As a curler Stoughton was exceptional and was part of the Big Three --along with Martin and Glenn Howard -- that dominated their era. He was impressive with a number of different lineups and when he was on, he was virtually unbeatable.

The Winnipeg product will play two more events -- one in Grand Prairie and the Players Championship in Toronto, assuming he qualifies.

As a journalist covering the game, Stoughton was always a pleasure to talk to. He was accommodating, a good quote and win or lose, always prepared to stand in front of the microphones. Classy is the word that comes to mind when I think about Stoughton.

Scotties numbers set records

A little late with this news but the TV ratings are in for the Scotties Tournament of Hearts and it is impressive.

OK, it’s actually beyond impressive, into the WOWZA category.

Take a look at some of these numbers:

** More than seven million different Canadians watched some part of the championship. With a population of approximately 35 million that’s one-fifth of every last person in this country.

** The average audience for the entire tournament was 566,000, which is massive considering many of the broadcasts were on in the middle of the day, traditionally a low viewing time.

** The final attracted 1.05 million viewers – going up against the powerhouse Academy Awards. That’s up 15 per cent over last year. It should be noted that last year came on the heels of the Olympics so there was probably some burnout in curling-watching.

Now Saturday’s Hockey Night in Canada was the top sports show of the week (2.2 million), but after that curling ruled the charts. Compare it to things like the Daytona 500 (500k), the NHL outdoor game with the Kings vs. Sharks (also 500k), or the Leafs at the Hurricanes (another 500k) and you see the power that curling has.

You can probably expect similar number for next week’s Brier too, which, by the way, will experiment with showing two games from the same draw at the same time, using TSN’s five channel feed.

It does bring into question how these growing numbers will affect ticket sales as the CCA and host committees are trying to find ways to get bums in seats. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Pre-qualifying done, not many fans of new system

Nobody likes change.

That's why it's tough to accept the new qualification system for the men's and women's national championships, the first of which wrapped up yesterday at the Scotties in Moose Jaw. Northern Ontario's Tracy Horgan advanced, Kerry Galusha and Sarah Koltun are done.

Take nothing away from the two teams from the North, but it's hard to imagine that a rink from either territory (as well as Nunavut) will appear in many future Scotties or Brier. They don't have the means or resources to play competitively on a consistent basis against the best in the rest of the land. I fear for these two and other have-not regions in the coming years.

In my world, a Scotties or Brier without the Territories, is not worthy.

To no one's surprise, the classy Galusha took the high road after being bounced from play, as Mike Koreen reported in the Sun chain of papers.

"We weren't loving it coming in, but we're excited to be here," Galusha said after losing 7-6 to Northern Ontario's Tracy Horgan in the pre-qualifier final at Mosaic Place on Saturday. "So many other teams would kill to be here fighting for the chance to get out of relegation and into the Scotties. I guess I'd consider ourselves lucky to even be here and have that chance."

Horgan, the victor, also tried to blue-sky the change.

"The nice thing about curling is we're not afraid to try new things," the Sudbury-born Horgan said, not fully endorsing the plan. "This format is different. I don't know if this is the right answer yet, but we're trying it out and we support the decision made to go this route." 

The entire process was awkward and unusual and a little bit disheartening for the teams as they battled it out, as CP's Gregory Strong relayed:

The new qualification setup created a few awkward moments. 
Galusha and Koltun started their game Friday while the other three sheets of ice were being used for a skills competition. Instructions and results were broadcast through the arena while the high-pressure game was ongoing. 
There was even a rare curling heckler in the crowd. One spectator voiced his displeasure that the teams in the qualifier weren't able to participate in the skills competition. 
The main-draw curlers left the rink well before the completion of the qualification game, which went to an extra end. The game didn't wrap until after the start of the traditional pre-tournament banquet at a nearby hotel. 
The two skips took a few questions from reporters before being hustled out of the arena to attend the function. One can only guess how Koltun was feeling as she attended a banquet for a tournament she was no longer a part of. 
Overall, it appears this is not going to be popular with many people. Not the curlers or their fans. As I said, no one likes change, especially not this one.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

My (lengthy) thoughts on pre-qualifying

The teams have been declared and the stakes determined. After years of discussion, several petitions and even some protests, it’s finally time for the first national curling pre-qualifying.

Clearly, this is a turning point for the men’s and women’s national championships. (For the most part here, I’m going to use the Brier as the example but the Scotties is affected equally of course.)

As most fans of the Brier know, this will be the first year that one province and/or territory gets to sit out.

That means that just one of Peter Burgess (NS), Adam Casey (PEI) or Bob Smallwood (Yukon) will play beyond the min-round-robin set up for the final-spot in the 12-team field.
The other two will be sent home, provincial/territorial champs without the opportunity to play in the Brier.

Nunavut had the chance to send a team to this dogfight but chose to opt out.

This little event may end up being more pressure packed than the big show. How’d you like to head back home being forever known as the first provincial/territorial champion who didn’t play in the Brier.

You get a Purple Heart, but you don’t get a Brier.  That’s hard to take. It could even be determined by a simple draw to the button!

This pre-qualifying came about because the CCA and its members deemed it necessary to give equal access to all national championships to all members. So rather than one entry for the three northern territories, there are now three. Since that was happening, the powers that be also added Team Canada to the men’s field and Northern Ontario to the women’s.

And if there is one good thing about this change, it's that there will now be two battles going on as the round-robin nears its end: one for top spot and one to stay out of the relegation. 

Now I understand why the CCA did this. It has to represent everyone equally. For them, the status quo just wasn’t going to cut it.

The fact that there are more curling clubs within 15 minutes of where I live than in all of Nunavut (a grand total of three) is inconsequential. If you start getting into a numbers game, you can’t win. You can’t base entries on number of clubs or curlers.

Or can you? When it comes to the other end of the spectrum, having a large curling population, that’s exactly what is done. Ontario has two teams in large part because it is the most populated curling province. It’s not the only reason, but it is the primary one.

But if you live in the North, why should you be forced to travel at great cost, using up a great time commitment to another territory to battle for a spot that every other region gets on its own?

If you want to hear wild stories, listen to those of the teams that represented the Territories in past Briers about these territorial playoffs – tens of thousands of dollars, long flights, crazy setups and more. And when these were over, one team went home broken-hearted.

If I lived in Whitehorse I’d want my own territory to have an entry. Same if I was in Yellowknife.
See? That’s why it’s hard to fault the CCA. What do they tell those curlers? That they’re less important than the ones in PEI or Alberta?

Now I can only imagine what it will be like for those teams that have been a part of the Brier field for a long time, that don’t make it into the main event. Not to mention all the curlers in their regions.
It will be tough to be a curler in, say, Charlottetown or Halifax to watch the Brier or Scotties and know that your province isn’t represented.

Nova Scotia has been in every Brier since 1927. What if they aren’t there this time?

It might be especially tough for young curlers to have players to look up to. When I was growing up and curling, seeing a guy wearing a Purple Heart was exciting. Knowing that he played in the Brier was special.

What if, say, PEI goes the next five Briers without getting into the main field? Who are the young curlers going to look up to?

Understandably, the curling community in the have-not provinces is not happy about this change. There have been lots of protests and petitions but they’ve had no impact. And so change is what we have.

The Brier field has changed numerous times over the years. From 1927-31, there were cities represented – Toronto and Montreal. In the first Brier, which had just eight rinks, one team represented all of Western Canada. (Northern Ontario, it should be pointed out, has been represented in every Brier).

B.C. and PEI joined the party in 1936, Newfoundland and Labrador in ’51 and the combined Territories came on board in 1975 (going 8-3!).

So the lineup has changed many times, but it’s always been by addition, not subtraction (with the exception of Montreal and Toronto).

The Brier has also changed in other ways. It’s become an event of haves and have-nots. Only five times since 2000 has a team from outside Manitoba, Ontario and Alberta won the title. In that same period, there has never been a playoff without one of those provinces playing.

So maybe it really doesn’t matter if these bottom-feeding provinces aren’t around anyway?

But it will because miracles do happen. Jack MacDuff proved that. To a lesser extent, so did Mark Dacey.

One of the other aspects is that it appears this championship is not going to be the cash cow that it once was. The days of 250,000 fans over a week are gone; an aging fan base and the excellent television coverage have done that.

What does this have to do with the field? Well an obvious solution would be to have 14 teams in the field and have more draws or even possibly more sheets where the ice size permits.
But organizers want to make this event shorter, not longer. See how the Calgary Flames enjoy being out of their rink for 10 or 12 days this year.

As well, the cost to rent these buildings, to stage them, to put in and keep the ice, to have enough volunteers, to keep the patch going. . . is huge and adding an extra day or more time simply isn’t going to happen with the dropping revenues.

The biggest problem with this change is that it really cuts to the fabric of what’s made the Brier successful. It was started by the folks at Macdonald Tobacco as a way to build the nation. It’s no secret that the cigarette company spent oodles trying to get every province to send a team. To get Quebec involved, it had to buy all the local curling clubs stones because they were using irons back in those days. It also made sure that the Brier was hosted at least once in every province.

And because of that, this event grew. It rivalled the Grey Cup as the biggest celebration of Canada through sports. In my opinion what made it better than the football finale was that every part of the country was represented and involved, both on and off the course.

That won’t happen any more. Someone who has been there is going to be left out and that changes everything.

For me, status quo works. It’s not popular for the northerners, I understand, but the fact that Nunavut didn’t send a team (this isn’t the first competition where this has happened by the way) tells me they simply aren’t ready for this. Giving them an entry they don’t want doesn’t make much sense. The CCA would be better off trying to develop the skills of players there and in other parts of the North first. Perhaps create a Northern Championship with multiple teams from the three territories.

I also don’t think the Brier needs a Team Canada. To me, that cheapens an entry. Let’s not forget that Team Canada was instituted in the Scotties because that event needed a marquee team to use in marketing. Women’s curling wasn’t what it is today.

Men’s curling doesn’t need that. It does work in that it provides one more quality rink into the field; a province can have two entries now. But there’s enough quality at the top anyway. The Canada Cup 
and the Grand Slam are that; the Brier is a national championship. Or at least it was.

Now I’m not so sure. Change is never easy no matter where it happens. This seems especially harsh and it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

What's next for Stoughton?

He was the last of the Big Three left standing but after Kevin Martin retired last year and Glenn Howard was knocked off early in the Ontario playdowns, it was just Jeff Stoughton. The 11-time Manitoba champion, who is 51, made it as far as the semi-finals in Manitoba before being sent to the Patch by the McEwen rink. 

Jim Bender of the Winnipeg Sun caught up with Stoughton and asked the grizzled veteran the obvious question for grizzled veterans: What's next?

“I have no idea,” he replied. “I was laughing because they (TV) asked me about it and I said before the game, in the first end or the second end, I said, 'Wow, do I really want to feel like this?' Because you're nervous and you're excited and it's a different feeling, for sure. It's always been a great feeling that you can't get enough of sometimes.” 
Suffice to say, Stoughton has yet to make a decision.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Is McEwen loss biggest news of Provincial Sunday? The cross-country wrap-up

So the biggest story of the provincial championships held Sunday has to be not who won, but who didn’t.
For the fifth time since 2010, Mike McEwen came up short in his bid to wear the buffalo at the Brier. McEwen lost to Reid Carruthers in the provincial final as Paul Wiecek outlined in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Mike McEwen's time will come.
Probably. Maybe? 
But that time wasn't Sunday. 
Reid Carruthers andhis foursome -- third Braeden Moskowy, second Derek Samagalski and lead ColinHodgson -- surprised just about everyone but themselves in defeating McEwen 5-3 at Westman Place in the final of the Safeway Manitoba men's curling championship.

Obviously McEwen took the loss hard, not only refusing to stop to talk with the ink-stained wretches but also failing to appear for the closing ceremonies, which created some awkward moments. 

McEwen did an interview with Sportsnet immediately following the game but blew off the rest of the reporters waiting for him. But much worse, McEwen also blew off the closing ceremonies where the champion is crowned and event volunteers are thanked, leaving his three team members -- third BJ Neufeld, second Matt Wozniak and lead Denni Neufeld -- to stand awkwardly at centre ice by themselves.
Neufeld was dispatched after the game to speak on behalf of his teammates and explain his skip's absence. "I'm not sure," Neufeld said when asked the whereabouts ofhis skip. "It's not ideal but I can understand he's super frustrated. To lose five finals -- people react differently to that. It doesn't mean he's a bad guy or a bad teammate. It is what it is, I guess."


In Kenora, Brad Jacobs and his gold-medal winning team got past Al Hackner and as Peter Ruicci explained in the Sault Star, the skip was more relieved than excited about making it to another Brier.

Asked if feeling relieved was due to the fact the Jacobs rink was believed to be heavily favoured in Kenora, Jacobs said that's only part of the reason.

"But it's also never easy to win Northern Ontarios," he added. "It's very difficult. You have to perform."
But now they have the win and according to Ryan Harnden, that's always special.
"The Brier is something you always dream of winning as a young curler," he said. "It's like a young hockey player wanting to win the Stanley Cup. Hopefully we can win it again."
The foursome attended last year's Brier in Kamloops as spectators and quickly came to a conclusion."Watching the Brier was something that was a lot tougher than we expected," EJ Harnden said. "It was hard not getting there (as competitors)."

In Alberta, it came down to a battle of skips and as Terry Jones outlines in the Edmonton Sun, that was a battle that Kevin Koe won handily.

One statistic told the story. 

Kevin Koe 92%. Brendan Bottcher 67%.

Someday 23-year-old junior and college champion Bottcher is going to have his day but it wasn’t Sunday at the Boston Pizza Cup Alberta men’s curling championship.
Koe, the old pro, shot the lights out and virtually carried his new team on his back to a Brier berth – a berth that he gave up when he recruited Marc Kennedy, Brent Laing and Ben Hebert. Koe had won the Brier last year to qualify as the first team Canada with his previous team. 

Ontario will have a Howard going to the Brier, but that would be Scott, son of Glenn, who was part of Mark Kean’s victorious rink. Kean knocked off John Epping in the provincial final as MikeKoreen recounted in the Toronto Sun.

“Unreal,” the Innerkip skip, 26, said after completing his roller-coaster journey to his first Ontario Tankard title on Sunday.
“It definitely hasn’t set in yet because I’mstill talking. I should be crying or something,” Kean said.
For Glenn Howard, however, it was joy after the difficulty of watching rather than playing.

The happiest guy in the arena might have beenfour-time world champion Glenn Howard, father of Scott. In a stunner, Glenn failed to qualify for the Tankard this year, but his son put the family name back on the trophy.
“It’s such a proud moment as a parent,” said Glenn, who has been to 15 Briers. “Just to see your kid reach his dreams. His dream obviously was to get to the Brier on his own and he’s done that today.” 
Glenn said it was harder “times a hundred” to watch Scott than to play in a Tankard final. 
“It’s hideous,” Glennsaid with a smile. “You try to remain calm and it’s absolutely impossible.” 
Scott said it was aspecial role reversal. 
“To hug my dad rightafter was just surreal because he has been there so many times and I’ve been onthe cheering side,” Scott said. “It’s definitely different when he’s comingonto the ice to cheer me on.”

B.C.'s Jim Cotter defended his title and his headed back to the Brier. That comes after an extra-en, final-shot draw to the pin for the win over Dean Joanisse, reported The Vernon Morning Star

Cotter’s weight, the brushing of front end Rick Sawatzky and Tyrel Griffith and the call by third Ryan Kuhn was bang-on as the rock settled right on the middle of the button to give the Vernon foursome a thrilling 7-6, extra end victory over New Westminter’s Dean Joanisse and a second straight Canadian Direct Insurance B.C. Men’s Curling Championship.
The win avenged an 8-5 loss Saturdaymorning in the one versus two Page playoff format to Joanisse, and  sendsthe Vernon quartet on to the Brier in Calgary starting Feb. 28. 
“Joanisse and his team just played awesome all week and we knew we’d have our hands full and would have to get a couple of breaks along the way and be at the top of our game,” said Cotter, who captured his fifth purpleheart as provincial champ, and who lost only one game at his home club during the bonspiel.

In Nova Scotia, there was a celebration of sorts, even if the winning team isn’t in the Brier just yet as Monty Mosherexplains in the Chronicle Herald.

Glen MacLeod and his Mayflower teammates are going back to the Brier. 
Well, sort of. 
MacLeod and his team of Peter Burgess, Colten Steele and Robbie McLean beat reigning champion Jamie Murphy of Lakeshore 8-5 in Sunday’s Nova Scotia men’s curling championship final at the Halifax Curling Club. 
The winners don’t have a guaranteed spot in the Tim Hortons Brier in Calgary beginning Feb. 28. They will have to earn a berth in a three-team play-in competition with P.E.I. and Yukon.
Murphy and MacLeod, both 5-2, were the toptwo teams from the round-robin. MacLeod swept Murphy 3-0 in the event,including both playoff games.