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.

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