On Coaching, Nunavut, and Being Underrated
It's time to dip into the mailbag...
Hello friends. My apologies for the lack of content this month, but it turns out not a whole lot happens in early January in curling? Weird! But we are fully into playdowns season and I’m heading off to Victoria tomorrow to call the BC Provincials, which means you’ll get this newsletter PLUS a recap of the BC Provincials action next week. PLUS I have another fun thing coming up in February. So don’t worry, in the end, the content always gets content-ed.
With not a whole lot on the docket other than a Slam win for Bruce Mouat to get their season back on the rails and yet another W for Rachel Homan, I figured it was time to open up the mailbag. As a reminder, my paid subscribers get first dibs on mailbag questions. If you want to become a paid subscriber and get first dibs and video mailbag episodes and more, click here:
Speaking of Rachel Homan…
While I do think it is easy to bag on announcers, the reality is that this is a pretty wild story! It’s not often we see a female athlete have THREE children in the middle of her prime, and return to the very top of her game and to the top of her sport. One, sure. But three? I know this is a tongue-in-cheek question, but I’ve said before that I actually think what Rachel has done is wildly impressive and should probably get more attention in the wider world of sports than it does.
Honestly the tendency for men’s teams to ALL (or most) have coaches is a relatively new one. I think a lot of it stems from the male ego, to be quite honest. When I was coming up in curling, most men’s teams didn’t have coaches at all. Maybe you’d have someone help you technically at practice a couple times a year, but in terms of having someone at every event (or most), it was rare. Teams felt like they could figure it out on their own. That has changed as more money has flowed into the sport and the chase for the margins gets swifter every year, but I think not having recent players coach is a bit of a holdover from that.
I also think some of that has to do with rivalries from playing days, to be honest. If you notice, most of the women’s teams who are using current or recent players are using men as their coaches. It’s hard to have a cross-gender rivalry, so there’s no hard feelings or distance or what have you when you do that. And if you’ve noticed, there aren’t many women coaching teams at the men’s level. The number isn’t zero, but among the top teams with coaches, it’s awfully close.
Men’s teams also often copy the Koe model and go for less of a strategic/recent player coach and instead opt for one with a high performance background (like Paul Webster with the Bottcher team or a slew of the European coaches) or one with a sports psychology background (like John Dunne with Kevin Koe or Adam Kingsbury with Matt Dunstone).
It’s also at least partly true that there isn’t a lot of money in coaching if you aren’t coaching a foreign country. So a recently retired player who wants to stay in Canada might try something else first, like a job with their member association, an NSO, or as a broadcaster. For a very top Canadian men’s team, the options for coaches who you feel can actually help your program might be lower than you’d expect, whereas it seems women’s teams are a bit more open to collaboration, generally.
I got this question by email from Randy, and funny enough, I actually wrote an entire newsletter about my backstory when I first started writing this newsletter. Inspired by a chapter of a Shea Serrano book, I wrote about my “magic age” in curling, a concept he posited about music, where whatever music you heard from age 13-19 is the music that will hit the hardest for you for the rest of your life. I did that exercise, but with curling. I’m glad you asked this question, because that newsletter currently has the least number of views of any of my newsletters (it was early in this letter’s history), and I was quite enamoured with the concept when I came up with it, and then no one read it. Haha. So go read that. It has all of the info you’re looking for (and more you weren’t).
Sigh, the Territories. I feel like we end up talking about them every year around this time, and it’s probably for good reason. I think it’s a sign of things to come, but I also think that it’s not their fault, specifically. The Territories situation is complicated because all of these things are true:
All three territories should have representation at the nationals if they want it;
it is very expensive to be a curling team in the territories, and getting to go to one tournament a year, that also happens to be the hardest tournament in the world, probably doesn’t move the needle much;
if we put the onus back on the territories to only qualify one team, that puts the financial burden back on those teams specifically to find a way to fly and play each other.
It’s just a shitty situation. I know there was a junior team from Nunavut a few years ago that was really getting serious about curling and they were funding a 3-week trip down to Alberta to play in a few junior spiels and get some high level coaching. The cost for that trip was $20,000. How long is it realistic to pay the kinds of travel bills you’d have to pay as a Nunavut (or YT or NWT) team to be even somewhat competitive at the Scotties? Kerry Galusha has managed to do it, but she has a decent amount of sponsorship, years and years of pedigree (she really only started to play more than 5 events a season in the last 5 years), and a teammate (or two, depending on where Sarah is doing her medicine practicum at that time) who lives in the lower 10. She’s also made the Scotties playoffs once despite all of that, and with an import throwing last.
If you’re a newish men’s or women’s team in Nunavut that faces down a $20-40,000 bill a year, knowing you’re losing most of your games, to try to win a couple games at the Brier or Scotties, is that worth it? The model just doesn’t make sense. It’s not really Curling Canada’s fault, but there’s no graceful solution if this is the Brier/Scotties format and it’s probably going to be an on/off situation every year depending on finances. The reality is that a true curling star in the Territories’ best bet is always going to be pulling a Kevin Koe and moving down to somewhere that’s easier (and cheaper) to curl.
Some teams, without time clocks, play far too slow. They know who they are, and they should stop it. That said, I do think the “fan expectation” is a little misaligned when you’re watching a game being streamed from a cashspiel. It wasn’t even 5 years ago that 90% of cashspiel games were never seen by anybody. The fact that now most cashspiels have some form of streaming, and a decent amount of it is of a quality that I would deem, at minimum, to be “watchable”, there is an element of "beggars can’t be choosers”, especially when there’s LOTS of televised curling WITH time clocks throughout the year.
I think it took Team Homan longer to absorb the loss of Lisa Weagle than they would have expected. I remember when I interviewed John Morris for Stone + Straw, he talked about how bringing on Catlin Schneider for the Team Cotter Olympic run in 2017 was one of the worst mistakes of his curling career, as that shunted Rick Sawatsky and Tyrel Griffith—two VERY long-time teammates of Jim’s—into a split lead role that didn’t really work for anybody. He saw Catlin as a potential improvement to on-ice play, but didn’t consider enough the intangibles, especially with Rick and Jim, who had been playing together since juniors and are best friends. I think a similar thing happened with Lisa, where Team Homan may have seen a potential improvement in on-ice play with Sarah Wilkes (though Lisa is one of the best lead shotmakers ever so it seemed to be strictly sweeping), but didn’t realize how much it would disrupt the chemistry of the group. Add to that multiple babies for multiple team members, position switches, COVID, Joanne’s retirement, and here we are. Rachel has always been one of the best to ever play, and now there’s a team dynamic that is finally comfortable again with Tracy at true third, Emma and Sarah settled in their front-end roles, and a full 16 months of established chemistry for all of them.
So this is a long way of saying that yes, I think there is a chance this is the best version of Team Homan we have seen, though they were awfully, awfully good in 2016-17 and the first half of the 2017-18 season until the Olympics. I know you specified cashspiel season, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m very, very curious to watch them at the Scotties.
Wow. Loaded question. I think every player from every era will have a different answer to this, of course, as a lot of it depends on who you watched play and played against. I can only answer for my career and era, but I think Kurt Balderston is always a popular answer to this question. Four-time Alberta final loser and stuck behind the Martin/Ferbey juggernaut for so long, while winning an awful lot on tour. I’m sure a Manitoba person would have really good answers here too, as it’s been a really rough road going from Burtnyk to Stoughton to Carruthers to McEwen to Gunnlaugson to Dunstone. Lots of guys making the playoffs in Manitoba without really ever getting a sniff of winning over the last 30 years. Your Lyburns, Irwins, Grassies, and Calverts of the world.
In Sask, I can tell you that there was a really nice run for Carl DeConinck Smith in the late 00s. He had a lot of talent but never got over the hump (and I believe his life as a farmer took away some time to curl so it’s easy to imagine there’s more there). Any good Sasky curler will also tell you Bruce Korte should have done a lot more winning than he did. Went to the Brier three times, admittedly, but had a losing record each time, and most will tell you…few have thrown the rock as good as he did. Just never had the right team at the right time.
And then I’m gonna be a total suck and say two of my former teammates, Jay Wakefield and Paul Cseke. Has nothing to do with me feeling like I personally deserved to go to the Brier at some point during my career, but everything to do with those two guys doing everything right. They’ve kept playing for 4 more years since I’ve been gone, losing another provincial final in 2022. Tough to find two guys who work harder, continually strive to get better, and are better teammates than those guys. It’s safe to say if Jim Cotter wasn’t around smashing our dreams out of the park like Shohei Ohtani bombs for the last decade-plus, they’d have a couple Hearts in their trophy case (and hey, maybe that means I have at least one too. ;)).
Alright, last one, and a bit along the lines of the last question, though I assume you mean right now. I think one curler that might get lost to time depending on how the next few years play out is Benoît Schwarz-Van Berkel. It’s hard to say a guy who throws last on the #4-ranked team in the world is underrated, but man, he makes a LOT of shots and almost never gets talked about when we discuss the men’s elite. The bronzes that litter the bottom of his curling bag (I think that’s where most curlers keep their bronze medals) may keep him from being remembered as fondly as he should be, but he’s also young and has time to become properly rated with some higher-profile victories. As far as a curler out of the Slam picture for the men, it’s probably Félix Asselin. Doesn’t play a ton outside of Quebec/Ontario, but when you watch him play, you see it. He’s not even 30 yet and will have a chance to make his mark.
Outside of skips, you probably gotta give me Derek Samagalski. Again a guy who does not generally get talked about when you talk about best seconds, but a guy who makes a very absurd number of shots. I think he got a reputation as being a hit guy (which comes with the Manitoba Tucking Second territory), but his finesse game is as good as anyone’s too.
For the women, it’s a little tougher since I didn’t play against them, but I think Tab Peterson would be near the top for me for skips. Again, results haven’t quite been there for her, but anytime you watch her team play…she’s making a LOT of shots. I’m curious to see how the USA women’s picture shakes out over the next couple of years with potential retirements and the emergence of Delaney Strouse, but Tab has all the shots in her bag.
For non-skips, she’s still too young for us to have the conversation but Karlee Burgess will probably end up being one of the best players to ever do it by the time she’s finished. Her career is only just beginning to emerge, but the light is very bright. And then for front end players, gimme Taylor McDonald. She’s very quietly done a pretty ridiculous amount of winning and any of her teammates will tell you they absolutely love having her on their team, both on and off the ice.
Alright that’s it for this time around! Hope you enjoyed this trip through the mailbag and we’ll chat again very soon once I’m home from BC provincials. Thanks so much for reading.