On Mackenzie Zacharias and Hope
Plus Marc Kennedy joins Gushue and the Curl BC Conundrum
Hey, welcome back. Thanks for reading. Before we get into it, be sure to subscribe so you get this sweet newsletter directly to your inbox! I promise it won’t suck (or well…I’ll try to make it not suck). Also, thanks to everyone so far for reading this little thing. I sorta started it on a whim and I’m already over 250 subscribers and 10,000 page views. It was a lot more than I expected to start and I’m so happy so many of you are enjoying it and sending me great comments and feedback. I’m looking forward to churning out many more. Alright, let’s talk Manitoba, shall we?
—As you probably saw, 22 year-old Mackenzie Zacharias and her equally youthful squad of Karlee Burgess, sister Emily (who is still eligible for Juniors!), and Lauren Lenentine recently ran the gauntlet at the Manitoba Women’s Scotties, becoming the youngest champ in that province since well before any of these ladies were born. I thought two things when I saw this happen:
1. How good are these girls? I mean, let’s get serious here. In one of the Big 3 curling provinces (Saskatchewan, I’m sorry but you’re cancelled for now) to get a major win at that age is so hard. It’s almost impossible, really. You have no choice but to give them a massive amount of props for the victory, along with their coach, Sheldon Zacharias, who has worked with the squad through all of their successes and has clearly done a wonderful job. I remember seeing this team a few years ago at the Canadian Juniors, where they were the clear favourite, and watching them steamroll the field. It’s not easy to be the favourite at a national event, and it’s even harder to bounce through it undefeated, but they accomplished it and there was an air about them even then, where you thought the team had a chance to be something special. That said, I don’t know if anyone would’ve expected it to happen so quickly. Of course, you need some breaks along the way to any major title and they got those (Fleury nursing an Olympic-sized hangover and Jennifer Jones being absent certainly help), but they’re a well-oiled curling machine, and also a wonderfully nice group of girls (which is always a great bonus). But I think the bigger point that stuck out to me is…
2. This gives us all hope, doesn’t it? Or at least it does for the teams moving their way through the junior ranks and having a bit of a paralyzing fear as to what comes next. Most of us have lived through the era of curling being an “any given Sunday” sport, where tales were so often told of curling rinks winning the world championships one year and then the next, failing to make it out of their home club. “Any Given Sunday” hasn’t been true for most of the 21st Century, turning the sport into a more of “once a year, maybe on a Wednesday” affair. This has led to plummeting provincial playdown participation year-over-year, as teams are no longer content to take a week off of work each year so they can travel to some remote traffic light to get their lunch handed to them by an elite team. The stratification of the “tiers” of teams continues to grow, and with that, an increasing professionalization of the game.
That professionalism has been good for a lot of things (increased prize purses, more eyeballs on the sport, more countries competing), but it’s also led to the sport forcing junior curlers to make decisions earlier about whether they want to continue to compete at a high level, or at all. Despite only being 15 years older than these girls, in my era, you would generally accept that once you were finished juniors, it was time to play a lighter schedule, go to university (or sort out your career), and get your ass beat on tour occasionally as a way of gaining experience. As you rounded into your mid- to late-20s, you’d start to find the team that could potentially push you over the edge and into truly competitive play. As with anything, you can find a litany of players who were able to have success at a young age, but the percentage is low. Now, the game’s elite are so good that you’re almost forced to make the decision earlier, as you are in other sports. Most people quit competitive hockey/baseball/whatever by the time they’re 18, recognizing they’ll never be a pro at it. Curling has yet to adopt the same quota, but it’s coming.
I always point to the example of Mary Fay. One person can’t be representative of everything and I’ve only spoken to Mary once or twice so I’m not trying to put words in her mouth or brain, but here you had a curler that essentially had it all. Won the Canadian Juniors, the Youth Olympics, and was widely regarded as one of the best junior curlers in the game, surrounded by elite talent. She knew that going to university to be a doctor wasn’t going to align well with a curling career, and had to choose one or the other. She chose school. Now, not everyone is going to choose a profession that requires some 10 years of school and not everyone is even going to GO to school. But this is story that is going to become more prevalent as the level of gameplay continues to get pushed higher and higher, since the carrots are gone.
When we grew up, you didn’t mind getting your ass beat around a bit by the older teams because you still had the hope that maybe things would align and you’d make it to provincials. Maybe things would REALLY align and you’d win it. You’d also get to play in a handful of spiels every year with the true top teams in the game and really get some experience playing the top, top players. Now? You aren’t going to have a hope of winning your province, unless you’re lucky to be born in one of the few without too many good teams in it. You won’t be invited to a Slam, where most of the top teams play most of their games. So you have to decide, as a 20 year-old, if curling is really for you. Because if it’s going to be, you’re going to have to grind for 5-7 years and win not a whole lot just to start to see your dreams come into focus.
Mackenzie Zacharias, then, offers some form of hope. They’ve put a lot of work in, balancing classes with their busy curling schedule, and the Z sisters brought in two elite players from other provinces to fully complete their lineup. But they’ve shown that there is a path to earlier success in a junior career if you’re willing to put the work in and you’re willing to grind, and while it still won’t happen for many younger curlers, they’ve proven there’s still a path to quick-ish success and that has to offer some hope to the emerging younger set in the game.
—I took to calling Mackenzie Zacharias and her team “Mack Zack and the Attack”, after tweeting this late one night watching them play in the World Juniors:
And then adding “and the Attack” for her team during commentary this year back in October at the Stu Sells Toronto Tankard. Would someone put that on a shirt already so I can wear it? *looks sideways at Colin Hodgson*
—Speaking of Lauren Lenentine, I have unofficially followed her career since 2017, when I randomly stumbled upon a photo of her and her Team PEI squad looking absolutely badass in their team photo:
That’s Lenentine’s long-time PEI team featuring her at skip, Kristie Rogers at third, Breanne Burgoyne at second, and Rachel O’Connor at lead. I realized very quickly how Prince Edward Islanders support their own, as I soon had the entire Lenentine family following me on Twitter. It culminated three years later at the 2020 Canadian Juniors (where Lauren won with Zacharias) when the PEI rink, skipped by Lauren Ferguson and who still counted Rachel O’Connor as one of their members, brought me a PEI gift bag all the way across the country. You gotta love this sport. And hey, I look pretty good as Anne of Green Gables.
I think it’s super impressive that Lauren recognized early on that she may need to move around to maximize her opportunities as a high-level curler, and from playing fifth on the 2018 World Junior champs (skipped by Kaitlyn Jones) to moving to Nova Scotia the following year to try to help Jones repeat to moving to Manitoba and dropping down to lead to fit in? It’s that dedication that makes champs. She’s also the rare lead/holds-the-broom-for-the-skip-combo, and as anyone who knows me knows, anyone who can promote Lead Excellence above all else is good by me.
—In other news, Marc Kennedy was announced as the fifth for Team Gushue, to no one’s surprise. It’s not an accident that anyone who gets an opportunity to play with Marc takes that chance, whether it’s Brendan Bottcher last year bringing him as the fifth to the Worlds or Gushue taking him this year as fifth for the Olympics. He can move up and down the lineup as needed and is the teammate everyone wishes to have in their corner.
To wit, I’ll throw out a shameless plug: Curling Clips on Twitter and YouTube had archived all the episodes of my old podcast, Stone + Straw, which I travelled across Canada to record in-person back in 2018 and had been lost to the ether due to a hosting issue. I’m so happy Curling Clips was able to bring the episodes back, and I had been listening back to a few of the episodes since I hadn’t heard them myself since then, and all you need to do is listen to John Morris talk about Marc Kennedy and why he felt in 2006 they needed to add Marc to the Kevin Martin rink to know all you need to know about what makes Marc so good, and why teams value him so much. A great add for Gushue and in my opinion, that team as formed represents Canada’s strongest chance to defeat the juggernaut that is Bruce Mouat in Beijing. I mean, also Canada’s only chance since they are Team Canada, but…you get my point.
—Last note, speaking of Manitoba declaring a winner, we’re all unsure what’s gonna happen with the provincial championships across Canada with the new COVID restrictions coming back into place. Curl BC has already announced the postponement of their championships, but with sports tournaments being locked down until January 31st here, I don’t see how they’re going to be able to hold them at all. Maybe the men’s could accommodate the delay, but with the Scotties on the calendar for January, they’re probably going to have to pick a champ. Tough road to travel down again, as teams that are busting their ass will lose two straight provincial championship opportunities, which I know as a lifetime “Tier 2” player, is such a brutal kick to the gut. That said, on the ladies’ side, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a team that would complain if they simply selected Corryn Brown for her third straight Scotties appearance, as they lost a close game to Jacqueline Harrison for the final Trials spot and outrank the next closest BC women’s team on the WCT rankings (which is Kayla MacMillan, if you were wondering) by about 40.
On the men’s side, it’s much more complicated as Jim Cotter is the “defending champion” (from 2020) but has played a reduced schedule the last few years and Tyler Tardi has been rounding the bend for a while now and it’s hard not to argue Tardi is the better team, at least on paper. This is also not to mention the quietly solid season Sebastien Robillard has had, currently only 10 spots behind Cotter on the WCT rankings (though 30 behind Tardi). If you had to choose, I’d be sending Tardi but there’s no real precedent for this so it’s a tough choice. You can’t really send Cotter on the basis of winning two years ago and justify it in the same way you can with Corryn Brown. Not envious of how Curl BC is gonna decide this one. Maybe it’s gotta be a really tight, 4-team playoff or something? No matter what happens, no one will be happy. Coincidentally, that is also the Official Slogan of the Curling Drawmaster™.
And I won’t be happy either, as I was set to call the playoff weekend with Melissa Soligo for my British Columbia broadcasting debut and it would’ve meant a lot to me to do so as an 11-time provincial participant and 6-time medalist. Like we’re all saying to each other now and forever in curling, ah well, there’s always next year.
And there’s always a next time for this newsletter. I’ll see you then. Feel free to reply directly to this email if you subscribe (one of the perks of subscribing!) with any feedback, or hit me up on Twitter at @cullenthecurler.