On My Favourite End
We're going back to 2004, baby!
Hello friends. It is the summertime. Curling is not here yet, but as the elite teams start to find their way back to the ice in preparation for the new season and as summer spiels start to worm their way into our consciousness, I thought I’d check back in with everybody.
A while ago, I was pitching a curling book. I have long felt the sport simply doesn’t have enough good books written about it. Sure, we have our memoirs and our fitness/strategy guides, and our broadcasters’ occasional forays into covering the game as a whole, but we have so few books that are truly emblematic of the sport, and you could argue that we’ve really only had one in the non-memoir division since 2003, when Scott Russell wrote “Open House”, and that’s Brian Chick’s “Written in Stone” from a few years back. So anyway, the book is still in pitch limbo with a few publishers and one of the sample chapters I wrote that is not currently being used to pitch the book is about one of my favourite ends of all-time—the 10th end of the 2004 Brier Final between Randy Ferbey and Mark Dacey. I thought, since this book isn’t any closer to being published now than it was when I started, why not share that chapter with my loyal readers, lest it never see the light of day otherwise. It’s long (about 4500 words) and it’s the summer, so if you don’t want to read it, I won’t hold it against you. But if you do…I love you, and I think you’ll like it. See you back here in a month when we really get going.
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In 2004, Randy Ferbey’s team was unbeatable. How unbeatable? Forget things like wins and losses (it was a lot of the former and not a lot of the latter). Forget stats, forget conventional wisdom about sports. They were so unbeatable, they were one of the first curling teams to brand themselves with a team name—The Ferbey Four—and they sold pairs of mittens with that on it. As you might imagine, if you’re so good at a winter sport that they sell branded mittens of your team, there isn’t much left for you to do in the game. The Ferbey Four were just that team—winners of three straight Brier Championships, two straight World Titles, and they were seeking a fourth Brier in a row against the team they had beaten just one year earlier in the Brier Final, Mark Dacey’s Nova Scotia rink.
Mark Dacey had a fine rink, then. They didn’t call themselves “The Dacey Four” or “The Marks-Men” or something equally tacky you could throw on a toque, but they were great curlers, if not spectacular ones. Two straight Brier finals is nothing to sneeze at, but with the limits of geography—it’s typically hard to find strong competition in the Maritimes and that was even more true in 2004—and the fact that Ferbey was steamrolling competition across the nation, this final seemed set up for a repeat of the previous year’s Brier, where Ferbey went a perfect 13-0, including beating Dacey twice by a combined score of 18-8.
In 2004’s Final, the first 7 ends played to script, with Ferbey exerting control over Dacey, building a 4-point lead with only three ends to play. But then things started to happen. David Nedohin, Randy Ferbey’s fourth rock thrower, showed cracks. As Nolan Thiessen, a three-time Brier champion and competitor of Team Ferbey said, “Dave Nedohin didn’t miss a shot for four years until the 8th End of the 2004 Brier Final.” And so it was that we enter our story, of one of the greatest ends in the sport’s history, an end that had absolutely everything special about our sport wrapped up in one 25-minute fervour and that will be etched in the memories of any curling fan who lived through it.
Curling is a game that’s made up of ends. It originally started with 14 (turns out there was nothing else to do in the 1950s???), then moved to 12, then 10, and now, most of the time, we play 8 (though the big championships, your Briers, your Scotties, your Olympics, are still 10). The most reductive way to explain an end is that it’s like an inning in baseball. It consists of 16 rocks, 8 thrown by each team, and after the final rock is thrown, the score for that end is tabulated, and one of the two teams scores. For a game that has such clear divisions in how the time of the game is spent, it’s interesting how few ends really get remembered. Sure, games get remembered, and shots get remembered, but curling doesn’t have a discussion around great ends in the way that baseball does around great innings.
It could be because of the hammer, an appropriate name for possessing the last rock of an end. Because the scoring of the end is done after the last rock comes to rest, the team who has that advantage is said to be holding the hammer, because that’s the effect it can have on the other team. And so often, when we speak of curling, we speak of those great hammer shots. Shots that impacted the score of an end, the score of a game so greatly that they get etched into the annals of time in the sport. Plus, they’re easy. They’re quick. Even the slowest shot only takes about 10 seconds to accurately depict on a highlight reel.
But what about ends? Most of the best ends take time. They let you sit with them, like forcing yourself to re-read a page of a brilliant book because you couldn’t take in the splendour of the writing on your first attempt. Now, curling does have a time clock1, but it does not function the way a clock would in any other sport. Each team possesses their own clock, and the clock represents how much time that particular team has left to play the game. How this time has been meted out has changed every decade or so, but it can be most simply explained as each team is “on the clock” when it is their turn to throw. When a team’s opponents are strategizing or throwing, their clock is stopped.
Curling currently uses what is commonly described as “thinking time”, meaning that while a rock is travelling down the ice, the clocks for both teams are stopped. It only took roughly 25 years of timing games to figure out that draw shots take, at minimum, double the time to travel down the ice than hit shots do, and that it was probably unfair to count the time the rock travels on a team’s individual time clock. Curling might be the only sport where thinking is such a huge part of the game, but you’re also punished for doing it too much.
It would also be remiss not to mention the best part about the timing of curling, which is the punishment for running out of time. They closed America’s most dangerous and most secure prison, Alcatraz, in 1963, but in the spirit of the punishment of being sent to that island tomb, curling’s penalty for running out of time is without compare in sports—if your team runs out of time, you simply cannot throw another rock. Your team’s game is over.
Imagine this scenario. You’ve played a great game of curling. You’ve taken 2-2.5 hours out of your life, and your team is killing it. It’s the best you’ve played. You’re winning, and you feel great, and then…you run out of time. Not only does your time expire, you run out of time with 4 rocks left. Your opponent will now finish the game with four shots in a row. Four hammers, if you will. Even if the game isn’t particularly close, running out of time almost always ends in an automatic loss. Even being disallowed from throwing a single stone could have an immeasurable impact on the game. I mean, imagine Thor with four hammers. Imagine a hockey team only being allowed to possess the puck for a certain amount of time per game, and if they pass that amount of time, the whole team has to leave the ice and let the other team impose its will on their goaltender. You can’t. But curling can. It’s beautiful, and with an element of solitude, just like the game of curling itself.
So what does all this timing stuff have to do with what we’re talking about? Well, because teams are individually timed and that time is based on how long it takes to make a shot call/throw a shot, some ends happen very quickly. A team that communicates well and is throwing 8 hit shots can get through an end in less than a minute. Which means that if a game goes by with relative speed and ease, teams can have many minutes left with which to play a final end. If the first end of a game takes two minutes combined, a final end could take 30.
This might sound bad to you. You might be one of those people who refuses to watch basketball because the final minute of a basketball game takes 20 minutes to play, with all the timeouts. Well, in curling, you have access to everything these teams are thinking and saying to each other. Everyone is on microphone, and the world’s best curlers are telling you exactly what they’re about to do, and why they’re about to do it. Something tells me you might find the final minute of the NBA Finals more engaging if you knew everything LeBron James was saying during every timeout. It’s one of the things that makes curling extremely good, that the best part of the game takes the longest. You’d love to see that in other sports. The 9th inning of baseball now has 6 outs. The third period in hockey is now 30 minutes. Golf is now only 3 holes. (it’s unfortunate the only way to make golf more exciting is to play less of it, but it’s my book and I make the rules) The bottom line is, the game of curling is set up to make the 10th End almost always more special.
It’s both that, and the atmosphere. Curling might seem like a boring game to the casual observer, but the tension that occurs in the final end of a close curling game between the players and the audience watching is palpable, and unmatched. The closest comparison I can think of is watching a putt to win a major championship. Imagine that, but it happens 16 times, in a row, and it’s indoors. Golf always seems to get the tension broken at least slightly by the fresh air, the birds chirping, the atmosphere with which feelings can dissipate into. In curling, it’s just all drama, all the time, grandmothers and sons and athletes all combining to make a collective stew of emotions where everyone feeds everyone else’s nerves. It’s quite something to behold.
So that brings us to 2004. The Brier Final. Randy Ferbey’s Alberta rink, who has won more Briers in the last three years than the province of Nova Scotia has in their entire history. Nova Scotia was facing over 50 years without a Brier win, and they were losing this game 8-4 to a team that was absolutely punishing with a lead. It didn’t look good, and the 8th end wasn’t shaping up any better. Alberta was in control, and heading towards their goal of forcing Mark Dacey to a single point, getting the hammer back while taking a 3-point lead. Remember that quote earlier, from Nolan Thiessen? David Nedohin finally missed.
It wasn’t a hard shot. For a curler who plays in a Tuesday morning Soup-er League2, perhaps it’s a bit tricky, but for a man who most people believed was the best curler on the planet at the time, it wasn’t tough. But he still missed. He missed a relatively easy double that would’ve made the end essentially moot, forcing Dacey to take that single point, or a blank end. As it stood, once the dust settled after the miss, Dacey had two rocks clearly in the house and a third just nibbling the back of the rings. After a measure determined that the rock was on, Dacey scored 3 to make the score 8-7 and the world started to wonder if Ferbey was slipping in an era where he never slipped. Dacey forced Ferbey to 1 in the 9th, and that 9-7 score set the stage for my absolute favourite curling end of all-time, an end that had it all: big makes, huge misses, fights with the crowd, momentum swings, mustaches, and ugly brooms.
It all starts with Alberta lead Marcel Rocque. A mountain of a man, a guy who’d tell you he was an elite curler and you weren’t sure if he said curler or football player. He revolutionized sweeping in the sport, in the sense that him and Scott Pfeifer (or “Huffin’ and Puffin’” as they were colloquially known) were both very good at it, the type of sweeping ability that even the most untrained curling eye could tell was good. You could feel Rocque’s power when he swept. It helped that he was perpetually sweaty, would keep his three-button collar undone so you could see part of his hirsute, barrel chest, and had just the slightest of French accents despite growing up in Alberta. He had the vibe of someone you’d meet at the docks, under the only working street lamp, as boxes of questionable origin were changing hands in his midst. If you only watched him on television and didn’t know him, he seemed scary in a way that very few curlers did. Most curlers’ ability to intimidate likely depends on if they can manage to surround themselves with like-minded and like-bodied individuals, like say, at a chess tournament. But Marcel had the juice and he was a joy to watch.
The 10th end started with two rocks from Rocque, and it started the way Ferbey started most of his ends when they were in the lead without the hammer: by drawing his first two rocks into the house. This was a style that was first used by Ferbey, and copied by many after. Prior to this, not wanting to throw guards, teams would often throw one rock in the house and the other through the rings, or even both through the rings, trusting their ability to make enough hits to secure the win. The rationale behind this was that you beat your opponent—who needs to score—to the centre of the house, and by doing it twice and giving them two stones to remove, it becomes even harder for them to get the points needed to win. Unfortunately for Rocque, he makes the tiniest of mistakes and his two rocks overlap just slightly. One aphorism we love to use for curling and that you hear used in other sports is that “it’s just a game of inches”, and while you might also hear that same sentence used in some divorce proceedings, it holds true for our game perhaps more than most.
The next few shots are almost nothing to speak of. Hoping to keep the house completely clear to ensure Dacey doesn’t get two points, the two teams trade off throwing guards (Dacey) and removing them (Ferbey). Then the end starts to heat up.
Curling, at its absolute apex, is a test of wills. People often describe tennis in this way, but tennis has the benefit of being a very fast-moving test of wills. Yes, it is a game of momentum, and yes, you need nerves of steel, but you’re always moving, trusting your muscle memory to carry you through even the most difficult and nervous of times. Curling is like that, except you get 30-300 seconds before your shot to decide to park those nerves and make it. Curling is a test of wills except the stones are stationary and your opponent cannot do a single thing to affect your shot, other than by putting their rocks in difficult positions to deal with.
The “test of wills” in curling is the very concept of wills, as though “The Wills” are some out-of-body third-person, screaming at you, saying things to you like, “HAHA I BET YOU’RE GONNA MISS THIS?” and “Remember when you had this same shot on this same sheet four days ago…AND YOU MISSED IT?!?!?! HAHAHAHA LOSER”. You’re facing your opponent, but you’re also battling your own mind in a way that other sports do not allow. Remember, the prescribed length of game here, not counting timeouts and the 5th-end break, is ONE HUNDRED. AND FORTY-SIX. MINUTES. It’s a long time to be with your thoughts, while also trying to execute a sporting task. And the battle of wills starts on the 10th shot of the end, when Nova Scotia third Bruce Lohnes steps in to the hack to throw his first rock.
If Marcel Rocque looks like a football player, Bruce Lohnes looks like a curler. If you had never met your office’s tech guy, and Bruce walked by you at your office, you’d think, “I bet he’s probably the tech guy.” He even wore glasses with a slight tint to them on the ice, as if to suggest the roaring pace of curling was too much for his eyes to ingest. With one guard remaining above the house and the two Rocque rocks (I know, I know) staggered still, skip Dacey calls for a draw around the two rocks. This type of shot, a draw around a rock that’s already in the house, is only possible on championship ice, manicured to perfection with a maximum amount of curl. If this end were being played in a curling club on a smoky Sunday evening, this chapter would be 5 sentences long and Ferbey would’ve won the game 8-6. Despite the game being played on the best ice available to the players, the difficulty of this shot is still extremely high, and you can immediately sense the panic in Lohnes’ voice. The Wills have come alive, and Bruce is losing the battle.
Lohnes does not want to play the shot. You can see it in his face, and hear it in his voice. He doesn’t actually have an issue with the called shot—the team doesn’t really have a choice. It’s the only play to try to secure the needed 2 points, with the added bonus that if things break right, it could lead to 3. His issue is with the way Dacey wants him to throw it. Dacey wants him to throw the out-turn—meaning that he would come down the outside of the sheet to get around the two rocks, plus the guard in front. The outsides of a curling sheet get played less often, and thus, can be a bit tricky to read. Lohnes, naturally, wants the easier option, which is to come down the middle, with the in-turn. Dacey isn’t interested, even with lead Andrew Gibson also objecting. You can actually hear the players’ mics pick up Gibson say “oh my god” under his breath when Dacey won’t capitulate. He knows, as does Lohnes, as no doubt does Dacey himself, that a miss here probably seals the game for Ferbey. Luckily for Nova Scotia, Lohnes half-makes it. He comes to the back of the house, wide open, and Ferbey elects to hit the guard, which, despite his four world titles and very successful career, he probably still thinks about.
Did Ferbey have a ton of options? He could’ve hit the open one instead of the guard, or gotten very daring and frozen to it. But he was up by 2 points, and peeling the guard, in his view, would’ve ensured they would never give up more than a deuce. He forgot one thing: in this moment, Bruce Lohnes was, in addition to wearing tinted glasses, one of the best curlers on the entire planet, and in this particular Brier final, he saved his best shot for last. If The Wills overtook him on his first shot, on his second shot, he entered some sort of fugue state, smashing The Wills over the head with a 10-inch Brownie brush. Even taking a timeout and elongating the amount of time The Wills could bury into the back of his head, they could not shake him, as he realizes that the only option is to repeat the shot he just threw, but with more precise accuracy than before.
When we think of the biggest shots in curling, we often think of the spectacular makes to win games, many of which are featured elsewhere in this book. Skips are paid the big bucks to make the big shots, they say. This often leaves thirds in the lurch, but make no mistake, this shot is as big or as important as any in the Brier Final’s history. Lohnes makes the shot perfectly, buried behind cover and impossible to remove. He has all but ensured that unless some massive mistake by Mark Dacey occurs, they will at the very least score 2 and make it to an extra end.
Randy Ferbey still needs his fourth thrower, Dave Nedohin, to make a couple shots to ensure that extra end happens. He elects to hit the open one, Lohnes’ first, and The Wills continue to take over the end, because an action happens that we will sometimes see elite athletes turn to when something feels like it is slipping out of their grasp: they look to blame someone else. After Dave Nedohin’s first shot (which he makes), he immediately swings around to glare at someone in the crowd. Marcel Rocque twigs onto this as well, and if we weren’t scared of him before, we are now, as he points at the figure in the crowd—who has apparently been accosting Nedohin in the hack before he shoots, a huge no-no—and tells him that after the game, it’ll be “you and me. One more word, and you’re mine,” and then puts up a single finger in warning, stretching the limit of what a curling glove could hold, ready to take out his frustration on his early rock set-up, Lohnes’ excellent shot, and the feeling that a fourth consecutive Brier title was floating away on a Bluenose. The Brier typically does some of the best ratings of any sporting event on The Sports Network—Canada’s answer to ESPN—but I can only imagine what the ratings would’ve been for Fight Night: Rocque vs. Man In Stands if it aired directly after the game.
It’s rare that the final 3 shots of a 10th end in a Brier Final that is decided by one point aren’t that exciting, but they really pale in comparison to what has come before us in one of the most dramatic comebacks in the sport’s history. Nedohin has hit the open Nova Scotia stone and rolls out of the house, leaving just three rocks in play: the two Rocque draws that opened the end, and Lohnes’ improbable, shootout-at-the-OK-Corral moment, perfectly buried behind them. The Nova Scotia team calls their second and final timeout to discuss what Mark Dacey should do with his first stone, and the early consensus seems to be that he needs to also bury a rock behind the two Rocque stones that are looking increasingly more lonely at the top of the rings. However, this game wasn’t done giving us excellent moments. While it’s true that the final three shots weren’t as exciting as the few that came just before, the second Nova Scotia timeout leads to one of the great moments in Brier history.
That moment? When Rob Harris, the Nova Scotia second, says one of the most absurd things anyone has ever said in the midst of a high-pressure situation like this: “I think if Mark makes the shot, we win the Brier.” I’m not a psychologist, but I can’t imagine that too many involved in sports psychology could ever recommend saying this to someone who is about to attempt the second-biggest shot of their life, followed by their biggest. Maybe they would. Maybe that is what Mark Dacey needed to hear in that moment. But if it were me? I’d probably prefer not to have my insides become my outsides and would prefer to think of it like any other shot. But that’s probably why I played lead.
And so it was that in 2004, Rob Harris, in the biggest game of his life, repeated TWO more times that all Mark Dacey had to do was attempt this very difficult shot again, and if he made it, his team would achieve their lifelong dream of winning the national championship. Of course, the nagging subtext here is that were he to miss it, they could conversely lose said Brier. The funniest part of this, to me, is that he actually says the words “if we make this, we win The Brier.” He even names the championship. He could’ve said something simpler like, “if we make this, we win the game,” or something even softer like, “if we make this, we’re in good shape.” But no, he said “The Brier” and it is one of my favourite quotes in sports history, as though Roberto Alomar told Joe Carter before he went to bat in the 1993 World Series Game 6 that he should probably hit a home run because that would mean they’d win the World Series.
Bruce Lohnes, who has now finished his shooting and has re-emerged on earth’s astral plane, looks at Harris and says, “we don’t need to win the Brier right now,” which is both funny because of course, by the logical definition, they couldn’t, since Alberta still has a stone remaining, and also because it belies the whole concept of competition to begin with. If you don’t feel a tenacious desire in your heart, a need to win the Brier, then why play? Dacey’s rink decides to draw using the original in-turn path Lohnes wanted to on his first stone, and Dacey makes it fine enough, but leaves a path for Nedohin to follow him down with a freeze and potentially force Dacey into a very difficult shot to even get 2 and force an extra end. But there come those Wills again, and Nedohin misses, leaving Mark Dacey with the improbable draw for 3, and he makes it and gives Nova Scotia their first Brier title in five decades.
Mark Dacey is a curler who gets forgot about quite a bit, but he’s appeared at 5 Briers, medalled in 4 of them, and won one of them. It’s an impressive record for a team from Nova Scotia especially, a province that is typically very difficult to have success out of at the national level. The province has not only not won a Brier since Dacey in 2004, they’ve only appeared in one final since and it was the year after, when Shawn Adams lost the final of the 2005 Brier to this same Ferbey team, who finally claimed their fourth title. As for the rest of 2004? Dacey would go on to a bronze-medal finish at the worlds in Gavle, Switzerland, and would return to the Brier just once more, winning a bronze there in 2006. But he’ll forever be in my memory for what is one of the best and most entertaining ends of the game ever played, a story in sporting drama that took place over 25 unforgettable minutes in March of 2004, when the Ferbey Four was finally beatable, Bruce Lohnes made one of the greatest shots in history, and Marcel Rocque almost punched a guy. Win the Brier, indeed.
Before the advent of thinking time, they just gave curlers the ungodly sum of 73 minutes apiece with which to play the game, including rock travelling time. It was a mess. How did we arrive at 73 minutes? Why did we think “hey, let’s force the curlers to play faster by putting them on a clock” and then give them a combined time of ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY-SIX MINUTES? We’ve since gotten better at it.
This is a real thing and it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a league where each week, you play a game in the mid-morning, ending at lunch, and then you convene in the lounge with your opponent and eat soup.