On the Olympics
Thoughts on the best curling game in history, where Canada goes next, and everything else
Lots has been written and said on this Olympics already. Devin Heroux did lots of great reporting with That Curling Show and Ted Wyman and Gregory Strong had some awesome articles throughout the games and after. My favourite piece might’ve been Matt Sussman’s from yesterday, where he talked about how curling dominance is no longer possible, regardless of country. So I don’t wanna get too in the weeds here, but I’m just gonna write down some bullet-point thoughts I’ve had over the last few weeks and see if any of them make sense.
1. I have to start with the Men’s Gold Medal Game. I think it was the best curling game ever played. Now, it might not have had the drama of some other games in history (hell, it might not have been the most dramatic game in a 24-hour period if you think about the GB 12-11 semifinal win over Sweden in the ladies draw), but when you think of the pressure involved in a gold medal game and how well these two teams played…I was in awe. It took me an hour to fall asleep afterwards, despite it being 2 am. And people were pointing out the percentages as proof that the game was so good (94% for Sweden and 90% for GB) but that doesn’t even account for how hard the shots were to achieve those percentages. Incredible game.
2. A curler and I were messaging after the Canadian Trials and I was complimenting their team’s performance despite not winning and they said to me, “we played really good, but you gotta play great to win the Trials.” I thought it was interesting Brad Gushue echoed similar sentiments after the Olympics were over. He knew they weren’t at their best, and also knew they would’ve needed to be at their best to win. One thing I could feel when watching the Gold Medal Game was that neither Brad nor John Shuster could’ve won that game, at least not this week.
3. Curling used to be thought of as an “Any Given Sunday” game, meaning that as long as you trucked along and played a decent amount, any team could beat any other team. The increasing professionalization of the game has made that less and less true, but I think at the top levels, the game is turning into that for the top teams themselves. If you’re not an elite-tier team, forget it, but very little separates the teams at the top.
If we play this Olympics 10 times, how many times does each team win out of 10? We watch Eve Muirhead, at her fourth Games, with a team the British Curling Federation formed three months ago, back into the playoffs with a 5-4 record and the third-worst Last Stone Draw score win an improbable semifinal 12-11 over the reigning gold medallists, and then put together a near-perfect game in the gold medal game to dominate Japan. This was their Any Given Sunday week, and it’s not impossible to imagine it could’ve been so for lots of teams, particularly in the women’s field.
4. So where does this leave Canada? If we accept this is an “AGS” sport, how can we not accept that we may not win sometimes? For both champions, this was their 4th Olympics. They got 4 tries to figure out what worked for them, and in Niklas’ case, he did it all to improve one place in the final standings each time. John Shuster won in 2018 at his 4th Games. Canada will never be able to have that luxury. We’ll never send the same team more than once, most likely. Jennifer Jones bringing back 3 of the same players from 2014 could be the only time we even do that. So how do we counter that? We might not be able to.
5. There’s big talk of a “Curling Summit” or whatever. Hey, talking about curling is never a bad idea. But there’s just not gonna be a solution here that works for everyone. “Hold the Trials in April! October! Name the team instead of having a Trials!” There isn’t a great solution. It’s also really easy to say “we just have to make sure the curlers have a say”. They will. The problem is, they won’t agree either.
I know one Canadian Olympic Gold Medallist who told me that they love when the Trials are and think it’s perfect. I know other top-tier curlers who think it should be a full season before. No one is going to agree and quite truthfully, we’ve done it to ourselves by being so good and having so many good teams. Which seems like a weird thing to say given we have a single bronze in the 4-person discipline in the last 2 Olympics, but it’s true. We simply cannot copy the other countries’ blueprint. We have to create our own.
6. And that blueprint? It likely comes at the expense of the Brier and Scotties as we know it. Canada needs a true feeder system, where Curling Canada can feel comfortable supporting the teams at the top without feeling like they’re leaving some teams behind. The teams at the top need to not be beholden to the provincial residency restrictions. This quad, it might be time. Make the Brier/Scotties the championship that really good U25 players shoot for (and older curlers who don’t have an interest in playing 20 weeks a year), and then let them graduate into some sort of “pro system” where they’re playing at a Canada Cup (or whatever we call it) for the right to go to Worlds and Olympics. It’s the only way, in my opinion.
7. Think of it like this. When we changed the format of the Brier and Scotties to include all 3 territories and Northern Ontario for the ladies, the argument was that teams need more experience at a national championship to continue to grow the game in those places. Why don’t we think of it like that for our national champions on the world stage? Teams need more experience at Worlds, at Olympics, etc. Yes, Brad Gushue and Jennifer Jones have lots of experience there. But it isn’t often repeated experience, or necessarily recent (Jones hadn’t been to a Worlds in 4 years, for instance. Eve was at all of them. So was Bruce. So was Niklas. Etc. Etc.). Again, we are going to have no way to guarantee that we can send a repeated experience team to the Olympics, but maybe it helps.
8. It’s also very funny to me that every four years we argue vehemently the gap between the Trials and the Olympics is too short, and yet, we send our Brier and Scotties winners to the Worlds with even less time in between. That’s also why this switch to a pro system would help. You could give teams more time to prepare for Worlds too (Canada Cup in November, say), and then maybe that helps us get better. There’s a reason the European and Asian Championships aren’t held anywhere near the Worlds date, maybe ours shouldn’t be either.
9. Gerry Geurts made one of my favourite points so far on Twitter in the wake of this discussion. People are saying the Trials should be a year before. What happens if Gushue wins the Trials in say, April 2021 and then starts the 2021-22 season with not making the playoffs in two consecutive Slams and bombing out in a quarterfinal in Penticton? I’m sure everyone in the country would handle that well. You could make the argument that if we held the Trials last spring, Bottcher would’ve won them, and well…we saw how that went. That’s an extreme example, but just further proof there’s no easy solution.
10. One other point that came up in some discussions with curlers during the Olympics is that I wonder how much the centralization camps affected the teams. I know they were partly a COVID precaution, but the sheer amount of time these two teams spent with each other leading up to the Olympics seemed like that could also put some undue stress on the unit. Doesn’t mean the teams don’t like each other or anything, but 3 weeks together before you even get to the Olympics and you can’t leave the house other than to curl has gotta be difficult. No curling team ever does this, so you’re kind of experimenting with it and hoping it’s going to work as a process, and maybe that contributes to team chemistry by the time the actual competition rolls around.
11. I never played Mixed Doubles as it was starting to gain true popularity around the time I was exiting the sport, but you have to think that if we are telling ourselves Canada can no longer expect gold at the 4-person game, those expectations have to be even lower for Mixed Doubles. First, it’s very easy for other countries to “professionalize” two curlers versus four. We’ve already seen it, as the Italian and Czech MD teams have well surpassed their 4-person equivalents AND for a ton of countries that play the game, a mixed doubles team is all they have. Second, where it took other nations a lot longer to catch up to Canada after Nagano was strategy. You have no choice but to be in a battle of attrition to learn the game, year after year playing elite teams. MD strategy is much simpler. Obviously there are some nuances to it, but MD curling is, at times, more about execution than strategy. When you consider the fact that some of these specialist teams are playing probably 5-10 times more mixed doubles games than Canada is, the strategy catch-up game is even faster.
12. What’s the solution there? I don’t think there is one. Or at least not a sexy one. I don’t particularly think having MD “specialists” in Canada will greatly increase our nation’s overall success in the game unless Curling Canada is willing to fund a single MD team to play around the world all year. Otherwise, our current strategy of taking the best team that’s generally made up of two very good 4-person curling players is probably the best one, in my opinion.
13. I don’t think we fully settled the “should Canada allow its players to play MD and 4-person curling at the Olympics” debate. Amos Mosaner looked clearly out of gas after winning MD gold, but Italy wasn’t likely to compete anyway. Chris Plys similarly struggled at times after the MD event, particularly in the Bronze Medal Game. Meanwhile, Jen Dodds and Bruce Mouat played the maximum amount of MD games possible and walked away with gold and silver in the 4-person game, respectively. Not to mention Oskar Eriksson’s Men’s Gold after winning MD Bronze. Guess the jury is still out, but I think Canada should continue to split it if for no other reason than to give more people a chance to experience the Olympics. Winning anything in curling in this country is nigh-impossible so an extra carrot never hurt anybody.
14. I don’t know the international ladies’ teams as well having not played in a Slam, but I know the men’s teams and watching the GMG was an additional treat because you knew that no matter which team won, the Gold Medal was going to deserving and lovely people. Both Teams Mouat and Edin are all wonderful people and great ambassadors for the game and it was going to be a good result for the game of curling either way.
15. Shorter thoughts: has Bobby Lammie taken over Ben Hebert as the best sweeper on Earth?
16. I don’t know if Niklas Edin is now officially the GOAT, but what I do know is that he now absolutely has to be in the conversation.
17. Have we seen Jennifer Jones throw her last competitive rock at an international best-on-best tournament? I’d assume she’s playing the year-end Slams but after that…who knows. One thing is for sure, Niklas Edin has maybe entered the GOAT conversation for the men, but JJ IS the GOAT conversation for the ladies.
18. I’m not sure if Joanne Courtney is done forever, but if she is, she’ll leave quite a legacy on the game. She revolutionized sweeping in the ladies’ game and forced every other team to keep up with the standard she set. It is not an exaggeration to say that shift has made the ladies’ game better than it ever has been, and she set the wheels in motion on it. We don’t really have a Hall of Fame but if we did, she’s first-ballot all the way.
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