Thoughts on the Canadian Mixed Doubles Championships

I didn’t really watch the Briar — the Canadian Men’s Curling Championships — and didn’t really intend to watch the mixed doubles curling championships either since mixed doubles is not really my preferred sport.  However, it was on at convenient times and there were some reasons for me to be interested in it, so I ended up following it whenever I could after about the first day.

So how does mixed doubles differ from regular curling?  Instead of the normal four person team that is all men or all women, here you have a team of two players, one man and one woman.  The game starts with two rocks in play, and then instead of each team throwing 7 more apiece they throw five more apiece.  So each end is shorter, and an eight end game takes two hours.  This also means that they are given less “thinking time”, which is time to consider their shots.  Also, whereas in the four player game there’s usually someone throwing the rocks, someone holding the broom (that’s literal) as a target (and also judging if the rock is doing what it’s supposed to), and two people sweeping the rock to try to help it do the right thing, obviously that can’t happen here.  So either one person holds the broom for a target and the thrower hops up and sweeps the rock (usually it’s the men doing that) or else the other person is sweeping and no one provides a target and/or judges it from the house.  So a lot of the things that curlers typically rely on to make their shots aren’t available to the curlers, making it a quite different experience for them.

Which is odd, then, in light of the main thing that let me get interested in it in the first place:  the fact that an awful lot of the female half of the teams were players from the Scotties and from the women’s teams that I’ve been following for years.  While there are a few teams and players that are more dedicated to mixed doubles, a lot of the teams had people who were already in the curling bubble for other tournaments, including a number of teams that had never played together and a number of players that had never played mixed doubles before.  This is of course partly because mixed doubles isn’t as big in curling yet and so most of the best players play full team, and also because some of the teams would have to stay in the bubble for the next tournaments and, as the commentators noted, the best place to get practice on what the ice might be like for them given everything else going on was in the bubble, so they might as well try mixed doubles and see what happens.

And then one of those teams actually managed to win it all.  And most interestingly, it was a team of two skips.

See, as you can tell in mixed doubles in general both players need to do the strategy and need to sweep.  In the four person game, in general skips and thirds do the strategy and the “front end” of leads and seconds do most of the sweeping.  However, when the leads and seconds are throwing the thirds are the ones who fill in on their sweeping spot.  So as the commentators noted thirds would be the ones that are best for mixed doubles because they spend a lot of their time sweeping and also planning out the strategy with the skips.  The worry about an all-skip team is that the strategy aspects would be there — if the two of them could agree — but that they wouldn’t be as good at sweeping and so would be at a disadvantage there.

So Brad Gushue and Kerri Einarson — who won the Scotties for the second year in a row with a four person team formed from former skips and so non-traditional as well — actually won it this time around, the first time the two had played together which was rather obvious because it was the first time Einarson had ever played mixed doubles, at least in those championships.  They defeated a team that was more dedicated to playing mixed doubles in Colton Lott and Kadriana Sahaidak, running out to a 9-2 lead and holding on for a 9-6 win.  Einarson, then, seems to be bent on proving wrong the adage that you need people in dedicated roles for your teams and that instead if you stick the best players together on one team you’re going to be really, really good and win an awful lot.

Now, I watched mixed doubles curling in the Olympics last time around, and thought it was okay.  What did I think of it this time?  About the same.  Because of the reduced thinking time and the fewer rocks to throw, the main strategic elements of the four person game are pretty much lost.  You really aren’t building up a strategy rock by rock as much anymore.  This is heightened by the fact that without someone holding the broom and without full sweepers there are more misses in mixed curling than there are in the full team game, and so it’s more difficult to work out a full strategy when you aren’t sure what you’re going to be seeing after the shot.  Heck, there tend to be a lot of up weight hits through that are there just to clear rocks out of the centre, and often no one can predict what will happen with that shot (especially since it can’t be swept at all, usually, as it’s moving too quickly.  I remember with amusement some shots where the person who could sweep the rock was no where near it while the other person was calling for it to be swept).  However, the game does retain the suspense aspect of curling, where especially towards the end you are watching to see what this shot will do and what will be the result and what impact that will have on the teams.  In fact, because there are more misses that aspect is actually enhanced, because you don’t know what will happen and, moreover, more shots really are “Let’s toss it here and if it’s really good things will be great and if not it won’t hurt us too badly”.  So as I noted last time it’s more tactical than strategic, which isn’t bad.  To be honest, while I’ve compared the full team curling to chess before, it would be reasonable to think of mixed doubles as speed chess:  faster, more tactical, with more mistakes and less overall strategy.

It’s also interesting to talk about the power play, which is where instead of the first two rocks being placed in the centre, they are placed out in the wings and each team can only do this once a game.  Last time around, I commented that while it was portrayed as being for offence it was obviously more of a defensive tool: you were probably going to get two points out of it unless you screwed up but were quite likely to not give up a steal either, while piling things in the centre tended to be the ones that led to the huge scores.  The commentators noted that it was in general being used for offence in the past but now was being used more defensively to keep the centre open and to guarantee at least one point … and then even in that game it was used to generate a lot of points, which carried on at least in the early rounds (but as the commentators noted was not used as successfully in the later rounds).  I think some of the increase in points is due to the fact that the teams have introduced a “tick shot” to it, trying to move the guard into the rings to open things up.  If it works, it will pretty much guarantee no more than two for the team with hammer (throwing the last rock) but if it misses it’s a completely wasted shot and in mixed doubles you don’t really have any shots to waste.  But that’s just a theory, and I haven’t watched the game enough to say for certain.

Now, Canada, despite winning the gold at the Olympics last time around, has not yet qualified for the next Olympics in mixed doubles.  So we have to hope that this new team can keep up their hot play and do well enough that Canada qualifies for the Olympics … at which point there’ll be another trial and so the Einarson/Gushue team might not be the team that goes to the Olympics.  Curling is funny sometimes.

Next up is the men’s World Championships, which I won’t pay much attention to.  Then there are some Grand Slam of Curling events, the women’s World Championships, and the mixed doubles World Championships, all of which I’ll be watching.

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