Thoughts on the Canadian Olympic Trials

So this past week up here in Canada we had the Olympic Curling Trials to decide which women’s and men’s team we’re going to send to the Olympics in February.  Canada is indeed so strong in curling that we could put together a trials with nine teams pretty much all of which would be in the hunt for a medal if they happened to win through, although obviously some of them would be favourites while some of them would be dark horses.  Anyway, since it was on during my last week of work before vacation and I’m working from home I managed to watch a fair bit of the women’s and even some of the men’s — I can see the TV from my work desk — before settling it to mostly watch the women’s playoffs over the weekend.

Let me get the men out of the way first:  Brad Gushue beat Brad Jacobs in a close match to get the nod.  Both of them have won gold medals in the past, although Jacobs’ was quite a bit more recent (he won in 2014 while Gushue’s win was 16 years ago in 2006 when he was, well, obviously quite a bit younger).  I think Gushue should have a good chance to better Kevin Koe’s rather disappointing performance in 2018 where he didn’t win a medal, as Gushue’s been pretty consistently strong over the past four years as well as this season and he doesn’t have the issues with thinking time that Koe tends to have.  He’s also one of the few male players that I like, at least in part because he reminds me of my manager.

The women, of course, had an even more disappointing result in 2018, with Rachel Homan finishing sixth and not even getting to play for a medal (Koe at least lost the bronze medal game).  Early on, Homan had a poor start and the three favourites looked to be Tracy Fleury’s team (which has been having a great season this year), Jennifer Jones’ team, and Kerri Einarson’s team.  Fleury ended up going undefeated in the round robin, Jones was the only other team to finish above .500 for second, and there was a three-way tiebreaker between Einarson’s all-skip team, Casey Scheidegger’s team, and Krista McCarville’s team.  Einarson squeaked out a win over Scheidegger, McCarville beat Einarson, and then Jones beat McCarville to set up a Fleury/Jones final, which Jones managed to win in an extra end.

I’m sure I’ve commented before that I’m not a fan of the Jennifer Jones team, mostly because she keeps beating teams that I like better and also has “Gretzky Syndrome” where while she’s a great player she often gets too much attention when I’d rather the focus be more on the other teams.  That being said, despite my really liking Tracy Fleury’s team I was getting sick of watching them this week because they had something like half of the early round robin draws, and I only got to see, say, Casey Scheidegger once the entire week when she’s a player that I don’t get to see much on the Grand Slam Tour while Fleury, especially this season, ends up making it further and has the rivalry with Einarson and so is seen a lot more.  Anyway, if we look at the last four — Fleury, Jones, McCarville and Einarson — and thinking strictly about who has the best chance of winning a medal, Jones is probably the safest choice.  While she is getting older and so may not be able to make all the shots that she used to be able to make, and also have been inconsistent this season, she’s very experienced and has won gold before with pretty much this team, and so she isn’t likely to buckle under the pressure or have the mental breakdown that Homan had last time around.  Einarson didn’t do all that well at the Worlds when she went, but she’s now worn the Maple Leaf and so should be better prepared for doing that, even at the Olympics.  Fleury’s team is really hot right now, but she has never worn the Maple Leaf and so might not be prepared for all of that pressure, and teams can cool off in a hurry (Homan was hot coming into the Olympics but struggled there).  The most interesting team would have been McCarville, because that team doesn’t play on the Grand Slam and so focuses on the national events, and so they are a lot more experienced than the other teams who play here on the Grand Slam would think, and so she could take them by surprise, and she’s certainly skilled enough because she’s a consistent playoff contender at the Scotties.  However, they don’t get in the games that the other teams get in, and again has never worn the Maple Leaf and so might struggle there.  Jones, again, is the overall safest choice.

And this leads to some calling the whole trials approach into question.  Why not just send Jones every time?  The issue with this is one that I’ve noted above:  Jennifer Jones is getting older and in any professional sport as players age they pick up injuries and the like and just can’t perform at the same level.  This is probably her last chance to go to the Olympics.  So what happens then?  If we never give any of the younger teams a chance, how do they get any experience for when someone needs to replace her?  How do we even figure out who should replace her?  I think the trials is a really good approach, because it gives younger teams a chance to experience high pressure situations and if one of them can manage to upset the more experienced teams then they would at least get a chance to experience the Olympics.  And any team that makes it through the trials is certainly a contender for a medal.  We can’t forget that the last Olympics was the first time that the teams didn’t win at least a medal, and that some of the previous teams were the lower seeds who won the trials and then won gold (like, for example, Brad Gushue).  There are too many really good Canadian teams to just pick one, and assembling a team out of the parts of better teams doesn’t work — it took Einarson’s team 2 years to really get going when it was assembled out of obviously really good players — so I think this works the best.

I will say that the curling, especially on the women’s side, was really, really exciting and tense.  There were a lot of close games, especially the last round robin games and the tiebreakers, and the women’s final was an incredible nail biter, going to an extra end.  The disappointment for me there, though, came because while early on other than Fleury’s team missing shots very early on eventually it settled in to teams making great shot after great shot — and the Einarson/Scheidegger tiebreaker was the same — which is exactly what I like about curling, that progression and strategy.  But the ending was tense because of mistakes.  Jones had a relatively easy shot in the tenth and final end to get two and win the game, but she missed it — and may have thrown it too hard — and only got one, leading to the extra.  And in the extra, Fleury had a relatively easy tap for one and the win that she wrecked on the guard.  The issue here is that it didn’t really seem like these were shots where they had little room to maneuver and had to make a perfect shot, or that these were shots in new areas of the ice where they weren’t sure what it would do.  Jones clearly thought she knew what it would do, and for Fleury they thought everything was fine until it just suddenly went on them.  I’m seeing this more and more in all the curling I watch and it’s annoying me, and often seems to be because of how inconsistent the ice is, where shots often don’t do the same thing.  They often talk about the ice being great but I see far more shots than I remember going awry because the ice doesn’t seem to do what they expect it to.  Is that because the ice is worse than it was?  Is it because the new brooms and sweeping techniques do more damage to the ice and so change things?  Is it because they are all making tougher shots which means that any inconsistency in the ice shows up more?  I’m not sure.  Again, it makes for exciting curling, but I’d far rather be excited by feeling that it’s just great shot after great shot rather than by feeling that it’s miss after miss and so anything can happen.

Anyway, congratulations to Brad Gushue and Jennifer Jones and I will be watching and even cheering for them at the Olympics.  But before that the next curling happens in January (there actually are a couple more events before that but I likely won’t be paying much attention to them) with the Grand Slam returning, the Continental Cup, and the Scotties.


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