How Can Canada Fix its Curling Problem?

Well, as we just saw, Canada wasn’t dominant at the Olympics in curling, like it had been in the past, and in fact only won one medal, and it wasn’t even gold.  It turns out that even before the Olympics, there was a piece asking why Canada isn’t as dominant anymore and if it was because of our approach to curling, unlike that of other countries.  With everything done and a break before the Briar starts, I figured that today would be a good day to think about that myself.

Canada’s traditional strategy has taken advantage of and created its depth, where we have a number of teams that start from provincial tournaments and the “grassroots” who end up competing at the big national tournaments like the Scotties and the Briar for the right to go to the World Championships.  When it comes time to select for the Olympics, we follow the same strategy, except that instead of breaking it down by province we instead take teams that have qualified using various criteria — most often a ranking scheme based on points — and then again have all of those teams battle it out to see which team gets to go.  How this differs from pretty much other country in the world is that they have far fewer teams that might have a shot at winning one of these things, and so they can focus money and attention on them.  For Canadian teams, they generally have no idea who will go to Worlds or to the Olympics until the various competitions are run, which is usually only a couple of months before the actual events, which reduces the direct prep time the teams can have for those events.  In the other countries, they usually have a pretty good idea that they’ll be going to those events long in advance.  Also, that there’s limited direct funding means that Canadian curling teams tend to have other jobs and so aren’t full-time professional curlers.  The article talks specifically about how teams in other countries are indeed full-time professional curlers, but that’s at the expense of the teams below them as those teams get the lion’s share of the available funding.

So what Canada has is a system where any number of teams get a shot at representing Canada and so even relative unknowns can get a shot, which creates a lot of depth as you get a lot of teams getting a chance, at least, to play games at the highest level and against the best teams in the country.  However, this leaves us not having a declared absolute best, and in fact because teams are limited by province even events like the Scotties don’t necessarily have the best teams because if more than one team in a province is at the top of the standings only one — and maybe two with the normal wild card entries — can go to the Scotties.  So a case can be made that Canada creates the deepest field of curlers but to do that sacrifices the top end potential of curlers.  We have a deeper field of really good curlers but aren’t producing the best curlers in the world anymore.  And, in fact, one reason there is resistance to moving towards a model more like that of other countries is that it would reduce this depth and collapse the number of competitive teams down in Canada to a very small number from the pretty large number we have now.

One thing to consider is that the top end approach can be very bad for a country, as we’ve seen in a number of sports.  If you put all your resources into one or even two top teams, what happens when they age out?  Even here, people had been talking about Jennifer Jones being the best team and the team that we should pretty much always send to these events, but Jones’ team is getting older and she has been inconsistent this season.  It might, in fact, have been a bad thing that she managed to put it all together for a good run at the trials and then returned to her inconsistent ways at the Olympics.  If you have a top end strategy, you can pretty much only decide to switch gears once they start struggling, and then have to find a way to determine what team to focus on?  In the depth-first system, teams will naturally step into the breach if the top end teams start to struggle, as we’ve seen even recently.  Specifically for women’s sports, there is also an issue with family and life circumstances.  Yes, women can sometimes still play when pregnant and with young children — Rachel Homan rather famously did it a couple of years ago — but the change in their bodily mass changes how they throw the rocks and can cause issues for sweeping and so if the players want to start a family there’s going to be some interruption in their training and playing cycles.  We really don’t want to have to say to a women’s team “You can get the funding, but you’d better not have kids in this cycle!”.  So it’s actually a really good thing to have that depth-of-field, even if we sometimes don’t send the best team to Worlds, at least, because we have more teams with some experience at these sorts of events and so who will at least know what it’s like to be there.  Even the best teams don’t always manage to win at Worlds the first time they make it there, but usually do better the second time … if they make it back.

One other thing that was mentioned is the fact that due to the main events — the Scotties and the Briar — being divided up by province there are complicated residency rules to ensure that we can have teams that actually live in those provinces represent them, but doing that runs into problems if, say, one of the players moves away to go to school or get a new job or whatever.  One of the complaints in the article is that maybe we should do away with residency entirely, but another complaint is that teams need to be able to play together to really develop well as a team.  While one way to do that is to again pick a team or two to fund which would then allow them to move to a place and train together, maybe what we should be doing instead is tightening the residency restrictions, forcing more teams to play together and maybe encouraging teams to assemble around a specific geographical area.  Instead of sticking around with their old team, maybe they would focus on assembling or joining a new team in that area.  And maybe some of them will consider moving from an over-represented province to a less-represented province if things like lifestyle and jobs will also work out, spreading the talent out a bit.  So perhaps imports should be done away with entirely and we could have some kind of system where a player who had played with a team can stay with that team for the rest of the Olympic cycle but not beyond, which would get teams thinking about how to play with players in their own area.

Another answer I thought of was that there were complaints that the Scotties and Briar aren’t best-on-best and so maybe we could add another event that is the Canadian best-on-best.  This would add more money for Curling Canada that they could spread around and I know that I’d watch it if it was on.  But then it turns out that there already is one of these:  the Canada Cup.  Which I, a curling fan, had barely heard of and only watched a couple of times.  Maybe they should advertise it more (although I think it’s been cancelled the last couple of years).

The big thing, though, is that the world is catching up when it comes to curling, and as the article notes a number of countries have invested heavily in curling knowing that the field wasn’t as deep as it was in other sports (you can also see this a bit in women’s hockey, although the teams aren’t picking it up as quickly as they have with curling).  The teams at the top that are being used as the prime examples of how the approach of those other countries is really working started out as really good teams first, and then were given the extra money and training and such.  So it’s not just the extra funding and training that’s making them so good, and many of them still manage to lose to Canada’s best teams in the Grand Slam of Curling.  For the reasons I’ve given above, I don’t think Canada wants to lose its depth and I don’t think it needs to.  We might want to pick the team that goes to the Olympics a bit earlier so they have more time to prepare (such as choosing them at the end of the previous year, so back in April) although that might mean that we don’t get the opportunity to send a team that starts the season really hot and could sweep the events (as some teams have indeed done, like Rachel Homan a couple of years back or Einarson at some point in the last couple of years).  I think we need to see good young teams like Mackenzie Zacharias at the Scotties to play against the best and learn from that and get experience at those sorts of high pressure tournaments, as that will only make Canada stronger in the long run.  For the most part, any team that comes out of these tournaments — even the Cinderella teams — is going to be a contender at the Worlds and even at the Olympics, and it would in general only be experience that they would lack … experience that they would gain there.  In fact, it can be argued that the depth in Canada makes our teams better, because our teams always have to play against teams that could beat them.  The Grand Slam — which plays in Canada but includes teams from around the world — might well be the thing that’s hurting Canada the most, as it allows the best teams from around the world to compete against the country with the most depth of great teams (most teams in the events and especially in the playoffs tend to be Canadian), giving them that opportunity that before that only Canada could have.  Still, I think we have to accept that Canada can’t dominate curling anymore, just like we can’t dominate men’s hockey anymore.  If we can turn things around so that we have the success as our junior hockey team — don’t always win but are always in the mix and win a lot against tough competition — that would be wonderful, but as along as we are in the mix and always a decent threat to win that’s probably the best we can hope for.

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