Posts Tagged ‘curling’

Thoughts on the Champions Cup and the End of the Olympic Cycle

May 9, 2022

The last event in the Grand Slam of Curling, the Champions Cup, ended over the weekend, which ends the curling season for this year.  I watched a bit of it and even managed to watch a bit of the men’s final, with two of my favourite men’s teams playing, and Brad Gushue managed to cap off his excellent season with another win over Kevin Koe before both teams make some significant changes in the off-season, with Gushue losing Brett Gallant as he’s moving out west with his soon-to-be wife Jocelyn Peterman, and Koe’s team making far more significant changes.  I only watched part of the game because due to some missed shots by Koe’s team Gushue had an 8 – 2 lead at which point I figured it was over, but it ended closer than I would have expected at 8 – 5.  The women’s final featured Kerri Einarson’s team against a team from Korea in Eun-Ji Gim’s team.  This seemed like a repeat of the men’s game when Einarson scored a 4 to go up 7 – 2, but Gim stormed back to make it 7 – 6 before Einarson made a hit for 3 in the final end to win 10 – 6.

That final was interesting, since unlike the men’s final it featured two teams that are likely to remain intact for next season, as Einarson’s team has confirmed that they are staying together and Gim’s team is likely to after the success they had here.  Thus, on the women’s side, none of the teams that were splitting up at the end of the season made it to the finals.  I did manage to watch the last game for Jennifer Jones’ team — as Dawn McEwen is stepping away from the game, Jennifer Jones is joining to I presume mostly skip Mackenzie Zacharias’ team, and Kaitlyn Lawes and Peterman are joining Selena Njegovin and Kristin MacCuish from Tracey Fleury’s old team — and it went pretty much like the team’s games had been going the past couple of years:  some brilliant shots combined with some staggering misses that resulted in a loss and them not even making the playoffs.  As already mentioned, Tracy Fleury’s team is splitting up and lost in the playoffs.  Rachel Homan’s team is taking on Fleury but losing Joanne Courtney, and they also lost in the playoffs.  Silvana Tirinzoni’s team is also splitting up — this was a surprise to me — and also lost in the playoffs.  So a lot of changes happening, on both sides.

The reason for this, of course, is the importance of the Olympics in curling.  Teams are working towards a potential spot in the Olympics, and so tend to build around a four-year cycle of getting a team together, getting used to playing together, taking a run at an Olympic spot, and then reassessing after that.  This season has seen far more and far earlier changes than we’d normally see, which has spawned some discussion from players about how it might not be great for the players that was outlined in this article.  Now, the biggest and most controversial early change was Brendan Bottcher’s team, and quite honestly he’s always been a bit of a jerk and that wasn’t handled all that well regardless.  But the point made in the article that most of the decisions were made before the end of the season which created a bit of a scramble for people to find a team before all the spots were taken and that being a distraction to the players is valid, although I don’t think it necessarily reflects a change in thinking or something that any kind of organization can do something about.  After all, a number of the changes were caused by lifestyle changes that, yeah, the players would know before the end of the season, with McEwen and Courtney stepping away and Gallant getting married and moving to be with his new wife (and Gushue’s team already having one import meaning that Gallant couldn’t just be converted to an import and stay with the team even though he moved out of province).  You can’t say to teams that when such life changes are known to happen that you have to wait until the end of the season to decide what you are going to be doing.  And since the Olympic trials are, by necessity pretty early in the season — and some players are saying that they want them to be earlier — once that ends teams that don’t make it are likely going to find the rest of the season — including the Scotties — a bit underwhelming and so are going to have planning for the next Olympics on their minds, and so not being able to plan for that would be a distraction as well.  So due to the necessities that cause that four year cycle and team turnover there doesn’t seem to be a good way to deal with this.

Besides, announcing these things in advance does allow for the emotional farewells as the teams play their last games together, which seems to be good for both the players and the fans, and in line with other sports does seem to provide some of the greatest moments in seasons and for teams.  I’m sure that there are a number of teams in the past that fans would have liked to have had a chance to cheer off the ice in their final games.

In watching this last event, one thing struck me about some of the teams that will be forming next year and that sort of thing in general.  Tracy Fleury’s team had great success this season and probably more success than the overall skill level and experience of their team would predict, but in general and especially in this event I noticed that they were always a pretty loose team, making jokes when things went well or poorly and seeming to have fun, in line with Dana Ferguson and her front-end partner (whose name, sadly, escapes me at the moment), which served to lighten things up and relieve the pressure on the teams.  I think that Njegovin and MacCuish will probably be able to keep that up with Lawes and Peterman, even though they were part of Jennifer Jones’ team which was much more serious, especially given that Jones could be very intense, often barking out orders.  I’m not sure that approach will work that well with the young team she’s joining, as they may take such things personally from someone who is their idol.  And Fleury will almost certainly miss that with Homan, who is very intense and most often doesn’t seem to leave any room for that kind of fun.  I wonder, though, if that intensity that Homan and Jones has doesn’t end up hurting them at times, and might be partly responsible for Homan’s lack of success at the Olympics.  Yes, they are great teams and being intense has certainly helped them win, but when a team is in tough against as team as good as you that’s playing as well if not better than you it doesn’t really help to keep that intensity instead of finding a way to take things as they come.  I still remember the time when Val Sweeting — who as a skip was hard on herself but also could be more positive in games — won her first championship by missing pretty much all of her shots in the first few ends but making a joking “Yay, I made one!” when she made a shot and then rode that positivity to the win.  As another note, Einarson’s team is a bit balanced between that sort of intensity and lightness, and Einarson at times will stand over her sweepers imploring them to sweep harder — which I imagine could be pretty annoying — but also will joke around a bit with Sweeting in-between shots, even when things are going well.  Perhaps the best way to keep the pressure from being overwhelming, especially against tough competition is to find a way to lighten things up and save the intensity for when it really matters in a game.

Anyway, that’s it for curling for the season.  Curling returns in October, which pretty much leaves me baseball to watch until then.

Thoughts on “The Players’ Championship”

April 18, 2022

The Grand Slam of Curling tour continued, with the first of the last two events of the season.  This event follows the “triple knockout” format, where instead of a round robin teams are instead loosely bracketed and the goal is to win three games before you lose three games, which leaves three “sides” that a team can qualify through:  the “A” side with no losses, the “B” side with one loss, and the “C” side with 2 losses.  Which of course always reminds me of this song, which is one reason why the format somewhat bemuses me.  From what I hear, the teams like the format, mostly because it’s more in line with what they encounter in the other, smaller events they play in and also because they feel it best allows the teams that are playing best in that event to make the final, but I’m not that fond of it myself, and I’m not sure that it’s all that great for television.  While you can get some surprise match-ups early on that you wouldn’t get otherwise, the round robin format is also easier for both fans and schedulers to get a handle on what each team wants to do and what games are likely to be interesting or important.  That being said, overall it probably works out either way.

On the women’s side — the one I follow — Anna Hasselborg beat Kerri Einarson in the final, coming back from giving up an early 3 to squeak out a win scoring 2 in the eighth.  Hasselborg had also had to come back in her previous three games from significant deficits, but I found it disappointing because I’m not really a fan of her team.  She also became the first woman to win all of the Grand Slam events.

Of course, this is one of the last two major events of the curling season, and so there was much discussion of the teams that are splitting up or reforming.  Although she lost in the semi-finals, the performance of Tracy Fleury added to the mystery of why they were splitting up, since they played very well together and seemed to be having fun playing together.  That being said, the team that Njegovin and MacCuish are going to will be an all Manitoba team — everyone there will live in Manitoba — and Fleury is moving to Rachel Homan’s team, which had most of the team actually live in Alberta but who could all play as an Ontario team with one import and one birthright and one student.  Now, from what I heard Sara Wilkes is moving back to Ontario and I know that Homan keeps a residence in Ottawa and so might be moving back, so they move from being a team that might have made a move to being an Alberta team to being a team where everyone lives in Ontario.  That being said, while the talent level might be higher on Homan’s team I’m not sure the personalities and roles will work out there as well as it might on Lawes’ team, although the move to bring in another skip and at this point have two players who primarily played skip, one player who primarily played third, and one who has played third might be an attempt to reproduce Einarson’s success, although that didn’t come easy and did indeed rely on the personalities aligning.

Anyway, one more event and then the curling season will be ended.

Women’s World Championships and Curling Free Agency Period

March 28, 2022

At the time of writing, team Canada has just won the bronze medal at the Women’s World Championships, a disappointment for those who wanted them to do better and win it all but a pretty good result considering that it’s been a few years since Canada has won any medal at the Worlds.  Reading some comments after they lost the semi-final, people have been talking about how the team perhaps can’t handle pressure, and there was a bit of talk even among the commentators about what it means for Canada to not be on the top anymore, but in the graphic they constantly showed since 2010 the team that dominated the World Championships has been Switzerland, who is going to play for a third straight gold against Korea, so it’s not like Canada has been dominating and suddenly isn’t anymore.  It’s long been the case that the world has caught up and Canada is seen as a medal favourite but it’s not really surprising when they don’t win it all, or even fall short of winning a medal.  The thing to worry about is that Canada might fall to being a team that’s a tough beat and can make some noise, but isn’t expected to be there when it comes to the medals.  In the most recent Olympics, only the men’s team made it to the medal round — they won bronze — and in the Olympics before that only the men’s and mixed team made it to the medal round, with the mixed team winning gold and the men’s team falling short.  Given that and given that after winning two straight golds — Homan and Jones — they hadn’t won a medal, there’s be some concern that the women’s teams are falling to a spot where they might hit the top six and might, if they play really well, make a medal round, but that’s it, while teams like Switzerland, Sweden, Korea, Japan and Scotland are the teams that can always be counted on to make a run for a medal.  The win here should make people feel a bit better about that, but it still has to be a concern.

I wonder if part of the issue is a failure to properly adapt to the new rules and strategies required in the modern game of curling.  While I don’t see too many obvious consistent strategic errors, the one thing that concerns me is that Canada as a whole fail big time at one of the most recent additions:  the draw to the button at the start of the game to determine who gets hammer and is used in lieu of tiebreakers to determine who finishes in which position at the end of the round robin.  Their lack of success at that is one reason the Canadian mixed doubles team didn’t make the medal round, and the men and women constantly started behind the eight-ball as they fairly rarely managed to win that draw to the button to start with the hammer.  Here, Einarson’s team struggled with it again, and so needed to win to guarantee themselves a spot in the playoffs and advantages in the playoffs.  Considering that Canadian teams quite often make wonderful draws to the button during games, that they consistently struggle with it before the game is a bit puzzling.  I’m not sure how to fix that, but it’s something that they definitely need to fix to give themselves the best chance of winning international events.

This event also tried out the new rule where if a rock touches the centre line it cannot be moved and so cannot be “ticked” to the side during the entire time where guards cannot be removed, and I’m not sure I like it.  My biggest problem with it from the start is that they still have the free guard zone and so corner guards cannot be removed but now centre guards as well cannot be moved.  This seems to be putting too many restrictions on what players can do, which to me is never a good sign.  I’d say that maybe if you put that rule in play you allow corner guards to be removed, but my concern there would be that then no one would ever put up corner guards because they’d just be removed, meaning that everyone would put up centre guards and there’d be only one strategy.  Which led to me deciding what my biggest problem with all of these rule changes are:  they are about restricting what players can do and so are about eliminating options, which tends to force teams to follow the same strategies.  What I’d be looking for are rules that promote a wide range of strategies and make them viable, but what the rules seem to be designed to do is promote rocks being in play and so more scoring.  I’m not against more scoring, but I want that to follow from good strategies and good shots, not the same strategies and depending on your opponents missing their shots, which seems to be how big ends happen these days.  It’ll be interesting to see if this rule is adopted and what will happen to the game if it is.

So, that’s the Women’s Worlds.  If you were expecting me to tell you who ultimately won it, I would normally do that but that game runs too late for me to watch it and write a post about it, and since Canada isn’t in it I’m not as inclined to do that, especially since I’d have to write that post in the morning while working and writing posts while working makes my manager cry.  So I’ll leave it for now and anyone really interested can look it up for themselves.  I will note that I am neutral about who wins because I kinda like but ultimately don’t care that much about either team, which is what makes it easier for me to just ignore that game here.

Given that, let me move on to talking a bit about what’s happened so far in the traditional roster shuffle that happens after every Olympics.  We knew going in that some teams were going to have to change due to various personal considerations, but there have been some big surprises, especially on the women’s side.  Dawn McEwen, the lead for Jennifer Jones’ team, decided to retire to spend more time with her family, and since long-time lead Lisa Weagle had been with the team since moving from Rachel Homan’s team it would seem like the obvious move would have been for her to simply take Dawn’s spot and so the team would continue as it was.  Well, that’s not what happened.  Jennifer Jones moved on to skip Mackenzie Zacharias’ team, which should certainly help their development, and Kaitlyn Lawes took Jocelyn Peterman from her old team and combined that with … Selena Njegovin and Kristin MacCuish from Tracy Fleury’s old team.  Yes, that team broke up as well, which was a big surprise since they were doing incredibly well on both the Grand Slam and national circuits, and seemingly only needed a bit more experience to be able to make it to Worlds and to the Olympics.  Also, in an unrelated move, Casey Scheidegger’s team also broke up, and even though they struggled a bit this year due to a lack of playing time they seemed to be getting back on track, so again that’s another team that could have done great things if they had stayed together.

But the biggest surprise — so far — is probably the latest:  Tracy Fleury joined Rachel Homan’s team after Joanne Courtney stepped aside to focus on her family.  Fleury’s probably going to be a third or a skip, but they haven’t said which yet.  This is puzzling since Emma Miskew is a perfectly fine third and is probably ready to skip a team herself, and I had wondering if she was planning on forming her own team given that Homan’s team was a more Alberta-oriented team and Emma could have picked up some players — including their own alternate who never seems to get a chance to break in with actual team — to make an Ontario-oriented team.  If that was the case, then Fleury joining Miskew’s team would have made a lot of sense.  But here I’m not sure how it will work.  I don’t think Miskew will have too much trouble playing second, but it does take time to adjust to a new position and now three players will have to do that for certain.  Also, Homan before had forced Courtney to adjust how she throws so that everyone would have the same release — making ice reading easier — and now she’ll either have to force Fleury to do that or else have to learn to read different releases.  Either way, it’s going to be tough and something that neither Homan nor Fleury would probably really want to do.  I’m also not really sure that Fleury will fit on the team personality-wise, as being a long-time skip she has a set way of thinking and doing things and Homan herself can be pretty intense which seems like it’s more likely to lead to clashes than it is to the sort of thing that team Einarson has:  Val Sweeting is competitive but would certainly be more willing to let Einarson take over than Fleury seemed to, especially given how when she came back to the team during the Scotties she reinstated her way of playing even though what Njegovin had been doing was incredibly successful.  Miskew has played with Homan forever and so the two of them can work together, but I’m not sure that Fleury can work with Homan as easily.  At the very least, it will be interesting to see what happens, but it won’t take effective until next season.

Which means that outside of the Men’s Worlds, all that’s left are a couple of Grand Slam events that, given the already stated changes, should be very interesting to watch.

How Can Canada Fix its Curling Problem?

February 28, 2022

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.

Deja Vu All Over Again (Kinda): Final Thoughts on Olympic Curling

February 21, 2022

Back in 2018, Canada had a very disappointing run at the Olympics in curling.  While the mixed doubles team won gold — the first gold awarded it as an official Olympic sport, I believe — the women’s team didn’t make the semi-finals and so didn’t get to play for a medal, and the men’s team played for a medal and didn’t win one.

In 2022, the mixed doubles team didn’t make the semi-finals on an admittedly heartbreakingly close call (although that was a game they could and probably should have put away before that point).  The women’s team didn’t make the semi-finals and so didn’t get a chance to win a medal, losing out on a tie-breaker of draws to the button (teams draw to the button at the beginning of the game to see who gets to start with last rock, and all of Canada’s teams did really, really badly at that) to the ultimate gold and silver winners.  So that left the men’s team, who kinda squeaked into the semi-finals and then lost their first semi-final, meaning that either they were going to go home with a bronze or with nothing.  While I was dreading and anticipating Canada not winning a curling medal for the first time ever, Brad Gushue pulled it out, defeating 2018’s gold medal winner in the United States to at least take home a bronze.

So, in the three curling events, Canada only came home with one medal, like they did last time.  The colour was downgraded and two of the teams didn’t make the semi-finals instead of only one.  So this was only a slightly different result from the last time, and probably more disappointing.  My thoughts on this:

Why was Canada so poor at the initial draws to the button to start the game, which ended up costing them at least one semi-finals berth?  As the commentators noted, it’s not like they tend to have a lot of trouble drawing to the button in-game, so why did they have such a hard time with it at the beginning of the game?  All three of the teams struggled, and so it’s not just one team or team’s attitude.  It’s mindboggling that they would struggle with it so much.

I was mostly watching the curling while work — the Olympics did work really well as background noise — but there seemed to be a trait that Jennifer Jones’ team shared with Rachel Homan’s team:  very aggressive play, leaving lots of rocks in play and “challenging” their opponents.  From what it seems to me in watching them, the attitude often seems to be to indeed call the toughest shots that they can think of and dare their opponents to keep up with them.  I actually found this a contrast to Gushue’s team because they were often calling really tough shots when I thought that it might be better to play it safer, but they didn’t seem to be thinking about it that much and trying to look for the harder shot, but just seeing that one — or seeing it first — and then going ahead confident that they could make it.  The only that Gushue called that ended up losing him the semi-final was a tricky — although probably makeable — double when he could have simply drawn in and taken one and sent it to an extra end, and his hit was off which meant that he didn’t even get the slight roll that he needed to send it to an extra end, but that was the shot he saw and it was probably worth trying it since if he got any roll at all — and didn’t roll too far — he would probably get the one anyway.  So on the men’s side I saw them more as calling the shot that they saw gave them the most advantage rather than deliberately trying to take the game to their opponents, while for the women I saw them more trying to take the game to their opponents (at least in my opinion).

I wonder if this is part of the problem with at least women’s curling and maybe some of the men’s curling when they get outside of the Canadian championships and Grand Slams and compete internationally (I seem to recall that Brendan Bottcher, who last year went to the men’s world championships and didn’t do very well, often plays the same style, as does Kerri Einarson).  The teams that we see have the most success with this are indeed teams that can challenge almost any team they face and at least be at the same level of skill as them, and usually they’d be higher.  When it comes to solely Canadian tournaments and the Scotties they would tend to face a lot of teams with less experience and skill than they have, and so that strategy would really work most of the time as their opponents wouldn’t be able to keep up with them.  So the strategy is to push them hard figuring that either a) they won’t be able to keep up and so you’ll score a  big end or b) they will be able to keep up but won’t be good enough to force you into really tough shots or c) they will be able to force you to tough shots but you’ll make them and so at least limit any possible damage or d) you won’t be able to make the shots and they’ll score a bunch but then you’ll have lots of time to get that back.  This strategy would work really, really well most of the time for them.

But when it comes to the international events, it’s a strategy that can have its main weakness exposed, which is that it requires the team to outplay their opponents.  If the team can’t make their shots, it’s a recipe for disaster, and if their opponents match them shot-for-shot then it’s a coin flip to see who will win.  At the international events, there are more teams that can match them shot-for-shot, even if they aren’t quite as skilled and likely won’t win it all.  Moreover, the ice conditions can be quite a bit different and if the team doesn’t pick that up as quickly as their opponents then they won’t make their shots and so could end up not being able to utilize their overall skill advantage.  In 2018 there were comments about the ice early on and in 2022 the curling was played in what used to be a pool in the 2008 (I believe) Summer Olympics and so it’s likely that at least the ice wasn’t what they would have been used to playing in an arena and so not being able to judge the different ice conditions may well have caused the issue.  So they were going for big shots where if they made it things were great and if they missed things would be terrible while their opponents more often chose shots that might not be the best shots if they made them but wouldn’t be disastrous if they missed them, at least, “the right way” and so came out of their misses in better shape and so were able to put more pressure on, and so turned the tables.

That being said, the games tended to be inconsistent and full of mistakes, and Jennifer Jones all season has been inconsistent and missing shots, so perhaps this was just a continuation of that.

One final note:  Rachel Homan ended up making a Tweet about how devastated she was after losing — and still was — which bothered me slightly because I was seen too many of those be unsolicited and seemingly used to draw attention to herself, but looking at it in context I don’t think that was the case.  I do think that some of the public responses followed the typical recent pattern of being overly flattering in trying to make her feel better about herself, going beyond “It’s okay, we know you did your best” to “You’re such a wonderful person and player and are so great that we can’t fault you!”.  I prefer the former.  On the other hand, after Jones lost she said the right words about playing their hearts out and trying as hard as they could — and I do believe they did — but then ended it with “But we had a lot of fun!” and it boggles my mind that she would think that this was something that she’d say to disappointed curling fans and hope it would make them feel better, because the immediate response is “Maybe you should have had less fun and focused more on your curling and you might have done better!”.  I know that the Olympics can be an experience and am glad that they did manage to enjoy it, but it really seems like a tone-deaf “participation award” kind of response.  It’d be like me telling my manager that I couldn’t get my feature done in time because there was too much to learn and figure out to make it work, but that I really enjoyed the figuring out part.  At best, it’s irrelevant, and at worst it looks like I might have taken too much time having fun and not enough time buckling down to do the work.

Anyway, that’s it for the Olympics for another four years.  There’s lots more curling to come this year, as well as the Free Agency period after a four year cycle where teams start adjusting and ramping up to head to the next Winter Olympics.

Thoughts on Olympic Curling

February 14, 2022

So, after the Scotties and the Mixed Doubles Olympic Curling, it was time to turn to the four person curling.  Now, after how 2018 was very disappointing for Canadian curling, and after Homan and Morris didn’t even get a Mixed Doubles medal, all Canadian curling fans were clearly hoping that the four person teams would return to the expected form for Canadian curling, and the two teams — Jennifer Jones for the women and Brad Gushue for the men — started off pretty well with a win (last time around, Kevin Koe won and Rachel Homan lost, setting up for them to alternate winning and losing the entire time, so that Koe lost when Homan won and Homan lost when Koe won).  However, after that Jennifer Jones has lost — up to Sunday morning — three straight, while Brad Gushue lost a couple and won a couple.  Gushue is okay but in a little tough at 3 – 2 and Jones is in trouble at 1 – 3.  And while I assume — and would hope — that Rachel Homan wants to see Canada win medals here she has to be feeling a bit better seeing Jones stumble a bit as it shows that the field is a lot tougher than it used to be, and also showing that the calls from some people to just always send Jones to these things weren’t necessarily the right move.

I can only watch the evening draw — as that’s what’s on in the morning — but I’ve also been a bit disappointed in the games I’ve watched, especially with the women, as it seems that the games are games of misses rather than of excellent shots and strategy.  I’ve actually noticed that a lot over the past few years, and the problem seems to be less of just plain missing shots and more of not being able to read the ice.  The ice that the commentators usually praise for being excellent and then in the next breath note that spots on the ice are behaving differently, which doesn’t seem like great curling ice to me.  Now, it’s true that a lot of the time that’s because one side is getting used more than the other — the teams play their shots on one side of the ice and not the other — and that if there’s a lot of sweeping with the new synthetic brooms that can do more to the ice than the old brush or corn brooms used to do and so change conditions in ways that the icemakers can’t predict or deal with, but I’ve also heard more about flat spots and more and more about “picks”, where a rock will just go sideways for some reason, usually because it picked up some debris or something.   With corn and hair brushes that made sense, but where are we getting debris when they’re using synthetic brushes?  Anything like this can ruin a shot and when a shot is ruined if the end is close that can shift things dramatically one way or the other, and I’m seeing it a lot more than I’d like.

Anyway, there’s another week to go and we’ll see if Canada can pull it off or if they are going to be held off the medal platform in four team again, which would hold them off the medal platform for the entire Olympics.

Scotties and Olympic Mixed Doubles

February 7, 2022

So the Scotties ended, with Kerri Einarson winning her third straight championship, beating the home town team of Krista McCarville.  I stayed up to watch this and was a bit disappointed in the results, not so much because I don’t like Einarson’s team — I do — but because I’m a bit tired of them winning these things all the time.  I would be worried that this will justify an all-skip team, but it seems clear that this only worked because all the players were, in fact, willing to put in the work and effort into learning their new role and so it isn’t something that can be done lightly.  What it does seem to have done is allow more teams to shuffle players around into different roles if needed or if a player leaves, since they know that it can work and it gives them more flexibility.

Which then leads back to the two teams that had to do that, Rachel Homan’s team and Tracy Fleury’s team.  Fleury’s team did really well with Selena Njegovin stepping into a new role, as they only lost one game during the round robin and made the playoffs, finishing first in their pool, and when Tracy Fleury came back they went 1 – 2 and didn’t make the final.  I had joked that considering how well they were doing maybe they shouldn’t want her back, but it wasn’t really due to her coming back that they didn’t progress (although it might have played a role since the team went back to their normal roles and Fleury didn’t have as good a read on the ice because she hadn’t played it).  They commented that it’s been a rough year for them as they seem to get close but don’t manage to get over the hump to really win anything.  Still, they’re doing pretty well given where they started from, and especially considering what they had to go through here.

Rachel Homan’s team, on the other hand, didn’t do as well, finishing out of the playoffs and at .500 for the event.  This I found surprising, because given what I had seen before I would have expected that Emma Miskew was more ready to skip a team than Njegovin was and that Homan’s team would be more able to adapt to that than Fleury’s was.  But perhaps the issue was that Homan’s team is far more regimented — when Joanne Courtney came into the team, she had to relearn how to throw the rock because Homan likes everyone to have the same release — and so it’s much harder for them to adapt to a new player that had to be inserted at the last minute.  I had posited in the past that maybe Miskew would want to form her own team in the future, and if she had done well I’d be seeing this as a rehearsal for that, but with the results being mediocre I’m not really sure about that.

And speaking of Homan, she went with John Morris to play mixed doubles at the Olympics, which ran over the weekend.  When the team lost their first game I thought that the last thing Homan wants is to go to the Olympics for the second time and not win or even play for a medal.  They recovered and did reasonably well, but needed one win out of their last two games to get into the playoffs.  The first was against a relatively weak Australia team that had only won their first game that very day, but was riding a bit of a high because they were close to getting sent home due to a positive Covid test but had that overturned at the last minute.  They came out flying and had Canada down 7 – 0 early, but Canada did come back only to lose it in an extra end.   The second was against undefeated surprise team Italy, and while Canada played better they ended up losing to them in an extra end, on a measurement that showed that they had lost by millimeters.  Now, I only caught a few of these games, but from the commentary it sounds like Homan in general played really well — despite having a lower percentage than Morris — but was often left with next-to or impossible shots because Morris’ shots were closer to what was called but missed just enough to leave Homan with nothing.  Still, I expect Homan to take a lot of criticism for not performing up to expectations and so being the reason they didn’t win a medal (which is why I said that that situation was the last thing she wanted).  People could complain that it’s people blaming the woman, but if Kaitlyn Lawes had played with Kevin Koe — who was the skip who didn’t medal in the previous Olympics — and they had had the same result I expect people would blame him for the loss as well.  So I think a lot of the criticism will be driven by the idea that Homan simply cannot handle the pressure of an Olympics, because since Morris won the last time that can’t be true of him, and since she didn’t win the last time it definitely can be true for her, even if perhaps Morris was more responsible for the losses than she was.  The team also seemed to have some communication issues which is odd since they were normal partners and Lawes was a sub-in for Homan last time around.  Anyway, it’s a hugely disappointing result for everyone involved, and it didn’t seem like they ever really got going, even in their wins.

Now, men’s and women’s four person curling will be starting, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on during the next week, leading into the Briar (which I will probably pay attention to while working but won’t talk about) and then the women’s worlds.

Scotties (First Weekend)

January 31, 2022

The Scotties — the Canadian Women’s Curling Championships — started this weekend, and there are a couple of points I wanted to make instead of waiting until the end of the week to comment on them.  And they really revolve around teams that are being skipped by someone who the team isn’t named for.

Let me clarify that:  teams are generally named for their skips, even in this case where they are officially named by their province or as one of the three wild card teams.  But in general in curling if the skip can’t attend a tournament — which doesn’t happen all that often but has happened a bit more the past couple of years — in general the team is still named after them because the team is still “theirs”, but someone else steps in or steps up to skip the team.  So even though the team is being skipped by someone else you would still refer to the team by the name of their regular skip and then simply reference the temporary skip as calling the shots and throwing the fourth stones.

Now, we already knew that we’d have a Team Homan skipped by Emma Miskew, since Rachel Homan is playing mixed doubles in the Olympics and can’t be here.  I had posited after a very minimal amount of research that they would use Allison Flaxey as an alternative and put Lynn Kreviazuk — that I accidentally called “Cheryl” — in as a regular player, but what they are doing is putting Flaxey in at second, moving Sarah Wilkes to third, but having Flaxey take on what is normally the third’s role and “hold the broom” for the skip stones, meaning that she does the call from the rings on the very important last rocks that Emma Miskew is throwing.  This was done to maintain the sweeping duo of Wilkes and Joanne Courtney, who are excellent sweepers that have obviously worked together and gotten to know each other quite well.  So their team looks like, well, something that I would have come up with:  what looks like a lot of changes that could have been done simpler but which follows from a number of very simple facts that, ultimately, shows that that is really the best solution.

The other team was a bit of a surprise, as Tracy Fleury’s team had to start, at least, without her as Tracy Fleury tested positive for Covid before leaving for the event.  They made less changes, as I think they simply bumped everyone up in the throwing order — so Selena Njegovin, the third, becomes the skip — and added Robyn Njegovin to fill in the last spot.  They hope to get Fleury back sometime mid-week, the last I heard.

Now, I pretty much figured that Miskew wouldn’t have too much trouble taking on the skip role because in the past she’d been doing a lot of the talking and strategizing and so would be able to, well, just keep doing that.  But Njegovin didn’t seem to be someone who had done that very much and who instead relied on Fleury to make most of the calls, and so there was some doubt in my mind that she’d be able to step into the strategizing role (I wasn’t too worried about either of their shot-making, although again Miskew seemed more calm and able to do that than Njegovin might have been).  And so far, after three games, the teams are … an identical 2 – 1.  Both of them lost to a somewhat upstart New Brunswick team, that has been to the Scotties a number of times but isn’t well known.  Miskew beat Newfoundland and Labrador — who is another relatively unknown team — and then beat perennial playoff contender Northern Ontario — which is also the home rink, even though there are no fans in the stands here — that was a 2 – 0 team until that point.  Njegovin beat again relative unknown Saskatechewan before beating another less well-known but perennial contender in PEI.

So despite being missing their skips and not replacing them with another skip — as Fleury’s team did last year for some events by bringing in Chelsea Carey — the teams are doing pretty well.  I also like the teams, so I’m happy about that.

EDIT:  And the two teams played each other this morning.  I was wrong about where Robyn Njegovin slotted in, as she slotted in at third.  And Team Fleury beat Team Homan in a game that feature a 5, a 4, and a couple of 3s, and so was a very offensively oriented game (and Team Fleury probably won based on a couple of steals).

The plot thickens

January 17, 2022

Okay, it’s odd for me to talk about curling this much when there aren’t games happening (the last time I was even close to this also involved Rachel Homan when she parted ways with Lisa Weagle, along with a number of other changes to a number of teams), but I really have to follow-up on what I talked about last week.  The story so far is due to the normal playdowns being cancelled, Rachel Homan’s team was selected to represent Ontario at the Scotties, but there was a wrinkle:  Homan herself was up for selection to go to the Olympics as part of the mixed doubles team, and if she did then she wouldn’t be able to attend the Scotties, and so the Ontario curling powers-that-be decided that if that was the case her team wouldn’t go and that they’d send Hollie Duncan’s team instead.  I wasn’t really sure what to think about that move, but it did cause a fair bit of consternation in the curling community over whether that made sense since Homan’s team could just play with a substitute, which had already happened a number of times in the past, including during the pandemic.

At any rate, Rachel Homan and John Morris were selected to go to the Olympics for mixed doubles.  Now, I actually thought that they probably won’t going to be selected, because they were sitting fifth in the points rankings for mixed doubles, which is a fair ways down the list to be selected.  The top two teams were ruled out because they were already on the four person team that was going to the Olympics and Canada does not allow someone to go to the Olympics and play on both the four person team and the mixed doubles team, but that still left two teams ahead of them.  The third place team was Nancy Martin and Tyrel Griffith, who are mixed doubles specialists and from what I am given to understand don’t play four person at all, and the fourth place team was Lisa Weagle and John Epping.  Weagle is actually on the four person team that’s going to the Olympics, but she’s an alternate and so is technically able to play.  So I expected that they’d choose one of the other two teams, and was surprised that they chose them to go.  The articles I read didn’t give reasons, but I was thinking about it a bit and have thoughts on why the choice wasn’t just made by rankings.  For Lisa Weagle, from what I’ve heard the alternate actually does quite a bit for the team even when not required to play, such as doing things like organization and tracking shots and ice conditions and strategies during the game, and so having her distracted by that might hurt Jones’ team, or might hurt the mixed doubles chances.  And then if she needed to step in due to injury or illness they’d have exactly what they didn’t want to have:  someone playing in both competitions.  So given that the difference in the points used to rank the teams probably wasn’t that great, it would be pretty easy to decide that it would be better all around to send a team that could focus entirely on mixed doubles.

The more puzzling case to me is Martin and Griffith, who were the highest on the list and, again, were pretty much mixed doubles specialists.  They didn’t have the international experience of Homan and Morris, but Homan’s international experience was in four person and although she went to the Olympics last time around she didn’t do all that well.  So one consideration likely was that they didn’t have the experience of the other teams, but I don’t think that should have counted enough to go two places down the rankings to replace them.  The other consideration that I thought of was that as mixed doubles specialists they would obviously play in more mixed doubles events than the ones who didn’t.  While this could count in their favour for going to a mixed doubles tournament, the issue is that it would skew the points gained and therefore the rankings.  Their team would have an advantage over the teams that consisted of players who normally played four person not because they were better teams but simply because they could play events while the others were playing in four person tournaments.  Normally, the trials would sort this all out, but they didn’t have that option this year (their trials were cancelled) and so they had to take that into consideration.

Given that, it was probably a relatively easy decision to decide to send the team that won the gold medal last time around.  Both of them had decided to play with different teams — Morris was originally playing with Homan and played with Kaitlyn Lawes instead when Homan had to bow out to play on the four person team — and Lawes couldn’t play mixed doubles because she was on the four person team.  So sending John Morris with his regular partner to defend his medal, given the circumstances, seemed pretty reasonable, although it had to be pretty disappointing for Martin and Griffith … about as disappointing as them not really being considered favourites to go from the beginning.

So, Rachel Homan was selected to go to the Olympics, which then triggered the Ontario curling powers-that-be to send Hollie Duncan’s team instead of Homan’s team.

But it doesn’t end there.  Last year, the Scotties organizers increased the number of teams that they enter because of the pandemic, adding three wild card teams to the normal teams per province and territory — and Northern Ontario, for historical reasons — to bring the field to 18 teams.  They normally only have one team in the competition as a wild card team and pick two teams to play off the Friday night before the event to decide which one gets in.  Due to the number of provincial playdowns that were cancelled, they decided to do the same thing this year as well.  So they added three teams to the main draw according to points accrued:  Tracey Fleury’s team, Chelsea Carey’s team and … Rachel Homan’s team, who are adding Alli Flaxey as a fifth player and, from their Facebook page — that I can’t really see because it wants me to log in and I am not on Facebook and don’t want to be — are shifting everyone up a position, which means that I think that Cheryl Kreviazuk was their original fifth and so will be playing lead for the team.  Which I thought is what they could have easily done when this whole thing blew up, given that Emma Miskew for a while seemed to be making a lot of the calls, Sarah Wilkes used to play third, and Joanne Courtney used to play second.

So, Rachel Homan’s team still gets to go to the Scotties … but not as Ontario, because their skip is going to the Olympics.  It will be interesting to see how the teams do and probably interesting to see what happens when the teams play against each other.

Scotties Qualifications

January 10, 2022

The Scotties — the Canadian Women’s Curling Championships, more formally known as The Scott Tournament of Hearts — is supposed to happen at the end of this month.  With the Olympic curling trials happening in December, that left a limited amount of time to do the normal playdowns in each province to decide which teams would get to go to the Scotties.  This weekend, I watched the semi-final and final in Alberta to choose the team to go, which ended up being Laura Walker’s team … the team that happened to get to go to the tournament last year when the governing body of the province had to simply pick a team to go because the playdowns weren’t possible.

The process here was interesting as well.  Three teams played to equal 6 – 1 records:  Laura Walker, Casey Scheidegger, and Kelsey Rocque.  Now, they needed to decide what positions these teams actually finished in, because the first place team gets a bye to the final and the second and third place teams play off in the semi-final.  Normally, they’d go by who beat who (who beat you?) in the round robin — remember that there are no ties in curling so when they played each other one of them had to have won — but this time it ended up being your classic rock-paper-scissors situation:  Walker beat Rocque, Rocque beat Scheidegger, and Scheidegger beat Walker.  So they had to decide it by taking the results of the draw to the button that starts each game to determine who gets the hammer in the first end.  Walker was the closest to the button when they added up all of her attempts over the entire round robin, so she got the bye.  But the interesting things didn’t stop there, because the rankings according to the draw to the button were Walker in first, Scheidegger in second, and Rocque in third, and normally they decide who gets last rock in the first end by what positions they finish in.  However, in this case what they did was decide who gets last rock by which of the two teams beat each other in round robin, which is what they normal tie breaker would have been.  So Scheidegger technically finished second, but didn’t start with last rock in the semi final and did have last rock in the final, when it normally would have been the other way around.

It didn’t help or hinder her, though, as she won the semi final by stealing five points in the first three ends and riding that to a 10 – 7 win, and lost the final 6 – 5, which means that Laura Walker is again going back to the Scotties, but this time clearly having earned it by winning the qualification tournament.  For Scheidegger, in both games her team was outplayed by the other team in terms of percentages — shots made versus attempted, which is actually judged — but she outplayed or was at least close to the other skip.  For Rocque, her struggles cost her the game, and for Walker that she was closer to Scheidegger allowed her to hang on for the win.

There’s also an interesting situation happening with the Ontario playdowns.  Due to the current situation, they had to cancel the playdowns, and so had to again appoint someone to go to the Scotties.  Now, there is a ranking points system that gives teams points and rankings based on what they did at other events — there’s a host of small tournaments and, of course, the Grand Slam of Curling — and last year’s appointee, Rachel Homan, was the highest in those rankings, just ahead of Hollie Duncan.  So she was selected to go.  But the qualifiers for mixed doubles for the Olympics were cancelled as well, and she’s on a team that’s in the running for that.  But if she is tapped to go to the Olympics, then she wouldn’t be able to go to the Scotties.  So the deal was that if she ends up going to the Olympics, then her team wouldn’t go to the Scotties and Duncan would go instead.

Now, when I heard about this I thought that it seemed reasonable, because in general the idea had been that if a team was selected to go to the Olympics they couldn’t go to the Scotties.  But a lot of people in the sport protested that, and in doing so revealed the issue with it:  it’s not the case that Homan’s team can’t go, but that Homan can’t go.  If that happens, the usual procedure is that the team still goes and they find a replacement.  For example, I recall that last year Tracy Fleury wasn’t comfortable going into the bubble for that long and had I think Chelsea Carey sub in for her at at least one event (I thought it was the Scotties, actually, but things that I read didn’t mention it and my memory is not that good for things like that to be certain).  So then the question is why couldn’t that happen here?  There was an explanation given about the team losing its points if a player doesn’t play and so it would leave the team’s score lower than Duncan’s team, but that’s not really how curling actually works when it comes to these sorts of things.

My suspicion is that the Ontario curling powers-that-be saw that the two scores were really, really close, and without the opportunity for the teams to play it out wanted to at least seem as fair as possible, and going by the rankings was the best way to do that, which left it as Homan.  They almost certainly didn’t want to just appoint Homan as the winner from the last time they had one of these playdowns again because that would be very frustrating to any team that was hoping to get a shot at it.  So using the rankings made sense.  But then the two teams were indeed really close, and there was probably an idea in their minds that if Homan was unable to go then it wouldn’t really be Team Homan anymore, and so the fair thing to do would be to send the real and full team of Team Duncan.  But as was pointed out, if she had been injured or something, then they would have sent the team with a replacement, so there doesn’t seem to be a logical explanation for it.  So there’s a bit of a kerfuffle over that.

The rest of the provinces are doing playdowns or else appointing teams, and so we should have a full field by, well, the time this post goes up.  Now all I can hope for is that the tournament itself actually manages to get off the ground.  Safely, of course.