Posts Tagged ‘curling’

Thoughts on the Pan Continental Cup

November 7, 2022

So, this weekend’s event was not, in fact, the Continental Cup, but was instead the Pan Continental Cup.  What’s the difference, you ask?  Well, the Continental Cup is kinda a Ryder Cup equivalent for curling where North America takes on the rest of the world in a number of different curling events to see which side can score the most points overall and take the Cup, making it a fun little event featuring many of the world’s best curlers.  The Pan Continental Cup is a qualifier for the curling World Championships from the Pacific, Australian and North American region, making it a lot more serious.  And in watching it, I couldn’t help but conclude that there has to be a better way to do that than what they did here.

The basic idea is that they take the top nine teams in those regions and put them in an A division, where the top five teams make the World Championships, and then have five teams in a B division hoping to get promoted to the A division to replace the two teams that get relegated the next year.  On the men’s side, only the top four were going to earn a spot because Canada is the host nation for the next Worlds and so even if they ended up out of the top five they were going to get a spot.  However, as it turned out there was really only one spot available — taken by New Zealand in both the men’s and women’s sides — because the teams from Canada, the U.S., Japan and Korea were just so far ahead of everyone else that they easily took the first four spots.  On the men’s side, Japan even struggled out of the gate and still handily made the top four (and the playoffs).  Given the disparity in quality between the teams, it also meant that if one of those top four played against the teams in the bottom five it was generally a blowout and ended soon after the six ends that they were forced to play before calling it a game.  The only games that were at all competitive were when the top four teams played each other (although even that didn’t hold a lot of the time) or when the bottom five teams played each other.  And since they were fighting for a spot in the Worlds, there was that to play for while the top four teams, especially as the week went on, were pretty much only competing for the title.

Which most of them weren’t all that concerned about, showing an issue for Canada.  While most of the other countries pretty much have one or two teams that they could send to such events, Canada has a host of them.  As such, Canada tends to have to try to pick one team to send to do the qualification.  They tend to send the team that went to the last Worlds, but that team might not want to go and might want to prefer getting some rest or playing and preparing for Grand Slam events.  The same thing would apply to the rest of the top four teams, as pretty much all of them play in the Grand Slam of Curling.  So what happens is a team is picked to try to get this spot from a country that’s pretty much guaranteed to make it, and so they show up, blow out the weaker teams to win their spot, and then play for a mostly meaningless victory — although, as they say, it’s always nice to win something for your country, even though for countries like Canada the teams here aren’t the teams that they most want to beat on the world stage — and then go back to their normal lives.  And getting slaughtered can’t be good for those weaker teams.  Sure, one way to get better is to play against better teams and learn to do what they do, but at this stage it doesn’t seem like a lot of them are at the point where they could learn much just from getting slaughtered by these teams.  So, essentially, countries that are pretty much guaranteed a spot — and that we really want to see — in the Worlds have to show up and pound some weaker teams just to prove that.  God forbid one of those teams have a terrible week and miss out on the playoffs, as a team that would definitely be weaker and that curling fans wouldn’t want to see as much as that team would make it through.

Since they do this in Europe as well, what I’d suggest is use a similar approach to what the World Hockey Championships do and give the teams that finish in the top X spots an automatic spot in the next one.  The teams that finish lower than those are relegated to the qualifying round, which has those teams plus the bottom five from the A pool.  Do this worldwide and not just in these regions, so that you don’t need to have as many teams qualifying.  Then relegate the bottom X teams from that to the B pool and promote the top X teams from that to the qualifying round.  Doing this would keep the best teams in the Worlds year after year without them having to qualify every year, provide some better teams for the hopefully up-and-coming teams to play against, give more countries a chance to qualify since turnover in the qualifying round would be higher, and would make things more competitive and hopefully avoid as many blowouts as we saw in this tournament.  And it also would stop penalizing deeper countries by forcing them to pick a team to send to a mostly meaningless tournament just to qualify for the Worlds.

Another interesting point was that the commentators were talking about rocks speeding up and slowing down and commented that the teams needed to be able to read the “slide paths”, which are paths that more rocks or less rocks had been thrown down and that had been swept more or less which changes the speed of the paths and how much the rocks will curl.  Now, from what I recall I think that this was always a concept, but don’t think it was as prominent as it was now.  Yes, if you had a lot of rocks down one path and the sweepers were hammering it, things would change, but it seems far more drastic now.  I wonder if this is an artifact of the new brushes and brushing techniques.  When they were first introduced, someone proved them by taking a new synthetic brush and directional sweeping and making the rock move left and then right and then back again in a zigzag pattern, something that no one could have believed possible before this.  While the curling governing bodies have added restrictions so that this isn’t possible, the new brooms and directional sweeping can still have a huge impact.   So I suspect that this is causing there to be more slide paths and more polishing of the ice, causing more discrepancies between different lines on the ice, causing more misreadings of the ice, causing more missed shots and mistakes, which explains why I’m seeing more games settled by mistakes than I recall seeing in the past.  Since I don’t care for games settled by mistakes, this isn’t a benefit for me.

Finally, Canada won gold on the men’s side — Brad Gushue blowing out the team from Korea — and bronze on the women’s side with Kerri Einarson winning a relatively close one over the United States after losing a very close one to Japan in the semi-finals.

The next curling for me is I think the next Grand Slam Event in December.

Tour Challenge

October 24, 2022

So the next event on the Grand Slam of Curling was the Tour Challenge.  On the women’s side, Rachel Homan beat Kerri Einarson  and on the men’s side, Niklas Edin’s team beat Matt Dunstone’s team.

The reason that I said “team” for the men’s side is that Niklas Edin’s team won it without him as he was injured before the semi-finals, hurting his knee, and so his third Oskar Eriksson stepped into calling the game and throwing the last stones and the other two players threw three rocks apiece.  Normally, this is considered to be a disadvantage, and yet they managed to upend too really good teams in Brad Gushue’s team and Dunstone’s team.  Now, this could be seen as an anomaly but earlier in the season there was a women’s team that also had to go with a three person team and did far better than anyone expected, and over the past few seasons there have indeed been cases where a team had to go to three players and in general they seem to have done quite well.  Of course, it’s known that players that throw more rocks will get a better feel for the ice and so will have an advantage that way, but that’s supposed to be outweighed by the fact that they only have one sweeper and so that important part of the game will be impacted.  It doesn’t really seem like that’s actually the case, as the recent games have shown.  It was already pointed out that the second sweeper doesn’t have that much impact on how far a rock will go or how straight it will run most of the time, which is why a number of teams decided to focus on only having one player sweep instead of having two.  About the only real disadvantage, then, would be that it’s potentially easier to switch between sweeping the rock for it to run straight and sweeping it so that it will curl, as you can just switch players instead of having the one sweeper have to switch what they’re doing, but since with two sweepers that has to be coordinated I’m not sure that it is that much easier to switch who is sweeping instead of switching how the one sweeper is sweeping.  For dragging it, it seems like two or three players can make a difference, but those sorts of desperate drags aren’t that common anymore.  So it looks like either two sweepers are no longer needed or else teams aren’t doing enough when playing a three-person team to make sweeping really relevant.

On the women’s side, it was a relatively high scoring game (Homan won 8 – 4) but that happened mostly because of mistakes.  Early on, though, there was a difference in the mistakes the teams were making.  Homan’s team made more mistakes on their throws, missing shots that they probably should have made, but what got Einarson’s team in trouble was mistakes in strategy.  In one of the early ends, they seemed to be setting things up to concede a deuce at most but at the very last minute went for a freeze to try to force Homan to just one point, missed it, and gave up three, and later they tried I think a double that wasn’t the best shot and again missed it to give up more than they wanted.  Even the commentators noted that the shots seemed like poor decisions.  While Einarson’s team also missed shots later, it really does seem and has seemed to me for a while that teams like hers and like Homan’s aren’t as great at strategy as they should be, calling much more difficult shots than needed and while they are talented enough to make them a lot of the time they can also go badly and cost them games.  I haven’t seen that as much in the men’s games I’ve watched, as for example Brad Gushue will often call really difficult shots but the strategy is usually reasonable and it makes sense, as there’s no easier shot that would be that much better or the situation in the game is such that it’s worth the extra risk.  So the women’s teams might need to do some work on their strategy.

This was also the first time I was able to really watch Homan’s new team, and while they are doing well together and in one of the segments Fleury talked about how she’d known them all since they were teens meaning that it makes more sense for them to join together, I was struck by how I don’t think that adding Fleury really added anything that Homan’s team lacked.  Homan throws the last rocks and Fleury throws third stones and arguably calls the game, but Fleury isn’t a better game caller than Homan and Fleury was not a player that was known to struggle under pressure.  This is why Sylvana Tirinzoni’s team works, and Tirinzoni did feel that the pressure of throwing last stones didn’t work for her and Alina Paetz clearly doesn’t have that issue, while you have to think that Paetz thinks that Tirinzoni is at least as good a shot caller as her if not better and definitely feels comfortable letting Tirinzoni mostly run the show knowing that she will set up the end for shots that Paetz can make (which is pretty much all of them).  But when Homan is throwing last stones she pretty much gets to say what shots she wants to make but if Fleury is calling the rest of the end there is the potential for Homan to get frustrated with how the end set up for her last stones, and if she pushes too much for how she wants to set up the end then she might as well just be calling the game, which would reduce Fleury to simple third role which, given this structure, she might not be happy with.  Clearly, it worked in this tournament but it still seems like an odd arrangement to me.

Also, there are commercials for I think Goldline where Homan’s team says things that reflect failure but then switch it to talk about that that’s what people say when they want them to quit but champions don’t quit and they’re champions.  This commercial really annoys me because a) most people didn’t want them to quit, b) the errors and letting down the fans don’t sound that unreasonable and c) most importantly, champions accept their mistakes and learn from them and overcome them, including cases where they might have “choked”.  It’s just a really aggressive commercial for this team given that it really does seem to be referencing at least Homan’s failures at the Olympics where while it may not be totally on her there are indeed things that she could have learned from them, and it not only doesn’t seem like she has, it seems like she’s insisting that she doesn’t need to.  I really think that that commercial and statement is one that didn’t need to be made.

The next curling is the Continental Cup, starting on Hallowe’en, before returning to the Grand Slam in December.

Boost National

October 10, 2022

This isn’t the first curling that I watched this season, but it’s the first Grand Slam event.  Since the Blue Jays made it to the playoffs (only to bow out in two games) my watching of this event was a bit hit and miss, both because I was watching that instead and because the channel that has the curling was also running the baseball and so sometimes had to shuffle the curling off to their streaming channel instead of having it on the normal broadcast channels.  However, since the Blue Jays went out in two games I did manage to watch both the men’s and women’s finals.  In a game that started with great shots but ended on a bunch of mistakes, Brad Gushue beat Niklas Edin in the men’s final, while it was a more consistently inconsistent game that Silvana Tirinzoni won over Kerri Einarson, which was a bit of a weird one for me since I kinda like both teams, was getting a bit sick of Einarson winning all the time, but since Tirinzoni replaced half her team over the break it wasn’t really the team that I had liked in the past.

At any rate, one thing of interest was Rachel Homan’s team, that brought on Tracy Fleury who used to skip her own team.  From what I had heard, the original idea was that Fleury was the skip and Homan threw fourth stones, but in the previous tournament they were going to call it Team Fleury but then changed it at the last minute to Team Homan, and in this tournament Fleury was definitely being treated as a third (she had to do a measure at one point, which is normally done by the third and she wasn’t used to that).  I’m not sure that she feels that that was what she signed up for.  Also, I noticed that Emma Miskew at at least one point was dominating a lot of the discussion like she did in the past, which I had thought was her acting a lot like a skip.  That’s okay but not necessarily ideal in a third, but now she’s a second and that wouldn’t be her role anymore.  Sarah Wilkes also chimes in (and used to be a third, if I remember correctly) and so there might be issues with too many people who have their own complete ideas of what to do generating too much discussion.  You can say that the same problem could have existed with Einarson’s team which had all skips, but the front end accepted their roles pretty quickly and left the strategy up to Einarson and Sweeting more and only chimed in when explicitly asked, which didn’t seem to be the case here.  It’s going to be very interesting to see if the new Homan team can gel.

Another new team is that of Jennifer Jones, who joined up to lead Mackenzie Zacharias’ old team, with Mackenzie herself throwing second stones.  Watching the team, I was curious about whether Jones is going to stay for the entire four years leading up to the Olympics.  If she does, then this makes her look like an aging athlete trying for one last chance at a championship by taking up with a young talented team that she can be the veteran on, and thus makes it look like this move was more for her than for them.  If she doesn’t and didn’t plan on staying for the four years, then it would look like her taking the opportunity to pass her knowledge and experience onto a young team while playing out the last couple of years of her career.  Since I’ve never been that fond of Jones, I could believe that it’s the former, but hope that it’s the latter.

Another thing of interest comes from the team formed by Jones’ old third, Kaitlyn Lawes.  It turns out that she’s expecting a baby and will be stepping away from this brand new team in November.  And her third, Selena Njegovin, is also expecting and will probably be stepping away sometime in March.  This is a wrinkle that women’s teams have that men’s teams don’t have to worry about.  Sure, you can take the stance of “Women can do anything while pregnant” — and Rachel Homan played through most of her recent pregnancy — but the issue here is that the changing weight distribution can play havoc with how they throw the stones, which is incredibly important to making the shots.  So what they have to do is practice and change their delivery to accommodate that — since it has to be automatic and unconscious — and then change it back after they deliver.  This doesn’t seem like an ideal time for two members of this very new team to do that and be away for a significant amount of time.  Then again, if women curlers are going to have children the first two years of a four year cycle seems to be the best time to do that, since they’d have the last two years to settle everything and the children would be older by the time the Olympics come around.  So do you lose the time when building a new team, or right before the important games, or do you put off children until after your career?  Biology means that this is a decision that women have to make and men don’t, and so it’s an issue for them and not the men.

The next event is the Tour Challenge, which starts next week.

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.