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Tuesday, 31 March 2015

So

The Metro Centre is Rockin' & Rollin'
2015 World Men's Curling Championship hits the Canadian East Coast

What a curling season we have had folks.  We have seen some of the best shots ever recorded on tour.  We have seen some teams dominate while others disappoint.  We saw classic upsets and favorites roll.  But the season is entering the 10th end of play and we are at the point where we need to crown our men's world champion.  Enter Halifax!  The top 12 nations have crowned their national champions and the battle for men's curling world supremacy is underway.

Now, to be fair, I realize this event started on Saturday.  But I have not seen any of the games and was out of town all weekend finalizing my transition move from one big city to another.  So I am making an honest attempt to be as objective as possible without letting any results dictate my preview.

As I did with Sapporo, I wanted to provide a few DYK moments on the City of Halifax:

  • In a ranking conducted by fDi magazine, Halifax was ranked #1 on a list of "large cities by qualify of life" and #2 on a list of "large cities of the future" conducted for North and South American cities.
  • The tallest building in Atlantic Canada is the Fenwick Tower, a residential apartment building in south Halifax.  Built in 1971, the tower consists of 33 stories and stands at 322 feet.
  • Halifax is home to many rugby teams, including an Australian Rules Football team.
  • The city serves as a major hub for post-secondary education in Atlantic Canada with the following institutions:  Dalhousie University, St. Mary's University, Mount St. Vincent University, Atlantic School of Theology and many others.
So now that you know about the host city, time to learn about the national teams competing for the world championship title.

The Favorites

Team Canada (Pat Simmons) - The home country team has to enter as favorites.  The team has been quite a story over the past year.  Last year, led by former skip Kevin Koe, they won the Brier and represented Canada at the world championships.  Prior to the beginning of the championships, it was announced the team would see skip Koe leaving the team at the conclusion of the season.  The team stayed focused as best as they could but had a disappointing 4th place finish last year in China.  Enter the off season and the team picked up past Olympic and World Champion John Morris to lead the team.  With qualification already secured at the 2015 Brier due to the new format addition of Team Canada, the team played a minimal schedule on tour.  The results weren't the best but when it mattered they poured it on.  A slow start at the Brier in Calgary was all erased on the "move heard around Canada".  Skip John Morris made the call to move himself to vice and promote Pat Simmons to skip and...BOOM!...nobody could stop them.  They rolled through the end of the week and the playoffs and, to the surprise of many, repeated as champions.  They enter Halifax on an emotional high and have the capabilities to run the table.  If "Perfect Pat the Simmonator" plays like he did in Calgary...watch out world!  Team Canada could claim their 35th world title, and first since 2012.

Team Norway (Thomas Ulsrud) - The defending champions are back!  And they should easily be considered the co-favorites.  Ulsrud enters his 11th World Championship but first as the defending champ.  With all those appearances, prior to last year, Ulsrud only had 3 bronze medal finishes (2009, 2008, 2006).  How will Ulsrud handle the pressure of being the defending champion is meant to be seen.  Ulsrud has a past history of cracking a bit under pressure and expectation but I just don't see that happening this year.  Given the field, I fully expect to see Norway be around by the weekend.

Watch Out For

Team Sweden (Nik Edin) - Speaking of past champions, welcome back to the world stage Mr. Edin.  The 2013 World Champion did not qualify to represent Sweden last year.  However, the members of his team were there...coming up short in the world final vs. Norway.  This team will be hungry to take it one step further.  Edin will want to get back the world title rival Nordic country Norway stole from them last year.  The members of Nik's new team will want to erase the silver medal finish last year and hope to bring a 7th world championship to the land of "For Sverige - i tiden".  If I was a betting man, I would put some money on this team to be around over the weekend.  They have had a great season on tour and enter this event off a runner-up finish at the recent Grand Slam event, the Elite 10, in Fort McMurray, AB.  Plus, make note, recent world championships held in Canada have proven to be VERY successful for Edin with a gold medal (2013, Victoria) and a bronze medal (2011, Regina).  He is very comfortable playing in front of Canadian fans...and I think they love him just as much.  When he made an appearance at the Patch during the Brier, the guy was swarmed with curling fans all evening.  Even your's truly, a big Edin fan, couldn't get close enough for even a picture.  Was my only disappointment of the week!

The Dark Horse

Team Finland (Aku Kauste) - Welcome back to the World Championship Finland.  Oh how we have missed you.  A country once led by the always popular Markku Uusipaavalniemi has struggled in recent years to stay prominent on the world championship scene since Markku took a step back from the more competitive curling scene.  Enter Aku...a member of Markku's 2002 and 2003 world championship participating teams (as second).  Aku has made the transition to skip in 2012 and found instant success.  Taking over as the national champion of a country sitting in Group B among the European nations and missing the world championship after a long successful history could not have been easy.  Kauste found the success though and brought back the relevance in winning Group B and promoting Finland to Group A for 2013, leading to his first world championship experience as a skip the same year.  2013 was a disappointment though as the team finished in last place with a 2-9 record and failed to qualify for last year's championship.  The 2014-2015 season has been more successful though and the team enters their second championship with more experience and confidence.  After needing to qualify out of Group B once again in Europe, this time they not only won Group B but also knocked off Germany in two straight games to win the world challenger and qualify for Halifax.  Worth noting, Kauste won a bronze medal at the 2012 European Mixed Curling Championship.

The Field

Team China (Zang Jailiang) - This year marks Zang Jailiang's 7th world championship appearance.  When he made his debut in Grand Folks (2009), his China team made their presence known with upset round-robin wins over Canada (Martin) and Norway (Ulsrud).  In fact, his team accomplished a first for Asia-Pacific countries in men's curling when they qualified for the playoffs.  Unfortunately the run that year ended in a bronze medal loss to Norway.  Expectations became high for Team China but they have failed to come close to matching this feat.  Disappointing results at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics and a failure to make the playoffs since the huge debut leave many wondering if this team was just a one-off in 2009.  The experience and talent is there though.  The field this year is a manageable one and that 4th playoff spot is wide open I think.  I'm just not sure they can make it happen.

Team Czech Republic (Jiri Snitil) - Similar to above, 2015 will be the 7th championship appearance for Czech skip Snitil.  Becoming a regular fixture at world championships is a plus to grow the sport in the Czech Republic; however, the finishing results have just not been there.  The best result so far is a 7th place finish last year.  Snitil can deliver the big shots when needed, one only has to look back at his improbable run to a bronze medal at the 2012 European Championships.  Based on last year it appears the Snitil stock is trending upwards but, at the age of 40 this year, how much further can it rise?

Team Italy (Joel Retornaz) - Retornaz's biggest claim to curling fame probably occurred on Saturday February 18, 2006.  Competing in the Winter Olympics, the grandest stage of all, skipping little unknown Team Italy against the powerhouse and medal favorite Team Canada (Gushue), Retornaz provided the upset of the games when Little Italy knocked off the Maple Leaf in an extra end.  This victory really helped develop the passion of the sport in Italy.  Unfortunately, the positive results on the world stage have been few and far between.  It is great to have Italy back at the world championships though, this will be their first appearance since 2010 when they were the host nation.  Staying out of last place though would be a victory this year.

Team Japan (Yusuke Morozumi) - This could be the breakthrough year for the Land of the Rising Sun!  Morozumi is making only his 4th world championship appearance and 3rd as a skip.  His first two appearances (2009, 2013) saw disappointing 3-8 finishes but last year was a whole other story.  Yusuke become the dark horse of the event, finishing with a strong 7-4 record and qualifying for a tie-breaker.  Unfortunately the team would lose the tie-breaker to eventual runner-up Sweden (O. Eriksson) but their presence was known.  This team has played a very active schedule on the world curling tour this year and seems to be ready to make the next step towards the podium.  The opportunity is there this year and I think it is Team Japan's for the taking.  Don't be surprised to see this team sneak right into the playoff picture.

Team Russia (Evgeny Arkhipov) - We have covered some serious vets of the curling world above but with Team Russia we welcome a serious contender from the junior ranks.  Arkhipov returns to the world championships after making his debut last year in China.  2014 was built to possibly be a huge one for Russian curling with hosting the Winter Olympics and qualifying for the world championships.  Unfortunately both ended with disappointment.  A lackluster 2-5 record in Sochi followed by a 2-9 finish in Beijing left Russia with a lot of work to do to catch the curling powerhouse nations.  However, Evgeny can close the gap.  He has put together a very successful junior career, winning a silver medal at the 2013 World Junior Championships (Sochi) and recently taking home a silver medal at the 2015 Winter Universiade (Granada, Spain).  He has the ability to compete but could still be another two or three years away from becoming a serious playoff threat.  If they can pull out 4 or 5 wins this week, that would be a huge success and step in the right direction for the future.

Team Scotland (Ewan MacDonald) - What can I possibly say about Ewan MacDonald that hasn't been said?  This guy has done it all and competed on every major international stage possible.  He is a three-time world champion, playing second for Hammy McMillan (1999) and third for David Murdoch (2006, 2009).  He has made 3 Olympic appearances (2002, 2006, 2010), finishing fourth in 2006 and losing a tie-breaker in 2010.  This year will be MacDonald's 10th world championship appearance.  He made his skipping debut at last year's world championships and wound up with a disappointing 3-8 record.  I want to believe this team is capable of a better showing but I am not sold.  My head says this team will put together 4 wins, my heart wants to believe they can put together 5 or 6.  Which one will MacDonald prove correct: head or heart?

Team Switzerland (Mark Pfister) - Our first unknown, Mark Pfister and Team Switzerland.  A surprise representative, beating favorites Sven Michel and Peter de Cruz.  But don't let the unknown name and team lead you to believe they cannot compete with the more familiar and experienced teams this week.  These guys come to Halifax with a ton of confidence and a belief they can win it all.  They may only be ranked 31st on the World Curling Tour Order of Merit but they have produced some strong results this season, including a runner-up finish at the Curling Masters Champery and quarterfinal showings in Baden, Switzerland, Basel and Calgary.  In those 4 events alone they have played (and often beat) many of the teams they will be facing this week so while this team may be unfamiliar to a few fans, they are not unknown to their competitors.  Besides, we only have to look back a few weeks to the women's world championships to see what an "unknown" team from Switzerland is capable of doing.  Can Pfister and co. follow in the footsteps of Patz?  Don't be shocked if it does.

Team United States (John Shuster) - Shuster returns to the world championships after a few years absence.  Shuster is a very familiar name though within the curling circle, having competed in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics.  Shuster really has become Team America!  His greatest success on the international scene was his bronze medal finish in Turin at the 2006 Winter Olympics.  Unfortunately, since that incredible run he has been unable to find his footing on a podium.  This will be Shuster's 5th world championship appearance but first since 2009.  With a brand new team supporting him (Tyler George at vice and Matt Hamilton at second), in addition to regular lead John Landsteiner, Team America could pull a few surprises this week.  While I don't expect them to contend for a podium finish, I think a 5 win week is a strong reality.  Who knows, with how open I forsee that 4th playoff spot being, 6 wins could land a tie-breaker and then all bets are off.  If they can get on a roll in the middle of the week, they could make a surprise push.

Page Playoff

1 vs 2: Team Canada (Simmons) over Team Norway (Ulsrud)
3 vs. 4:  Team Sweden (Edin) over Team Japan (Morozumi)

Semi-final:  Team Sweden (Edin) over Team Norway (Ulsrud)

Bronze Medal:  Team Norway (Ulsrud) over Team Japan (Morozumi)

MEN'S WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL:  Team Canada (Simmons) over Team Sweden (Edin) - Ok, I will admit I am a HUGE Edin fan.  If you have been reading my posts throughout the season that shouldn't come as a big shock to you.  I just really like the team Edin has put together this year and think they could be a threat for many years.  But I am finding it very difficult to bet against Team Canada this year.  I made the mistake of undervaluing their potential to repeat at the Brier and Perfect Pat made me pay for that oversight.  This team just is firing at all cylinders entering the event and has more confidence than I think they may even know what to do with.  Plus add in the bonus of curling in front of home country, curling crazy fans in Halifax and the support will be through the roof.  Even if the team struggles a bit in games, I think the combination of Perfect Pat and crowd support can carry them through those tough close games.  I don't expect Edin to just roll over though and would not be surprised if we see a final similar to the Brier championship vs. Jacobs.  Ok, well without all the blank ends of course.  Edin will put rocks in play and is not afraid to be aggressive.  Sometimes that works to his advantage and if Perfect Pat isn't perfect, Edin could land one big end, enough to secure another world championship.  But Johnny Mo and Perfect Pat seem ready to bring that world championship back to Canada.

I think we are going to be in for an outstanding week of high caliber curling action.  If you are in the Halifax area during the week, I encourage you to head down to the Metro Centre and check out a few draws.  You will not be disappointed!

As always, feel free to agree or disagree with me.  But one thing we can always agree on is let's see some outstanding shots, smart strategy and great curling action on the ice.

Enjoy Halifax everyone....