3 weeks. 2 slams. 1 Champion!! Someone might have forgot to tell Sweden's Niklas Edin other teams on tour are interested in winning a slam this season. Team Edin left Okotoks with their first ever grand slam title and the first title for a men's international team. Well, see saw a bit of history repeating in Cranbrook as #TeamViking continued their winning ways in claiming the Tour Challenge Tier I title.
Upsets also continued to be a grand slam trend this season. At The Masters we saw Allison Flaxey lead her team to a grand slam title. In Cranbrook we saw a few more upsets in the finals. Scotland's former world junior cahmpionship team of Kyle Smith reached the Tier I men's final while Michelle Englot led her "new to her" Manitoba team to the Tier I women's final, falling to Val Sweeting. Some may say the upsets continued on the Tier II side of the house. No, the upset wasn't seeing both the men's and women's Tier II finals being all-Ontario battles (although maybe that is a mild upset?). The "upset" was the teams hoisting the shiny trophy as the end of the weekend when Greg Balsdon defeated pre-event favourite Glenn Howard and Jacqueline Harrison knocked off 2016 Scotties runner-up Krista McCarville. The more things change (upsets, upsets, upsets), the more things stay the same (Team Edin domination) this season?
But the true highlight of the Tour Challenge grand slam event, other than the final victors, is the unique format of running TWO grand slam events at the same time: Tier I and Tier II. #TwineTime was fortunate to spend some time in Cranbrook over the weekend and wanted to find out from the athletes themselves, both Tier I and Tier II, their thoughts on the sophomore slam.
This blog has been a strong supporter of the #growthesport mentality for a few seasons now. It has become the underlying theme almost within the #BetweenTheSheets blog posts. Whether the weekly preview or the player profile interviews, the #growthesport mentality has always been a topic of discussion. So it should come as no surprise I would be someone in favour of the Tier II format and what it can do to help elevate the game to the next level as the sport continues to move from amateur status to professional.
But I am only one man....and not a traditional media rep nor past or current curling athlete. What do I know right? Well it seems my view on the Tier II is shared by quite a few of the athletes on the ice. Just ask Team Homan vice Emma Miskew, "Yeah I think it is awesome. It is hard to get into the slams. You have to play a lot to get enough points. It is a great opportunity for teams that may be on the bubble to play and compete with the winner getting to compete in the next slam. That could be their debut or given the opportunity to see what it is like and see how to maybe change their game a bit to be competitive with the Tier I side. A lot of those teams are really good, we have played a lot of them in Ontario. It is just so hard to get in. It is by the world ranking and it is a two-year accumulative. It takes a bit of time to work up enough points to get in so the Tier II is a great opportunity for these teams to play and have the opportunity to play in the following slam as well, if they are to win." When one of the best in the game is supportive of the Tier II format, you have to believe the sport is taking the right step towards development.
Speaking of world ranking and seizing an opportunity, what about those #TeamWorld teams competing in Tier II? How do they feel about the additional format on the grand slam stage? USA's Brady Clark shared his thoughts on the event and how America is seeing a true #growthesport mentality across the nation.
Twine Time (TT): The Tier II is quite different for this grand slam. What do you think of the Tier II and is that something we could maybe see more of on tour?
Brady Clark (BC): Yeah I love the Tier II. It is a great way for those teams in the 15-35 range to get the opportunity to play other great teams and try to make their step up into the Tier I and the other slam events. I think Cotter did a great job last year, that's a great example. I would love to see more of these. I think they are very cool.
TT: From a grow the sport mentality, in the US you are seeing almost an opposite trend in seeing clubs pop up all over the place. What is the US doing so well to grow the sport?
BC: The Olympics have given the sport a lot of exposure. People have seen the sport and they just want to come out and try it. We are seeing a lot of enthusiasm. There are a few who want to get competitive but a lot of it is just recreational curlers who are out there having a great time. We have a great club feel, it's like a family. You go to a club and you just feel like you are part of something. I feel that is a big part. You get a few volunteers creating a core and it's just happening with creating a great model. It is really exciting. The competitive side is still suffering. There are a few teams that are really doing well and put the training in. But you then see the next tier and there are not as many of those teams because it is such a large commitment to compete at this level now.
TT: And what about the HPP? You are the current US champions but did not go to worlds last year. What are your thoughts on the system?
BC: We applied for the HP program and we were not selected. It was interesting because we thought we would get a chance to be in the program. We have been fortunate to have a few sponsors step up and help us out so that has been great. The HP program is an interesting model, going with individually selected athletes. I am a big believer in so much goes into teams and chemistry. I know they are putting a lot into that now. We are having mixed reviews. We have a lot of great athletes but if you don't get that chemistry right it's a long season.
TT: It is a bit confusing for some fans as well.
BC: Definitely. We have some great athletes who put in a lot of time in. We are trying to match them and decide where we are going to set out bar if we aren't going to be in the program. We are having a decent season. We need to get over that hump of getting into the playoffs and then winning a few more games. We are close.
TT: Being from Washington, many people may not expect Washington to be a winter sport hot bed. The (Seattle) T-Birds are very successful in hockey. What's the curling scene like in Seattle?
BC: We have a 5 sheet club. There is only one club in Seattle. We have a little under 500 members. It is a great base of curlers. Our club has won around 45-50 national championships. It is a very competitive club but it feels like a family. The club is very supportive of trying to get more curlers out there. I would say our club is at it's max right now. We are trying to figure out if we expand or do we need another club. It's very successful right now. We have a ton of rentals as well. We can make around $80,000 to $100,000 in rentals every year. We have a lot of Open Houses. We are exposing a lot of people. And this year, nationals are being hosted at Xfinity Arena (Everett, WA). We are quite excited about that.
Wowzers....almost 500 members for the only club in the city? Revenue between $80-$100K annually? As a #growthesport foundationalist, what a great story and wonderful to hear! Props to Seattle....I always knew I loved that city!!!
Ok but what about a team who was once considered a Tier I / Tier II "bubble team" and now has the name Grand Slam Champion to her credit? Masters champ Allison Flaxey shared Miskew's opinion, "It is such a great opportunity for those teams that are not quite in the slams to play one another. They are spread out all over the country...all over the world. That opportunity is huge. These are teams you normally wouldn't see because your travel budget is so small. Playing in an arena is such an opportunity. Arena ice is quite different from what we get in curling clubs. Managing rocks, having a crowd and having people clapping for you...there are so many more distractions. To get that experience and understand what that is all about, I think it really fuels your fire to get into Tier I."
Flaxey brings up a big point in why the Tier II event is so important for many teams: Arena Ice! For most casual fans, we may not completely understand the difference between curling on club ice and arena ice. However, ask a competitive curler about what the difference can mean and what it can bring to the game and you might be surprised. Tour Challenge Tier I women's champ Val Sweeting certainly agrees, "I think it is excellent. Getting on arena ice and getting that kind of exposure, the opportunity to maybe get into another grand slam, helps teams break through. Even the coverage is really good. I wish this was around before. I think it is growing the sport. The different things they are trying with the slams I think is really good."
We may not see this be a bigger factor on comparing grand slam ice to club ice then from the perspective of Northwest Territories fan favourite skip Kerry Galusha. Here is what the Yellowknife skip had to say about the event and what it means for their team to compete at the Tour Challenge, even after a tough final round robin loss:
TT: Tough game.
Kerry Galusha (KG): That was brutal!
TT: Still taking positives from the grand slam experience?
KG: Yeah it's been super. We have never felt so welcome. Everyone has been great. It was nice to be invited and get this chance to play four games on arena ice. We were hoping to make TB but you can tell we haven't been on the ice. We have been on the ice for three weeks. We have had perhaps 5 competitive games and that showed today.
TT: Is that one of the things you know going in though? Does that change your expectations?
KG: We knew going in we could go 2-2. We have great skills and we could make TB for sure. It was never out of the question. We knew it was in our hands. My whole team has been great all week but we have been up and down. Our inconsistencies are showing.
TT: And this is the first big event for your team while most of these teams have been on the ice for a couple months now.
KG: Yeah, exactly. We always have that slight disadvantage. We always hope our experience will come through. When you have only had a few weeks of practice though. We have played a few open spiels back home against some of the men's teams, which helps. But our ice is dead straight and then we come on this ice and it is curling like crazy. It is a bit of an adjustment.
TT: When we talked we discussed growing the sport and how the Tier II can be a great advantage to many team, including yours. Is this something you would like to see more often on tour and, if so, how do we get there?
KG: Yeah, it's been amazing. A team like us though would have to travel every weekend and get the points to qualify. But we cannot afford it. We cannot afford the time off work and it takes us an extra two days of travel to get wherever we are going. It is really hard, especially when you have families at home. When I lived in Saskatoon and Edmonton we travelled every weekend. You could drive almost everywhere you needed to go and you could curl every weekend. Living in Yellowknife, you cannot do that so we are at a disadvantage to start but we know that. Everyone knows we are good curlers but the inconsistencies show.
TT: Well you still have the big fan support.
KG: *laughing* Yeah! It's great. Everywhere we go people are really friendly and they love us. It is really welcoming. Even just being here, we won a game. We take some positives. We have a bit of a new team with Sharon (Cormier) joining our team so it's a bit of a different dynamic and we are working through that. Hopefully we are leading up to February for the Scotties.
Ontario's Mark Bice certainly seemed to get comfortable playing on arena ice as the event continued. Team Bice started the Tier II competition 0-2 but eventually found their footing in winning their final two games, winning a tiebreaker versus Scotland's Bruce Mouat and reaching the QF. You think Mr. Bice is a fan of the Tier II? You better believe it, "Yeah it is awesome! It has given us the chance to play on some great ice and play in a great event. A couple more could never hurt that's for sure." And want an inside trick on how to turn a rough start to an event into a QF finish? Bice offers this small tidbit, "We pretty much just tried to relax. We joked out around a lot and just tried to lighten up the mood. We tend to play better when we are light."
Team Joanisse skip Dean Joanisse echoed the sentiments of Bice while leading his team to a SF appearance in the Tier II event, "We love the ice and the event is great! It's been great and all the volunteers have been amazing!" Joanisse added, "Tier II is very important for teams like ours because once you get into the grand slams, it's almost like it's own safe little zone for all the teams to get points. You can't get into it, you can't get into it. The Tier II is very big for teams like ours who don't get to do quite as much travelling."
Joanisse brings up another interesting aspect to the pro-Tier II argument: timing. Many teams may find some constraint on their travel budget during the curling season, perhaps due to cost, sponsorship dollars and work. Others also have new family members to consider. Just ask the skip of one of the hottest teams on tour this season, Casey Scheidegger.
Casey Scheidegger (CS): It's good. I really wish there were more events like this for teams like us because that arena ice is different. It is taking us those four games to get the hang of it because we didn't get to play on arena ice at all last year. Our provincials were at a curling club. This is the first time in two years we have got to play on it so it took us a little while unfortunately. But we are getting comfortable with it now.
TT: You guys have had an outstanding season. Did you make any changes in the offseason?
CS: I don't know. I had a baby *laughing* That's a big change. I am on maternity leave right now so I have that time to focus more on curling and not so much on work so I think that has been a bonus for the team. The other girls are still managing work. I think we are just really positive. We are feeling good with each other and know each other well. This is the 4th season Cary-Anne (McTaggart, vice), Jess (Jessie Scheidegger, second) and I have been together so we are like a nice little unit. We know each other's in's and out's quite well. And Steph (Stephanie Enright, lead) has been a great addition to the team.
TT: You spoke a bit earlier about how great Tier II is...is that something we should see more often on tour?
CS: Oh for sure! Teams in the Tier II level don't get to play on arena ice that often so that is a huge benefit for us as well. I would love to see at least one more Tier II to help promote the sport and give teams like us the chance to get into the Tier I as well.
A #TwineTime blog favourite, Jason Gunnlaugson (who has his own hashtag reference in this blog remember #GunnerRunback) offered another perspective on the Tier II and the overall #growthesport conversation:
Jason Gunnlaugson (JG): Yeah, I think there is an informal Tier II that goes around. I love the idea for the event and I can see how the grand slams having one a year is probably the right amount. The Champions Cup kind of acts as a Tier II because if you win a big Tier II spiel, you can sometimes get in there as well. Now sometimes that might be one of those bigger teams but those events can still have a slightly lower multiplier and still get you into the event. I think we have a really nice balance right now. I think it was a bit better when the Tier II was the first slam but I think that was just a scheduling issue.
TT: Yeah for sure. What else would you like to see as a #growthesport mentality? What can we do to make it a little more balanced across the board? You are working with a great young team, how can we keep encouraging great young teams to get where you are?
JG: I think the system is pretty good right now. I think the biggest thing that is happening and is very exciting....I was playing in a bonspiel with Colton Lott and they day Sportsnet announced they were going to 7 or 8 grand slams I drove to his home town and said I was going to come back and play. They are making it lucrative enough for the top teams that is worth pursuing. Before, unless you were the top team in the world, there was no money in it. Now at least there is money. There is a lot of TV time. You can sponsorship. I think it is really going in the right direction, both in the slams and on tour. Sure sometimes there are less numbers but there are less numbers doing anything. People are spending 8 hours a day on their phone nowadays...it is just the way it is.
Gunnlaugson is hopefully spending less time on his phone and more time being energized by his, let's say "more youthful", new teammates. As Gunnlaugson commented when asked about skipping his new team, "Overall it has been absolutely fantastic. *laughing* It makes me a feel a little old at times. But the guys are fantastic and it is fun to work with them. They are so skilled and so young. It gives you a lot of energy."
Tour Challenge Tier I women's finalist Michelle Englot rang in on the Tier II debate as well following her semi-final victory. "I think it is a really good chance. We were kind of on the bubble. It gives teams the opportunity to do well and move up. I think that is every team that is playing's goal, to reach that Tier I level. It is a great opportunity for teams and I am really glad they came up with that concept," Englot added. Great point from Englot as well on being a bubble team and moving up...look at their team. From a fringe Tier I team to a grand slam finalist! Oh...and since I am a Saskatchewan boy at heart and Englot is now a former Saskatchewan curler, I had to give her a bit of a hard time right?
TT: Being originally from Saskatchewan, it was a bit hard to see you jump over to the rival province of Manitoba. Obviously it has worked out great for you though. Was it a tough decision to make?
Michelle Englot (ME): *laughing* It was a pretty easy decision for me. At this point in my career, I have played a long time. To get on this team with the calibre of these girls, it's too good of an opportunity for me to pass up. I thought I have a couple more good years in me, may as well give it a shot with a great established team.
But wait, #TwineTime all this talk about ice conditions and praising the ice, we saw some pretty wide open misses and big draw mistakes this week. How do you explain that? You cannot make the argument the arena ice is amazing yet still we see huge errors in some ends from athletes we rarely expect to see these kind of misses from. I would say back to you, "Wow you are observant. You really caught some of the crazy intrinsic characteristics of that Cranbrook ice!"
You are correct though rock heads. The ice was still a challenge for many of the teams. Even though her team played great in the round robin, Miskew commented, " It's a bit of a battle out there. Everyone is struggling a bit. It's about making less mistakes then the other team and trying to stay patient. We are trying to stay patient with each other and patient with the ice and learn from every shot." Miskew added, "It is a bit different from what we normally would expect. It is just harder to make precision shots on so we are just trying to make simpler shot and give ourselves better shots to throw so we have a higher percentage of making them."
Again, Flaxey shared the sentiments as her competitor, also after playing great in the round robin entering the playoffs. "We are still figuring out way to win games. The ice is tricky. New rocks are tricky. Figuring out ways to manage that seems to be working for us. It's nice to come in here and prove we do belong," Flaxey added.
When asked what she thought of the ice so far, Sweeting commented, "It's been a bit pathy but manageable. As long as you just pick up on it and trust what you see. It's tough when the path sits for a bit, that's why you see a few draws being off and different from what you normally see from us. But I think it's just being on top of it."
Even the Tier II teams noticed the difference in ice between the Tier I arena and Tier II arena when they would come over and watch games. Clark noted, "I think this is great ice. When we were watching some of the games of the Tier I the ice might not have been as nice...not sure if it was the ice or the rocks though. I found the ice to be really good. It was easy to draw to the lid when you needed to and it was really consistent. We were really happy."
So arena ice = good. Arena ice >>>> Club Ice. But, arena ice is not perfect all the time either and even the best struggle with at times. The life of a curler is never easy friends. You have to roll with the punches...or the rocks in this case....and regroup quick to ever-changing playing conditions and surfaces if you want to be successful and find yourself holding a fancy trophy and over-sized cheque at the end of a weekend.
Now grand slam events are not always about being serious and athletes being in competition mode. Sometimes even the best curlers in the world like to relax and have some fun. Is there a better month out there (during the curling season anyways) to share a laugh with your competitors than November....ummm....I mean #Movember? Take a look around your own curling club during the month and see if you notice a little....or large...facial hair trend among the male gender. Curlers are not immune either apparently...and there are some mixed results on the physical result.
Many of the male curlers #TwineTime spoke with felt they were saving the eyes of their supporters and fans of the sport in general by not growing out the whiskers this month. Here a few comments from some of the men on tour:
Mark Bice: I think it is a great cause. If I could actually grow a moustache I would have done it. I'm just saving everybody's eyes from being in trouble.
Jason Gunnlaugson: I did it a few years ago when I was young. I definitely rocked it. Now it requires a bit of Just for Men and it burns my face *laughing* You won't be seeing that anymore.
Brady Clark: *laughing* I should really donate some money to people who do rock it. I think my wife might disown me. I haven't rocked it in awhile. I've tried...but you would be making fun of me if I did right now. Some guys can really rock it and look good but it is not quite my thing and plus my wife doesn't really like it. It is a great thing to support though!
Emma Miskew: I am pro-charity *laughing* so people who are raising money for the charity I am all for it. But it's not the best look for some. As long as you are raising money for it then I am all for it! Well, Matt Hamilton rocks it pretty good...but he always does so it's not like it is just for this month. I don't think anyone can beat him though.
Allison Flaxey: No, no. It looks a little greasy...it's a little out there for me. I think it is a great cause and it's wonderful what those guys are doing. I am very happy to donate to the cause. But not my husband! *laughing* It's all pretty creepy out there.
Val Sweeting: Yeah our coach has got a lot of compliments on it. I think it's a great cause and as long as you are raising money for it, I think it is great to rock that for a month. *laughing*
Krista McCarville: *laughing* Well my husband is doing it this year in support. He had prostate cancer in his family so he is doing it. I am not 100% on the look but I fully support the cause and it is a lot of fun. It's an ok look...I'm not used to seeing him with all that facial hair. But it is funny!
Not everyone #TwineTime talked to was against it though. There were a few female athletes who really like the look.
Casey Sscheidegger: I love facial hair! My husband has a huge beard so I'm a big fan of it. *laughing* Grow it out!!
Michelle Englot: *laughing* Well I have two boys at home and they both go with the Movember so I am used to it. Actually they kind of go with it year round. I like facial hair on a guy!
There you have it gentlemen. Some of the ladies love it, some of the ladies don't. Your call on taking the risk with the ladies in your life though.....perhaps check in with them beforehand. LOL Hey, if they don't like it maybe you can convince them to donate more to your #Movember fundraiser in exchange for you shaving it off early?
In fine #TwineTime style, we save the end of the grand slam rewind for our Tier II champion skips: Jacqueline Harrison and Greg Balsdon. I was fortunate enough to chat with both of them prior to them taking off back to Calgary for long flights home that evening.
Here is what Jacqueline Harrison had to say about her team's huge victory, the ice conditions and the Tier II #growthesport argument:
TT: How are you feeling after the big Tour Challenge Tier II victory?
Jacqueline Harrison (JH): I think I am still taking it in a bit. It is pretty amazing to honest. We had a great week. We fought our way through TB and just kept our momentum going. We are really really happy with the results. I am just not sure I have the words right now *laughing*
TT: *laughing* For sure, and understandable. It was an intense game. Going into the final, you moved into a different arena on a different sheet with different rocks. How do you prepare for that?
JH: They gave us a little practice time beforehand so we could get used to the new conditions we would be playing with in the arena. You play with the conditions you are dealt with and we made it work.
TT: Tier II is unique to the Tour Challenge. Is this something you would like to see at other events to perhaps grow the sport?
JH: I think it is a great thing. You get the teams that might just be below the elite level teams. We are trying so hard to get to that next level so having events like this is a great thing. It allows more teams to participate and to try and get into that next level. To play those elite teams and get the practice can help you realise what you may need to work on and what your strengths are. It is a good thing for sure.
TT: How does Team Harrison celebrate a huge grand slam win?
JH: *laughing* Well we have to run to catch a flight. But I think we are going to get back to Ontario and maybe have some celebrations once it sinks in.
Tier II men's champion Greg Balsdon also shared his thoughts on the grand slam win, the shift from the Tier II arena to the Tier I arena for the final and the controversial "throw away" end 7.
TT: Congratulations on the big win. Has it sunk in yet?
Greg Balsdon (GB): No it hasn't. It was a huge win for us. It probably got us into our provincials. Into a slam. And probably a good shot at the Champions Cup at the end of the year. It was a huge win.
TT: It was a perfect week for the team, going undefeated. How was it going from the other arena all week to this arena?
GB: The speed was better. It curled a bit more at the other arena. It was really nice ice at the other arena too. The rocks were good today though. I didn't think it was too bad. It was maybe a little slow in comparison. But compared to some club ices, it was way better than that. I can't complain.
TT: What are your thoughts on the Tier II idea? Do you think we need to see it more on tour to help grow the sport?
GB: I am sure there is some logistics and scheduling and money to be considered. But absolutely I would love to see more of Tier II because that is where we are at *laughing* We are ranked 20-something in the world so the more Tier II events means better opportunities for us.
TT: The 7th end was a different one with rocks being thrown away. Many fans on twitter were wondering and commenting on it. What was going on there? Just a decision to have an open end for the blank and see what happens in 8?
GB: I don't really know either. We were up by 2 playing 7 without the hammer. I never thought he would want to blank that end to try and get 2 to tie or 3 to win. Getting 3 out here, with the 5-rock rule, it can be done. But it's a lot to put on your team to need to go for 3 and the win. We would have given them 2 all day in 8 and gone to the extra if need be. I was surprised he didn't try to score. But I don't know. But what I did throw a guard and then he throws a guard and all of a sudden we are into it. I didn't really want to get into it in that end either. Either up by 2 without or tied or down 1 with coming up....it's a coin flip. If up by 3 obviously you are throwing guards and getting into it. But, I don't know. It's not often we play the 5-rock rule. The 4-rock rule he is throwing guards and going for it. I was just happy being up 2 coming home. We give up 2 at worst and go for the win in and extra...call it a day.
TT: How does Team Balsdon go out and celebrate the big win?
GB: *laughing* Normally it is a dinner and a couple beverages. But we are getting on a plane at midnight tonight for a red eye from Calgary. We are going to go out for a nice dinner at least but probably just avoid the beverages.
Ahh yes, thanks for the reminder on the celebratory beverages Mr. Balsdon. I almost forgot one important cliff hanger from my Masters review blog post. When talking with winning skip Allison Flaxey, she mentioned following up with her in Cranbrook on how Team Flaxey celebrated their first grand slam championship. Well, here is the answer folks:
TT: In Okotoks, you mentioned to ask you in Cranbrook how you celebrated your Masters victory. So how did you celebrate?
Allison Flaxey (AF): *laughing* Pizza and champagne!
TT: *laughing* Nice! You did go with the champagne?
AF: Absolutely. I am a Veuve Clicquot girl so I introduced my team to it and they liked it too. We ordered some pizza and took a late flight home.
There you have it curling fans. Want to celebrate like a grand slam champion tonight? Order in some pizza and crack open a bottle of Veuve Clicquot...BOOM!!...you too can have the celebratory feels of a grand slam winner. Until next time rock heads and stoners.....