Friday, 11 November 2016

BetweenTheSheets with Joan McCusker
Olympic and 3-time World Champ talks broadcasting, #growthesport and gender equality

As the second Grand Slam of Curling event is happening in Cranbrook, I want to take all of you back two weeks to The Masters in Okotoks.  #TwineTime had the opportunity to enjoy the #gsoc action and, thanks to Sportsnet, also had some time to sit down with one of the most recognized and successful curlers in Canada: Joan McCusker.

Being from Saskatchewan originally, I was a huge fan of Team Schmirler of which McCusker played second.  From their first Scotties championship in 1993 to winning their third world championship in 1997 to the iconic Olympic gold medal win in Nagano in 1998, McCusker and Team Schmirler brought the sport of curling into the lives of many Canadians.

McCusker has now shifted from a role on the ice as a competitive curler to in front of the camera as a broadcaster.  I was very fortunate in finding some time in between draws in Okotoks to sit down and talk with McCusker about a variety of topics, both personally and professionally.

Enjoy this special Grand Slam of Curling conversation as we go #BetweenTheSheets with Joan McCusker.

TwineTime (TT):  Now you are in front of the camera with Sportsnet, how do you like being on that side in comparison to being on the ice?  You are now calling competitive curling up in the booth, what is that like?

Joan McCusker (JM):  It is really different, completely different.  I think any of us who get the privilege or invitation to move into the booth, it's a completely different way to look at the game.  I find, as a front end player, to look at the overall house from the overhead camera took me a long time to see strategy.  I am used to calling strategy from the other end.  That was one of the things that got me right from the start.  It is really interesting and I think that is why you see so many skips come into the broadcast role.  They are used to looking at the game from the house.  The second point is you really need to figure out what your goal is when you are broadcasting.  When we first got into it we thought we were speaking to people who are of a great understanding of curling and the reality of it is over 90% that are watching know what curling is but maybe don't understand any of the intricacies of strategy.  The concept of talking to them and not to the elite curlers, that took a little while.  We felt embarrassed sometimes that we had to explain some basic things, like what's the tee-line and why are we throwing guards.  We still do that today.  That took a long time to adjust to because we need to take the jargon out of the game.  I was working for CBC when I started, a public broadcaster that reached all homes and not necessarily choosing a sports channel, which is where we are now (with Sportsnet).  It is a different audience.  Those parts resulted in a lot of adjustments.  And, as always with me, I love people.  My group of people I work with, I love!  We have some amazing technical guys, camera guys, producers, directors...I love the group of people I work with.  Even though they are mostly men *laughing* they are mostly 90% but I like having a beer with my crew and talking about what we did today, what we did right and maybe how we screwed up.  It's a great group of people.

TT:  And I think you can tell that when you are on TV.  You can tell you love your job and not just the people sitting beside you but also the entire crew because it comes across.  Most fans can see it, regardless of their knowledge.  You can tell you like your job.

JM:  One of the things I get a lot is "You must really dislike Mike (Harris).  You guys always argue."  I always say that what you don't see at home is we do come from the game at totally different perspectives and experiences and parts of the country.  And what you don't see is when we do disagree with one another, we are smiling.  It's our job.  Anyone that watches curling knows there is always two schools of though, to quote Don Duguid, there is always two ways you can go at any kind of end.  We have always thought that that was our job.  For one to say black and one to say white and explain it.  I really do have a lot of fun....we laugh a lot.  *laughing*  Sometimes too much where our producers have to tell us to dial it down.  But what a great problem to have!

TT:  *laughing*  Oh exactly.  And speaking about perspective, the sport has certainly changed and evolved since your world championship run.  Not only are you calling it from a different perspective not being on the ice but now you are also calling it with all the changes.  With all the changes going on with the sport, are there any you think have been great for the sport or any where you look and say to yourself you kind of miss how we did it back then?

JM:  The only time I have felt I liked it there way we had it was last year with the whole #BroomGate and how things got out of control with fabrics and lack of rules and directional sweeping.  That was the only time where I said let's just go back to working hard and judge right and use your brain and the best teams will always figure it out.  And guess what?  We are back there now!  That is the only time I didn't like a change.  I think every other change in the game, more fitness, more rocks in play, 4-rock rule and now 5-rock rule...I like all of them.  I still play and even playing in the club level you get bored with the old way.  I like the new changes so I can't say there is anything that I dislike.

TT:  Excellent!  And now, keeping with the #growthesport theme, where do you think we are headed next, especially the younger generation?  Being a teacher, seeing those kids you want to build them up and keep the sport growing, how do we do that?  How do we make it successful, not just in Canada but also internationally?

JM:  There are two things that I see.  The very first thing, just because my own children are in high school and university, is we need full scholarships for curling starting at the high school level.  If my child is a good curler but is also a very good basketball player and receives a five-year ride for that, they are going to take the five-year ride.  Curling needs to get up to speed with CIS and become a full sport with full scholarships.  The second thing that needs to happen is we have to diversify, not just in population.  This seems to be a white middle-class sport and we need to get out of just our race...this is a Canadian game.  We have all these Canadians out there who we need to teach about the sport and invite them into the curling clubs.  We really need to extend ourselves with Open Houses and bring in a curling pro to just teach people how to throw the rock, not even necessarily to play the game right away.  Let's expose the sport to more cultures and people.

TT:  I love your answer!  In my regular job, I work with community associations and social recreation groups and in one of my communities we have a huge diverse population where we are trying to expand the Canadian culture, including sport, with the population.

JM:  Take them into the curling club.  Take them curling!

TT:  Exactly.  We were just talking about wanting to connect local curling clubs with the community and start doing some fun stuff.  Continue to #growthesport for everyone!

JM:  Yes!!  And you don't need to do anything outside of just getting them on the ice.  I have done tons of clinics, even corporate clinics, with people who are working with other cultures and they love this crazy Canadian sport.  They just want to try!  I think we need to do that not just at the kid level but also the corporate level, the community level and not be so exclusive where we think this sport is just among our race.  I do think we need to extend ourselves a bit.

TT:  100% I agree.  My last question for you is continuing on #growthesport, on the gender side of it, we are seeing the women's purse at events becoming more equal.  We are seeing more women's tour events.  Rachel Homan competed at the Elite 10 event last season.  What else can we see?  How do we keep evolving and what's next?

JM:  Oh what a great question!  This is very personal for me.  I have been involved in broadcasting for 16 years and it has been a struggle.  It's a vicious struggle.  If we don't get the women on TV, we can't get better ratings.  Sometimes there are some networks who say we don't get the ratings so we don't want the women.  A vicious cycle.  We go round and round.  I am so proud of Sportsnet who bought this property and started to develop it.  After the very first year, when they had 5 events and the women were only invited to 2, they asked us what could we do.  We said, you have stars!  They are out there, you just aren't inviting them to all the events.  They turned around and they made it equal on each of our events.  Equal prize money.  Equal entry fee.  Equal coverage.  Oh my gosh, I am so proud to be part of Sportsnet for the ground breaking, gender equality exposure.  We are building the stars.  What do we need to do more?  More networks need to do that.  More networks.  More media being responsible for all genders in all sports, not just curling.  In tennis, in hockey, in CIS...everything across the board.  Let's make a commitment to gender equality!  I am so proud to be working with a network that adopted that 100%.

TT:  Excellent!  I will let you go, I know you have lots to do to prepare for going back on the air shortly.  Thank you so much!

JM:  Thank you as well....and please say hello to your brother for me.  It is such a small world.

TT:  I will for sure.  Thank you Joan!

Small world indeed.  Prior to officially starting our interview, I shared with Joan a story about my younger brother.  Back in 1998, at the height of Team Schmirler's success of winning the Olympic gold and third Canadian and World Championship, off the ice she taught my brother in elementary school in Regina.  To this day my brother, when seeing her on TV, still points out to people that she taught him.  It is almost a semi-claim to fame for him in having an Olympic, World and Canadian champion be his teacher.  The even more touching moment was Joan remembering him.  While my brother remembering her is a bit easier to see given most people remember the good teachers they had, for her to also remember teaching him....small world!  Joan even remembered the name of the school and the subject she taught him without me mentioning details.  It was a great "off the record" moment and conversation I will certainly always will my brother now!

#StayTuned to Sportsnet rock heads and stoners to catch Joan and the crew bringing you complete coverage of the #TourChallenge in Cranbrook.  As we near championship weekend, take a quick #GunnerRunback look at the #TwineTime preview.  How are the predictions looking compared to the actual on ice result?  It is a mixed bag right now friends....lots of action still to come though.  I am also bringing you live snapshots and comments from Cranbrook of both the Tier I and Tier II events on twitter....toss me a follow if interested.

Also, this is very fitting to publish this interview today.  Tonight, in Cranbrook, the Sandra Schmirler Foundation will be out in full force during the final draw of pool play.  I am excited to be a small part of the volunteer pool working with the Foundation tonight in continuing to collect funds supporting the caring for premature and critically ill babies through direct giving to newborn intensive care units across Canada.  For more info or to donate, please visit:

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