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Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Making the Grade 2016

#BetweenTheSheets: First Half Report Card Time
Who excelled? Who faltered? What about #TeamUpset?


First off, HAPPY HOLIDAYS curling fans!  I hope you are all taking some much deserved time with loved ones over the next few weeks and celebrate the holiday season.  Curling athletes and fans alike have been going hard over the past few months with grand slam events, world curling tour events, super spares and Olympic preparations.  As Christmas fast approaches, I truly thank each of you for your continued support towards this blog and wish you all a Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah or whichever celebration you observe....and a Happy New Year as well!

Now before we dip into the RumNog's or Wine or Paralyzer's or continue the Beer Advent Calendar (Ok maybe some or most of you already have...perhaps #TwineTime included) we have some catching up to do.  You know when you return to your home town for the holidays and meet for a choice beverage with a high school friend you haven't seen in years to catch up on all the details going on in your lives...I feel like you and I dear reader need to do the same.  It has been a few weeks and lots has happened.  We need to review the results on the ice over the past few weeks and unveil the final #PowerRankings of 2016.  After that, let's reveal the first half report card for the 2016-17 curling season!


With the utmost respect to a man I finally met this season, Jason Gunnlaugson, let's check out the #GunnerRunback for the past two weeks of world curling tour action.  Hmmm you know, looking back on it now, I really should have seized the opportunity when speaking with Gunner in Cranbrook and asked him what he thought of me using his name as a rewind hashtag in this blog.  Let's assume he considers it a form of flattery and a compliment.  Since the #PowerRankings and #TourLifePredictions section to the weekly blog have their own images, I think it might be time to break in a #GunnerRunback image and pay proper homage to the man himself.  To the results:

  • The hometown curse is over!  Brad Jacobs won his first grand slam since the 2015 Players' Championship when he took home the Boost National title in his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie.  Many have tried prior but none have prevailed in hoisting a grand slam title in front of your home fans.  Jacobs defeated one of the hottest teams on tour heading into the break, Reid Carruthers, in the final.  Niklas Edin and Brad Gushue (in his first event of the season) reached the SF.  All 4 of these teams look to be peaking at the right time heading into the pivotal part of the season.  Let's see if they can continue the hot play into 2017. 
  • On the women's side #TeamUpset came through again as Kerri Einarson claimed her first grand slam title defeating Switzerland's Silvana Tirinzoni in the final.  We almost saw a double hometown win with Krista McCarville reaching the SF.  We also almost saw an all-Switzerland grand slam final with World Champion Binia Feltscher falling short in the SF as well.  Team Einarson is on a roll right now.  After starting the season in underwhelming fashion, they have turned on the jets in December finished 3rd at the Canada Cup and now owning a grand slam title.  The women's tour is starting to become the #TeamUpset victory parade!
  • At the MCT Championships two weeks ago, David Bohn claimed his first title of the season defeating former world junior champ Braden Calvert in the final.  Twin brother Dennis Bohn and current Canadian junior champ Matt Dunstone (with his new team of course) reached the SF.  Darcy Robertson also won her first title of the season when she beat former Manitoba junior champ Shannon Birchard in the final.  Joelle Brown and Beth Peterson completed the Top 4.
  • Across the pond, the Pacific Ocean pond I should say, an all-Scottish final broke out at the Karuizawa International in Karuizawa, Japan.  Tom Brewster got the best of his country rival David Murdoch in the #TeamEurope championship final.  Home nation fans had something to celebrate though when Japan's Yusuke Morozumi defeated Canada's John Morris for bronze.  Asia-Pacific did celebrate a champion though on the women's side when South Korea's Un-Chi Gim defeated Sweden's Margaretha Sigfridsson in the final.  Scotland took home another medal though when Eve Muirhead defeated Russia's Anna Sidorova for bronze.
  • Another international flavour event took place in Xining, China.  Canada's Corryn Brown defeated Scotland's Hannah Fleming to claim the Qinghai China Women's International and pick up a #TeamCanada win for the week.  USA's Nina Roth defeated Germany's Daniela Jentsch in the bronze medal match.  At the Qinghai China Men's International, it was another win for #TeamWorld...more specifically #TeamEurope...when Norway's Thomas Ulsrud defeated Canada's William Lyburn in the final.  Sweden's Gustav Eskilsson defeated USA's Craig Brown to claim bronze.
  • Heading south of the border to Eveleth, MN Nadine Chyz continues to be a dark horse story of the season in claiming her 4th title of the season and a big #TeamCanada win when she defeated USA's Cassie Potter to claim the Curl Mesabi Classic.  Fellow American teams Cory Christensen and Madison Bear rounded out the SF.  On the men's side, we saw an all-#TeamUSA final with Heath McCormick defeating John Shuster to claim the title.  Four seemed to be the theme in Eveleth as, similar to Team Chyz, this would be Team McCormick's 4th tour win of the season.  Canadian teams Matt Dunstone and Shawn Meachem reached the SF. (Hint: Stay tuned for a special feature on a member of Team Meachem coming soon)
  • Hop back in the plane and let's continue our world tour as we head across the pond once again...this time the Atlantic Ocean...to Dumfries, Scotland for the Dumfries Challenger Series.  A #TeamUpset victory would be claimed on the women's side when Switzerland's Alisha Mathis defeated Scotland's Sophie Jackson in the final.  This is the first world curling tour title for Team Mathis...and another Switzerland team making a name for themselves.  #HoppSchwiiz continues!  Switzerland's Melanie Barbezat and Scotland's Gina Aitken were SF finishers.  On the men's side, Scotland's Kyle Smith continued their hot start to the season in claiming title #2 this year when they defeated fellow Scot Cameron Bryce in the final.  Scotland's Grant Hardie and Spain's (Yes Spain!! #growthesport) Antonio De Mollinedo reached the SF.  Note this is Team Spain's second qualification of the season (and of their career's) and first SF!  Could Spain be the next up and coming men's nation in curling?

I hope you were able to finish your choice beverage while we got caught up there rock heads and stoners.  There has been a lot of curling action sweeping the ice around the world over the past two weeks.  Interesting to review the results and see all the major #TwineTime teams picked up victories though.  #TeamCanada, #TeamWorld and #TeamUpset were all well represented once again.

With another grand slam coming to a close plus numerous other events wrapping up around the globe before Christmas, it is time to unveil the final #PowerRankings for 2016.  Heading into the final rankings, Team Edin and Team Homan staked their claim to the top of the mountain but can they hold onto it and be crowned final #1 teams for 2016?  How about those Boost National champs Team Jacobs and Team Einarson?  And what about those other #TeamWorld and #TeamUpset representatives?  In the fine tradition of Family Feud, show me the Power Rankings:


MEN

1. Team Edin (LW: 1)
2. Team Carruthers (2)
3. Team Jacobs (HM)
4. Team Gushue (3)
5. Team Ulsrud (5)

Hon. Mention:  Team Epping, Team Smith, Team McCormick, Team Laycock, Team Morris

WOMEN

1. Team Homan (LW: 1)
2. Team Jones (2)
3. Team Einarson (HM)
4. Team Hasselborg (3)
5. Team Flaxey (4)

Hon. Mention:  Team Muirhead, Team Tirinzoni, Team Sweeting, Team Moiseeva, Team Gim, Team Chyz

The #SwedishViking fends off his challengers once again and remains King of the Mountain to end 2016.  But honestly, does anyone really have a strong argument to make against Team Edin being #1 right now?  They won the opening two grand slams, finished T3 at the last grand slam and won the European Championships.  No other team on the planet has a resume as strong as their's right now....not even close.  The gap between them and the rest of the teams is basically as wide as the Grand Canyon.  Team Jacobs is the big mover of the week though going from HM to the prestigious #3 spot after their grand slam triumph.  Honestly, Carruthers, Jacobs and Gushue are all fairly close to one another and could be considered in a deadlock spot for #2.  All three teams have been consistent this season in qualifying for events entered and all three have big wins under their belts.  It will be fun to watch them duke it out at the Canadian Open in January.  Team Ulsrud holds on to the final mountain spot after their win in China while Team McCormick re-enters the conversation following their win on home soil.

While the men's top team has created a large gap between themselves and the competition, the opposite has happened on the women's side....to the surprise of many I think.  Team Homan still holds the #1 spot to close 2016 but they are barely hanging on.  The only reason another team hasn't knocked them off is because of the parity we are seeing on the women's tour this season.  The grand slam events are producing #TeamUpset victors, which is great for the sport.  While Homan isn't claiming any grand slam titles, they are consistently dominating the RR and qualifying for the playoffs.  They are a contender in each event, having reached 18 straight playoff rounds in grand slam events now...a new record!  This blog has made consistency a strong determining factor towards these rankings all season and Homan is the Queen of Consistent!  Team Einarson, similar to Team Jacobs, vaults into the #3 spot with their National grand slam win while a consistent Team Hasselborg from Sweden and Masters champ Team Flaxey round out the top spots.  Look at all those HM teams though.  Parity running rampant on the ice right now as any of those 6 teams could easily move into the Top 5 starting 2017.  Team Muirhead and Team Tirinzoni are always threats at the grand slam events.  Team Sweeting has a grand slam win under her belt already.  And Team Chyz may just be the most under-appreciated, flying under the radar team this season.

Refill those red solo cups curling friends....the time has come to hand out those first half report card grades on the 2016-17 curling season.  While I top up my cup and bring out the red sharpie, here is a fun look back to the first half of the season.  Markers down, eyes to the front, sippy cups in hand...and drink for every hashtag used!


A: #SwedishViking - Niklas Edin and his Swedish powerhouse team have easily been the story of the season so far.  Sure Edin has won world championships and been on an Olympic podium in the past but nobody, himself included (see my interview with him HERE), thought they would come out on fire to start the season the way they did.  When I spoke with him after their first grand slam win, Edin still felt his team had not reached their full potential and had room for growth.  Scary thought for the rest of the men's teams around the world I think.  Two grand slam titles and a 5th European Championship (3rd in a row) later and Team Edin has lived up to the #SwedishViking hashtag following them around this season.  They are dominating their opposition and winning the big games when it matters most.  Are they breezing through the competition?  Ok not necessarily.  They suffer a loss or two at each event but it is the resiliency to fight back after a loss, the consistency of qualifying and the ability to elevate their game when needed that makes them so dangerous.  A few of the other teams on tour may want to start cheering them on as well.  If you can't beat them, join them in celebrating their victories.  As Edin already won 3 Champions Cup qualification events, they have opened up additional spots for world curling tour event winners to perhaps qualify for the season-ending event in Calgary.  If Edin can sneak out another grand slam and perhaps even the world championship, a few of those teams who perhaps could not find grand slam glory (or even grand slam qualification) could get a year-end bonus in a Champions Cup invite.  Go out and win an event on tour to keep your hopes alive teams...and in the meantime, if you aren't competing against Team Edin perhaps send them some Christmas good will and cheer them on for the rest of the season.  Plus, they did provide me with the best moment on tour this year when they took time to celebrate their Masters championship with a super fan in Okotoks.  That moment alone earns an A+ for Team Edin!!



B: #TeamUpset - While the men's tour is flowing with Swedish royalty, the women's tour is seeing a welcome addition to curling parity.  The formation of a new team, #TeamUpset, has started taking over the big events on the women's tour.  No team is safe.  Every team is a legit contender.  And all curling fans can rejoice from a #growthesport mentality.  The argument every season seems to be around the same 2-3 top teams competing for every big event on tour and claiming the titles.  Not this year friends!  Look at our grand slam champions: Team Flaxey (Masters), Team Sweeting (Tour Challenge Tier I), Team Harrison (Tour Challenge Tier II) and Team Einarson (National).  Ok sure Team Sweeting has been to the top of grand slam mountain before but, before the Tour Challenge, they had not looked like the top team many expected them to be this season.  Flaxey, Einarson and Harrison picked up their first slam titles this year in surprising fashion.  All three were not expected to qualify or contend in the events necessarily, let alone come out on top.  However, here they are all sporting big titles for the season.  Curling fans should be loving every moment of this.  But don't just look at the grand slam events, check out the tour level.  Team Chyz and Team Scheidegger have produced big wins throughout the first half of the season.  Many expected Alberta to be a runaway win for Team Sweeting this season with Team Carey already qualifying as Team Canada, not so fast!  Both Chyz and Scheidegger look ready to challenge Sweeting and make the Alberta Scotties one of the most competitive provincial championships to watch this year.  And what about Team Moiseeva?  Who saw that coming?  The Russian team knocked off defending Russian and European champion Team Sidorova to reach the 2016 European Championship and then they go on to win the entire event!  The fact Russia is now back-to-back European Women's Champions is an upset almost in itself but the bigger fact that is was done with two different teams...hello #TeamUpset!!!  Team Moiseeva's win also qualified them for the Champions Cup.  #TwineTime will be there and I am excited to see this team in person.

C: #TeamUSA - As a fellow North American, when I talk about #growthesport there is no greater place to want to see that happen then south of the border in the good ole' US of A.  This has been a strange season for USA Curling though.  We are seeing tremendous growth throughout the country with new clubs popping up all over the place (California, Florida, North Carolina etc).  We are seeing record membership numbers at many clubs (Seattle, Hollywood).  The #growthesport mentality is running all over the country and curling is catching on at the grassroots level, something many countries struggle with.  However, from a tour perspective the results are hot and cold.  Team McCormick's blazing start to the season in picking up 4 tour event wins is A+ material, not to mention qualifying in 6 of 9 events entered.  On the flip side, sure Team Shuster is qualifying for every grand slam but they are struggling...and mightily.  They have been lucky to pick up 1 win per event, let alone be a contender to qualify.  In fact, Team Shuster has only qualified in 3 of 10 events this season.  Brady Clark and Craig Brown competed at the Tour Challenge Tier II event and both made the playoffs.  Clark has qualified in 6 of 9 events as well so far (no titles yet) and Brown has qualified in 5 of 8 (again no titles yet).  Qualifying is good but championship wins are also needed!  The US men's teams need to start winning the bigger events entered and be strong competition against the world's best on a regular basis to elevate the sport back home.  On the women's side, the results haven't produced as many wins as the men (McCormick) and the results have been equally hit and miss.  Team Roth is the highest ranked on the money list, sitting 25th with one title to their credit and qualifying in 5 of 8 events.  Many were expecting Team Sinclair to be the team to beat this year and qualifying in 5 of 9 events is positive but no titles and only one final appearance is still a concern.  The bright spot may come from the young Cory Christensen rink.  The current World Junior silver medal winners have a title on tour this year when they defended their St. Paul Cash Spiel title and have qualified in 4 of 8 events.  Again though, it's that 50% success rate that leaves Team USA sitting on the fence here with a C grade.  The potential is high for USA curling to challenge the top nations in the world but it's the consistency that has been the struggle.  It will be interesting to watch all these teams in 2017 and see if they can all elevate their games to the next level and become world contenders once again.  Remember Shuster did captain Team USA to a podium finish at last year's world championships so the pressure and expectations are high this season!

D: #HomanSlump - Ok perhaps this is a bit unfair for a team with 2 wins on the season and having qualified at every event they have entered...but come on, you are thinking the same thing curling fans.  What is up with Team Homan?  I will admit some of this is the resulting carry-over from the historical season they had last year and, yes, I realize the probability of them, or any team for that matter, replicating those results is almost impossible.  But this is still Team Homan!!  In some ways it almost looks and feels like they have not recovered from the shocking Ontario Scotties final loss last season to Team Hanna.  They did start the season with back-to-back championship wins but since then have looked...dare I say...almost ordinary in some games.  While they compete in the grand slams and, more often than not, go undefeated in the RR portion, when it comes playoff time they are missing shots, facing strategy dilemma's or just being outcurled by their opposition.  Rachel and company used to be the most feared team on tour, especially come playoff time.  Last season they almost ran the grand slam gauntlet claiming 3 of the 4 titles and the Canada Cup.  The consistency on curling well event after event is there but it is those small finishing mistakes that are concerning.  It is what costed them the Ontario Scotties last season and the monkey appears to be clinging to their back's just a bit still this season.  Is the cause for concern really high right now?  No, they are still the top team in the world.  However the ability to close out an event and/or championship final is a big part of being successful and this team needs to rediscover that tenacity and fight in the second half of the season.  Ontario teams like Team Flaxey and Team Harrison are chomping at the bit already to deny them a Scotties berth once again...and that confidence grows one event at a time.

F: #OhhhhCanada - This may come as a harsh critique but it needs to be discussed.  The defending Team Canada men's and women's teams are struggling this season.  Team Koe are the defending world champions but for much of the season have looked anything but.  I realize they have two title wins on tour this season, which many teams would die to have at this point of the season.  However, you are the defending Canadian and World Champions....expectations are high heading into the season and the results have been underwhelming.  The last place finish at the Canada Cup, failing to qualify at the opening two grand slam events, these are not the results many curling fans were expecting from the current champs.  Yes I get they are still playing at the biggest events and many teams would also kill for those opportunities but they earned the right to be there and need to be held accountable against the competition they face week in and week out on tour.  The other teams have figured out the strategy needed to beat them.  The team is not running at the dominant fashion we saw at the end of last season.  The QF finish at the National was a welcoming sign to hopefully better results in 2017 but time will tell.  One has to wonder, given the struggles the team is having this season, will the fact they do not play provincial playdowns hurt them more heading into the Brier this season?  And speaking of struggles, what about our current Scotties champions Team Carey?  #Yikes!  Our current Canadian women's champs have failed to qualify in 6 of 9 events this season.  Yes they have that opening season title to their credit...but geez that feels like a LONG LONG time ago at this point.  At one point of the season they had failed to qualify in 5 straight events, including the Masters and Tour Challenge grand slam events.  Similar to their Canadian champions on the men side, the QF appearance at the National could be a wake up call for this team heading into 2017.  But if you were any of the teams across the country heading into your Scotties provincial/territorial playdowns this season, would you be concerned at the Team Canada already awaiting you at the Scotties?  Again, time will tell if the lack of good results and not playing provincial playdowns will hinder this team's chances of a Scotties repeat.  At this point however, I wouldn't bet on it.  But then again, not many bet on them last season (Ok I did in my season preview mind you) and look what they accomplished.  The clock is ticking and time is running out though....


Still have anything left in your cup?  If so, FINISH IT!!!  The first half report card blog post is coming to a close and nobody leaves a party with some drink in their cup!  Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below or on twitter.  What would be your A-grade moment of the first half of the year?  What is your F-grade moment?  

Most importantly....THANK YOU once again for continuing to follow the #TwineTime blog.  I look forward to celebrating the second half of the season with you all in 2017.  There may just be another surprise blog entry or two before the calendar flips over though rock heads and stoners.  #StayTuned

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!