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Thursday, 16 March 2017

#BetweenTheSheets: The GSOC vs. CTRS Debate
Call for change to the Elite(-ist) slam?


Is this not the best time to be a curling fan sports fans?  The sport is gearing up towards the 2018 Olympics, one year away now.  We have upcoming world championships for men, women and mixed doubles.  AND fans were just treated to back-to-back Canadian championship finals that brought the house down in St. Catharines and St. John's.

The Scotties and Brier saw very similar results in the championship finals.  Both had outstanding shots and terrific drama.  Both had a home province team looking to take home the Team Canada jackets in front of their close family and friends and fans.  Both had tremendous TV numbers for TSN.  AND both got sports fans, not just curling fans, hitting up social media and water cooler's the next day talking about the excitement resonating from high-energy finals.  As a fan of the sport and the #growthesport movement, what more could you want?

But let's not wear the rose-coloured glasses and praise the sport as being the best of the best with no concerning issues.  Celebrate success, yes!  Become complacent in thinking all is well, not yet!

Brad Gushue's Tim Hortons Brier 2017 championship win was nothing short of high-energy excitement.  Throughout the entire #Brier2017 week, the crowd anticipation throughout the Mile One Centre was building and building towards that final...the final we all knew Team Gushue would be playing in.  We had the home town boys taking on the defending Canadian and World Champions.  The Disney storybook hero vs. villain tale was set up perfectly.  Ok sure Team Canada, led by skip Kevin Koe, are not actual "villains" but they certainly were not the crowd choice, both inside the arena and throughout most of Canada (and perhaps the world).  After many disappointing Brier finishes in the past for Gushue, this was finally his time to shine and validate himself (as if he really needed to in the eyes of many curling fans) as one of the best in the sport.  St. John's celebrated perhaps like never before and Canada was left in awe at the championship party, including the Tankard trophy itself crowd surfing through The Patch late Sunday evening and into early Monday morning.  The #TwineTime blog congratulates Team Gushue, our new #TeamCanada, on the outstanding play all week and in capturing a very deserving championship win.


As the celebration rocks come to a rest in the corner of the sheet however another pressing issue awaits the next sheet over.  The next grand slam of curling event, the Elite 10, kicks off this week in Nova Scotia.  Oh the Elite 10....how we have had two years of a love/hate relationship and how I feel year three will be no exception.

The 2017 edition of the Elite 10 is quite interesting.  The timing of the event is questionable as always, falling right after the Brier wraps up.  The idea of having a slam event where it is men-only competition is another point of discussion.  Ok yes Team Homan was invited last year but, apparently, that was a one-year special.  Oh but wait, what about the special 2017 team announcement of the Select Team?  Don't worry, we will get to that loyal follower!  But first, and perhaps the most interesting topic of discussion, is the relevance of this event as a whole.

In the past I have been quite vocal on my dislike of this event, mainly for the reasons listed above.  The format of the event itself is also one I am not a huge supporter of.  The "skins-style" match play as a grand slam event seems a bit more of a gimmick.  Ok now before everyone jumps down my back and slams me for having a less-than-favourable opinion here, let's be clear on something.  Props to the grand slam of curling team on trying something different for a format.  Again, as a #growthesport supporter, I love taking on new challenges and trying something new.  As well, props to Sportsnet for being behind the #gsoc movement and bringing massive TV coverage to the sport on an regular, annual basis.  The format itself is not an issue with me.  The main issue is the format being tied to the grand slam name.

The grand slam of curling events are supposed to be the prestigious events on the curling calendar every year.  These are the top events with the top teams and the top prize money.  Do you see golf use a skins format for their tradition-rich grand slam type events?  Would you ever want to see tennis try a different gimmick format for one of their four majors during the year?  Of course not!  Tradition is tradition.  This is not a grand slam calibre format.  The mix between pool play and triple knockout, ok that is fine to have.  But changing the style and type of game play for a grand slam is a bit ridiculous.  If you want to make a fun Made-for-TV style event, well we already have the TSN All-Star Skins Game in January.  If you want to add this event from a Sportsnet perspective, great add it in but drop the grand slam title to it.  I understand no CTRS points are awarded at this event, great.  And sure this event is not provided a "major" title as the Big 4 in the #gsoc schedule.  But there is still grand slam equivalent money.  The winner still received a very prestigious Champions Cup spot.  And Grand Slam Cup points are still awarded.  Come on...really?  Really?!?!  If the TV audience and curling fans want to see this type of event, go forth and do it but lets not colour up a zebra and call it a lion.

This also leads me into the qualification and field for this event.  How are we, in 2017, still hosting a grand slam event in any sport where the qualification is for one gender only?  Again...really?!?  As mentioned above, yes Team Homan competed last year but based on this year it seems that was more a TV-ratings grab than actual interest to grow the event into a women's format as well.  Hmmm, a TV-ratings grab at a gimmick event?  Yup, isn't that grand slam of curling title worthy?  Love or hate the event, can any of you really say you put the Elite 10 in the same prestigious category as The Masters or Canadian Open?  You honestly believe the winner of the Elite 10 is as honourable of a title as the winner of The National?  A men's only event where the "elite" men's teams get richer, get more TV time and have one additional spot at qualifying for the season-ending Champions Cup is just ridiculous and unfair.

This year, the final year in the Olympic cycle, also brings a new point of consideration into the discussion.  When we see top teams like Mike McEwen choose to skip a "slam" event to attend a #WCT event in hopes of earning CTRS points to bolster his direct shot at an Olympic trials spot, time to start re-considering a few things.  In fact McEwen is not the only "Elite 10" qualified team to choose the Aberdeen International Curling Championship.  Scotland's Kyle Smith and Norway's Thomas Ulsrud would be in consideration to attend, especially due to McEwen's decline.  Yet here they are in Aberdeen competing instead.  Both Smith and Ulsrud are not even preparing for the upcoming world championship as neither qualified to represent their nation.  Hmmm....perhaps deciding to stay closer to home?  Easier on travel at the end of the season?  All very valid points and reasonable.  But the grand slam money and Champions Cup possibility was not enough to sway either team to hop the pond and play.  Or maybe the format and timing of this "slam" event is just not as liked by all the teams as we are led to believe?  It is nearing the end of the season and, with increasing pressure on building up Olympic qualification points, teams are focused on those Olympic trials and playing competitive events....not just fun, gimmick events.  In Canada, the CTRS points race is front and centre with all teams.  We want our best teams to focus on earning those points to ensure the top teams qualify for the Olympic trials and compete to represent Canada at the Winter Olympics.  Why throw in a non-points event into the schedule competing with a points-earning event?  Is this a one-off?  Possibly.  Will we debate a similar argument in 4 years?  Perhaps...unless we learn from the mistakes now of course.

Now what about the Select Team?  Once again...really?!?  Really?!?!  Don't get me wrong here.  The opportunity to see legends Jeff Stoughton, David Nedohin, Jamie Korab and Nolan Thiessen (a #TwineTime fam member remember) back on the ice is exciting and I am sure will resonate with TV numbers.  However, this is not the time for a "celeb" select team to be asked to compete.  For similar reason already discussed above, this event hands out grand slam dollars and a Champions Cup spot.  Why would we not give this opportunity to another deserving team?  Perhaps a team who has had a great season on tour and could really benefit from playing a grand slam?  A team who could use some extra money?  A team who could benefit from some extra media and marketing attention, which could in turn help them attract sponsors for next season?  A team that could perhaps pull a #TeamUpset finish and win a Champions Cup spot?  But no, let's take those opportunities away from a deserving team on tour to pull TV numbers.  Again, made-for-TV gimmick event vs grand slam calibre event?  If we look at the standings, Team Bottcher or Team Thomas would be next in line to qualify.  Bottcher is fresh off a Brier appearance.  Thomas is considered the future of Alberta curling as well.  Heck, even in both of these teams turned down an invite, the next team would be Steffen Walstad.  Walstad just knocked off Ulsrud to claim the Norway title and will be representing the country at the world's in Edmonton.  Wouldn't it be great to give fans a chance to see the future of Norway curling?  The funky pants-slayer?  Plus provide some valuable experience to a young team?  Am I the only one who see's it this way?

Alas I have taken you all down a dark alley culminating with a #TwineTime soap box.  Perhaps we will see change in the future.  Maybe I am the only one who see's things under this light and am living in a purple haze world?  Or maybe, just maybe, some of you secretly agree with some (or all) or my points above.  Either way, at the end of the day, what I love about sport is you can debate the topics and discuss the future in a friendly manner where everyone has an opinion with a similar end game....what is best for a sport we love and care about!  I also need to reiterate a valid point here.  Offering critique and opinion on the sport and an event should not be taken as a negative attack on those who play and/or run the event.  In the past I have made critical comments and had a few teams/players/fans come down on me for a "negative, anti-curling" attitude.  Let's be clear.  If I was "anti-curling" would the #BetweenTheSheets blog exist?  I have followed and attended curling events since elementary school.  Bringing a critical thinking perspective does not lessen the passion for the sport so if you have the urge to take a personal attack, go hard with freedom of speech I suppose.  But also try to look outside the box and see other perspectives.  If you want to discuss and have a friendly debate over the points above, happy to do so.  Ok, stepping down off the soap box.

Let's get to the two big events taking place this weekend.  We have the Elite 10 and Aberdeen International.  Both have rock star fields and both should produce some incredible curling action.  Now is the fun part...time to dissect the teams and the draw and offer up some #TourLifePredictions:

Elite 10

Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia

2016 Champion:  Brad Gushue

Format:  10 team round robin with 2 pools of 5.  Top 6 qualify with pool winners earning spots in the semifinals

Top Teams Entered:  Team Gushue, Team Edin, Team Koe, Team Jacobs

What 2 Watch 4 (#W2W4):  The Brier hangover for some.  The long layoff for others.  Which wins out this weekend?  Last year Brad Gushue turned his Brier finals loss into an Elite 10 grand slam win.  In the inaugural year we saw Mike McEwen capitalize on not playing in the Brier into a championship performance.  Both of the previous two years did see a non-Brier participant team (2016, Carruthers and 2015, Edin) reach the final.  If we go on the history lesson we should expect to see an Elite 10 final between a Brier participant and a non-Brier participant.  Hmmm...perhaps we can get the ultimate world championship preview with Team Gushue vs. Team Edin?  Both of these teams will be using this event as the final tune-up for the world championships and both would love nothing more than to beat the other and walk into Northlands in Edmonton with a little swagger and confidence.  Edin has been a beast in the slams this entire season.  Gushue won the last slam and is riding the high off his first Brier win.  And don't forget the other world championship team, Switzerland's Peter De Cruz.  But what about those other Brier playoff teams, Koe and Jacobs?  Both will be wanting some retribution for losing out on the Brier dream this year.  The Brier also put a few top players on the DL for this event.  Team Koe lead Ben Hebert and Team Gushue lead Geoff Walker will be skipping this event to heal up for, hopefully, a return this season but neither is certain.  Both will be replaced by quality players of course, namely Tom Sallows for Gushue and Scott Pfeifer for Koe.  Speaking of retribution, how about those teams who didn't play in the Brier but are in this field?  Looking at you Epping, Carruthers, Laycock.  They have been off the ice for some time now...will they have some slippery ice under their sliders or hit the hack hard and ready to roll right out of the gate?

#TeamUpset:  Of course the ultimate #TeamUpset will be the Select team, skipped by Jeff Stoughton.  These four have not played together nor have they been on the ice in a competitive curling game in quite some time (some longer than others).  But this team is also loaded with experience and Grand Slam/Brier/World/Olympic championship calibre so can you really underestimate them too much?  The real #TeamUpset story to watch though could come from #TeamOranje.  As the Brier was kicking off, Team Laycock made the announcement of long-time second Colton Flasch stepping away from the team (and ultimately forming his own team in Saskatchewan).  Team Laycock was left a man down with three slam events still to play this season and pushing for an Olympic trials spot still.  This week the team welcomes former Canadian junior champion (and #TwineTime fam member) Matt Dunstone to the rink.  Dunstone has played the role of super spare in the past for teams at a slam (in fact at this very event last season with Charley Thomas) and has a ton of experience.  The question will be how the team comes together in a short time.  Can they be just as competitive and fire on all cylinders even without playing together?  How will Dunstone fair at second position when he has played the role of skip his entire career?  And is this just a preview to a future announcement naming Dunstone to Team Laycock moving forward?  I know what I think.....

Qualifiers:  Team Gushue, Team Carruthers, Team Morris, Team Edin, Team Koe, Team Jacobs

Champion:  Team Edin def. Team Koe

Aberdeen International Curling Championship

Aberdeen, Scotland

2016 Champion:  New Event

Format: 28 team triple knockout with 8 qualifiers

Top Teams Entered:  Team McEwen, Team Ulsrud, Team Murdoch, Team Smith, Team Brewster, Team Shuster, Team Mouat, Team Stjerne

#W2W4:  This is a world-class field littered with teams who have won grand slams, won national championships, won world championships and won Olympic medals.  In many ways the field in Aberdeen is just as, if not more, impressive than the Elite 10 field from an international experience perspective.  One of the big storylines to keep an eye on though is the teams competing this weekend who are using this event as the final tune-up for the upcoming world championships in Edmonton.  We have 7 of the 12 teams scheduled to compete:  Murdoch (Scotland), Shuster (USA), Rui (China), Baumann (Germany), Retornaz (Italy), Stukalskiy (Russia) and van Dorp (Netherlands).  In fact, the opening round matchups include world preview games with Liu vs Stukalskiy, van Dorp vs Baumann and Shuster vs. Retornaz.  AND the Liu vs. Stukalskiy winner will then play Murdoch.  This field really will help give a few teams a leg up on the competition before coming to Edmonton and some huge confidence points.

#TeamUpset:  The experienced teams in this field will be expected to reach the playoffs over the weekend.  However, there are a few young and upcoming teams to keep an eye on as well in Aberdeen.  Of course the leader of the #TeamUpset movement will be Dutch skip Jaap van Dorp.  van Dorp will be preparing for his first world championship and could catch a few teams off guard right away.  Plus, what a "look out for me" moment it would be if he could qualify for the playoffs here against this field.  Huge boost of confidence before the world's.  But he isn't carrying the Upset flag alone.  What about the team he beat for that final world championship spot, Austria's Sebastian Wunderer?  Wunderer has had a great year on tour, competed at the European Championship in the top flight and came one game away from taking Austria to the world championships.  Similar to his Dutch counterpart, Wunderer is the present and future of Austrian curling and a team to keep an eye on.  The junior curling scene will also be represented, led by 2017 World Junior Curling Championship bronze medal winner Magnus Ramsfjell.  With all the talk of the shake-up in Norway, another Norway team could be ready to steal the limelight once again.  And finally, the home nation will have plenty of teams to cheer for but also the opportunity to see the next up and coming junior team from the country when Cameron Bryce takes the ice.  Bryce also competed at the world junior's and ended up with a tough bronze medal loss to Ramsfjell.  Interesting to note, if Ramsfjell and Bryce win their opening games they would play one another in the next round.   They played one another three times at the world juniors with Ramsfjell holding the 2-1 advantage.

Qualifiers:  Team McEwen, Team Murdoch, Team Ulsrud, Team Smith, Team Shuster, Team Brewster, Team Mouat, Team Liu

Champion:  Team Murdoch def. Team McEwen

Now you may be asking, what about the women on tour.  You know #TwineTime, there just happens to be the biggest event of the curling season taking place this weekend as well, what's the deal?  Well you are right rock heads and stoners, the World Women's Curling Championships are set to hit the ice in China this weekend as well.  However, if you are a loyal reader to this blog you should also know a world championship event is worthy of it's own blog entry.  I just could not tie the world women's event into this blog post.  Trust me though, a preview blog post is in the works and will be heading into your house VERY shortly.  I promise you!! #StayTuned