Wednesday, 29 March 2017

#BetweenTheSheets: Team Canada vs. Team World vs. 
Team Upset
The Ford World Men's Curling Championships slide into Edmonton

Welcome everyone to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.  Welcome everyone to Northlands Coliseum.  Welcome everyone to the 2017 Ford World Men's Curling Championships!  How's that for an early 1990's WWF-throwback introduction?

Ok retro wrestling moments aside, the excitement on the world curling stage is at its annual plateau right now.  The World Women's Curling Championships just wrapped up in Beijing and here we are ready to get going on the path to crowning our world men's champion.  How can you not get excited?

This is a huge world championship event.  Not only do we have the added pressure on every team competing to try and bring home a gold medal but this is the final opportunity for nations to earn qualification points for the 2018 Winter Olympics.  For some teams the path is pretty set in stone and only a formality.  For some, there will be work needed over the next week to secure a spot.  And for others, their backs are firmly up against the wall and it will take a STRONG result (perhaps a championship win) to move on the positive side of the red cut line.  But more on that in a moment.

First off, let's give huge props and congratulations to our new world women's champions Team Canada / Team Homan.  The Homan team looked every bit like the dominating team we expected out them throughout the week.  Not only did the team finish the personal medal podium collection in winning their first gold medal, they also set the history books ablaze in becoming the first team ever to go through an entire world women's championship undefeated!  Dominating may not even be the best word to describe the feat.  However, I loved Rachel Homan's post-championship win interview when asked about the record and her response,"We just wanted to bring back gold for Canada, no matter how we had to do it."  The record is perhaps more the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake!  Congrats Team Homan on sending Canada back to the top of the world podium.  In addition, congrats to Russia's Anna Sidorova on achieving a historical best for her nation in guiding the team to the championship final and a silver medal win.  Props to Scotland's Eve Muirhead for fighting back and stealing her way, literally, to the bronze medal win over Sweden's Anna Hasselborg.
Photo credit: World Curling Federation/Céline Stucki
Let's get back to that small little topic of conversation mentioned in the opener, the 2018 Winter Olympics!  As noted, the 2017 world championship will be the final opportunity for nations to earn all-important qualification points towards a direct entry spot into the tournament.  As we know, 10 nations will earn a spot at the 2018 games.  One spot is already reserved for hosts South Korea.  At the conclusion of the 2017 event, another 7 spots will be claimed.  This leaves 2 remaining spots to be contested at final qualification events to be held in December 2017.

As you see from the qualification table on the right, South Korea is lucky to earn that automatic host spot.  After failing to qualify for the 2017 tournament and the disappointment of last year's 11th place finish in Basel, Switzerland, the nation would be on the wrong side of the cut line regardless of how this year's tournament plays out.  However it is not all doom and gloom for our Olympic hosts.  The future is bright after all, remember South Korea did just take home the gold medal at the 2016 World Junior Championships.  We can also be quite confident in knowing their national federation will be working hard to ensure the host side fills a competitive team by the 2018 games.

But let's look at those remaining 7 spots up for grabs.  One has to think Canada, USA, Japan, Norway and Sweden are relative locks.  Great Britain should be a lock as well with David Murdoch playing in Edmonton and expected to make a playoff push.  That would put 6 nations in lock status and 1 open spot.  Last year's runner-up Denmark would claim the final spot if standings hold true to last year.  The Danes are going to be sweating out this tournament though.  Similar to what we saw at the world women's tournament this year with Japan not qualifying and resting on last year's silver medal performance, Denmark will be hoping for a similar positive outlook in the long run.  But I am not so sure it will happen.  The team to really watch is Switzerland.  Currently sitting in 9th spot with 4 points, the Swiss have some work to do but auto qualification is not out of the question.  With Finland not competing this year and currently above them, the final spot is really Switzerland's for the taking (no offence to Russia and Germany).  If we add up the math correctly, here is what you are watching for.  Quite simply, if Switzerland finds the podium in Edmonton, they book their tickets to Pyeongchang.  If Switzerland finishes in 5th, we have a tie for the final spot as both nations will finish qualification with 12 points.  If the Swiss finish 6th or lower, Denmark lets out a huge sigh of relief.  So there will be a game inside a game all week.  Keep an eye on the Swiss!  And hey, who knows what will happen I suppose.  Perhaps #TeamUpset turns up and we see a surprise nation like Russia or Germany or even China make a playoff push to the final and literally steal away an Olympic spot.  Right now, lots of possibilities for that 7th and final auto spot.

Ok history lesson time rock heads and stoners.  Take your seats.  Grab your notebook and pen....ok it's 2017, grab your tablet or laptop.  Put on your learning hat.  Time to up your knowledge on the World Men's Curling Championship with the #TwineTime history lesson.  Please refrain from chewing gum in my glass...not because I hate gum, I just hate the popping sound.  Seriously!

  • The first world championship was held in 1959 and named the Scotch Cup.  The Scotch Cup remained until 1967, becoming the Air Canada Silver Broom.  Overall there have been 8 titles and 9 name changes.  The current name, Ford World Men's Curling Championship, is used in odd years while World Men's Curling Championship is used in even years.  #Themoreyouknow
  • The first two years of the championship were held between only two nations, Canada and Scotland.  USA joined the competition in 1961 and Sweden followed in 1962.  By 1968, the competition featured 8 nations, expanding to 10 in 1973.  The current format of 12 nations competing first occurred in 2005.
  • The first championship was won by Canada's famous Ernie Richardson defeating Scotland's Willie Young in the final.  Canada would go on to win the first 6 world championships, of which Richardson and his brothers (Arnold, Sam and Wes) would win 4 of the first 5 (1959, 1960, 1962, 1963).  Ok Wes wasn't on the 1963 team mind you but still...#TeamDynasty!
  • Overall Canada has dominated the 58 year history of this event, winning 35 gold medals.  The winning percentage for Team Canada is 60%.  In total Canada has found the podium 50 of 58 years (88%).  Yikes!  #TeamDomination  Canada's win last year was their first since 2012.  The last time Canada failed to medal at the world championships was 2001 when Randy Ferbey's team lost the bronze medal game to Norway's Pal Trulsen in Lausanne, Switzerland.  Also worth noting, Canada has played in 44 of the 58 championship finals (76%).  Do we just pencil Gushue into the final now?
  • Sweden is the next closest with 7 gold medal wins while Scotland follows in third with 5.  There have only been 6 nations to ever win a world championship with USA (4), Norway (4) and Switzerland (3) rounding out the gold medal haul.
  • When it comes to runner-up finishes, Scotland is head's and tail's above the pack of having the agonising championship final defeat.  Scotland has "won" 20 silver medals in 58 years (35%).  Canada is next with 9 silver medals and Sweden follows with 7.  Nations to claim a silver medal but never win a gold include Germany (4) and last year's finalist Denmark (1).  Interesting to note, one of Germany's silver medal wins came the last time Edmonton hosted the world championship (2007) when Canada's Glen Howard defeated Andy Kapp (a final #TwineTime actually was at and saw live...just sayin').
  • For bronze medal victories, USA is #1 claiming 13 bronze medals, including last year.  Norway follows with 9 and Switzerland and Scotland have 8.  Finland (2, 1998 and 2000) and France (1, 1973) are two nations who have only hit the podium in the #3 spot.  Worth noting official bronze medals were only awarded since 1986 and from 1989-1994 two bronze medals were awarded rather than the current format of a bronze medal game.  If you add up all the podium finishes in the 58 year history of the event, only 10 nations have claimed at least one medal.
  • Canada is the only nation to compete in all 58 world championship events.  Scotland follows with 57, missing the 2001 tournament.  USA is next with 53 followed by Sweden (52), Norway (51) and Switzerland (50).  Overall 23 different nations have competed in at least 1 world championship.  Wales (1995, 10th place) and Ireland (2006, 12th place) are the two nations with only one appearance.  2017 participant Netherlands will be making only their second ever appearance in Edmonton (previous 1994).  Other nations with 5 or less years of experience include: England, New Zealand, Russia (5), South Korea (4) and Austria (3).

Any questions?  Good!  You should now all be well-versed in world championship history and, similar to the #TwineTime World Women's Preview, be ready to wow your family and friends in front of the TV or at the office water cooler with your interesting tidbit facts.  Heck, maybe some of you will even be sitting in the stands at Northlands watching the games live....hmmmm maybe #TwineTime will be around as well?!

Let's get to the fun stuff now.  Time to talk about the 2017 championship and dissect the field taking the ice in Edmonton.  We have a mixed field scattered with Olympic, World and grand slam champions.  We also have teams with Olympic, World and grand slam experience.  And of course we have two rookie skips looking to wave the #TeamUpset flag all week and surprise a few of the contenders.  Here is the #TwineTime preview of the #FWMCC2017:

2017 Ford World Men's Curling Championships

Edmonton, AB, Canada

2016 Champion:  Canada (Team Kevin Koe)

Format:  12 team RR with Top 4 advancing to Page Playoff

The Favourites

Sweden (Niklas Edin) - The #SwedishVikings are in the house and ready to bludgeon their opposition this week!  Niklas Edin and his Swedish foursome have been the hottest team on tour this season (and, according to many female fans, not just in the looks department).  Team Edin have collected 6 (6!!!) tour wins this season, including the opening two grand slam events (The Masters and The Tour Challenge).  In fact, Edin's Masters win was the first for a non-Canadian male skip.  Couple with a SF finish at The National and a runner-up result at The Canadian Open...this team has dominated their competition.  Oh and did I forget to mention Edin also collected the #3peat at the European Championships in November, picking up his third straight gold and fifth overall.  Hmmm the number 3 rings loud in my ears right now.  Perhaps that is because Edin will also be gunning for this 3rd world championship in Edmonton this week.  Also strange coincidence, his previous two world championships just happen to have occurred in odd numbered years (2013, 2015) AND when the event was hosted in Canada (Victoria, Halifax).  This is a Niklas Edin trend forming here rock heads and stoners?  Team Edin has been the #1 team on the #TwineTime #PowerRankings for most of this season and the results speak for themselves.  Of course he also happens to be #1 on that other ranking list...the World Curling Federation Order of Merit!  You have to think anything short of a championship win will be a disappointment for this team.  Last year the team struggled to a surprising 6-5 finish and missed the playoffs.  Expect that result to be out of sight, out of mind and in the far distant past.  Interesting to note, due to last year's result Sweden is barely on the positive line of automatic qualification for 2018.  Yes they aren't REALLY in danger of missing out but you have to also expect this team to want to put all the other nations on notice they are an Olympic threat as well (while also showing the Swedish Curling Federation this is the top team to send to South Korea).  Oh and have I mentioned skipper Niklas Edin also happens to be a member of the #TwineTime family?  Read his interview with me from earlier in the season HERE!

Canada (Brad Gushue) - The Goo Is Here!!  After 13 previous Brier appearances, lucky #14 paid off for Brad Gushue and his Newfoundland and Labrador team a few weeks ago when they finally took home the Brier title and the Team Canada jackets.  The 2006 Winter Olympic gold medal winner has been plagued by coming up short at the Brier for years but can finally put all that behind him and really punch that monkey off his shoulder.  The question now is how is the hangover?  No, no I don't just mean from the numerous celebrations back home (although I am sure there have been MANY) but I mean going from the pressure-cooker of performing in front of your home province fans, family and friends and taking home a title you have been wanting for so long to competing for Team Canada on the world stage.  Yes Gushue has the Olympic experience in his back pocket but that was 11 years ago now and the team (and sport) is quite different.  The fans in Edmonton will be fully behind their new Team Canada members and Gushue is a 7-time grand slam champion.  The biggest question could be the injury bug.  Gushue is still labouring a bit with the hip/groin injury (although he does look to be in perfect curling condition based on his recent play) and lead Geoff Walker is recovering as well.  Both will be good to go of course for the opening draw but one has to wonder if a long week of high-pressure curling will catch up to them.  This season on tour, Team Gushue (with and without the skipper) has been one of the best teams on tour.  The #TwineTime blog has had them in the #1 or #2 spot on the #PowerRankings all season.  Gushue hasn't had a ton of competitive curling events under his belt but since his return the team has picked up a Canadian Open grand slam win and The Tim Hortons Brier....not too shabby I would say.  Plus he is chasing history in trying to become the first ever skip to win a world junior, Olympic and world championship gold medal.  A playoff spot should be locked up, the question is where can this team land on the podium?  Judging by the results this season alone, who doesn't want to see a Gushue - Edin final?!?!  Luckily we get a potential preview opening weekend when Canada faces Sweden Sunday evening.

Watch Out For

Scotland (David Murdoch) - The 2006 and 2009 World Champion will be making his 8th world championship appearance in Edmonton.  In Murdoch's 7 previous appearances, he has found the podium 6 times, collecting the rare triple double (2 Gold, 2 Silver, 2 Bronze).  Worth noting the one time he did not medal he actually was an alternate (2015, Ewan MacDonald).  Murdoch has put together a solid season on tour this year, playing in 3 grand slam events and reaching the QF at The Masters.  While the team has not collected a win on tour this season, they do have a few strong results including 2 finals appearances in Karuizawa and Basel.  Murdoch's podium record speaks for itself here and he should never be counted out on the world stage.  The added pressure will be on Murdoch as well as Team GB sits on the cut line for automatic Olympic qualification.

USA (John Shuster) - Last season was the breakout year for the three-time Olympian on the world stage when he took home his first world championship medal (bronze).  This year will mark the 7th world championship appearance for Shuster and he will be looking to replicate, or improve, last year's result.  It won't be easy though as the team has struggled a bit on tour this year.  The grand slam schedule was tough with the team finding it hard to pick up wins early on.  However, a QF appearance at the Canadian Open seemed to propel this team and give it the much needed confidence required to win the USA National Championship.  A few runner-up finishes in Duluth and Eveleth have also shown strong results in 2017.

Switzerland (Peter de Cruz) - Peter de Cruz will be playing in his sophomore world championship, having won a bronze medal at his only previous appearance (2014).  The young Swiss team is a team to keep an eye on this week.  After 5 years of struggles at various grand slam events, the team finally reached the QF round at the last grand slam event, the Elite 10.  They will be heading to Edmonton with a ton of confidence.  Team de Cruz does have a tour win under their belts this season (Baden Masters) and have found the podium at each of the past two European Championships (2016 Bronze, 2015 Silver).  This could be the perfect surprise team to make a deep playoff run.  Remember de Cruz, 4th thrower Benoit Schwarz and lead Valentin Tanner are also past world junior champions together (2010).  All eyes in Denmark will be on how this team does.  The more wins they collect, the less probability Denmark earns a 2018 Winter Olympic auto berth.  The pressure is on Team de Cruz to reach the podium and snatch that Olympic bid from their fellow Red and White European counterparts.

The Dark Horse

Norway (Steffen Walstad) - A team from Norway competing at the world championships not named Ulsrud?  What is going on?  Well, your eyes are not deceiving you my curling friend, Steffen Walstad has made the jump from also-ran in Norway to world championship contender.  And don't be too surprised with the result either.  If you follow this blog weekly (which I know you do), Team Walstad should not be an unknown as the #TwineTime blog has been talking about this team all season.  They "upset" Team Ulsrud to take home the Norwegian Curling Championship and are ready to continue their progress.  They have a tour win this season (German Masters) and a few runner-up and SF appearances as well.  The key to this team may actually come from vice Markus Hoiberg.  This will be Hoiberg's 6th world championship appearance and he does have 2 podium finishes (2015 Silver, 2014 Gold).  Ok yes he was the alternate for Team Ulsrud in those previous appearances but the point is he has been here, he knows what to expect and he has been on the podium.  His experience could be the deciding factor in pushing this team towards the playoff hunt come mid-week.  The team may enter the competition waving the #TeamUpset flag but don't underestimate where they could finish by the end of the week.

Netherlands (Jaap van Dorp) - The other rookie skip at this year's worlds could also wave the #TeamUpset flag this week.  #TeamOranje will be making only their second ever world championship appearance, previously finishing in 7th place in 1994.  Skipper van Dorp has really accelerated the Dutch men's curling program since taking over in 2011.  The team started 2011 with a 23rd place finish at the European Championships.  Fast forward to 2015 and the team was competing in the A Division with the best of the best.  Sure the team struggled to two wins and was relegated to B Division for 2016; however, the team won the B Division this year and knocked off Austria in the world qualification best-of-three event.  This team has moved from 23rd in Europe to a world championship spot in 5 short years.  The team reached their first tour final at the 2015 Swiss Cup Basel and just this season recorded their first major win, collecting the Tier II title at Stu Sells Oakville.  Can this team win a medal in Edmonton?  No, probably not.  Can they surprise a few of the "experienced" teams and shock the world in a few games?  Yup, I think so!

The Field

China (Liu Rui) - The two-time Olympian (2010, 2014) Rui makes his return to the world championship stage for the first time since 2014.  The timing could not be more perfect though as China makes a push to once again qualify for the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics.  Qualification won't be easy though as China comes into these world championships with 0 points and will need a medal to have any shot at direct qualification.  However, Rui does have the international experience to be a threat during the week.  Making his 7th appearance, Rui's best result was a 4th place finish in 2008.  Rui has also led his Chinese team to consecutive 6th place finishes in 2012, 2013, and 2014.  The team does have a tour win this season and numerous runner-up and SF finishes.

Germany (Alexander Baumann) - Another nation holding onto a slim 2018 direct entry spot is Germany, led by Alexander Baumann.  This will be Baumann's sophomore world championship appearance after making his debut last year and finishing in 12 place with a 1-10 record.  The team made some line-up changes this season though adding two-time Olympian Daniel Herberg at second and 2004 Canadian Junior Curling Champion Ryan Sherrard at lead.  Interesting side note, at the 2004 World Junior Curling Championships, Sherrard skipped Team Canada against some very familiar opposition, namely his now skip Alexander Baumann (Team Germany), Yusuke Morozumi (Team Japan), Joel Retornaz (Team Italy) and eventual champion Niklas Edin (Team Sweden).  This team sticks to curling tour events in Europe and found some success this season, including reaching the SF at the Perth Masters in January.

Italy (Joel Retornaz) - Retornaz returns Italy to the world championship stage in 2017, making his 4th appearance.  His previous best result was a 10th place finish in 2015.  Retornaz is the face of curling in Italy and is still most well-known for igniting the curling spark in the non-traditional curling country during his historic 2006 Winter Olympics appearance.  With little to no major curling experience, the Retornaz-led Italian team was the pure definition of #TeamUpset finishing with a 4-5 record including upset wins over Canada (Gushue), USA (Pete Fensen) and Germany (Andy Kapp).  Of course Gushue (gold) and Fensen (bronze) would find the podium later in the event too.  Can Retornaz turn back the clock in Edmonton and score a few more upsets, once again against Gushue perhaps?

Japan (Yusuke Morozumi) - Morozumi is back and looking for a shot at redemption in 2017.  At the 2016 world championships, Morozumi lead Team Japan to a 4th place finish, losing the bronze medal match to Team USA (Shuster).  This season Morozumi will be looking to land Japan on the podium for the first time.  This will be Morozumi's 6th appearance and the past three years the teams has been hovering around the podium (5th, 6th, 4th).  The 2016/17 curling season has already been a breakout season for this team.  After 6 silver medal wins, including the past 4, at the Pacific-Asia Curling Championships, the team picked up their first gold back in November.  Do not underestimate this team making another playoff push by the end of the week and, more importantly, locking down that 2018 Winter Olympic automatic qualification berth.

Russia (Alexey Stukalskiy) - Stukalskiy will be making his 5th straight appearance at the world championship, the only 5 appearances the winter sport hungry nation has ever had.  Wins have been hard to come by unfortunately for the Russians with a 10th, 11th, 12th and 10th place finish being their final results.  The experience at the international level is there with Stukalskiy also playing with the Russian Olympic Team at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, finishing in 7th place with a 3-6 record.  This will be an interesting team to watch though as the selection really appears to be two tour teams gelled together for this event.  Stukalskiy and lead Artur Razhabov have been together all season while the team will welcome Alexy Timofeev at vice and Timur Gadzhikanov at second.  Timofeev and Gadzhikanov have been together all season with Alexy skipping and Timur as his vice.  The direct entry for the 2018 Winter Olympics seems a stretch but it is still worth keeping an eye on this team and see how the dynamic works.

Qualifiers:  Canada, Sweden, Scotland, Switzerland

Bronze Medal:  Switzerland (de Cruz) def. Scotland (Murdoch)

2017 Ford Men's World Curling Championship:  Sweden (Edin) def. Canada (Gushue)

2018 Winter Olympic Qualification:  Canada, Sweden, USA, Norway, Scotland, Japan, Switzerland, South Korea

The #TwineTime blog is excited to be heading up to Edmonton this weekend for the opening ceremonies and first two days of competition.  While my regular job will pull me away from the championship excitement during the middle days of action, do not fret curling fans #TwineTime will be back covering all the on-ice (and some surprise off-ice perhaps) action by the end of the week through to championship Sunday.

A special thank you to Curling Canada for once again seeing value in the #TwineTime blog coverage of the sport and granting me media accreditation for the event.  I continue to be truly humbled, surprised and thankful for the opportunity and experience.  Follow along with #TwineTime on twitter for live tweets, pics and up to date info during the event.  As well toss a few follow stones to Curling Canada and World Curling Federation for more in-depth coverage throughout the championship.

And never know what surprises #TwineTime might uncover while soaking in the excitement of the 2017 Ford World Men's Curling Championship!

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