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Tuesday, 5 December 2017

#OQE2017 Preview

#BetweenTheSheets: Who Claims The Final Olympic Tickets?
The final curling spots in PyeongChang will be decided in Pilsen


The time for talking is over.  The preparation and build up towards the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang has been focused on who will qualify and who will compete for Olympic gold.  It truly has been three years down the #Roadto2018.

But the end of the road is now within clear and visible sight....almost as easy to see as staring across the entire province of Saskatchewan on a beautiful summer afternoon.  The twists and turns along the road are now in the rear view mirror.  We knew the host nation, South Korea, would be awaiting at the end of the road but who would be joining them at the station with punched Olympic tickets?

The field in PyeongChang is close to being finalized and the final two nations will pick up their official invites on Sunday December 10.  We have arrived curling fans.  The final Olympic Qualification Event is here!

We already know 8 nations will be competing in the men's and women's team events.  We almost know which athletes will be representing the nations already qualified.  Strangely enough the Canadian teams will be determined the same day the final two nations clinch their spot as well.

For the men, it is the regular who's who in the curling world.  Canada, Sweden, Norway, Great Britain (Scotland), Switzerland, USA and Japan will be walking the Opening Ceremonies.  For the women, almost a similar field with Canada, Sweden, Great Britain (Scotland), Switzerland, USA, Japan and Russia clinching their spots.

Jump right into the hot topic off the top right?  Russia!  We are all talking about Russia.  The decision was made by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ban Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics.  According to the IOC release, Russian athletes can still compete "under strict conditions" as an "Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR)" with no flag or anthem.  In addition the Russian Olympic Committee is ordered to pay a fine of $15M to cover investigation costs and with funds to be directed towards anti-doping work.  But what does this mean for curling?

Well....with the IOC declaring clean athletes are eligible to compete under the OAR title, Russian curling athletes already qualified would retain their Olympic qualification status.  At this time it would mean Russia's women and mixed teams are still competing in PyeongChang but under the OAR specifications (again, assuming both are clean of course).  As for this Olympic Qualification Event now underway, the Russian men as of published release of this blog are still competing and eligible to win an Olympic spot.  The #TwineTime speculation here is the World Curling Federation (WCF) is going to stay neutral on the decision.  The IOC has made a ruling, WCF will support the ruling.  It will now be up to the qualified athletes to make the decision whether they want to continue to compete under the OAR title or withdraw from competition.  The Russian men will continue to compete in Pilsen and, should they qualify, would receive clearance from the WCF.

The big question mark remains whether the athletes themselves will make the decision to accept the ruling and, if clean, still compete under the OAR status.  Russian president Vladimir Putin has been quite clear on the messaging saying it would be humiliating for Russian athletes to compete with no official national symbol.  At the same time, a spokesman for President Putin has stated no boycott has been discussed either.  What do the athletes do?  What do the individual sport federations within Russia do next?  Russian media have stated a formal statement and decision moving forward will be released by President Putin on Wednesday December 6.  This story is far from over and more details on a sport by sport and athlete by athlete case are going to begin to appear in the news over the next 4 to 6 weeks.  Quite the holiday announcement!  #StayTuned

Now lets back up a bit here and refocus on the event at hand.  The qualification process can be a bit daunting and confusing for people.  With the Olympics being held every four years, how does a nation qualify to compete on the Olympic stage?  The simple answer is one in the same this very blog has used in determining the #PowerRankings: consistency, consistency, consistency!

Qualification is based on points earned from competing at the World Championships from the two years leading up to the Winter Olympics, in this case 2016 and 2017.  The math is simple.  Win a world championship and earn 14 points.  Qualify to compete at the World Championship and you guarantee yourself, at minimum, 1 point.  Fail to qualify and you sweat it out.  Here is how the qualification points break down:


As you can see, consistency can earn you the fast track into the Olympic field.  Finish on the podium for two straight years and, even with back to back bronze medals, you will pick up 20 points and easily earn your Olympic spot.

Based on the cumulative point total your nation receives from their final placement in the two world championship events, the Top 7 nations in the points table earn direct entry to compete in the upcoming Winter Olympics.  The remaining nations who earned points and/or competed in a world championship held since the last Winter Olympics (2014-2017) were eligible to enter the final qualification event.

For 2018, the men's standings saw a few pivotal results shift the Olympic qualification.  As you can see from the table to the right, Denmark had a spot almost nailed down after their silver medal finish in 2016.  Unfortunately for the Danes, they failed to qualify for 2017 leaving the door wide open for another nation to essentially "steal" their bid...and that is exactly what happened.  Take a look at Switzerland.  They had a rather unimpressive final result in 2016 and came into the 2017 championship knowing they needed, at minimum, a Top 4 finish to guarantee an Olympic spot and "jump" Denmark.  Switzerland, led by Peter De Cruz, did that and then some in finishing with a bronze medal and punching their Olympic ticket.

On the flip side, the theme of consistency rings true in another aspect.  Look at China, who qualified for only 1 of the 2 world championship events.  They did not compete in 2016 but this past year they finished in 5th place, just outside reaching the automatic qualification.  Ok sure, they knew they needed to win gold in 2017 to have any direct shot but, had they qualified in 2016 as well and finished in the Top 7 they would have bumped Norway out of a direct spot.  And what about Great Britain?  Entering the 2017 event with only 6 points, had they lost their final RR game to Russia and depending on other results in the final draw, they could have finished in 8th place picking up only 5 points and losing out on the final spot to Denmark.  Consistent results yield positive returns!  Great Britain (through Scotland) and Switzerland competed in both championships and bumped out Denmark.  And China finds themselves battling the Denmark and 6 other nations who missed out on a direct spot in the final qualification event.

What about the women?  Take a look at the table to the right.  Here we see an eerily similar story to the Denmark situation above.  Japan won a silver medal in 2016 but failed to qualify for the championship in 2017.  They were left wide open, similar to the Danes, to have another team jump up and "steal" their Olympic spot.  In essence a nation did increase their result from one year to a next and take their spot, Sweden!  The Swedes finished a disappointing 9th in 2016, collecting 4 points.  But with a 2017 playoff appearance, which they needed to have a chance to qualify, they bumped Japan down a spot.  Sweden's Top 4 finish "stole" Japan's auto bid.

But Japan still qualified so what are you talking about #TwineTime?  You going crazy?!  Hear me out.  Once again Denmark has factored into the qualification conversation.  In 2016 Denmark finished 8th and picked up 5 points.  They also qualified for the 2017 championship so they had the perfect opportunity to gain points and distance themselves from the competition.  They knew they were already ahead of Sweden and Japan was not eligible to receive any more points.  Everything was laid out for them.  Consistency, consistency, consistency!  The Danes finished a disappointing last in 2017, only collecting 1 point and failing to gain any ground on anyone, in fact losing ground to Germany and the Czech Republic.  Had Denmark finish in the Top 6, this may just be a different conversation.  Instead they join 6 other nations in Pilsen fighting for two spots.  Quick note, you see Norway on the bottom of the table.  Since they competed at the 2015 World Championship they were eligible to enter the qualification event but chose not to, thus leaving 7 teams competing for the final 2 spots in PyeongChang.

So what about those final spots.  What is this qualification event all about anyway?  Glad you asked rock head!  The 2017 event will be the second time a qualification event will be held to round out the Olympic field.  The concept of the event was first introduced in 2013 as a lead in to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.  A similar qualification procedure was in play where cumulative point totals from the previous two World Championships would determine direct entry and final qualification event standings.

In 2013 the event was held in Fussen, Germany.  8 men's teams and 7 women's teams were eligible to compete with the same format being used in Pilsen, Czech Republic.  The Top 3 earn a playoff spot with first place facing second place for the 1st Qualifier and the loser of the 1st Qualifier game battling the third place team for the 2nd (and final!) Qualifier.  In Germany, the home nation was delighted when the men's team, skipped by John Jahr, earned the 1st Qualifier with a victory over the Czech Republic, skipped by Jiri Snitil.  Snitil would drop to the 2nd Qualifier game and would again come up short, losing to USA, skipped by John Shuster.  Worth noting Shuster had to beat Soo-hyuk Kim from Korea in a TB just to earn the final playoff spot!  Snitil will be returning in 2017...but more on that below.

For the women, the home nation would not be as fortunate.  Skipped by two-time world champion Andrea Schoepp, Germany would lose a tough TB to Norway's Marianne Rorvik, a #TeamUpset playoff contender, for the final playoff spot.  China's Bingyu Wang won the 1st Qualifier over #PACC rival Japan, skipped by Ayumi Ogasawara.  Ogasawara would not suffer the same fate at Snitil as she would defeat Rorvik to earn the 2nd Qualifier.  Interesting to see Wang back in the same situation four years later!

How did these four teams do once they reached the Olympic field?  Did the extra event of high-stakes competition hurt or hinder the teams?  While the men certainly seemed to not benefit from the qualification event.  The final two teams to qualify finished as the last place teams in the field with USA finished 2-7 and Germany at 1-8.  As for the women, both Japan and China finished 4-5 and missed the playoffs by one game in a very tight field.

Could the 2018 Winter Olympics be the year of #TeamUpset when we see a final qualification team make a push for the podium and reach the playoffs?  Perhaps...but first we need to find out who those final two teams are.

Let's come to the end of the #Roadto2018 and finish punching out the dancing card....or is it a sliding card?  Either way, to the preview and predictions we slide off to.

OLYMPIC QUALIFICATION EVENT 2017

Pilsen, Czech Republic

Format:  8 men and 7 women team RR.  Top 3 advance to playoffs where 1 vs 2 decide first Olympic spot and 3 vs L (1 vs 2) to claim the final spot.

MEN


Favourite:  China (Liu Rui) - Team Liu is the odd man out so to speak this week with the remaining competing teams all being European.  But the sole #PACC nation representative should be the last man standing if season comparisons hold true.  Liu is 29-11 this season, has qualified in 6 of 8 events and has two tour titles.  Liu reached the SF of the Tour Challenge Tier II and recently competed at the National grand slam as well.  The back to back tour wins in Edmonton and Gatineau were part of a run of 17 straight wins, ending with a QF loss in Calgary.  There were also some very notable wins along the way, including Morris, Carruthers, Koe (CF Edmonton) and De Cruz (CF Gatineau).  China has competed at the past two Olympic Games, finishing 8th in 2010 and 4th in 2014.  Fully expect to see 3 #PACC nations on the ice competing in Korea come February.

Watch Out For:  Netherlands (Jaap van Dorp) - Need a feel good curling Olympic story in PyeongChang?  Start cheering for van Dorp and #TeamOranje!  The Netherlands have never competed on the Olympic stage in curling and have only 2 previous World Championship appearances (1994, 2017).  But who got them back to the world stage last year and who is leading the charge again this year?  Yup van Dorp the WunderKid!  This team may be young but they certainly are capable of hanging with the big boys of the sport.  They own a modest 20-20 record on the season; however, they have a 3rd place finish in Basel and a QF finish in Champery.  They recently competed at the European Championships and finished 7th in the A-Division with a 4-5 record, including a W over eventual champion and Olympic gold contender Niklas Edin of Sweden (Edin's only loss at the event).  Don't sell this team short heading into this event.  They have a strong shot at making the Olympic field.

Dark Horse:  Finland (Aku Kauste) - Finland has not competed at the Olympic level since the silver medal win in 2006 by the legendary Finnish skip Markku Uusipaavalniemi.  Four years ago Kauste represented Finland in this very event and finished a disappointing 2-5, missing the playoffs.  However, since 2014 Kauste has been building Finland back up the curling mountain, stamped by the 4th place finish at the 2015 World Championships and European Championships.  Kauste slipped in 2016 being relegated back to Europe's B-Division but is hitting his stride once again in winning the B-Division a few weeks ago and earning A-Division promotion once again.  The team is a respectable 17-11 on the season, including a QF run in Basel.  They have played most of the teams in this field this year as well, sporting a 3-6 record.  They could surprise here though and make a playoff run.

The Field:

Czech Republic (Jiri Snitil) - Snitil knows this dance oh too well....he participated in it four years ago and found the ultimate heartbreak.  Snitil finished in the coveted Top 2 after the RR but lost both qualifying games (vs. Germany and USA) to miss out on the Olympic spot.  The Czech Republic have never competed at the Winter Olympics and, in front of a home nation crowd, Snitil would love to erase the demons of four years ago.  The team does sport a 15-9 record on the year buoyed by the strong run in the recent European Championship B-Division.  Unfortunately Snitil would lose in the SF to Finland (Kauste) and will remain in B-Division next year.  Snitil does have 7 World Championship appearances to his credit though, most recent being 2015, and his experience at this event and on home ice could help him out.

Denmark (Rasmus Stjerne) - What do we say about Stjerne?  The 2016 silver medal winner has seen a slight decline in play over the past year and half.  In fact, Denmark dropped down from A- Division to B-Division last year under Stjerne (and then dropped to C-Division this year under Torkil Svensgaard).  High hopes were held on Stjerne after the 2016 run but the results tapered off.  However, this year the team is 28-13 and have qualified in their past three events, including a tour win in Latvia and a SF in Red Deer.  He does own a 3-3 record this season vs. the field here.  Also remember Stjerne did represent Denmark at the 2014 Winter Olympics, finishing in 6th place with a 4-5 record.  With a curling nation facing a slide through the house right now, they may need this Olympic spot more than any other nation competing this week.

Germany (Alexander Baumann) - Since becoming a full-on Olympic sport again in 1998, Germany have never missed an Olympic field.  They have two 6th place finishes (2002, 2010), two either place finishes (1998, 2006) and a 10th place finish (2014).  To say the pressure is on Baumann and his team to continue the Olympic story for Germany would be an understatement.  We shouldn't necessarily underestimate Baumann though.  He has competed at the past 2 world championships (1-10, 2016 and 3-8, 2017) and has continued to keep Germany in the A-Division at the past 4 European Championships.  In fact, this year was his best performance finishing 5-4 and 1 game out of a playoff spot.  The team is a modest 15-15 on the season but do own victories over Stjerne, van Dorp and Timofeev.  Expect them to be in the playoff hunt near the end of the week....assuming they can defeat Retornaz in Draw 4 of course (0-2 this year).  The team will have #TwineTime fam Ryan Sherrard at lead as well (Sidenote: I hope the hat makes an appearance in Pilsen!!).

Italy (Joel Retornaz) - The Olympics hold a special place in the heart of Retornaz.  He is the man who really ignited the sport in Italy after the 2006 games in Turin where his unknown team finished 7th and picked up a W over powerhouse, and eventual gold medal winner, Canada led by Brad Gushue.  The 2006 appearance remains the only Olympic appearance for Italy but Retornaz has a chance to re-write history once again.  The team is 13-20 on the season, failing to qualify in any of the 5 events entered.  However they do have victories over Glenn Howard and Kyle Smith as well as their fellow competitors Baumann (twice), van Dorp and Kauste (twice).  In fact, they survived the Challenge Series vs. Kauste to solidify their spot in the upcoming World Championship.  This may be the final, and best, shot Retornaz has at another Olympic berth. 

Russia (Alexey Timofeev) - This is bit interesting isn't it?  The IOC announcement certainly creates a little buzz for the team in Pilsen too.  But lets not focus on what is out of Timofeev's control right now.  The Russians are in desperate need of a strong performance here (and not just because of the IOC announcement).  They have only played in one Olympics...and that was because they were the home nation in 2014.  Timofeev will enter this event fresh off a 6th place finish at the European Championships though, safely securing his nation a spot at the World Championships and staying in the A-Division.  The question is whether the off-ice distractions get to them?  I cannot imagine waking up to start the competition and hearing the news of the IOC ban on your entire country.  Imagine if they make a surprise run here though....what a story!

Projected Standings:  1. China  2. Germany  T3. Netherlands  T3. Czech Republic  5. Italy  T6. Russia  T6. Denmark  T6. Finland  

Playoff Qualifiers:  China, Germany, Netherlands

1st Olympic Berth:  China (Liu) def. Germany (Baumann)

2nd Olympic Berth:  Netherlands (van Dorp) def. Germany (Baumann)


WOMEN

Favourite:  China (Bingyu Wang) - Well no surprise here right?  The 2009 world champion, 2010 Olympic bronze medal winner and 6-time #PACC champion has a resume that far outweighs her competition this week.  Add in the fact Wang knows this event quite well, going undefeated four years ago to pick up the 1st qualifier spot for Sochi.  Similar to her compatriot Lui, she is also the only non-European team competing this week and, also similar, should be the strong favourite to emerge with an Olympic ticket punched.  Wang sports a 20-13 record on the season, qualifying in 3 of 6 events and picking up a tour win in Basel.  She has also competed in the Tour Challenge Tier I and National, posting identical 1-3 records.  After winning bronze in China's first Olympic Games, Wang slipped up in 2014 finishing in 7th with a 4-5 record.  She is going to want to avenge the result in Sochi.

Watch Out For:  Germany (Daniela Jentsch) - The soldier athlete from Fussen is looking to march her nation back into the Olympic field after Germany failed to qualify out of this event four years ago (skipped by Andrea Schoepp).  Jentsch has become a regular fixture in the A-Division of the European Championships and competing at the Women's World Championships over the past 3 years.  Jentsch owns a 21-23 record on the season, qualifying in 4 of 6 events and picking up a tour title in Latvia at the end of October.  At the recent European Championships, Jentsch finished 3-6 (after an 0-5 start), good for 6th place.  The team has been curling their best this season and could be a surprise playoff contender by the end of the week.  Not to mention Jentsch herself happens to be a #TwineTime fam member

Dark Horse:  Italy (Diana Gaspari) - Which Team Italy shows up this week in the Czech Republic?  The one who struggled to a 3-8 finish at the World Championships this past March or the one who rode the #TeamUpset flag to a bronze medal win at the European Championships last month?  Gaspari's bronze win was a great underdog story and was fun to watch.  It also came 11 years after her only other medal performance, silver in 2006.  She does have Olympic experience as well, representing the home nation in 2006 finishing 10th with a 1-8 record, also the last (and only) time Italy has competed in the Olympic field.  Overall she is 12-12 on the season and, outside the deep run at Europeans, has reached the QF in only one other event on tour this year.  However, she has some big wins under her belt this season too, including Margaretha Sigfridsson, Satsuki Fujisawa, Silvana Tirinzoni and double victories over fellow #OQE2017 competitors Kubeskova and Dupont.  If she can carry over the momentum from the bronze medal win, look out!  #TeamUpset could reign supreme once again!

The Field:

Czech Republic (Anna Kubeskova) - Kubeskova could be considered the second favourite in this field and will have the home nation rallying behind her as she tried to qualify the Czech Republic for their first ever Olympic appearance.  She is also familiar with this situation, having competed in this event four years ago and finishing 2-4 missing out on the TB by 1 game (she was upset by Latvia's Stasa-Sarsune in the final RR game).  Fast forward a few years and Kubeskova is back and more of a contender than ever before.  The team placed 4th at the 2016 European Championship, qualifying the Czech Republic for the World Championships for the first time since 2014 (also led by Kubeskova).  The team finished 7th at the worlds and, recently, finished 7th at the Europeans.  She sports a 17-16 record on the year, qualifying in 2 of 4 events and winning a tour title in Switzerland right before the start of Europeans.  Oddly enough her one loss en route to the title was to Gaspari, who also beat her in St. Gallen.  She is 2-3 against the field with victories over Dupont and Jentsch and losses to Gaspari (twice as mentioned) and Dupont.

Denmark (Madeline Dupont) - Speaking of Dupont, while Kubeskova tries to make history, Dupont will try to avoid it. Denmark's women have competed in every Olympic Games where curling has been contested, including picking up a silver in 1998.  They are one of six nations to have accomplished this feat thus far.  The other five (Canada, GB, Japan, Sweden, USA) already have their tickets punched for PyeongChang, Dupont will be looking to match by surviving this event.  She will have her work cut out for her in this field though.  She is coming off a 8th place finish at Europeans, surviving the Challenge Round vs. Finland's Kauste to keep her nations spot in the upcoming World Championship (albeit Dupont did not skip the final challenge game win).  The team is 8-13 on the season, having played only 2 tour events prior to arriving in St. Gallen and failing to qualify in both.  They do have victories over Feltscher, Moiseeva, Kubeskova and Kauste (twice) though. 

Finland (Oona Kauste) - Another team looking to make history, Kauste will try to guide Finland to their first ever women's Olympic berth.  The past few years have been an up and down battle for Kauste.  She owns a bronze medal from the 2015 European Championships but finished a disappointing 11th at the next world championship.  The team lost the Finnish championship in 2016 and saw her compatriot (Anna Malmi) struggle at the following Europeans and Finland being relegated to B-Division.  This year, Kauste is back at the helm of the national team and did earn promotion to the A-Division by winning the B-Division in November.  Overall the team is 17-19 on the year, qualifying in 3 of 5 events and winning a tour event title in Estonia.  They could present a dark horse challenge in this field. 

Latvia (Iveta Stasa-Sarsune) - Speaking of dark horse, no team will be waving the #TeamUpset flag harder than Latvia!  The tiny nation of just under 2M people has never qualified for the Olympic Games.  But they are no stranger to the competition and format.  As already noted, they did compete at this event four years ago and finished with a 2-4 record, one game out of a playoff spot.  She has represented Latvia at 2 World Championships, finishing with identical 1-10 records in 2010 (Swift Current) and 2013 (Riga, Latvia as the home nation).  Latvia is certainly not considered a curling powerhouse, owning a collective 3-30 record in 3 world championship appearances.  However their first ever appearance was only back in 2010 so they are a nation still growing, further proved by their recent run at the European Championships where they finished runner-up in B-Division and earned promotion to A-Division for next year.  The team is 13-13 on the season and did finish 4th at their home tournament in Riga at the end of October.  They also own 3 victories over Kauste this season.  Expect the unexpected perhaps?!?

Projected Standings:  1. China  2. Czech Republic  3. Germany  4. Italy  5. Denmark  T6. Finland  T6. Latvia

Playoff Qualifiers:  China, Czech Republic, Germany

1st Olympic Berth:  China (Wang) def. Czech Republic (Kubeskova)

2nd Olympic Berth:  Czech Republic (Kubeskova) def. Germany (Jentsch)

There you have it folks.  We conclude the long road to PyeongChang in Pilsen and by the end of the event we will know the complete men's and women's curling field.  For some teams and curling federations this will be an excellent early Christmas/holiday gift.  For others, the time off for the holidays may come at the best time as they start planning towards the future.

Stay up to date on all the action in Pilsen by visiting the World Curling Federation event page.  Best of luck and good curling to all 15 teams competing to keep their Olympic flame burning!

Don't forget to also #StayTuned to the conclusion of the #ROTR2017 in Ottawa as we crown our #TeamCanada reps for PyeongChang.  ICYMI here are the men's and women's preview blog posts, each joined by a very special guest.