The close of the 2017 calendar year is fast approaching and with it brings a mixed bag of emotions. We have reasons of celebration. We have reflection on the ups and downs of the previous 12 months. We have tears of joy and tears of sorrow over the events in our past. We also have excitement towards the unknown of 2018. And we have anticipation for milestone moments.
A big cause of excitement and anticipation for athletes, nationalists and sports fans will be the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics. From a curling perspective, the end of 2017 brings an end to the 4-year qualification cycle. A select collective curling family will emerge from PyeongChang as Olympians.
The family filled out the remainder seats at the celebratory table this past weekend but not without a bit of drama, intensity, disappointment and....head scratching? Just like a normal holiday family get together for most of us right?
Heading into the final month of 2017, there were still a few big unknowns hovering over the Olympic curling house: Who would represent perennial gold favourite Canada and which nations would claim the final Olympic tickets in the field? By December 10, we would have our answers.
Most curling eyes were focused on Ottawa over the past week with the Roar of the Rings taking centre stage. 18 of the top men's and women's teams across our great nation battling it out on the ice for the right to become Team Canada and earn their place in history as Olympians (assuming they step foot on the ice and compete of course. DYK: technically qualified athletes are not Olympians until they physically compete in the games themselves).
The action in the Canadian Tire Centre was intense to say the least. The athletes were dialed in and, with the results of each draw finalizing, Olympic dreams were slowly eroding away for some and becoming more realistic for others. Defending Olympic gold medal winners Team Jennifer Jones and Team Brad Jacobs tried their best to re-ignite the Olympic flame of 4 years ago. Upstart skips like Casey Scheidegger, Brendan Bottcher, Julie Tippin and John Epping tried to shock the system in an attempt to make the Canadian Olympic Team. And defending Canadian and World champs Team Homan and Team Gushue tried to continue their wave of success over the past 11 months into wrapping a nice bow on the curling trifecta.
Props to all the teams who competed in the fishbowl setting known as the Olympic Curling Trials. There were great shots. Tough misses (ask poor Brad Jacobs). Great celly's (Mr. Hebert and his javelin-like broom throw). Broken hearts. Either way, each team went out and put on a show for Canadian curling fans to be proud of. Every team got to experience at least one victory too. It may not seem like a lot to finish 1-7 or 2-6 but given this field, the enormous weight of expectation and immense pressure of what was at stake each win is a milestone. Besides, being honest, who knows which, if any, of these teams/athletes will be back in 4 years or beyond.
In the end Team Homan would grab the gold ring, cementing themselves as one of the most dominant and successful Canadian curling teams in the history of the sport. Team Koe would ride a consistent, sharp shooting strategy from opening day through to claiming the maple leaf on Sunday evening. Both Homan and Koe were quickly positioned as gold medal favourites after their wins on Sunday; however, I think a few nations (we see you Sweden, Great Britain, Switzerland) may have a thing or two to say about the idea behind Canada being projected gold medal winners! Heck, #KingNiklas himself, Niklas Edin, was even in Ottawa to take in the action, cheer on his friends and enjoy the stress-free moment. Isn't this one of the reasons we love curling rock heads and stoners? Your Olympic competitor travels across the ocean to come watch you play and cheer you on because you are actually friends?!? Friends in sport...what a novel concept!
For most the #ROTR2017 was the big event happening the curling world. However, across the Atlantic Ocean in Pilsen, Czech Republic the intensity level was just as high...perhaps higher....as 8 men's and 7 women's nations competed for the final 2 Olympic spots. Ask yourself, which do you think is more stressful? Competing for your own Olympic dream or competing for your own Olympic dream PLUS the weight of a nation? In Canada, the 16 teams who left Ottawa could still throw their support behind the teams who defeated them come February but for the 13 teams who left Pilsen, who are they cheering for now? They were carrying the pressure of their entire nation, their fans, their curling federation on their shoulders every time they stepped on the ice. THAT is pressure!
Heading into the event, based on qualification standards, Denmark and China were the favourites to emerge for the men while Germany and the host Czech Republic were considered favs for the women.
Denmark did not disappoint on the men's side, being the clear cut leader throughout the week with a 6-1 RR finish. The real debacle came when 4 teams tied for the final 2 playoff spots with 4-3 records. Italy, Czech Republic, China and Olympic Athletes from Russia (otherwise known as Russia) ended up in a RR deadlock. Now given the importance and impact of the event, you would think a TB procedure would be used where, similar to maybe a #gsoc format, teams would be seeded based on cumulative last shot draw numbers and #1 would play #4 and #2 would play #3 with the two winners advancing to the playoffs. The procedure to decide which of the two winners would finish second and which would finish third could then be decided based on the head to head results. In the end, teams would at least have a chance to compete on the ice for their Olympic lives still....hence the theme of the event right?
But alas, this would not be the case. Simple H2H records would decide who advanced to the playoffs and who went home. Italy and the Czech Republic were on the right side of the line while China and Russia were on the outside looking in. How frustrating is this TB procedure? This is for an Olympic berth folks! I can see in the case of a three-way tie for two spots using H2H to advance one team automatically and then making the other two play a TB game. But in a four-way tie you have no actual TB game procedure and resort solely to RR win/loss records? You have to feel for Team China and Team Russia (or Team OAR) in this situation. It doesn't seem fair and it is something, hopefully, the World Curling Federation will look into come the #OQE2021.
When the rocks came to a rest on Sunday, both Denmark teams would leave Pilsen with Olympic golden tickets in their broom bags as well as the Chinese women (Bingyu Wang will make her third straight Olympic appearance) and Italian men. Congratulations to all four of these teams and all three of these nations for fighting their way through, what I can only imagine, a gruelling last chance qualification event.
With the results in Pilsen, the Olympic fields are now set. For the men, welcome Canada, Denmark, Great Britain (Scotland), Italy, Japan, Korea, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and USA to PyeongChang. The women will have Canada, China, Denmark, Great Britain (Scotland), Japan, Korea, Olympic Athletes from Russia (Russia), Sweden, Switzerland and USA compete for gold. And in the newly added discipline of mixed doubles, Canada, China, Finland, Korea, Norway, Olympic Athletes from Russia, Switzerland and USA will look to claim the historic first gold medal.
In regards to athletes representing each nation, the field is complete on the men's side and one exception remains for the women. The Olympic Athletes from Russia representative in the women's draw is still up for grabs. Anna Sidorova, fresh off a historic silver medal performance at the 2017 Women's World Curling Championships, will face Victoria Moiseeva, coming off a 2016 European Curling Championship title, in a Best-of-7 format.
For mixed doubles, the only confirmed team at this time are defending world champions Jenny Perret and Martin Rios from Switzerland. All other nations still have qualification events scheduled and/or federation announcements to make to finalize the field. The USA Mixed Curling Trials get underway in Blaine, MN today. Interesting to note, the US appears to be the only nation allowing athletes to compete in both mixed and men/women team events. The Hamilton siblings, Matt with Team Shuster and Becca with Team Roth, are already PyeongChang-bound after their teams won the US trials last month. Can they pull the double and truly be the face of USA Curling?
#StayTuned folks, the pre-Olympic drama is not over yet. Mixed doubles announcements are still to come. How do the wins by Homan and Koe affect the pre-qualified teams for the Canadian trials in January? Who will replace the likes of Homan, Miskew and Laing? And who will the other nations select as their representatives? The drama and excitement continues into January.
Perhaps the best way to sum up the Olympic qualification experience throughout 2017 can be better said through Canadian icon singer Celine Dion (with minor edits):
Or maybe I just heard It's All Coming Back To Me Now on the radio before sitting down to finalize this blog post and I really love that song. You know you all belt it out when you hear it too....
Anyways, back to discussing curling shall we.
1. Denmark - What a nail-biting week for Denmark curling! Rasmus Stjerne's men's team and Madeline Dupont's women's team went to Pilsen, Czech Republic last week to complete in the final Olympic qualification event. Neither team really entered with a lot of momentum but both entered with a ton of pressure. Stjerne just saw Denmark drop to European C-Division a few weeks ago. Dupont was coming off a less than stellar performance in St. Gallen with the added pressure of Denmark women never missing an Olympic Games. Both would reach the playoffs, Stjerne finishing first in the RR at 6-1 and Dupont finishing third at 4-2, and both would make their entire nation sweat it out to the final games. After Stjerne lost to Italy's Joel Retornaz in the first qualifier (Congrats Italy btw!!), the Danes returned to the ice and knocked off home crowd fav Jiri Snitil (more on him below) to claim the final ticket. Dupont, having finished third, was already sitting in the second qualifier game and would have to face Italy's Diana Gaspari, fresh off a bronze medal win at the European Championships. Dupont would pull out the extra end win to keep the perfect attendance record in play. This very blog previously asked if something was rotten in the state of Denmark (curling) but Stjerne and Dupont certainly turned this around in claiming the final tickets to PyeongChang. Congrats!!
2. #TeamCanada - Team Homan and Team Koe came to play this past week in Ottawa and rightfully earned their maple leaf jackets in Korea. Homan lost her opening game and then never looked back, reeling off 9 straight wins to claim the women's title. Koe wrapped up first place earlier in the week and, despite a loss to Gushue to end the round robin, fought off a fiesty McEwen in the final to earn their jacket, a second win for Marc Kennedy and Ben Hebert. Without question these were two of the strongest and most consistent teams all week and have put the world on notice Canada will once again be a huge threat to repeat the double gold performance from Sochi when curling takes the ice in PyeongChang.
3. Diana Gaspari - Ok so a few of you may be wondering why Italy's Diana Gaspari is listed her considering the tough back-to-back losses she suffered in Pilsen to miss out on an Olympic bid. But let us also ask ourselves, when the season started or even when the European Championships got under way mid-November in Switzerland, how many of you would have projected Gaspari to lead Italy to a podium finish? When the field was announced for the final qualification event at the end of last season, how many expected Gaspari to be playing for an Olympic spot on the final weekend? Be honest! Sure Gaspari had two chances to win an Olympic berth, losing to China's Wang and Denmark's Dupont, but did they not exceed expectations over the past month with these results? Gaspari last reached the Euro podium in 2006 at the age of 22 when she won silver. 11 years later, the now 33 year old returned Italy to a prominent position within European curling in reaching the playoffs and upsetting host team Tirinzoni for the bronze medal. Yes disappointment last weekend but lots to hold their head high on. Depending how the world field shapes out, Gaspari could be ready to shock the world once again in March in North Bay.
4. #TwineTime Fam Mention: Niklas Edin - How can I not mention #KingNiklas this week? The guy just won his 6th European Championship and became the first skip to ever #4peat the title. The #SwedishVikings are looking red hot heading into 2018 and will unquestionably be a gold medal favourite, alongside Canada's Koe, in Korea. If you look at Edin's Olympic track record, he has gone from 4th (2010) to Bronze (2014) to ???? (2018). The projection certainly seems clear he is going to play for gold and, based on the results in St. Gallen and over the past year and a half, nobody can debate the fact. Congrats on the record-setting win #KingNiklas!
2. 2014 Olympic Champs - Props to Teams Jones and Jacobs for their outstanding play this past week in Ottawa. Defending a ROTR title has never been done in the past...and for a valid reason. Canada is TOUGH!! The field is incredible. The talent is top notch. But both Jacobs and Jones will also leave Ottawa perhaps with a slight bad taste of "what could have been". Jones entered the event fresh off two straight grand slam titles and a 14-game winning streak. She opened the week looking like the same dominant team from four years ago, winning her first 5 games. And then the wheels came off. They lost their final 3 RR games and slid off the ice in a SF loss to Homan. Jacobs was never able to find the consistency of four years ago. The win over Gushue was great. The loss to Koe was heartbreaking. The win over McEwen brought back golden memories but the losses to Laycock and Epping were tough. The plus is the team has stated they will stay together for another four-year cycle so perhaps watch out 2021! A week of perhaps missed opportunities for both....but still a huge thank you to both teams for their outstanding representation of Canada on the international stage in Sochi! Always gold medal winners!!
3. Liu Rui - Oh poor Rui and Team China. One of the final Olympic spots was theirs for the taking in Pilsen...and the wheels came off the track. The team came to the Czech Republic having one of their best seasons ever on tour picking up two wins and just finished competing at The National grand slam event. Based on rankings, this team should have had no problem qualifying. But this is why we play the games folks. They started 2-0 but then did an exchange of L's and W's the rest of the way out and found themselves on the wrong end of the crazy TB procedure. Yes the procedure was ridiculous but the team also has only themselves to blame. Had they defeated Russia (or the OAR team as they were identified as) in their final RR game, they would have made the playoffs. Missed opportunities and disappointment for the #PACC region as they could have had 3 teams in the Olympic field in front of a home region crowd.
Ok so your boy has been slipping over the past month. In fact, the last #PowerRankings released by the #TwineTime blog was the end of October 😲 I know, I know...not a good luck for me. Between increased work commitments and a much needed birthday vacation, time slipped away from me and for that I apologize to all of you loyal rock heads and stoners. But let us get back on track shall we?
So much has happened since the last published rankings. You know there is going to be some movement now:
1. Team Koe (LR: 5) - The newly crowned #TeamCanada, Koe vaults to the top of the rankings after surviving the #ROTR2017. The boys finished first in the RR and then barely swept by a hard charging Team McEwen in the final. The Roar field was incredibly tough, arguably tougher than the Olympic field according to some. Koe earned their spot at the top of the mountain.
2. Team Edin (2) - But watch out for the #SwedishVikings. Since the last ranking what has Edin been up to? Oh you know, only making history in winning a fourth straight European Championship in St. Gallen, Switzerland. Is the Olympic gold medal fight a two team bout right now?
3. Team McEwen (3) - What a run in Ottawa from Mikey and the boys. Many noted McEwen as the overall crowd favourite heading into not only the final but perhaps the entire event as a whole. McEwen is a lovable guy, even I have a little mancrush on the Manitoba tucker. And who can blame anyone, he is a great guy and deserving of curling on the international scene. This loss is going to sting but could he have the John Morris effect now from 4 years ago and turn this loss into a deep Brier run? If they can overcome the disappointment of the loss and re-focus on the Brier dream, I would not count this team out.
4. Team Gushue (1) - Speaking of the Brier, Team Canada will still be on display on the backs of Team Gushue in March. Sure they fell short in the SF vs. McEwen in Ottawa but the boys are still defending world champions, have had a light's out season on tour and earn the auto berth in the Brier as #TeamCanada. Don't feel too sad for them. A Brier repeat is not out of the question....again depending how they bounce back from this disappointment.
5. Team Mouat (NR) - Scotland's Bruce Mouat sure seized an opportunity in November didn't he?! With many of the other top European teams skipping the #gsoc National event, Mouat easily swept in and took home his first slam title, defeating Korea's C. Kim in the final. Mouat has had a breakout year and this slam is the icing on the cake. Sure they will not be in PyeongChang but they have a strong case to earn a spot in Las Vegas as #TeamScotland for the world championship. Plus their win earns them a return trip to the Champions Cup to end the season (remember they competed at the inaugural Champions Cup in Sherwood Park as World Junior Curling champs).
Hon. Mention: Team Stjerne, Team Retornaz, Team Jacobs, Team C. Kim, Team Smith
1. Team Homan (LR: 4) - Scotties Champ. World Champ. Roar Champ. Team Homan completed the trifecta this weekend when they defeated Team Carey and cemented their spot as, without question, #TeamCanada!! They also became the first team in trials history to lose their opening game (to Carey) and come back to win the event. Call the opening loss just a minor setback due to nerves competing on home ice though because this team got it back together quick and rolled through the competition just like many expected they would. Watch out world....this team is going to be a HUGE favourite to keep Olympic gold with the maple leaf.
2. Team Jones (3) - Tough go in Ottawa for the defending Olympic champs, losing their final 4 games (including a SF loss to Homan) after putting together a 19-game winning streak. But still props to the defending Roar champions who came to Ottawa winning the past two grand slams (Masters, National) and did a tremendous job in representing Canada. The interesting side note for them is the Homan win eliminated the defending Manitoba champs from the Manitoba Scotties as Englot gets the free pass to the 2018 Scotties now as Team Canada....one less team for Jones to have to go through in her quest to reclaim the buffalo.
3. Team Muirhead (5) - Perhaps the favourite to challenge Homan at the Olympics is Scotland's (well Team Great Britain) Eve Muirhead after Muirhead collected her second European Championship in mid-November. Muirhead is always dangerous in any event she enters but she is more dangerous with confidence, which they have now.
4. Team Hasselborg (1) - Confidence may be the kryptonite that brings down Sweden's Anna Hasselborg however. Last year Hasselborg lost the European final on her last rock. This year she goes undefeated in the RR and suffers another tough loss to Muirhead in the final. Remember Hasselborg also lost the world bronze medal game last year to Muirhead. And she lost the Champions Cup to Homan to end last season. Notice a trend? Her two biggest competitors at the Olympics seem to have her number right now. How will she recover heading into 2018? Still without question one of the top teams on tour and, technically and strategically, can compete with anyone she faces. Sports psychology though could be the breaking point?!
5. Team Carey (NR) - Props to Carey on setting her own historical record in Ottawa, becoming the first team to navigate an always tough RR undefeated and earning the bye to the final. Unfortunately the team ran up against the best team in the world who would not be denied. But it wasn't a landslide game and, even after giving up back to back steals to open the final, Carey battled back and made the final a great game to watch. Similar to Jones, Carey now has to regroup and shift the focus towards their provincial playdowns and trying to get back to the Scotties. As mentioned with McEwen, the results of 2018 will depend more on how this team is able to put aside this disappointing loss and focus on another goal.
Hon. Mention: Team Wang, Team Dupont, Team Moiseeva, Team Gaspari, Team Scheidegger
As mentioned, lots of action over the past month caused some movement on the #PowerRankings mountain. Extra emphasis was placed on the recent big events on tour, namely the National #gsoc, the European Curling Championships, the #ROTR2017 and the Olympic Qualification Event. With 2017 coming to a close and the 2018 Winter Olympics just around the corner, one can expect to see more movement over the rest of the season. Teams are entering playdowns now in Canada too with the Scotties and Brier not that far away.
The season is heating up and as soon as the calendar rolls over, expect the curling results to continue burning up the ice. Get ready folks, 2018 is going to be one thrill ride of excitement for the sport!
#StayTuned....the #TwineTime blog has a few surprises in store as well!