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Wednesday, 12 September 2018

#CurlingWorldCup Suzhou Preview

#BetweenTheSheets: Curling World Cup Suzhou Preview
Is this a case of the "rich get richer" or true #growthesport?


The time has arrived. The year of marketing, excitement and lead-up is now over. This week we step on the ice with the newest venture into the curling world: The Curling World Cup. The first leg of the four leg tournament hits the ice in Suzhou, China with men's, women's and mixed doubles action.

For teams, and nations, competing there will be lots of media attention, ranking points and money on the line when they take their first slide across the new ice at the Suzhou Sports Center, a multi-use stadium usually reserved to host soccer matches.

But what is all the hype around this event? Will it truly help #growthesport internationally? Or is this just another opportunity for the "elite" in the sport to pad their wallets (and ranking points) with a fancy new event?

What is this Curling World Cup?

The Curling World Cup was an idea originated one year ago in a partnership agreement between the World Curling Federation and Kingdomway Sports. Originally known as the World Series of Curling, the hope is to have a four leg super tournament held annually to help #growthesport as a build-up for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China. The WCF renamed the tournament to the Curling World Cup in January 2018.

The Curling World Cup will consist of three qualifying legs and one Grand Final. The three qualifying legs will be hosted by the major continental zones: Pacific-Asia, North America, Europe. The first leg, currently underway, will be hosted by Suzhou, China. The second leg will be hosted by Omaha, Nebraska and the third qualifying leg will be hosted by Jonkoping, Sweden. The Grand Final will take place in Beijing, China.

Qualification: How?

Each qualifying leg will have a field of 8 nations competing in men's, women's and mixed doubles disciplines. Each host nation automatically earns a qualifying spot in each leg of the tournament, meaning China, USA and Sweden automatically have a men's, women's and mixed doubles team competing in each leg whether they are the host for that leg or not.

Three additional spots are allocated to the highest ranked member association in each major zone. For example, in the America's region Canada earned automatic qualification for each of the three qualifying legs as they are the highest ranked nation in the zone. For Europe, Switzerland is the highest ranked nation for men and mixed doubles; however, Scotland has the higher women's rank. In Pacific-Asia, South Korea is highest ranked for women and mixed doubles while Japan is the higher ranking men's nation. The final two spots in each discipline were selected by the World Curling Federation.

For the Grand Final, the three winners of each qualifying leg will earn direct entry to Beijing. As host nation, China will also field a team in each discipline. The 2019 world champions will also qualify, assuming they have not already earned a spot winning a qualifying leg. The two highest teams on the Curling World Cup ranking list will also earn qualification. The final spot is reserved for a special invite at the discretion of the World Curling Federation. While no nation can have multiple teams competing in a qualifying leg, nations are able to qualify two different teams for the Grand Final.

Each qualifying nation is allowed to determine their own process for sending a representative to compete in the Curling World Cup. A nation can decide to send the same team to all three qualifying legs if they choose. For Canada, as an example, Curling Canada made the selection with Team Homan, Team Koe and Laura Walker/Kirk Muyres being invited to participate in the opening leg event.

Scheduling will cause some conflict however, especially for Canadian teams. The second leg of the tournament will coincide with the Canada Cup, eliminating the opportunity to send certain teams to Omaha. Canada will be sending Team Fleury and Team Gunnlaugson as representatives with mixed doubles still undecided. The third leg in Sweden happens to coincide with provincial playdowns across the country. As a result, the current Canadian champions, Team Jones and Team Gushue, will compete as they already have direct entries into the Scotties and Brier.

Format Changes?

Consistent with World Curling Tour events, the Curling World Cup will use 8 ends of play for each match. The difference being there will be no extra ends played. If teams are tied at the conclusion of 8 ends a shoot-out will be used with each team throwing one stone and the closest to the pin being awarded the victory. For standings purposes, a RR win will be worth 3 points, a shoot-out win is awarded 2 points and a shoot-out loss is awarded 1 point.

Teams will be split into two pools of four teams and will play a double round robin, meaning each team will play one another twice. The two pool winners will earn a spot in the final, competing for a place in the Grand Final. It is worth noting, should teams be tied for first at the conclusion of the RR, a shoot-out will be used as the TB.

Yay or Nay for #growthesport?

This is a tough call. From the onset this looks like a great opportunity to #growthesport around the world. A World Cup format can have many benefits. The rotation of continental hosts provides equal opportunity for local marketing and fan base travel opportunities. The marketing behind the format has been strong and could help bring in an entire new demographic of curling fans into the sport. Plus, the timing is perfect following up with the success the sport saw during the 2018 Winter Olympics. In theory, yay for #growthesport.

Unfortunately execution yields this blog to side more with the nay argument. The entire qualification process is a bit wonky. Why should the other two hosts earn auto spots in the qualifying legs they are not hosting? I mean I suppose we see this in tennis when wild cards are handed out at grand slam events and one WC spot is reserved for a player from the host nation of the other three grand slams in the spirit of sportsmanship. But at the end of the day, is this not just another opportunity for the top ten nations in the world to distance themselves from everyone else and further the "elite" gap?

How is this event really going to increase curling interest and participation in non-qualified nations? I suppose the argument being made is ensure your representative at the world championship has a strong result to bump up your national ranking and earn your spot next year. But, on the flip side, wouldn't it be great to see this event have more parameters around the selection. Maybe the WCF selected nations have to be from the same region, meaning Brazil and Guyana perhaps earn the invite for mixed doubles in Omaha. Both had strong showings at the recent world championships so why not give them the opportunity?

Perhaps an additional parameter is a nation cannot send the same team to multiple qualifying legs. Hey we all know I love Niklas Edin and always enjoy seeing him on the ice but what if the process was he was only eligible to compete at one qualifying leg? Sweden would have to send two other teams to the other qualifying legs. Same with Anna Hasselborg. Having the Olympic champion competing in all three legs does sound great for marketing but it is the best option for #growthesport? Isabella Wrana is a great example of an up and coming team who could benefit from participation in this event. Would that not help #growthesport back home? Canada is sending different teams albeit I do believe the scheduling conflict might have a larger role to play in that decision than people may want to lead on.

And lets briefly talk about the money and ranking points available. This is the rich get richer straight up. This is just another opportunity for the elite teams to win more money and earn more ranking points, creating an additional unfair barrier advantage over their tour counterparts who are not allowed to participate. The top teams get more money. The top teams distance themselves in the rankings. The top teams stay qualified for grand slams....meaning the top teams continue to earn more money and more ranking points. It is a never-ending happy circle for those at the top is it not?

There are a lot of questions still surrounding the Curling World Cup and perhaps we have to wait it out and see how it plays out on and off the ice in this inaugural year before judging too hard. I do love the concept and growth opportunities. I think some tweaking is needed though to truly help the sport as a whole and not just those sitting at the top right now. Right now we are sliding a fine line between this event being a top world class event or just falling into another gimmick money event like the Continental Cup.

Curling World Cup - Suzhou Preview

We can debate the pros and cons of the overall event itself through blog post and podcast after blog post and podcast. How about we turn our attention now to the actual action on the ice. Here is the #TwineTime preview, using a slightly different tour event model than usually found in event preview posts:

MEN

1. Sweden (Niklas Edin) - We have only seen the current world champions on the ice once this season, where they went 6-1 en route to a runner-up finish in Baden. There is no reason to believe the #SwedishVikings are not considered to be a favourite to win this title. Comparing the pools, they also avoided the "Pool of Death" for this competition, drawing three teams they should be able to defeat based on resume alone.

2. Canada (Kevin Koe) - This will our first look at the new Team Koe. Skipper Kevin and lead Ben Hebert remain from the old version while B.J. Neufeld and Colton Flasch join this new iteration of the team. We don't really know what to expect as we have seen on tour new teams struggle a bit in their opening event. However this is also Kevin Koe so would we be that surprised if he went 5-1 or 6-0 in the RR and won the entire event? Group B is the "Group of Death" though so the new team will be tested early and often during the event, which will be a good thing for the long haul of the season regardless of whether the emerge victorious this weekend or not.

3. Switzerland (Peter De Cruz) - If we pre-ranked teams based solely on play this season De Cruz would be top of the list as they have more competitive play under their sliders this year than any of their competition. And they started the season strong with back-to-back SF finishes in Baden and Oakville. However, their recent performance at Stu Sells Oakville is the only reason they have dipped down to #3 in the pre-rankings. Losing A and C qualifiers and failing to reach the playoffs is a bit of a concern. After going 10-2 in their opening two events they have now lost 3 of their past 4 and are limping a bit coming to Suzhou. And they start the competition against a fresh Kevin Koe. Either they win their opening match and turn it around or they continue the slight drought they are in and wind up in a tough spot. This team could win the entire event or finish 2-4 in the RR. #StayTuned

4. Scotland (Bruce Mouat) - Similar to Edin, we have only seen Mouat once this season at the season opener in Baden where they finished 3-3 overall and a QF appearance. Not great. Not bad. So what do they do here against strong competition? Who knows? On paper this is a great team, evidence by their bronze medal win at the world championships last year. They are also the new face of Scottish curling so pressure on them to have a good showing here. Unfortunately being placed in the same group as Canada and Switzerland could make reaching the final difficult. Then again, this team does seem to shine as an under the radar team. Similar to De Cruz, they could wow the field and go 5-1 or struggle and finish 2-4.

5. Norway (Steffen Walstad) - We are waiting to see what kind of season will come from Team Walstad this year. Two years ago they burst on the scene upsetting perennial Norway champs Team Ulsrud to earn a spot at the world championship. Last season they reached their first grand slam final and looked poised to continue the breakout. And then the second half of the season really got away from them and they struggled. What to expect now? They started their season strong with a SF appearance in Baden. They are grouped with Sweden, USA, China so the opportunity is there for a dark horse run to the final.

6. Japan (Masaki Iwai) - This team burst onto the curling radar last season winning the Japanese championship and representing Japan at the world championships in Las Vegas. In their debut they finished 3-9, 11th place overall. But they made great strides in their development as a team too. Remember this is a young team and experience competing with the best will only help them in the long run. They have played one tour event this season, which they won in Hokkaido. Their biggest obstacle is the draw. They are the fourth team in the "Group of Death" and the other three are all ranked above them in the pre-rankings. If they can pull off 3 wins in the RR this should be considered a success.

7. USA (Rich Ruohonen) - The #TeamUpset flag bearer of the event has to be USA's Team Ruohonen. They have been waving the upset flag with pride ever since their surprise run to the playoffs at the world championships last season. The swagger and confidence appears to be strong with this team this season as well. In their season opening event in Oakville a few weeks back they finished with a 5-1 record, losing the SF to Team Dunstone. There are a ton of questions surrounding this team being able to back up the confidence and play they displayed a season ago and, thus far, they seem to be silencing the critics (this blog included). This is a HUGE opportunity for them to see just how far they have come and if they truly are a contender on the international scene. Big pressure but opportunity for HUGE reward.

8. China (Zang Jia Liang) - What an event to make your season debut. A new event. The home nation team. Against this competition. Welcome to the Curling World Cup Zang Jia Liang! We have not really seen much from Jia Liang on the international curling scene the past few seasons. He did win the 2017 Asian Winter Games gold medal and two years ago took home the silver medal at the Pacific-Asia Championships but other than that little success on the #wct. Vice Ba De Xin is better known for his play in mixed doubles, where he represented China at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Expect to probably see him compete at a future Curling World Cup leg in that discipline for China once again. This team will be in tough against the competition. Picking up 1 or 2 wins would be a great result.

Projected Standings:

Pool A - Sweden, USA, Norway, China
Pool B - Canada, Scotland, Switzerland, Japan

MEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP: Sweden (Edin) def. Canada (Koe)


WOMEN

1. Sweden (Anna Hasselborg) - When you enter an event fresh off an Olympic gold medal win the prior season you best believe you are going to be nabbed a favourite every time. This is what Team Hasselborg has to look forward to all season. The #SwedishVikings will be making their season debut in Suzhou. Will they have any rock rust from an emotional past year or will they come out swinging and ready to go? The advantage is they open with China's Liu, the lowest ranked team in their pool. We should expect to see them in the championship final.

2. Canada (Rachel Homan) - The Olympics are far off in the rear view mirror and not even worth discussing anymore. The last time we saw Homan on the ice she was winning the season ending Champions Cup event in Calgary. Team Homan is one of those teams who are always a threat and favourite in any event they enter and this should be no exception. Similar to main contender and rival Hasselborg, this will be the season opening event for the team from Ottawa and they open with a strong Sidorova team. They are no longer the unbeatable force they once were but expect them to be in the mix for the title at the end of the weekend.

3. Japan (Satsuki Fujisawa) - Another 2018 Olympic team. Another team making their season debut in Suzhou. Are we noticing a theme here? Fujisawa has been knocking on the international curling door for a few seasons now but the bronze medal win in PyeongChang finally kicked the door open and made them a team to watch out for. Remember two years ago they won the hearts of curling fans everywhere with their play and positive demeanour on the ice towards a silver medal win at the World Championships in Swift Current. They are drawn into the same pool as an Olympic rival, Team Hasselborg. We get our rematch Thursday morning, draw #2 for each team. #TeamRevenge?

4. Russia (Anna Sidorova) - Unlike the teams mentioned above, Russia's Anna Sidorova has been on the ice this season, competing at tour events in Winnipeg and Oakville. They have also had a solid start to the season reaching the final of The Icebreaker and the QF of the Oakville Fall Classic. Overall they sport a modest 7-5 record this season but having competitive ice time could be a hidden advantage to them in the long-run of this event. Lets not forget, last season may have been a struggle for Sidorova but she did win the 2017 silver medal and 2014-16 bronze medal at the world championships. She is still a force to contend with and a strong result this weekend could be the comeback announcement for the team.

5. Scotland (Jennifer Dodds) - 2018 Olympics. Debut event of the season. Yup we have heard all of this before. But Scotland's Team Muirhead will have a slightly different look, line-up (and name) when they step on the ice in China. With skipper Eve Muirhead still recovering from off-season surgery, new member of the team Jennifer Dodds will assume the skip role for this event. This change also means Vicki Adams moves to vice and Vicky Wright will play second. This is already a slightly new team from last season and now with a line-up change and new skipper in the house, who is also the newest member, there will be an unknown cloud hanging over this team for the first two draws. They need a strong result out of the gate vs. Japan to really get the confidence flowing. They could click and go 4-2 or fumble and finish 2-4.

6. USA (Nina Roth) - Guess what we want to say here? Yup 2018 Olympics. Debut event. The record is not broken yet I guess. It will be interesting to see how Roth responds to last season. Yes they represented USA at the Winter Olympics but they also saw their main rival, Jamie Sinclair, claim the first grand slam title for a USA team. They have also seen the rise of Cory Christensen. Pressure is on to back-up their Olympic representation with a strong season and show they should be considered the #1 USA women's team. They open with Korea's Kim, which could be the perfect blessing in disguise facing off with a young and slightly inexperienced team by comparison. If Roth can finish 3-3 or better this would be considered a successful event, remembering they also draw Canada and Russia for the RR.

7. South Korea (Kim Min-ji) - Hello #TeamUpset...quite literally. This team is fresh off an appearance at the 2018 World Junior Curling Championships, where they finished 4-5. In 2017, they finished 4th at the World Junior Curling Championships. This is a young team still looking to make their mark on the women's game. And the 2018/19 season seems to be off to a good start in stating their arrival. They opened the season with a championship #wct win in Hokkaido. They knocked off the Olympic silver medal winners Team Kim, or the "Garlic Girls", to book their spot at this event and now the pressure is on to back it up and prove they belong with the best in the world. Drawing Olympians Homan, Sidorova and Roth will not be easy but this is a great test for the up and coming team. Don't underestimate them. A 2-4 or even surprise 3-3 record could happen.

8. China (Liu Sijia) - Similar to the men's draw, the host nation will be represented by a team we have not seen much success from on the #wct over the past few years. Liu's greatest success was winning the 2014 #PACC title and representing China at the world championships, where she would finish with a 6-5 record good enough for 7th place. We have yet to see this team on the ice this season so we don't really know what to expect. They will have the crowd support behind them, which will be beneficial. Unfortunately they also draw Sweden, Japan and Scotland as competition so picking up 1 or 2 wins might be difficult.

Projected Standings:

Pool A - Sweden, Japan, Scotland, China
Pool B - Canada, Russia, USA, South Korea

WOMEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP: Canada (Homan) def. Sweden (Hasselborg)


MIXED DOUBLES

1. Switzerland (Jenny Perret/Martin Rios) - Of all 3 disciplines stepping on the ice in Suzhou, there may not be a strong favourite than Jenny Perret and Martin Rios of Switzerland in mixed doubles. The resume speaks for itself. Perret/Rios won the silver medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics. They are the 2017 world champions. Rios is actually a two-time world champion, previously also winning the title in 2012 (with Nadine Lehmann). They have the most experience. They have the most success. They are the team to beat!

2. Canada (Laura Walker/Kirk Muyres) - Thanks to the Olympic gold win by Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris mixed with the bronze medal win by this very team at the 2018 world championships, Canada was able to land the #2 seed and avoid the Swiss in the RR, meaning the path to the final is wide open. Walker and Muyres are fresh off a strong world championship podium appearance. They also competed in the season opening mixed doubles event in Battleford, SK where the finished runner-up. This is a strong duo and, given the pool they were drawn into, should be considered a favourite to reach the final. Could we see a Red and White vs. Red and White championship battle?

3. USA (Sarah Anderson/Korey Dropkin) - While Canada came out on the positive of the draw, the opposite could be said for USA's Anderson/Dropkin. They have been placed in the same pool with Switzerland. However this could play to their advantage too if they can eliminate the favourites and reach the final they just may be the favourites to take the entire championship. This is a very good duo folks. They also have something to prove in this event I think. At the 2018 world championships they entered the playoff bracket with a 6-1 record and a strong medal threat. They suffered a minor upset loss to Hungary in the opening round of the playoffs only to lose to Italy in lower bracket and finish in a T13 overall. They have played an event this season though, winning bronze in New Zealand. Their first run-in with the Swiss will come Thursday afternoon, when both teams should be sitting with 2-0 records. The winner of that match will have the initial leg up on reaching the final.

4. Norway (Kristin Skaslien/Sander Rolvag) - A mixed doubles specialist now, Norway's Kristin Skaslien is quickly becoming a top name in the discipline. And why not? She won the bronze medal in PyeongChang. She has competed in 5 world championships from 2013-2017 with strong finishes each time. In fact, she won a world mixed doubles bronze medal back in 2015, coupled with a 4th place finish (2013) and two 5th place finishes (2014, 2017). She is a mixed doubles threat. The question here will be how she works with temporary partner Sander Rolvag. Skaslien's regular partner Magnus Nedregotten is already competing at this event in the men's discipline with Team Walstad. We have not seen Rolvag on the mixed doubles circuit, although he is world mixed champion (2015). If they can find the chemistry right away they could give Canada a run for top spot in Pool A. Had Nedregotten and Skaslien been entered together this team would be seeded #2 in these pre-rankings.

5. Russia (Maria Komarova/Danill Goryachev) - At first glance you may not be as familiar with Komarova/Goryachev. If so, you have a short memory! This is an excellent mixed doubles team, as proven at the 2018 World Mixed Doubles Championship where they went on to win a silver medal. They had a strong season on the mixed doubles tour last year as well where they finished 6th in the world. I would not underestimate this team competing this weekend and being the dangerous under the radar team to watch out for.

6. Sweden (Therese Westman/Robin Ahlberg) - This was a bit of a surprise selection to be honest. I fully expected Sweden to send Camilla and Per Noreen to compete. Instead we see Therese Westman and Robin Ahlberg. It is a bit of a wildcard entrant and one many may not know so we do not know what to expect. There is claim to fame with this team though as many curling fans will be very familiar with Therese Westman's mother, Swedish and curling legend two-time Olympic champion Anette Norbeg.

T7. South Korea (Jang Hye-ri/Choi Chi-won) & China (Yu Jiaxin/Wang Xiangkun) - To be honest little is known about either team. China's top team of Rui Wang and Ba De Xin were not able to compete as Ba is already competing in the men's event. As for Korea's top ranked team of Jang Hye-ji and Ki Jeong Lee, I am not sure why they were not selected to participate seeing as they represented Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Both #PACC representatives are going to struggle to find wins in this field unfortunately. Luckily, in a way, they did draw one another in the same group so both could pick up a W or one of them could at least finish 2-4. It may be a stretch to believe either team can compete with Switzerland and USA for top spot however.

Projected Standings:

Pool A - Canada, Russia, Norway, Sweden
Pool B - Switzerland, USA, China, South Korea

MIXED DOUBLES CHAMPIONSHIP: Switzerland (Perret/Rios) def. Canada (Walker/Muyres)


What say you rock heads and stoners? Are you pro the Curling World Cup? Against the event? What do you like and what are you questioning, if anything? And who are your teams to beat in this opening leg of this tournament?

As always share your thoughts in the comments below or through social media. And #StayTuned for upcoming previews of all the action hitting the ice this weekend on the World Curling Tour.

Curling World Cup athletes....the ice is yours!