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Saturday, 7 May 2016

#BetweenTheSheets: A Champions Cup Rewind
Athletes weigh in on the new event format & discuss how to grow the sport

Well #curling fans, it is that time of year....the 2015/16 curling season has officially wrapped up.  The rocks have been put away for a summer slumber.  The ice has been evaporated into pools of cold water.  And curling fans, athletes and media are left to reflect on the season that was while preparing for the season that comes.

But before we get all sentimental about a tumultuous season, let's do a rewind on the final slam event of the season: The Champions Cup!  The Sherwood Park Arena Sports Center in Strathcona County sure was rocking during the final week of April.  Draws were sold out as we approached playoff weekend.  Fans were able to meet and mingle with some of their favourite athletes they have been cheering for all season long.  And the action on the ice was top notch.

When the rocks settled, two Manitoba teams ended up hoisting the Champions Cup crystal trophy...and ended team droughts.  2014 Olympic Champion Jennifer Jones finally claimed another grand slam title, her 12th overall, in defeating tour champion Rachel Homan in the women's final.  For Team Jones, this would be their first grand slam title since 2014.  On the men's side, Reid Carruthers finally removed the runner-up curse plaguing their team for the past two seasons and broke through defeating John Epping in the final.  Team Carruthers had suffered two grand slam final losses already this season but was able to overcome an almost unheard of double extra end to seal the victory.  Hmmm, interesting to note that both champions also claimed the same title to qualify for this event, the DEKALB Superspiel.  I hope the organizers of next season's DEKALB Superspiel are already developing a marketing strategy.  Come compete at DEKALB Superspiel...the road to Champions Cup glory!

Now I am sure many of you have read the countless articles and news stories about the event.  Some great team profile stories.  Stories about the organizing committee, led by Scotties champ Heather Nedohin.  Amazing draw by draw analysis and results as well.  #TwineTime was fortunate to attend the last few days of the round robin and the entire championship weekend.  The question was: how can I try and be a bit unique and different from all the other coverage going on around the event?

Well, in my preview blog post I discussed the need for this year-end championship style event and format.  How exciting this would be for both the players and the fans.  Of course, I did also offer up some suggestions on how to enhance the event a bit with a few minor tweaks.  But those were just my opinions.  If we want to talk about a new event and its success, the only way to do so is ask the players on the ice.  I took to the media area and asked a few of the top athletes what they thought about the new Champions Cup event and format.  Here is what YOUR favourite athletes had to say:

Bruce Mouat (2016 World Junior Curling Champion): Of course I am in favour of this event.  It has given us great experience for the rest of our career.  I think it is really cool with the championship experience.  Obviously we won the world juniors so that was our championship experience.  It was a bit different, there were no fans outside so we could never really hear any chants and cheers.  All the kids are really excited and we even signed a few autographs, that is kind of strange for us. *laughing*  We are here to have fun.  We are enjoying the experience and the chants.

Val Sweeting:  I think this is a good last spiel.  We were kind of on the brink of making it in.  I think you get some new teams that can get some grand slam exposure but you still have the familiar faces.  Plus the fact we get to play at home and a chance at some more money at the end of the season heading into summer, it's really good.  The main focus of our year is in December and January but the grand slams are just as important because it get's you points and Olympic trials and money.  But we just try to go out and do well.

Nik Edin:  I like the format.  I think it is kind of late in the season.  But it is a fun event to play in.  All the slams are really good.  We are excited to play here.

Shawn Meachem:  We haven't played together in about three months so it was a little bit tough coming in.  But it has been a great experience and will help us moving forward and that much closer to getting into the slams on a full time basis.  This is a pretty awesome event though and there are teams you don't normally see in the slams every week.  To grow the sport you have to give the fresh blood a chance every once in awhile.  By expanding the slams to more events and changing the qualification criteria has really expanded the opportunity for other teams to get some exposure and some TV time.  It's a lot of fun to get out there and play with some of these guys you don't get to see very often.  It let's you know where you stand, what you need to work on and where you are at.

Alison Flaxey:  It was great for us to come together, last event of the year, and playing in front of crowds and on the slam ice.  It is something our team has not really got to experience this year.  Hopefully it is something we will get to do a lot more of next year.  It is a good way to end our year and leave on a positive.  It is neat and gives a lot of opportunity for teams who might not normally get to play in these events.  It gets the fans to see some new faces and some of the up and comers.

Jennifer Jones:  The crowd has been great all week, one of the best crowds we have played in front of all season.  I think this is a good event.  It is nice to see some of the young teams have the opportunity to play in the big event and see how they do.

Jacqueline Harrison:  This is a great experience for us.  We don't get to play in these events as much as the other top teams do.  We have had a great time and learned a lot.  I think we try not to think so much about qualifying for events as we do just follow our process and be successful and we just happened to have won a few events this year.  We have been doing well which qualified us for this event which is just a bonus for us.

Krista McCarville:  It adds excitement.  You are always playing in different spiels but to win a spiel and then get invited to such a great event like this is always exciting.  It's nice to see it will be on next year as well.

Peter de Cruz:  I really like the idea of the format.  I think it is a really good opportunity for other teams to see what slams are made of.  There are a lot of slams where it is really tough for us guys to get into the slam.  This is a little extra chance with a lot of money and a lot of points.  It is a great experience for us because we are still a young team.

Greg Drummond:  I think this is excellent.  I think having a season finale of champions, really a champion of champions, is great.  Having to win a spiel to get here as well it's great for the junior teams having won world juniors and now getting to play the best in the world.  It's motivation for next season because you want to win on tour to have the chance to play at another grand slam and play in front of some great crowds.

Steve Laycock:  Yeah it is great, all the same playoff teams mind you but the field was different.  This type of event means any team playing on tour next year does have the chance to play in this event, that's really good.  If you just go off the rankings for each event, you are only going to have the same 12-15 guys playing every event.  Any single team in the country can now enter an event next season, win it, and have the chance to play here.

Kerri Einarson:  It is always nice to play in these big events.  It is a long week.  Maybe it would be nice if they could shorten it up just a little bit.  It is a lot of time away from work and families.

Reid Carruthers:  It is a great addition.  Every team had a chance to get into the event.  The only thing that may be a little tough is the teams who had a good year and are battling for funding, from that perspective, it might be tough for them not to be here and be at home watching.  But at the same time there were a bunch of tournaments for teams to get in and, for us, we were lucky to win the right event to get us in here.

We see some common themes among the athletes in why this event is a great addition to the tour.  As many fans, myself included, have commented on, the opportunity to see new faces on the ice is a huge draw and one that makes #ChampionsCup unique.  Of course teams still need to earn their place here during the season but the opportunity and motivation to potentially earn a grand slam berth from winning an event on tour should fire you up when you start the season.  Laycock's comments on every team in the country (and the world really) start the season with an equal shot at playing here.

Another common theme is the growth of the sport for both up and coming teams and fans.  The addition of the world junior champions seemed to be a huge hit with everyone.  And I could not agree more.  What an opportunity to play against the best in the world!  Sure there are still a few tweaks in the system, namely being late in the season and perhaps the length of the event, but the bigger picture was an unanimous thumbs up from the athletes supporting this format and qualification.  There is an added excitement surrounding seeing new teams at a slam and seeing how they do against the usual slam line-up of participants.  Hearing and seeing the excitement from Meachem, Harrison, Flaxey and de Cruz, for instance, of playing at this grand slam and the take home benefit for the team moving towards next season is great to see and exactly what the sport needs.  Also, having been there live, many fans were talking about some of these teams they don't get to see on TV every week.  I would be confident in saying every team competing at the Champions Cup won over a few new fans every time they stepped on the ice.

Now, in speaking on how the Champions Cup event lends itself to #growthesport, I could not pass up the opportunity to continue the #TwineTime theme of the season when I have all these incredible athletes curling in front of me.  I was able to take some brief time with many of them and ask them about how we #growthesport, whether we are speaking locally, nationally and/or internationally.  How can we encourage more junior curlers?  How can we see an increase in young girls coming to the rink and wanting to take up curling as a passion?  How can we see provinces continue to grow competitively and keep pushing for a Brier or Scotties championship?  Here is what a few of the #ChampionsCup All-Star players had to say on the topic of #growthesport:

Bruce Mouat:  I think it has to start at the grassroots stage.  Just getting kids involved and getting to know the sport.  Over here, kids are encouraged to come out and watch and we are trying that as well.  Obviously curling is not as big in Scotland but it is growing.  At my home rink we have come and try sessions every week.  We should start with the kids and build them up.

Stef Lawton:  Oh, that's a really good question.  I think having ourselves out there and getting involved with the junior teams on a regular basis definitely helps.  If we can get out there as much as we can and encourage them to come and play and show them the sport.  We started at the age of 11 and if you work at it you can do great things in the sport.  Just having us involved combined with many other volunteers.  There are only so many competitive curlers and with the time commitment but also having so many other people being involved and running the programs I think would be a huge start.

Val Sweeting:  I think there is a lot of great programs for juniors here in Alberta.  There are great opportunities.  We got better by putting ourselves in the position to play the better teams and getting the experience where you learn what you have to do.  The future is pretty exciting.  We have had Nedohin, Kleibrink, Bernard, King and now we are hoping to continue with Alberta being that tough province to be in.

Nik Edin:  It's a good question.  We are away travelling around 200 days of the year so, for us, it is about trying to get the good results and help the (Swedish Curling) Association to promote the sport.  We need some big help from junior trainers and coaches back home to try and keep the juniors we have and make the sport more attractive as well.

Shawn Meachem:  It's a great thing with curling these days.  It's a littler different than when we were kids and you would have it in phys. ed class and everyone would have to go and try it.  You don't see that as much with the schools coming out.  But there have been a lot of kids coming out to watch and they bring a lot of energy into the building.  I think there will be some kids who, if not curlers, will at least be some fans for life which is also important for the game.  I am hoping there will be kids and guys who will come out, see us and want to get out there and try it out as well.

Alison Flaxey:  I think it is upon us, the curlers who get to play in these slams, to go out there and share our skills and our experiences.  I know we do that a lot in our local rinks.  We host a junior day in our home club.  The excitement we get from having kids ask for our autographs and wanting to stick with it certainly helps.  The more we can get out there with the juniors the better the sport will be in the long run.

Jennifer Jones:  I think we need society to get on board and see that sport is healthy for us and to get our kids more involved and keep active.  We need to try and encourage participation and if we can do that, and create role models for young women to aspire to be, we will be on the right track.

Silvana Tirinzoni:  The sport in Switzerland looks healthy.  We (the top competitive women's teams) are pushing each other.  I think that is the main reason why Switzerland is so strong at the moment.  We keep pushing each other, beating each other.  Everyone has to practice really hard.  Unfortunately we are not seeing an increase in fans and media.  We get some more news in the newspaper but it would be nice if we can have more visitors to events and have more young curlers.  We are still working on that.  I think more TV time at home, televising more events, would help.  But of course for that you need sponsors and money and that is not that easy.  Hopefully in the future we can keep the good results and bring the change.

Jacqueline Harrison:  I think the growth starts at the club level.  I am very fortunate enough to belong to a large club with large membership.  I think it starts with the juniors in mentoring them and spending time with them.  Letting them know how much fun curling can be and teaching them technical stuff and strategy stuff and hoping they stick with it.

Krista McCarville:  It is tough because the number of teams are going down.  The amount of time and dedication you have to put in as well as the family support.  But I would also say everyone started where we started.  You build little by little, year by year.  When I was just 20 years old coming into women's play, it was the same as anyone else.  We slowly had to build and gain as much experience as you can wherever you go.

Peter de Cruz:  I think we need more big events in Europe.  We need more TV coverage.  That is how we can get more sponsors and more money and more time for the sport.  I think that is what is going to really help #growthesport.  We obviously have a little less growth than Canada but we do have a lot of really good facilities in Switzerland and some really good players.  If we can continue to put in the work hopefully one day we can get to that level.

Greg Drummond:  We have a good crop of men's teams in Scotland right now and it has become quite competitive between all of them.  It probably motivates us to train a little bit harder because we know these guys are looking at us with a target on our back and want to get to where we are so we need to step up a little bit.  It is encouragement for the junior teams too, seeing teams like Bruce Mouat make a slam and do well.

Steve Laycock:  I think we need to see more teams giving themselves the chance to move up.  There are some good teams in Saskatchewan and if they went out and played a bit more on tour, similar to how Meachem's team went out and played.  More teams need to go out and take that opportunity.  I know it is a bit of a risk and can be expensive.  Not all teams have the sponsorship when they start.  But everyone starts in the same place.  No team out here started with big funded seasons and had to go out and bang their heads against the wall to get to where they are.  More teams need to go out and take that leap of faith.

My final quote to end the #ChampionsCup rewind goes to men's champion skip Reid Carruthers.  Prior to the event Carruthers announced he will be hosting his own junior camp in August this year.  I had the opportunity to talk to him after their championship win about what hosting a junior camp means to him, how it helps #growthegame and what to hope for moving forward.

Reid Carruthers:  I have been doing curling camps every year since I was about 16.  I have attended camps and started as an assistant at 16, 17, 18 (years old) back in Winnipeg.  There were camps that were held in Morden, MB.  From there I took a few years off and did a few years of road show curling clinics.  It was actually from a conversation with Kaitlyn (Lawes), she had been teaching the Trillium Camp out East and she said you have to come.  I went for four years, had an absolute blast and it has been one of those things of teaching and curling.  The fact I am a teacher.  The fact that I love curling.  The fact of giving back to the juniors, everything goes hand in hand and I am more than happy to do what we are doing.  We also have to commend the efforts of some of the people who are working at it.  Team Homan has a junior camp.  We have a camp.  Kaitlyn and Jill (Officer) will be working at my camp.  Marc Kennedy has the junior classic.  John Epping runs camps.  All the instructors that work at not only Trillium but also Alberta Rocks curling club....there really is a bunch of curlers out there doing it.  But I think to have a junior camp in each province would be something that we should be striving for.

We certainly see some themes out of the responses above.  Across the board it appears everyone agrees the growth starts with giving back to the junior curling community.  A strong mentorship program develops at curling camps and at local clubs throughout the country.  It is great to see so many elite curling athletes devote time back to those who want to become the future of the sport.  As many stated, everyone started in a similar place, trying to build their game and elevate to the next level.  They had mentors...now the mentee's and becoming the future mentors.

We also see some comments on additional media coverage.  Additional sponsorship opportunities needed.  More local, national and international support towards the sport.  I do agree with these comments as well.  I think it is a combination effort from all involved: athletes, sponsors, curling clubs, media, bloggers, national associations, fans.  All of us own a certain aspect of the sport.  The sport of curling is almost like a publicly traded stock....we all need to work together to ensure the stock we are investing in rises on a regular basis.  Almost makes you excited to see what the 2016/17 curling season brings doesn't it?

Well rock heads and stoners, that puts a wrap on the curling season...events wise at least.  But do not think #TwineTime is done bringing you some exciting curling coverage.  I have a great guest interview coming up for you within the next week...trust me you don't want to miss this one.

As well, stay tuned for the season-ending special #BetweenTheSheets post where I will be joined by a very special guest to run down the 2015/16 season and talk about some of our own hits and misses.


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