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Tuesday, 1 November 2016

#SwedishVikings + Fans = LOVE

#BetweenTheSheets: The Sights & Sounds Of The Masters
#TwineTime invades Okotoks to talk #growthesport with top athletes

The opening Grand Slam of Curling event of the 2016/17 season has wrapped up and history was the theme of the event.  We crowned two new grand slam champions and our first European men's grand slam winner.  The #TeamCanada vs. #TeamWorld theme still rang true, as expected, with both sides claiming a victory and setting up more plot lines and increased drama heading into the thick of the season.

The #TwineTime blog was fortunate enough, and VERY thankful, to be extended media accreditation once again by Sportsnet and Grand Slam of Curling to be part of the season opening event.  And while many reporters may have wanted to talk about the action on the ice, this "reporter" was more focused on the action behind the scenes and off the ice.  The #growthesport theme has been one this blog has taken to heart since last season and, one again, the theme rang true in speaking with a number of elite athletes during my back stage access in Okotoks.

And how do you kick off your first Masters experience you ask?  Why you go to the greatest Masters champion of all time of course: Mr. Glenn Howard!!  When asked about his take on #growthesport, Howard commented the schools and support system is where we need to focus some attention:  "I think keep it going in the schools.  I don't think there is enough going across the country, and I only really see what is going on in Ontario, but I think get in the schools and make it fun for the kids so they enjoy it.  They see it on TV.  It's typical with sports, if you see it on TV kids get interested.  But you also need the parents and the schools and the support groups to get the kids out, get them to be more recreational.  It's a cheap sport.  It doesn't cost a lot of money.  Let's get the kids out there playing and get them interested."

The six-time champion sure knows what he is talking about.  And the local schools must have been listening because we saw a great amount of school kids running around, waving signs and cheering for all the teams on the ice Friday morning.  In fact, one section took their curling praise across the pond and rallied behind 2016 Women's World Champion Binia Feltscher from Switzerland.

TwineTime (TT):  There were many children out there cheering for you today.  We saw lots of signs saying "Go Switzerland".  We also saw great interaction from you in giving a few waves to the kids between shots.  How does that feel when you come to Canada and have a large group of school children cheering for you?

Binia Feltscher (BF):  Yes, it is very cool.  We love seeing it.  We even had some giveaways.

TT:  Yeah, I noticed that.  What did you give them?

BF:  It's a team keychain.

TT:  It was one of the coolest moments I have seen this week.  Right in the middle of the game you did that, it was so cool to watch happen.

BF:  *laughing*  Oh thank you...we hope they enjoyed!

Another Swiss skip, Silvana Tirinzoni, also noticed and appreciated the strong crowd support not only throughout the day on Friday but during the entire event.  "Oh yeah, we really appreciate the fan support.  The fans are actually really neutral or even cheering for us sometimes.  It's just amazing and we love that!"

For the sport to continue to grow though, we cannot only rely on getting school's to attend big events when in town.  As super-spare on Team Gushue Charley Thomas pointed out, we have to close the disconnect between the junior to senior transition.  "I think (we need to see) more support right out of juniors.  I think there is a huge gap and disconnect between this level and people coming out of juniors.  I know I myself had to take a couple of years off from men's a couple years out of juniors mostly because I just could not afford to play and I found there was not as much support for me as a player and unfortunately I had to walk away from the game for a bit," Thomas said.  Thomas is a great example of why we need to bridge this gap sooner rather than later.  As he mentioned, even after winning back-to-back world junior championships, he found the transition tough and is really only now finding the success many curling fans have been waiting to see for him.

While Canada continues to have a large population of curlers compared to other nations, the sport still faces major growing pains.  Interestingly enough, the opposite could be said for our competitors south of the border.  Curling clubs are beginning to pop up all over the United States...and in a few unconventional locations.  I spoke with USA's Winter Olympic bronze medal winning skip (2006) John Shuster about how the sport is growing throughout America:

TT:  In talking about growing the sport, I spoke with Chris Plys last season on how to grow the sport more, especially in the US.  We are seeing more men's teams, including yours, find more and more success on tour.  How can we continue that and continue growing the junior teams moving forward?

John Shuster (JS):  We are seeing that junior growth and it is something we strive for in seeing our top juniors individually playing together now so you can go out and have a better chance at the worlds, which we saw last year when our men's and women's junior teams both got silver.  As a whole, in our country we are actually building curling clubs.  I know in Canada a lot of curling clubs are closing so we are actually going in the opposite direction.  Granted we have 30,000 curlers and not three-quarters of a million.  But really our home club every single week is full.  We have curling six nights a week.  Our sport is growing very much because of the TV coverage and the Olympics.  So sure it is growing every four years but also with Curling Night in America and our national's being televised our growth is increasing at a much higher rate.

TT:  For sure.  You guys went down to Phoenix last year and curled.  Are you planning to go back in January?  Is that one of the weirdest places you have ever curled in given the normal warm weather?

JS:  Yup, we are planning to go back.  *laughing*  It was funny, last year we played in the Continental Cup in Vegas and we drove to Phoenix from there.  Then our nationals were in Jacksonville, Florida so we drove there as well.  We kind of did the Southern swing.  It's fun to see curling growing in those non-traditional curling places.  Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin...those are kind of the base of our curling hubs.  There are curling clubs now with dedicated ice in Charlotte (NC) and Phoenix.  It's fun to see.  The Hollywood Curling Club is trying to get a curling club built and raising money.  They have 300 members.  We are growing through TV coverage and if we can an American TV company to hop on and show some of these grand slams as well to show curling at the high level it would help grow the sport in our country as well.

TT:  Yeah, perhaps we could see ESPN jump on board and increase their coverage?  I know they are slowly starting.

JS:  They pick up anything TSN puts on.  It's not on TV but on their app right now but it's still good for us.  *laughing*  I was able to watch basically the whole Scotties and Brier the last couple years.  Hopefully they see the ratings from those and maybe start picking up these slams because there is some great production going on here and great ratings in Canada.

TT:  If you could see a curling club pop up anywhere in the USA, we have already talked about Jacksonville and Phoenix, is there a place that maybe is unconventional that you think would still do well?

JS:  Oh I think the club in Los Angeles with the Hollywood Curling Club.  When that gets built, the core people and the passion is there.  A lot of Canadians have gone down to the Blockbuster Spiel over the 4th of July weekend.  We are really rooting for those guys to get the dedicated ice now.

Seriously, 300 members?  In California?  For curling?  That is a true #growthesport story right there alone.  And to see the success in cities like Phoenix, Jacksonville and Charlotte as a few examples is great for the sport.  You listening NBC and ESPN....or CBS...or Fox...or whichever broadcaster wants to really be the first to jump on a moving train towards success (and possible $$$)?  Time to get on it!

The success of European teams on tour this year is also helping lend a #growthesport mentality in numerous European nations.  Obviously Sweden appears to be one of the leading nations with the success of Nik Edin capturing his first grand slam title in Okotoks but also in the rapid rise up the rankings by Anna Hasselborg.  As Hasselborg shared, the success of those who came before her really help build for future success.  "Yeah for sure (we are seeing growth).  One of the teams on the national squad is one of the junior teams, Isabella Wrana.  She has a really good team and is one of our toughest opponents.  Both her team and Sigfridsson are part of the reason why we are having such a good season because you always feel you have someone behind you and you have to always be better.  You can never relax," Hasselborg chuckled.

But strong mentoring across competitors also helps build success on tour, leading towards a #growthesport mentality.  Hasselborg began her rise on the international stage playing vice for Edin at a European mixed championship and notes how a strong bond on tour with a national ally can be beneficial, "We are good friends.  I play mixed doubles with Oscar (Eriksson, Team Edin vice) as well...I think we have won 2 (national) mixed doubles championships but we have never gone to worlds because he is always playing at The Players Championship *laughing*  So damn him!  But yeah it is a lot of fun meeting them on tour because we never really meet them at home.  It is a good relationship and we watch them alot.  I want to believe we give them input too *laughing* but I don't think that is really the case."

Tirinzoni had a similar feeling in seeing three Switzerland rinks all on the ice at the same time Friday evening.   "When we are in Canada you are used to hearing only English on the ice.  *laughing*  To have all the Swiss-German talking going on is great for sure," Tirinzoni commented.

Scottish skip David Murdoch likes seeing his compatriots continue to excel and play in the grand slam events, it only helps push his team to be better.  "You know it's the best thing that could happen for us.  We have a lot of strong teams and some great youngsters starting to push through as well.  It's great to see Kyle (Smith) here.  He needs to come out here and play these slams to be better if you want to be the best and that is great for him.  Bruce (Mouat) was out at the end of the season at the Champions Cup.  We need to do that.  We need to keep fighting.  We need good healthy competition between us all."

Success on the tour level is not only contributed to a #growthesport mentality and nurturing the game at the grassroots level.  While those are very important initial steps, proper training has a huge impact in an athlete's success in the sport.  At this elite level, teams can find themselves playing 2, 3 or 4 games per day depending on draws.  Or only playing one game in a span of 24 hours.  And sometimes you find yourself stepping off the ice after a tough loss only to turn around and step right back on for an unexpected tiebreaker game, as happened with Team Murdoch in Okotoks Friday night.  "Oh it's unreal.  We had 3 morning draws at 9:00 a.m. and for most it was our only game of the day.  It's strange.  You just have to focus.  We are strong and we do a lot of training to be ready for something like this," Murdoch said.

What about 2016 WFG Masters champion Allison Flaxey?  Did you notice their playoff...yes playoff...schedule?  They started with a tiebreaker game at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday and just continued to win...and continued to play...back-to-back-to-back.  Long day?  No problem for Team Flaxey as the skipper pointed out, "You know we play a lot of 3 game days during spiels.  We kind of know what we need to do in between games.  We need to eat.  We are on these strict schedules of what everybody needs and that really helps.  But really the time change, in being from Ontario, it's actually 9:30 a.m. at home so it really isn't so bad.  I'm used to being up early all week for work anyways."

Preparing the body and mind is a key element towards success on and off the ice.  But what if you are running the tour season like Superman?  Unsure what I mean, take a look at Charley Thomas.  Thomas is working triple time this season between Team Gushue super spare, Team Thomas skip and staying on top of a mixed doubles schedule.  In speaking with Thomas on his busy schedule to start the season: 

TT:  You are a very busy man.  You are the super spare.  You have your own team.  You have mixed doubles.  I think curling fans want to know if basically you are wearing a Superman cape under your jacket every week because every week you are on tour with one team or another.  How are you doing it and how are you holding up?

Charley Thomas (CT):  When I am home, I take all the time I can to rest as much as possible.  When I get the first flight out from events I try to get back into my bed as soon as possible.

TT:  Do you have any upcoming time off where you actually can enjoy a bit of your own life?

CT:  I think I still have four more weekends until the Christmas break.  But I feel fine.  I haven't noticed it in my performance so that is a good thing.  If that was the case I might call in an event and not play.

TT:  And the results certainly speak for themselves.  You are doing great with these guys (Team Gushue).  Your team a few weeks back made the final in Portage.  Obviously it is working?

CT:  Yeah, I guess so.  At this kind of level I need to play a ton of games against the best competition for me to get better.  I mean I practice a ton so that's not really where I am lacking at this point.  For me to keep advancing my curling career I think I just need to play more games against the best teams.

There is the lesson back to the kids out there.  You want to be the best, you need to play the best and Thomas certainly has being the best in his sights...and the results speak for themselves.  In this very blog last season, Thomas took home the #TwineTime Golden Granite Award for Rookie of the Year.

Hard work can pay off...but can sometimes also lead to unexpected injuries and needing to take a brief break from the game you love.  Brad Gushue made the trip to Okotoks to take in The Masters and not miss the opening slam of the season.  Sure Gushue never made it onto the ice to throw any stones but he was certain to be there supporting his boys in their quest for a slam title.  #TwineTime spoke with Brad about the injury and how frustrating the recovery has been:

TT:  Great game today for your boys.  The camera caught some great reaction shots of you watching the game.  Which has been harder: watching the boys out there playing or the recovery itself?

Brad Gushue (BG):  Definitely the recovery.  It is hard watching because you want to be out there playing and helping them out.  But the recovery has been tougher because I just don't know when I am going to get back.  Day to day you don't really see the improvement but over a couple of weeks it starts feeling better than it did a few weeks ago.  That has been challenging.  You want to see it getting better day to day but it's such a slow moving process that you really don't realize any improvements until a few weeks later.  It's more tough than watching...but watching is still very difficult.

TT:  For sure.  How is the recovery process going?  On track?  On schedule to as best as it can be?

BG:  There really is no schedule.  It's going to take as long as it is going to take.  I've tried not to set a timetable.  I did that earlier in the season and it just makes it that much more frustrating when you can't meet it.  From here on out it's just going to take as long as it's going to take.  The guys are playing great.  We have had some great guys like Charley (Thomas) and Pat (Simmons) and Adam Spencer filling in for us.  I think it would be better to have those guys play and let me get back to 100% than have me come back and potentially re-injure it or play hurt.  I think we are doing the right thing but it is frustrating, especially now with the grand slam series because I love these events and have done well in them.  To miss them and not be able to play, it is frustrating.

TT:  The fans certainly miss having you out there.  Over the past 12 months you have had a few injuries now.  Hopefully though these can be put behind you and we see you back on the ice as soon as possible.

BG:  You know I was very fortunate for 17 years in my career to not to have any significant injury other than the odd aches and pains you get that you can play through.  The fall, which obviously affected me for a long period of time, and then just getting over that and now this comes on.  I'm looking forward to getting back and being healthy and just getting back onto the ice.  I miss curling!  I miss practices.  I miss being with the guys.  I'm anxious to get back.

And while Gushue was anxious to return to the ice, he was also quick to point out how the excitement is building for the upcoming 2017 Tim Horton's Brier in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador.  "Yeah, there is a lot of excitement.  We are about 80% sold out and we have not released single game tickets yet and of course no teams confirmed other than Koe (Team Canada).  There is no doubt in my mind it is going to be sold out.  I think it is going to be the talk of the town for the weeks leading up to it and the week of it.  I just want to make sure our team is part of it and I'm back healthy and able to compete in it.  It has been a goal of mine for a long time.  For all the work we put in to get the Brier, I certainly want to be a part of it," Gushue said.

So #growthesport is dependent on a few key issues: embrace the sport at a young age, nurture the passion during the school years, develop the skills as a junior and bridge the gap into elite status.  Accomplish all that as an athlete and reap the rewards.  I'd say our newest women's team to be etched in the history books as a grand slam champion, Team Flaxey, surely has accomplished all those factors.  And how did skipper Allison Flaxey feel after winning her maiden slam?  Well, I just happened to have a few moments to chat with her after she came off the ice with a HUGE grin on her face:

TT:  Congratulations!  Have the emotions set in?  Have you taken it in now in knowing you are now a grand slam champion?

Allison Flaxey (AF):  You know I think it will take a day or two.  We are on a huge high right now but I think it will set in in the next few days.

TT:  When we talked yesterday, I asked you who you wanted to face and you talked about the revenge against Homan.  You got a little bit of it today.  How does it feel when that happens?

AF:  *laughing*  We got a little of it back today.  But you know what, we battled earlier and we just wanted another crack at her.  We just didn't perform at the Shorty final and here we did.  We were playing our game and I think that made it more commemorable for us that it was on our terms.

TT:  You were also inducted into the white hat club tonight.  It is a big special induction out here in Alberta.

AF:  Absolutely!

TT:  How did that feel?  And have you ever put on a cowboy hat that prestigious before?

AF:  No I haven't.  I lived here for a few years and I love the fan support here and the traditions.  It is wonderful to be involved in that and have a part in that.  It was great crowd support all week and we are so excited to get to come back and play in Calgary later this year now.

TT:  And speaking about that, your schedule just picked up a bit more now.  With a big win comes some big responsibility.  What's next?  Do you take a look at the schedule a bit?

AF:  *laughing*  It certainly has.  Absolutely!  Our schedule is pretty set, we have a few events in Europe mid-year to compete in.  And it sounds like we have the back end of our schedule pretty busy.  We have to stay focused though in order to make Players (Championship).  This is a really nice step for us towards that Olympic trials goal.  If we can find a way to forego PEI (Olympic Trials Qualification Event) and keep playing like this, that's an ultimate win for us.  Every time we are in this type of situation is only going to be better preparation for us and towards those Olympic trials next year.

TT:  How does Team Flaxey celebrate a big win like this?

AF:  *laughing*  Ohhh....I think we will have a few bottles of champagne later on.  But we don't really know, we haven't won a big event before so maybe next time we will tell you.  Perhaps in Cranbrook.

TT:  *laughing*  Fair enough, we will have to follow-up in Cranbrook and find out!

But winning the titles and enjoying the champagne can't be all there is to defining success is it?  Besides provincial, national and world titles...or grand slam victories...you could also receive the ultimate prize: the praise of your peers.  Just ask David Murdoch, voted onto the World Curling Federation Athlete's Commission during The Masters event.

TT:  You were recently voted into the Athlete Commission, congratulations!

David Murdoch (DM):  Thank you!

TT:  For the common curling fan who may not know what that is and what that means, can you maybe explain what it is and why it is such a great honour?

DM:  Yeah, the World Curling Federation Athlete's Commission provides the athletes to have a voice.  We don't get to write any policies.  We get to provide some recommendations on what the commission thinks on behalf of our peers on what we would like to see change or happen with the game, in regards to rules and regulations.  We hope they listen to us and when recommendations go to the board we hope they have a listen to what we have to say.  For me to be part of that, it's a delight to have my peers vote me on.  I hope to speak to as many people as I can and help make sure everyone's voice is heard.

TT:  Well we have always heard positive comments from players and fans about you and this just supports what people have been saying.

DM:  *laughing*  It must be the accent

TT:  *laughing*  Yup, that has to be it.

Ah so there is the final key to success and how to best #growthesport rock heads and stoners...have a sexy accent!  Well, one can't argue can they?  Look at the success of those athletes who have accents in the sport....many World Championships, Olympic medals and now Grand Slam titles to their credit.  Just ask 2016 WFG Masters Champion Niklas Edin how it feels:

Niklas Edin (NE):  It feels a little unreal actually.  I was doing an interview with CBC right after the game and kind of had to ask my teammates "Did we really win that?"  *laughing*  It feels really weird.  We have been playing really well this season and especially this event.  We kind of felt like we should be able to win.  After each game, we have been getting closer and closer...and then being in the final and winning, it feel unreal.

TT:  For sure.  I've been talking about in the blog with #TeamWorld really pouring it on and with you strongly leading with Team Sweden overall, is there extra impact with you being the first European (men's) team to win a grand slam?  And not just for you but perhaps as extra motivation for yourself but also all of the teams?

NE:  Definitely.  Exactly!  Showing that European teams can come over to Canada and win a grand slam I think is huge for anyone outside of Canada.  They are the best curling nation and have a lot of the top teams.  I don't think we will do this too often but at least we are showing that it is possible.  We are showing ourselves it is possible.  Even though we are playing a very strong team in the final, we get down two points and keep fighting and, in the end, we kind of got the win well-deserved, even if it did take a few extreme shots to do it.  We really felt like we deserved this one!  That makes it even more sweet.

TT:  Now you were out there donning the white cowboy hat, an important induction especially in Alberta.  Have you thrown that on before and how did that feel?

NE:  It felt pretty good.  We got it just before stepping on the ice to lift the trophy.  It was cool.  It shows how big curling is here.  Everyone is so involved.  It feels amazing.  The crowd was really good.  Just looking up into the stands after the game just gives you a really good feeling because everyone really appreciates what we are doing out there.

Oh and did the crowd ever appreciate you Mr. Edin.  In fact, I had the honour of standing next to one of Team Edin's biggest fans during the men's final.  A wonderful 82 year-old lady, Toots, who had just as much, if not more, energy during the final than many fans in the arena.  We watched the final together and, after securing an extra end, Toots brought out the magical ring with a cross on it and started saying the prayer that would nab Niklas Edin his much-deserved first grand slam title.  Sure enough, prayer works friends!  But the real prayer was answered almost an hour later.

After talking with Edin post-win, I mentioned to him how big of a fan Toots was and how she prayed during that extra end for a Team Edin win.  I asked him if he and the boys would be willing to come out and meet her and take a picture with her, as it would mean the world to her.  Being the gracious champion and amazing human being that he is, he agreed.  The rest is all history folks!  The perfect #growthesport moment....entertain the fans and bring happiness to their day as they are the one's who continue to travel, cheer, support and pay the money to see the athletes on the ice and help grow the sport at ALL levels!

Team Edin....you boys sure made Toots' day.  What you didn't see after was the small bit of tears formed in her eyes when her and I hugged and she thanked me for helping make this happen.  I told her I only played the role of connector.  It was her prayer and the big hearts of Team Edin who made the magical moment!  This is what truly defines the sport....and will ultimately be the sights and sounds of the 2016 WFG Masters that stays in my heart for years to come.

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