Let this be the official Welcome Back celebration for curling! The 2017/18 curling season is officially underway folks and this is already shaping up to be the most exciting season yet...perhaps even the Golden Season for a few lucky teams and nations.
Yes, it is Olympic year. Finally!! The four-year Olympic cycle is a gruelling one for players and fans. There are team changes, qualification standards to achieve and national team trials and selections to survive. One could say playing a 48hr curling marathon match would be easier to survive than the daunting Olympic cycle....but the light at the end of the tunnel makes it all worth it.
But the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea is not the only reason to celebrate the upcoming season. Although judging by the poll results on the #TwineTime home page (just to your right ---->) it would appear most, if not all, of you are really focusing on the Olympiad. We have grand slams to compete for. We have a new tour with new elements to discuss. We have new teams. We have favourites looking to continue their dominance from a season ago and perhaps a few new upsets to keep us on our toes. Yes this may be the "Olympic Season" but there are also many other subplots and story lines to wet your slider for the next 8 months.
#TwineTime is warming up the legs, doing a few lunges to not pull a groin muscle, slipping the slider on and tossing a few rocks at the house to warm up the season. Lets hope some of these land in the rings as counters and not sail right on through to oblivion.
1. Champions Roll Call
Teams compete every season hoping to find the top of the podium on tour week in and week out. At the end of the day though, the ultimate dream of being crowned a national and/or world champion is what each athlete strives for and what keeps many up at night laying in their bed thinking about. For a few curling athletes around the world, the 2016/17 season brought dreams into reality. Before we discuss the next season, let's celebrate and congratulate the Champions of last season:
World Mixed Champions - Russia (Alexander Krushelnitskiy)
Canadian Mixed Champions - Northern Ontario (Trevor Bonot)
Pacific - Asia Champions (Men) - Japan (Yusuke Morozumi)
Pacific - Asia Champions (Women) - South Korea (Kim Eun-jung)
European Champions (Men) - Sweden (Niklas Edin)
European Champions (Women) - Russia (Victoria Moiseeva)
Canadian Junior Champions (Men) - B.C. (Tyler Tardi)
Canadian Junior Champions (Women) - Alberta (Kristen Streifel)
Scotties Tournament of Hearts - Ontario (Rachel Homan)
World Wheelchair Champions - Norway (Rune Lorentsen)
World Junior Champions (Men) - South Korea (Lee Ki-jeong)
World Junior Champions (Women) - Sweden (Isabella Wrana)
Tim Hortons Brier - Newfoundland & Labrador (Brad Gushue)
World Champions (Women) - Canada (Homan)
Canadian Senior Champions (Men) - Alberta (Wade White)
Canadian Senior Champions (Women) - Saskatchewan (Sherry Anderson)
Canadian Wheelchair Champions - Manitoba (Dennis Thiessen)
World Champions (Men) - Canada (Gushue)
World Senior Champions (Men) - Sweden (Mats Wrana)
World Senior Champions (Women) - Canada (Colleen Jones)
Canadian Mixed Doubles Champions - Joanne Courtney / Reid Carruthers
World Mixed Doubles Champions - Switzerland (Jenny Perret / Martin Rios)
Again congratulations to all the winners listed above as well as all the teams who took home championship trophies and cheques at events on tour throughout the season. Now comes the tough part.....can you repeat your win of last year this year? #GoodLuck
2. Olympic Fever
This is really the main focal point of the 2017/18 curling season right? Everyone, from athletes to fans to media to sponsors, are all drooling over the upcoming Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. For some the #RoadTo2018 is basically complete. Teams Edin and Hasselborg already will be wearing the #TreKronor for Sweden. Team GB will be represented by Team Muirhead and Team Smith. For most of the other already qualified nations, they will know their team selections before Christmas. For a few others, they still have to compete just to qualify for an Olympic ticket in December at the last chance qualification event in the Czech Republic. Plus let's also consider this fun factoid: due to the on-going doping scandal in Russia, there are still talks with the IOC to ban completely or partially Russian athletes from the 2018 games. While curling has never been named as a doping sport within the various Russian reports, an overall ban could still remove the Russian athletes from competing. Imagine a world curling event without Anna Sidorova, defending world silver medalist? And the Russians are strong medal threats in mixed doubles as well. Stay tuned for this story as it continues to develop.
The Olympic season is always an interesting one to watch. The intensity is higher for the months leading up to the national trials and selection period. Teams who still have legit dreams and shots at representing their nation on the grandest sports stage of them all need to make sure they properly plan out their season. Do you load up on events early? Do you space out your events so you don't tire? How do you maximize your advantage so you peak at EXACTLY the right time? Some of it will come down to a bit of luck, it's true. Maybe you get the rock to just curl enough when your opponent's rock doesn't and that's the difference between elation and heartbreak. You can't fully be ready to sit on either side of that coin....if it happens, it happens.
But you can control your mental game. You can control your physical game. You can control knowing you have 8 rocks each end and if you throw them like you do in practice and how you want, you have a shot.
We also have added excitement this year with the inclusion of Mixed Doubles into the Olympic competition schedule. Do you know what this means rock heads? It means for the entire duration of the 2018 Winter Olympics, curling will be in competition mode. Yes, curling is the ONLY sport to run from Day 1 to Day 18. How cool is that? The Olympics offer the best #growthesport opportunity as well. Whether it is gaining new fans in traditional hot spots like Canada and Sweden to seeing a new generation of fans come from non-traditional nations like Qatar or Spain, both are successes for the longevity of the sport around the world. Who knows, maybe 2018 sparks interest for curling in the Dominican Republic or Cameroon or Cyprus? And why not? With three disciplines of the sport receiving coverage throughout the games, curling has the best opportunity to see the most growth post-2018. The real question will be, how do the governing bodies of the sport cope with this potential growth? With great growth comes great responsibility! One thing we can count on, the landscape of the sport is going to change when we reach the end of the #RoadTo2018. Let's just hope it is for the better!
3. You get a new team and You get a new team and You get a new team.....
Let's be real here folks and address the big elephant on the ice this season. Change is a comin'!! Do you have a favourite team? A favourite player? Or maybe a least favourite team and/or player? Well what if your favourite team breaks up? And what if your favourite player joins up with your least favourite team? I hate to break it to some of you...this is going to be your fate as a curling fan this season. It WILL happen!!! Only a small handful of teams will go to South Korea and compete for Olympic glory. And the odds of it being your team are not exactly in your favour either.
Take a quick look back at the 2013 Canadian Olympic trials in Winnipeg. Of the 8 men's teams who qualified only 2 are completely the same team going into this season (Team Jacobs, Team McEwen). Most are completely different and many do not even curl anymore. Props to Jim Cotter, John Morris and Rick Sawatsky though. They were together in 2013, took a few seasons away from one another and are now back together making another Olympic push (with #TwineTime fam member Catlin Schneider aka #Litterbox too). On the women's side, only Team Jennifer Jones is the exact same with many of the other teams making minor team edits of one or two players along the way.
In the end though, new teams are coming. For those teams who failed to reach the pre-trials, we are already seeing a few new team formations starting for this season. Will they last or are they one-year deals just to stay competitive and then see where the domino's start to fall from other team results? For teams who fail to advance out of the pre-trials, will they stay together for the rest of the season or start making moves right away? And for the teams who do not win the Maple Leaf jacket in Ottawa, when will the phone calls be made to other teams and conversations start to happen? I would confidently bet a few of these conversations already began last season and continued into this off-season. And don't forget about the non-Canadian teams. Scotland's David Murdoch hung up the shoes after his team was not named Team GB rep for PyeongChang and the aftershocks of that move already see a few new Scottish assembled teams on tour this season. Will we see similar shake ups in other countries like Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Japan?
This is the other fun part of the Olympic season....the curling team earthquake that is about to happen. Who survives and who falls off the cliff? It is the joy and heartache of sport my friends....some of our favourite athletes will be left on the outside looking in at the end of this season.
If we take just a quick gander at some of the top Canadian teams on tour, here are a few teams/players to keep an eye on this season....especially if the team fails to win the Olympic ticket or provincial and/or Canadian title:
- Team McEwen - Rumors have run for many seasons and the team has been very up front with the internal conversations in the past. Could this be the final season for the perennial tour favourites?
- Team Gushue - Ok I know they just won a world title BUT Brad does have a history of mixing up his teams and, should they have a downslide this year after the high's of last year, could a quick change be made?
- Team Jacobs - The defending Olympic champs have stuck together in hopes of pulling the never done before repeat...but what if it doesn't happen? With vice Ryan Fry now calling Calgary home, does he venture to a new team closer to home base? If so, what does the family connection do in Northern Ontario? Could we see an Ontario team shake up due to a once in a lifetime call from an Olympic champ to come curl up north?
- Team Carruthers - Vice skip Moskowy is based in Saskatchewan, could he want to "move" back home and get back into the skip role to make a run at the Sask title again if the team comes up short once more in Manitoba or in their Olympic run? Plus, if Team McEwen does implode, do Reid and Mike take their off-ice friendship into the curling house for a 2022 run?
- Team Laycock - If they fail to win the Olympic trials and come up short in reclaiming the Sasky title, will the Dunstone era in #TeamOranje be very short term and Laycock does a line-up shuffle once again....perhaps adding....
- Team Simmons - Great for Pat to move over to Manitoba for a leadership/mentor role with a young team (and former junior champions don't forget) but is this a long-term move or a one and done season? Hmmm perhaps the long-awaited rumour of a Simmons/Laycock reunion is around the corner?
- Team Cotter - Jimmy and John have an interesting bromance. They are together then they break up then they get back together....and now may lead to a breakup once again? Do we think this team survives if they come up short in December and/or March?
- Team Koe - This is an interesting team. Sometimes they look like they are having fun and sometimes they look like they don't want to be on the ice together. All 4 of these guys are no strangers to mixing and matching teams so I wouldn't be surprised to see this be their final season if the Olympics or Brier wins don't come to be.
- Team Homan - I know...this really seems illogical to consider but this is a game of what if right? What if the most dominant women's team in years fails to reach the Olympics and stumbles in their Scotties repeat? Do they stick together for another 4 years given they don't all live in the same province?
- Team Jones - The biggest question is whether Jennifer wants to do another 4 year cycle, should they be unable to repeat their 2013 trials win. They will be favoured to win Manitoba (especially if Homan wins the trials and biggest MB rival Englot moves to the Scotties as Team Canada). But is a Scotties and World title enough to keep Jones on the ice for 4 more years? Is Lawes ready to make the move to the back of the house full-time?
- Team Englot - The risk of last season's move for Michelle paid off big time in the team reaching a grand slam and Scotties final. But, similar to Jones above, does Michelle want to do 4 more years if they fail to find the top prize this season? Sure she is enjoying Manitoba now but 4 years of the team being in different provinces could be tough. Plus....Saskatchewan is looking WIDE open right now!
The announcement of the World Curling Tour (WCT) and Curling Champions Tour (CCT) merger in June was very exciting and got curling athletes and fans, from all disciplines and age groups, pumped up for the future. We have a mixed doubles tour this season. We see an actual junior men's and women's tour. We even finally get some sports equality in the announcement of a formal wheelchair curling tour. How can you not be excited as a fan of the sport?
While the addition of the new tours add more events around the globe and more opportunity for athletes and fans to #growthesport as a whole, we are still left with a growing problem (at least for now?!). The division line between Elite and Others is growing. We are even starting to see a division amongst the Elite where teams like Edin, Gushue and Jacobs stand out on the men's tour and Homan, Jones and Hasselborg looked like the cream of the crop on the women's tour. More events, new tour schedules...these are all wins. But if we do not fix the growing divide in the rankings system, will these new changes really matter in the long run?
The rankings system is FLAWED! Major major flaw! It is a struggle for teams to crack into the Top 10 unless they are playing in grand slam events throughout the season. Once a team reaches the grand slam level, it is almost impossible for them to be "relegated" out of the grand slam Elite tier. Look at Team Shuster. Ok nothing against these guys but for the first half of the season last year, they were lucky to just get a W at a slam, let alone actually compete for a playoff spot or the title. Yet there they were playing each slam event while other teams on tour were perhaps winning events and qualifying week in and week out. Have you checked out the upcoming Tour Challenge Tier I list of teams? Glenn Howard and Pat Simmons are competing in the Tier I! Howard had a horrible season last year and struggled at each slam. His best result was runner-up at the Tour Challenge Tier II event. And Simmons....he just took over this team. Tier II, sure! But Tier I....already....at the start of this season? Huh? Now nothing against any of the athletes on these teams, this is not a knock on them at all. If the system is set up the way it is, great for you! I say go hard and take advantage. But it is what is best for the tour and the sport as a whole? Debatable!
Last season this very blog penned an entire post on the Rankings system, the various flaws and why the system is ultimately causing a divide amongst the sport. The Tier I and Tier II idea is great but, as discussed above and in the post last season, the move from II to I is almost impossible. And the Tier II teams are good....damn good! Just ask Casey Scheidegger and Kerri Einarson. Scheidegger started last season competing in the Tour Challenge Tier II and ended up winning her first slam a few months later. Einarson won the Tier II and ended up winning her first slam last season as well. The Tier II teams can compete...and can defeat....the so-called Big Boys and Girls of the tour. But the rise of Scheidegger and Einarson are almost an anomaly. The new tour structure is great but this whole Strength of Schedule factor is still ridiculous. Let's just go with a set system of ranking points available per event and classify each tour event in a different category based on prize amount and number of entries. It works for other sports, why not curling? Let's have the 250, 500, 1000 and Grand Slam level of events on tour. Could a team enter and win a bunch of 250 and 500 level events during the season and rise above a team who chooses to play only slams and 1000 level events but fails to win many games? Under the #TwineTime proposed system, you bet Team A would rise above Team B. Hmmmm, I might just have to do a whole second blog post on this topic alone.
New tours, yes! New opportunities for more athletes, yes! New disciplines to help #growthesport, yes! Same rankings system, NO!
5. Welcome Mixed Doubles!
We have a new addition to the curling family. Ok officially mixed doubles curling is not a completely new discipline to the sport. The World Mixed Doubles Curling Championships have been around since 2008. But this is really the breakout year for the discipline. Maybe think of it as turning 18 years old (or 19 or 21 depending on where you live). You spend the last few years trying to convince everyone you belong and can hang with the big boys. But you are also independent and can stand on your own. Well....Happy Birthday Mixed Doubles!
Mixed doubles will make in inaugural debut on the big stage when they join the Olympic family in PyeongChang. This is great for the sport and really helps encourage a #growthesport mentality around the globe. Considering at the inaugural world mixed doubles championship there were 24 teams competing and last year in Lethbridge there were 39 nations competing, I would say the discipline itself has seen a positive growth and impact to the sport of curling over a brief 10 year existence.
Switzerland has been the dominant nation in the past 10 years, claiming 6 world titles including 2017. Hungary and Russia are the only other nations to claim the podium, each winning gold twice. The Swiss and Russians (assuming no universal doping ban is enforced of course) will be favourites in South Korea, as will China and Canada.
But outside the Olympic rings, how will the discipline do? Can it succeed on its own? Well it would appear those behind the WCT think so with the addition of a mixed doubles curling tour this season. The 2017/18 tour will see 21 sanctioned mixed doubles events take place in Canada, USA and Europe. Many of the European stops are also non-traditional curling hot spots within the continent, such as Austria, Estonia, Hungary and Latvia.
With the growth of a new discipline, competition heating up amongst the traditional 4 squad teams and a larger growth divide between Elite and Others, could we see a few of the sports bigger names make a shift from a full-time men's or women's team towards a mixed doubles commitment? Canada's Charley Thomas and Kalynn Park could be prime examples. If neither finds increased success with their individual tours, do they make the call to go full on with a mixed doubles future in hopes of reaching the Olympics and winning world championships? China, Russia and Switzerland already have dedicated mixed doubles athletes and look at the success they have found. Competitive curling nations like Canada, USA and Great Britain might start following suit to keep up with the stronger nations and, as an athlete, not get left behind. Do you fight out a 4-team season only to wind up outside the slams and ranked Top 30-45 each season or do you make the jump to mixed doubles and start fighting for national and international championships and make your mark there?
If the 2017/18 mixed doubles tour is a success, the 2018 and 2019 landscape for the sport as a whole, for all disciplines, may just see an exciting shift and change. Plus why wouldn't we, as curling fans and athletes and media, want to see more nations compete on the big stage. Having been in Lethbridge this season (check out my blog post on the #WMDCC2017 HERE), watching teams like Estonia, Brazil, Spain, Poland, New Zealand, Croatia, Romania, Serbia and Belarus compete was exciting and different. I say, "Bring it on!"
Small sidenote/pet peeve here though. When talking the growth of the sport with athletes from various countries around the world, it really did put perspective into play. In North America we are a bit spoiled in how our athletes and sports are treated. We have extensive coverage. We have media. We have many arenas. We have TV commercials even. Yet, occasionally we still here our own athletes feel "dissed" or feel they "deserve more respect" from media and fans. Do you? Do you really? Do you have it SO bad as an athlete where you need to make statements calling for fans and media to pump your tires? Your competitors in other countries around the world receive none of the first class treatment you receive during a season yet YOU need more respect? To be clear, I am never a fan of any athlete saying they deserve respect....heck that they "deserve" anything. Aren't you playing a sport you love and have a passion for and making some money along the way? Respect is earned and nothing is owed to you. I do not get to go into work or start a new job and demand I deserve all my colleagues to like me. Some will. Some won't. And that is ok! Heck when I started this blog I didn't feel I deserved respect from my fellow curling fans, let alone the athletes. I do think over time I have built some respect from both sides though and that I am truly thankful for. I don't take it for granted though and know it can go at anytime. Some people respect and like what I do and some do not. Again, that is ok! Let us remember just how good we have it in North America and try to put these #firstworldprobs complaints to the side. How about you go take up the sport you love in Bahrain or Kenya or Columbia and then tell residents and media you deserve more respect?!
6. #HomanTrain Chugs Along
Here is the honest truth we all know....Rachel Homan is either going to medal at the Olympics or repeat as World Champion. Of course her team cannot do both given the schedule but the team WILL accomplish one or the other this season. No doubt! 100%! Sign the cheque and bet the farm now. Team Homan has easily been the class of the women's curling scene for the past few seasons, whether dominating the grand slams two years ago or crushing the field on the national and international stage last year. Given the heightened importance of this year, any of us would be a fool to think the #HomanTrain is going to come to a stop anytime soon. Let's also remember, Homan still has one major demon to fend off her back and that is the disappointment of the Canadian Olympic Trials in 2013 when the team was completely shocked and outcurled in the SF loss to #TeamUpset Sherry Middaugh. Of course that loss is what lit the fire in the competitive belly of the team as they went on to win the Canadian title in 2013 and 2014. Last year they avenged the disappointing results at their previous world championship appearances when they finally struck gold. The early bet is clearly on Homan pulling a similar result this season....except now it will be donning the Red and White as Team Canada at the Olympics. BUT, should she falter once again, the season can be salvaged with the auto berth already booked to the Scotties and a chance to defend her Canadian and World titles. Either way, Team Homan is here to stay this season once again and SHOULD find themselves at or near the top of one of the major world events this season.
Last season was the awakening of #TeamUpset. We saw numerous first time grand slam champions (Niklas Edin, Allison Flaxey, Kerri Einarson, Casey Scheidegger). We saw the resurgence of former provincial champions (Michelle Englot). We even saw the rise of a junior champion into a dark horse Olympic podium threat (Kyle Smith).
These kind of results are what makes sport fun. Sure we love seeing the Team Homan's of the world continue to wow us with their consistent play year in and year out but we also like seeing the underdog rise above the rest and finally grasp the golden ring of victory. Last year saw many of these teams accomplish just that...and we loved every moment of it!
When looking back on the #TwineTime preview for last season, I mentioned three men's and three women's teams to keep an eye on during the season. Six teams that could surprise you and make a real run up the rankings and be strong competition at slam events.
For the men I named Team Matt Dunstone, Team Shaun Meachem and Team Heath McCormick. I would say those were pretty solid choices. Ok sure Dunstone jumped ship to neighbour Saskatchewan and joined forces with Team Laycock but still he had you watching him didn't he? Team Meachem knocked off perennial Sasky champs Team Laycock to reach their first Brier and even produced a 1st Team All-Star in vice Catlin Schneider. And Team McCormick was dominant throughout the season before faltering at the worst time and just missed their shot at representing USA at the World Championship. But if we look at the team rankings, Team Dunstone (now Team Gunnlaugson) jumped from #31 to #18. Meachem (now Team Casey) moved from #39 to #27 and McCormick had the largest jump of all rising from #64 to #14.
For the women, #TwineTime put the rally cap behind Stef Lawton, Isabella Wrana and the returning Bingyu Wang. Lawton had a tough season and did not perform as well as many were hoping/expecting. She has a new team this season so we will see how she rebounds knowing the Olympic dream is gone...but Saskatchewan is still wide open! Wrana....well see the Champions Roll Call above. She went on to win the World Junior title and qualified for her first grand slam (Champions Cup). Her ranking moved from #43 to #31....and playing as a junior team. Finally Bingyu Wang returned and continued to be a contender on tour throughout the season. She even represented China at the world championships and will be a threat at the Olympic qualification event in December in Plzen, Czech Republic. Wang vaulted up the rankings last season moving from #69 to #16!!
So what about this season you ask? Well here are the six teams #TwineTime says could shock a few of you throughout the season and could find themselves rise from the middle of the world rankings pack right up to Top 20 or beyond. I should point out, for a team to be considered as a team to watch here, they must start the season ranked outside the Top 25. Here are my picks:
2. SooHyuk Kim (South Korea) # 48 2. Cory Christensen (USA) #37
You know we cannot have a #TwineTime blog post without a few season predictions right? When I looked back on my predictions from last season, honestly I was quite surprised with how well I did. I went 2 for 2 on naming the Canadian champions (Homan, Gushue). My predicted world champions both reached the final but lost to their Canadian opponents (Sweden's Edin and Russia's Sidorova). My #1 ranking predictions were, again, Homan and Gushue with Homan finishing at the top and Gushue finishing second. The biggest rankings jump prediction as Most Improved Team was Team McCormick and Team Larouche and, as discussed above, I would list the McCormick pick as successful. I had Dunstone and Wrana listed as my dark horse teams and both had pretty good seasons, Wrana more successful in claiming a world title of course. Overall, I would give myself a 4/5 for those predictions. Let's see if I can keep the success rocking into this season...here we go:
Scotties Champion: Manitoba (Jennifer Jones)
Brier Champion: Northern Ontario (Brad Jacobs)
Roar of the Rings Winner (Men): Brad Gushue
Roar of the Rings Winner (Women): Rachel Homan
Olympic Champion (Men): Sweden (Niklas Edin)
Olympic Champion (Women): Sweden (Anna Hasselborg)
Olympic Champion (Mixed): China
World Champion (Men): Canada (Jacobs)
World Champion (Women): Switzerland (Binia Feltscher)
Order of Merit (#1 Ranking): Brad Jacobs (men) and Rachel Homan (women)
Dark Horse Team of the Year: Soohyuk Kim (South Korea, men) and Min Ji Kim (South Korea, women)
Most Improved Team of the Year (Biggest Ranking Jump): Yusuke Morozumi (Japan, men) and Binia Feltscher (Switzerland, women)
EE. Fantasy Curling
Ok I mention this every year and every year I, along with many others within the sport, continue to really drop the ball on having some sort of awesome fantasy sport option for curling during the season. Let's change it this season rock heads and stoners. With the Olympics right around the corner, #TwineTime is willing to host an Olympic Fantasy Curling game. But with some help?! If you, dear loyal reader, have an interest in this idea please reach out to me in the comments below or on twitter on ideas for the game. What should the format be? A straight Pick'em style? What about a confidence type of deal? Or a suicide pool? Or a full on pool similar to what many people do during the Brier? Share your ideas and let me know if you are interested in participating. If there is interest, I will look into this in more detail and try to make it happen.
Another season preview in the books and we are flying out of the hack ready to hit the house on another curling year. Agree with my points above? Disagree? Either way, hit me up and let me know. Don't forget to keep voting in the #fanvote to have YOUR say in which teams YOU think will finish in the Top 5 of both the men's and women's tour this season.
#StayTuned all season as well as #TwineTime tries to bring you comprehensive coverage of the season week in and week out. Updated #PowerRankings, event previews, weekly predictions and a whole lot more. Maybe we add a few new members to the #TwineTime family? PLUS you just might see #TwineTime at a few events throughout the season....kicking it all off at the Tour Challenge in my home town of Regina in a few weeks (Thank you Sportsnet!).
Enjoy the rest of your summer rock heads and stoners.....clean those rocks, wet the ice, paint those rings and let's get ready for another curling season!