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Monday, 5 February 2018

#TeamWC Debate

#BetweenTheSheets: It's A Wild Wildcard Debate
#TeamWC - Yay or Nay for the future of the sport in Canada?!?


Congratulations to Kerri Einarson and her team from Manitoba on reaching the 2018 Scotties Tournament of Hearts championship this past Sunday.  The Manitoba-based team put up a fight to the finish but ultimately succumbed to...Team Manitoba, skipped by Jennifer Jones.

So Team Manitoba defeated Team Manitoba?  Well, not exactly.  Team Einarson was wearing the title of Team Wildcard en route to the Scotties final, a new addition to the national championship format.

This weekend wrapped up the first iteration of the wildcard inclusion into a national championship....and the results were mixed.

From a competitive perspective, the results were extremely positive and successful.  From a #growthesport perspective, there are still many questions/concerns lingering behind.

Now before we get all flustered and angry, lets be clear this commentary is by no means directed towards Team Einarson nor whomever survives the play-in game for the upcoming Tim Hortons Brier in Regina, SK in March.  Start deleting those anger-filled comments directed towards me now...or at least for the time being.  Hear me out first.

Einarson arguably had the most stressful and difficult week of all teams competing in Penticton.  They arrived not knowing whether they were checking in for an overnight visit, booking a hotel room for half of a week or needing a place to stay for the full duration of the event.  Everything was a mystery...but also a mystery they had control over solving.

Einarson ended up playing a total of 15 games in 10 days.  15 games in 10 days folks!  And under this new format there were no relaxation days.  From the Friday night play-in game, which Einarson defeated Chelsea Carey, right through to the championship final this team was playing with a lot to prove, both for themselves and perhaps a bit for the format and title of #TeamWC.

Entering this year's Scotties the debate over the new pool play format caused quite the divide among players and fans.  Some were supportive of the new format.  Some were against it.  Some welcomed the change and were interested to see how it would play out.  Some thought this was going to be the end of curling in Canada.  Yes the opinions were that polarizing believe it or not.

The format is not new to Canadian curling championships, having been used at the Canadian Junior Curling Championships since 2013.  The pool plays allow for equal representation from all 13 provinces and territories with the continued inclusion of Team Canada and Northern Ontario and the new introduction of Team Wildcard to help complete the 16-team format.

Lets be honest here.  The wildcard inclusion is like the joker in a deck of cards right?  Some games you use the joker.  Some games you throw it to the side.  Sometimes you lose the joker card from the deck completely and never really notice until you need it for a game.  #TeamWC is the joker in the national championship field.  We need the extra team to complete the game, I mean format, so the numbers balance.  We don't need to the team because it really doesn't support the essence of a national championship.  But if we eliminate the idea all together too soon, will we be left searching frantically for a replacement card, I mean team, to make the game, I mean event, fun again?  Tough call!

The argument made by many was the inclusion of individual entries for Yukon and Nunavut, saying neither would be able to mount much of a challenge against their opposition and would create "walkover" games.  From a #growthesport angle, I disagree.  I think this is the path towards creating a more equal playing field across our country.  We need to encourage the next generation to participate in curling and to have the same goals as their peers, regardless of where they live in our great country.  Why should a child in Yukon not want to achieve the same goal of competing in the Scotties/Brier as a child living in Alberta or Ontario or Nova Scotia? 

Were there one-sided results this week?  Sure!  Have there been one-sided results at the Scotties and Brier on an annual basis?  Yup!  Will there always be one-sided games?  You betcha!  This is not going to change, nor ruin, the sport folks.  Deal with it!

The bigger question mark for me was the necessity to increase non-traditional provincial/territorial representation.  I did not see many people arguing about the new format make a case for exclusion towards Team Canada or Team Northern Ontario.  We all seem to buy in to the tradition of these two entries while "hating" on the inclusion of actual territories in our own country.  Do I enjoy seeing our defending champion return the following season to try and repeat?  Sure.  Do I like the teams from Northern Ontario, like Brad Jacobs, Tracy Fleury, Krista McCarville and the great Al Hackner?  Of course.  But this isn't about attaching a person or team(s) to a debate remember.  What makes the most sense for the format moving forward?

Photo Cred: Curling Canada
Which leads us into what I believe to be an even more controversial decision, the inclusion of #TeamWC.  Lets re-write the history books for a second and say Team Einarson pulled out the victory last night.  Team Wildcard becomes Team Canada next year.  Is this something we are all comfortable with?  Again, not meaning Team Einarson as Team Canada but rather the title of Team Wildcard as Team Canada....I cannot stress the differential enough in this argument as I don't want the perception being I am "dissing" Kerri and her team for their outstanding play and right to be competing this past week.  For the record, I actually really like Team Einarson....they were very friendly to my brother Nick after their Tour Challenge Tier II win in Regina earlier this season! :)

The question I am raising is whether we are comfortable with our national champion being a team who did not even with their own provincial/territorial championship?  The argument I find most interesting is purists and historians for the traditional old format raised the point this new format eliminates the historical element of the championship and can potentially deteriorate provincial/territorial rivalry games each year.  True, we may not see an Ontario vs. Northern Ontario or Alberta vs. BC or Saskatchewan vs Manitoba game each year.  And yes, that does suck.  Being originally from Saskatchewan I used to love watching us play Manitoba and even Alberta each year because I like the provincial rivalry angle.  The traditionalist in me agrees.  But these same people do not seem to be mounting an argument towards our national champion being a non-provincial/territorial champion as well.

This is what I also always loved about the Scotties/Brier.  We bring together the best of the best across our nation for a week-long tournament to crown #TeamCanada!  Hold off on your "best of the best" comments and concerns, I'll get to that in a moment.  But the Scotties/Brier was the culmination of a playdown structure where we start with this large amount of teams competing across the country and within weeks we narrow it down to 12 (or now 16) and then crown our one national champion.  I love it!  It's like an extended March Madness tournament spanning two months.  From a pure sports fanatic perspective, I love everything about it.

Until this new addition.  It just feels like we are adding an asterisk to the championship win.  Congrats you are our national champion; however, you didn't even win your own province/territory.  It just feels weird doesn't it?  I get the ideology behind the addition.  Besides balancing the format, it does help ensure we have our best of the best competing.  However, when you use the "best of the best" or "top team" argument, are you saying in the past we didn't crown the "best of the best" with our Scotties/Brier winners?  The argument seems to devalue those who won in the past by saying the competition maybe wasn't as strong as some perceive or the winners defeated a "light" field because of provincial/territorial upsets.  Two things:

  1. Upsets happen in sports.  Get over it.  The best team doesn't always win.  The team with the best record will not always win the championship.  Look at the NHL.  The NFL.  MLB.  NBA.  Do their regular season champions always win the championship?  Nope!  Why should curling be different?  The top teams all have their equal shot of getting there through the playoffs, which in curling equates to provincial/territorial championships.  If you get upset in your playdowns, and were considered a top seeded team, too bad so sad for you!  Welcome to the world of sport!
  2. Under the previous format, even if you believed some fields were "weak", did we not always send a strong representative to the world championships?  The argument now is we want to ensure we are sending our best rep possible to snag a world gold medal.  Weren't we doing this before anyway?  Last time I looked at the overall medal table from world championships Canada seemed to be doing quite fine.  Oh because Switzerland was on a mini-dynasty run for the women and prior to Team Homan's win last year Canada was struggling to win gold at the world championships we should all of a sudden be concerned?  Come on!  The world is catching up...oh no!  I say great, welcome the competition.  The other nations are developing the sport and getting better.  Does this mean we need to change what we have been doing too?  My fear here is this could possibly in the future create a slippery slope argument where we just send to the world championship our Canada Cup winner so only the "elite" teams can compete.  And what if we do that and still only produce gold medal wins at the same percentage rate we are now?  Would that be deemed a failure or a success?

Here is my other concern with the #TeamWC idea.  Transparency, transparency, transparency.  Maybe this is the regular job part of me coming out and not the part-time sports blogger side but what is the deal with the requirements around qualifying for the wildcard play-in game?  The only two requirements published were as follows:

  1. Must compete in a provincial/territorial championship in the same season
  2. Highest non-qualified teams based on recent CTRS rankings

Lets tackle number 2 first.  Heading into this weekend's provincial playdowns, the top three Manitoba teams (McEwen, Gunnlaugson, Carruthers) were in the lead for securing the two play-in spots.  The next team, Jacobs, was half a point behind Carruthers.  McEwen knew, win or lose Manitoba, they were going to Regina for the Friday night game.  The other spot was still open.  When Carruthers won Manitoba on Sunday evening, McEwen and Gunnlaugson should have been planning their trip to Regina.  However, Jacobs can still take the spot vs. McEwen depending how his Northern Ontario championship plays out.  Should Jacobs reach the final and lose, for instance, he could garner enough points to pass Gunner.  But is this really fair?  Again, remove the attachment to these teams and label them as A and B. 


Don't you think there should be a simple cut-off date in place for this qualification?  The grand slam of curling events use a CTRS cut-off date for sending out their invites.  Sure there are events taking place after the cut-off date and, as has been the case a few times, a team may win one or two events after the cut-off date and look like a team that should have been invited to the next slam, but the cut-off date is there for a reason.  Transparency and simplicity!  Would it not make sense to have the wildcard play-in CTRS rankings be finalized after the most recent slam event?  We have a slam in early January, usually involving the top teams in Canada anyway.  This seems to make the most sense.  If A already has more points than B, which is cumulative of the season, then A should earn the right to be in the play-in right?  Yes sometimes the point totals will be close but, again, welcome to sport.  A cut-off is a cut-off and so be it.

And now lets add the element of point #1 above.  MUST compete in a provincial/territorial championship in the same season.  When the wildcard idea was first announced on June 28, 2017, this was the main point of qualification.  If you wanted to have a shot at receiving the invite, you needed to play your provincial/territorial championship as well.  But what if this wasn't necessarily the case?

Take a look at Team Koe for this example.  Koe won the Olympic trials in Ottawa, thus making them unavailable to compete in the Alberta provincial championship this past weekend.  Should they be allowed one of the two spots in the play-in game?  Arguably they are one of the best teams in Canada and the point of the wildcard is to ensure we have a second chance for the best right?  But they didn't play in the Alberta championship so no chance?

Hmmm....I was informed by a credible "elite" source Team Koe was indeed in a discussion after they won the trials in Ottawa about possibly being invited to take one of the two play-in spots in Regina.  The Olympics end February 25 and the Brier starts March 2.  It would be a tight schedule of course but not impossible.  Of course Team Koe declined the idea due to probable Olympic hangover but isn't the interesting question here being "Why was this even a conversation?"

Ok lets remove Team Koe themselves from the equation and say whomever won in Ottawa, should they even have been brought into the conversation on this?  The press release on Team Wildcard was released in June.  The trials were in December.  Seems pretty clear everything was set in stone no?  The teams playing in Ottawa knew, should they win, they would be Olympic bound and basically forego their shot at the Brier right?  I think most athletes would take the Olympics over a Brier appearance anyways right?  Or is that just me?  If this conversation did in fact occur, and I have high confidence it would as there appears to be no reason for this "elite" source to create a false rumour, what is the message here?  How is that transparent or fair?  Unless the source is just setting me up to lose credibility and get me in trouble with the powers that be....but is that more realistic than the actual conversation here?

I actually feel we should be more stringent on this qualification element.  I don't think just competing at the provincial/territorial championship is enough.  I would like to see the added element where the team must also reach the championship final.  You want the best of the best, add the extra requirement to the qualification standard.  While I believe no team will ever skate by or pump the brake a bit at a provincial/territorial championship because they may have a wildcard play-in spot sewed up, I also think the added element keeps the pressure on everyone competing while also opening up the outside possibility of having a non-"elite" team earning one of the two invites.

If this new requirement was in place, I realize Team Einarson would not have been competing in Penticton.  They did not reach the Manitoba final.  Either did their play-in opponent Chelsea Carey in Alberta.  If this new element was put into effect, the wildcard play-in game in Penticton would have been competed between Darcy Robertson (Manitoba) and Krista McCarville (Northern Ontario).  As of today, for the play-in game in Regina it would be between Mike McEwen (Manitoba) and Glenn Howard (Ontario).  Brad Jacobs would still have an opportunity to earn a second shot should he lose in Northern Ontario but he would have to make the final and, at least under this proposal, it would be clear cut on the qualification standards.  You all know I have mad love and respect for Gunner, he is a member of the #TwineTime family after all.  But, removing the teams from the debate, this proposed idea would eliminate him from the conversation.  The team did not advance to the playoff round in Manitoba and, as such, would be eliminated from Brier contention.

I don't propose I have all the answer for all the questions in regards to the Scotties/Brier format moving forward.  Nor do I believe the suggestions/comments above solve all the issues people have.  But at least I am proposing ideas!  I am not opposed to the new format, I welcome it.  Change can be good and exciting and help bring a sport into the new generation of athletes.  But before people quickly bash change, lets also remember Curling Canada did not just come up with this format shift on its own.  The member associations across the country voted in favour of it.  The idea behind it was brought to the table by the athletes themselves, the collection of Mike McEwen, E.J. Harnden, Nolan Thiessen, Lisa Weagle, Val Sweeting and Tracy Fleury.  Quite a fine collection of 6 top-calibre athletes right there folks!

Agree with some comments above?  Disagree completely and want me tar and feathered in the house in Regina?  Either way, share your comments and thoughts on this via the comment section below and/or on twitter.  Heck maybe rather than reach a championship final you think a qualification should be to at least reach the playoffs?  Ok, I could live with that.  Share your opinions and ideas and lets keep the conversation moving forward....but in a constructive setting remember!  We all have the same end goal and passion: curling!

Finally, for those still not content with this proposed change, I refer you to Murray McCormick of the Regina Leader-Post and his article on the topic from January 30.  Take a read over some of the quotes from the players and see what you think.  I challenge you to read the quotes from Thiessen, especially the final quote of the article.

On an end note, now that I have you possibly riled up or open minded, there are only a few days left to submit an entry into the #TwineTime Winter Olympics 50/50 Pool.  The pool is helping raise funds for the Canadian Cerebral Palsy Sports Association and the deadline to submit is Thursday February 8!  Take a read over on the why this is important to me and please feel inclined to share this pool with family and friends who may be interested in participating.  I, as well as the CCPSA and the athletes they work with, thank you in advance!

#StayTuned....the first #BetweenTheRings 2018 Winter Olympics preview blog post is sliding into your house this week as well.  Topic?  Mixed doubles curling!!