Archive for the ‘Curling’ Category

It has only been two days, but I already miss the Brier.

I miss the big shots.  I miss the tight draws.  I miss the intricacies of strategy that underly every shot.

But most of all, I miss the festive and friendly atmosphere of the general curling fan.

The curling fan is a unique breed.  They are not like the rowdy drunks you might see at any given NFL game or the hooligans that populate soccer stadiums worldwide.  They are polite and respectful, but also loyal and passionate.  The roar that Glenn Howard received when he was introduced before the Championship final can be directly contrasted with the silence that accompanies Howard as he slides from the hack to deliver his final rock.

Each and every fan has their favourite players or teams, but all are united in their love for the Roaring Game.

During my time watching curling this past week I met many new people, likely who I will never see again, but that displayed exactly what it means to be a curling fan.  There was the elderly lady who, with no qualms whatsoever, talked to me like I was a long-lost grandson.  There was the 20-something who was there to spend time with her mother.  There was the young mother who left her kid with the babysitter so she could enjoy a night out with her girlfriends.  There was the young fiance there watching his first curling game with his bride-to-be and her sister.

All of them came from different walks of life and each engaged the game it their own way.  The elderly lady was content to sit back and watch casually.  The 20-something talked the finer points of the game.  The young mother just wanted to get drunk.  The fiance wanted to bring a little bit of the NFL rowdiness.  What united them all was that they all just wanted to watch some men slide 45-pound stones down a sheet of ice.

These are the people that made my week so enjoyable and why it is so hard to return to the real world and all it holds.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t give some commentary on the Championship game.  It was a close game up until the sixth end when Howard missed his draw against two of Jeff Stoughton’s yellow stones.  From there on out it was only a matter of when and not if Stoughton would win his third Brier – and Manitoba’s 27th.  Not only was Stoughton’s team on fire in the final, but the top teams do not let you back in the game.  They have enough tactical nous to close down a game and not allow the opposition to score three or four points to get back in the game.

After the game, many have criticized Howard for his reaction to the missed draw.  Howard blamed the ice straightening out, and, while I would rather the first thing out of the losing skip’s mouth not to be an excuse, he was somewhat justified in doing so.  Simply put, no one misses the broom by that much at the highest level.  To be almost a foot off the proper ice is something you’re more likely to see in your local beer league than on national television.  However, as a top level skip, the onus is on Howard to read the ice properly and be aware of the way that the ice can fluctuate end-to-end.  That he failed to do so is entirely his fault.

Another point of interest for me after the final was the Hec Gervais award for the playoff MVP.  Manitoba’s vice Jon Mead won the award and, as you might expect from my previous posts on the Brier, I was severely disappointed that Richard Hart was overlooked.  While the two were tied in shooting percentage for the round robin, Hart clearly out-curled Mead in the playoffs.  In the three games Hart played, he missed maybe three or four shots.  He was the primary reason why Team Ontario made the finals after losing to Alberta in the final draw and having to claw their way up from the 3v4 game.

Don’t get me wrong, Jon Mead curled very well in Manitoba’s two playoff wins, but he was not the driving force that Hart was.  Giving the award to Mead, as good as he may have played, seems to me to be giving it to someone from the winning team just because they won and that kind of system is why I have very little respect for the NBA MVP award.

Now that it’s all over, I’m back to the real world.  Back to the hustle and bustle of university life and away from the simple pleasures of curling.

I’ll feel the pangs of withdrawal for a little while yet, but I can always sleep easy knowing that the Men’s World Championships are just around the corner.

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Richard Hart is the best curler at this year’s Tim Hortons Brier.

He’s a man who often stands in the shadow of his skip Glenn Howard, but this week has been Hart’s coming out party.  His performances throughout the whole tournament have brought him from a supporting actor to the star billing.

Hart has all the shots in the book, evidenced by his capture of this year’s Ford Hot Shots skills competition title and the car that goes with the victory.

In Saturday’s 3v4 Page Playoff and Semi-Final, Hart was outstanding, whether it be tight draws, massive run-backs, or even the more mundane tasks of controlled takeouts or peeling guards.  Such were the skill and execution of his shots that when Howard came up to throw the shots on the table were fairly straightforward and the end was almost already decided.

Through the round robin, Hart threw an incredible 87% with the only players better than that mark being leads and seconds.  That percentage was brought down by an uncharacteristic sloppy game (74%) against Kevin Martin in the final draw.  However, Hart atoned for those mistakes with a 95% game against Martin in the 3v4 playoff and a 94% game against Brad Gushue in the Semi-Final.

Hart’s game is characterized by a kind of efficient reliability.  He’s not an out-and-out banger like Mark Nichols.  He doesn’t necessarily combine awesome power with mesmerizing touch like John Morris.  Hart brings an understated game to the table.  He can make the big weight shots or cozy up a perfect freeze without fuss, preferring to simply make his shots and then slip back into obscurity.  Hart is the kind of player that you simply need to put the broom down for and he’ll hit it.  There are no qualms about whether or not he can play this kind of shot or that kind of shot.  Just put the broom down, tell him what to do, and it shalt be done.  Simply put, he is a skip’s dream.

For those of you who follow curling, none of this is new to you.  You have seen Richard Hart’s skills first hand.

But players like Hart often get overshadowed by their bigger name skips.  To most people, Richard Hart is just another cog in the machine that is Team Howard.  In that machine, Glenn Howard is the shot-maker, the finisher, the glory-getter.  Howard makes the scoring shots, the shots that you see cozying up to the button right before TSN flashes the final score at the bottom of the screen.

This happens across all the teams at the Brier and other teams across Canada: extremely skilled curlers are overshadowed by the skip whose name is on the scoreboard.  Take Steve Gould for instance.  Gould is a former Hot Shots Champion, but by day he plays lead for Jeff Stoughton’s rink.  Gould has all the skills and all the shots – as well as some massive sweeping strength – that would enable him to play vice or even skip, but, and this might be down to his ability to manage a game, he plays lead.  Not many people expect a lead to do much more than draw, guard, and occasionally pick.  Not many people expect a lead to be a top-notch curler.

Mark my words, Richard Hart will skip his own team someday.  And when that happens stay tuned for him to be celebrated as one of the greatest curlers of our generation.  Once he’s out from Howard’s shadow, possibly with a few more Brier titles to show for it, there is no limit to how far Hart’s star can rise.

Of course, don’t expect him to be flashy about it, he’ll just carry on being one of the most efficient and reliable curlers we have ever seen.

After a break from the action on Wednesday in order to have a life, I returned to the Brier for the final two draws on Thursday to answer some of the questions that I was left with after Tuesday’s games.

These questions included who would be in the playoffs and the fates of Kevin Martin and Brad Gushue after their game on Monday night.  The first of these questions was half-answered on Thursday morning when Jeff Stoughton, Brad Gushue, and Glenn Howard all moved to 8-2.  This eliminated everyone except for Northern Ontario’s Brad Jacobs, who needed two wins and two losses for Martin on Thursday to even get a tiebreaker.

Now, before I get down to the business of breaking down Thursday’s action, I want to give some props for an amazing achievement that happened on Wednesday.  Earlier in the week I had raved about Richard Hart’s 99% game, but Jeff Stoughton topped even that by shooting a perfect 100%.  Stoughton became just the eighth skip to throw a perfect game in the history of the Brier on his way to a stomping of Kevin Martin in which his team as a whole curled 97%.

For a skip to throw a perfect game is about as likely as an 8-ender.  With all the rocks in play at the end of each end, the shots that skips are asked to make are extremely hard.  They come down to millimeters on the hits and one extra brush stroke on the draws.  So much can go wrong with some of these shots that faint-hearted skips may opt for an easier shot when faced with a double raise takeout to win the game.  It defies logic for a skip to throw a perfect game, but Stoughton did it on Wednesday to add his name to the list.

So, on to the playoff picture.

As I said, going into Thurdsay’s afternoon draw Brad Jacobs’ rink required two wins to make the playoffs as well as for Kevin Martin’s rink to drop both of their games against the Territories’ Jamie Koe and Ontario’s Glenn Howard.

To his credit, Jacobs played exceptionally well in his two games, winning them both convincingly against New Brunswick and Saskatchewan.  He showed glimpses of the kind of game that got him into the playoffs last year and left James Grattan and Steven Laycock trailing in his dust.

The real interesting part came on Martin’s side of the equation.  Given that his first game was against the Territories, one might reasonably expect him to rack up a quick 9-3 or 10-2 win and kick his feet up for the rest of the day.  That was not the case at all.

In the afternoon game against Koe, Martin did not play well at all.  A combination of bad decisions and missed shots – quite a few missed shots actually – kept Koe in the game.  Koe wasn’t playing badly either as most of Martin’s misses were under some kind of pressure from Koe.  The key moment in the game came in the eighth end when Koe had a shot at three points which would have put him ahead 7-5 going into the ninth end and would have effectively ended the game.  Instead Koe only got two, leaving Martin only down 6-5.  The ninth was blanked and the scene was set for what will likely be a curling highlight-reel staple for years to come: a double-raise takeout to score two and win the game.

Martin may have won the game, and in the process eliminated Brad Jacobs’ rink from playoff contention, but neither Martin nor the rest of the team played particularly well.  Martin shot 60% and the team shot a collective 74%.  However, as I predicted, they came out firing in the final draw against Glenn Howard’s rink, controlling the game for all but a couple ends.  It was a rapid turnaround from the display that we saw in the afternoon game.  Against Howard, Martin’s rink shot 86%.  Martin will have to be careful though as he heads to the playoffs as from here on out one bad game will mean the end of the tournament, unlike the round robin where Martin’s rink was able to bounce back from some below-par games.

With the playoff picture settled, I now would like to turn my attention to something that caught my eye in a negative manner on Thursday.

As I mentioned in my first post about the Brier, one of the great things about the tournament was the level to which the fans got involved, using the elderly Ontario fan who ran around with his flag as an example of such fan involvement.  When I went to the game on Thursday, I found that ‘Flagman’ was confined to his seat, or standing in a single place to wave the flag.  It also seemed that he was not waving his flag as often (although that could have been because Howard was getting dominated by Martin).

It is an absolute shame that the CCA and/or the Brier organizing committee has cracked down upon this kind of behaviour as it doesn’t hurt anyone and brings an added dimension to watching the sport.  As it was, Flagman picked his times so as to not distract the players and the players themselves embraced the fan interaction that was demonstrated by Flagman’s runs around the arena, with Glenn Howard making quite the scene by once running alongside him down at ice level.

When I go to watch curling live I want to see this kind of spontaneous action and this kind of fan involvement.  I don’t want to see a bunch of highly-trained robots slide up and down the ice.  I want to see curling played in good spirits, not played in the tight grips of stuffy organizers.  And I’m sure that the players, as much as the teams not getting as much fan support as others might feel left out, want to see the fans having a good time as well.

Anyways, CCA stuffiness aside, bring on the playoffs!!

They say that the middle draws of the Brier are the boring ones.

The excitement of the opening day is gone, the top teams have been established, and the crowds are saving up their energy for the playoff push.  The midweek games often don’t feature the top teams against one another, with some notable exceptions, the organizers preferring to have such games take place either at the beginning or end of the round robin.

However, the midweek games – those that take place on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday – are often the source of many surprises.  And this year’s Brier has been no different.

Monday evening threw up what promised to be a cracker of a game between Newfoundland’s Brad Gushue and Alberta’s Kevin Martin.  Martin came into the game riding a 30-game Brier winning streak and boasting an undefeated record in this year’s tournament.  Gushue, a former Olympic champion in 2006, had dropped a game to British Columbia’s Jim Cotter in Draw 5.  Given Martin’s winning run, you might suppose that Gushue would have a hard time dethroning the Alberta rink from its spot atop the standings.

If you did suppose that, then you’d have been very, very wrong.  Martin missed a few relatively easy shots and made some bad decisions on the way to curling 69% and losing the game 9-4.  The loss is even more surprising given that the rest of the Alberta team curled at a collective 94%, enabling them to still out-percentage Gushue’s team despite Martin’s mishaps.  The performance really was a massive shock to the system, given that Kevin Martin is one of the most consistently ruthless skips out there.

But that’s not to say that Gushue’s team did not fully deserve their win.  As a collective, they curled 86% – which is quite good for any team – and they made the shots they needed to in order to run out to a 4-0 lead on the back of three stolen points in the second and third ends.

One of the principal players in Gushue’s victory was possibly-departing third Mark Nichols.  He missed a couple shots over the course of the game, but was always on hand to make the big shots when called upon.  Case in point: his duel with Ontario’s Richard Hart in the Tuesday afternoon draw was nothing short of spectacular.  The game was distinguished by the opening three ends being blanked.  One might consider that to be a boring game, but that the ends were blanked was down to some amazing shot-making by both Nichols and Hart.  The leads and seconds set up rocks in such a manner as to indicate a high-scoring end, and Nichols and Hart cleared them out two or three at a time.  It was simply shot-after-shot of curling brilliance.

Another surprise that came out of Tuesday’s afternoon draw was the performance of Northern Ontario’s Brad Jacobs and his heretofore relatively unknown rink of E.J. Harnden, Ryan Harnden, and Scott Seabrook.  Sure, they lost to Shawn Adams’ Nova Scotia rink by the score of 10-5, but they displayed enough pure talent and shot-making ability to indicate a very bright future.  In fact, in last year’s Brier, Jacobs’ rink went 9-2 in the round robin before losing consecutive playoff games to Glenn Howard and eventual champion Kevin Koe.

Jacobs and the Harnden brothers are all big, strong men that are capable of throwing the big weight and strong sweeping.  They also showed some nice touch with the softer weights, despite Jacobs being heavy with a couple last rock draws.  All in all the skills are there to be one of the top teams in the country for a long time.  If they can learn to manage a game better I wouldn’t be surprised if they became the first Northern Ontario rink since Al Hackner’s 1985 foursome of himself, Rick Lang, Ian Tetley, and Pat Perroud to lift the Brier Tankard.

These surprises build excitement for the final games of the round robin that take place on Thursday.  Can Martin keep it together for his last-draw showdown with Glenn Howard?  Can Gushue continue his run of good play and translate it into a first or second playoff berth?  Can Jacobs make a run from the outside and nab a playoff position?

These questions will all be answered on Thursday, but for now they give us a reason why we should keep watching.

Welcome one and all to my first post on the Tim Hortons’ Brier.

Over the coming week I will be attending a number of games and naturally my thoughts on those games will find their way to this blog.

Yesterday I got my first taste of Brier action after missing out on Saturday’s opening games.  Glenn Howard is probably thankful for that after gifting New Brunswick’s James Grattan – whose team features Glenn’s nephew Steven Howard at second – victory by coming up short on a draw to the eight-foot.

On Sunday morning I was following the game between the aforementioned Grattan and the powerhouse Alberta team led by Kevin Martin.  Despite being extremely sleep-deprived after a late night with fellow members of the Kappa Alpha Society, the game was rather interesting.  Then again, it wasn’t hard to stay awake with Steven Howard channeling the spirit of his father (the Canadian legend and current TSN analyst Russ Howard) with ear-shattering shouts of “hurry hard” and the like.  Martin eventually went on to win 8-6.

After a quick nap I was back in action watching Team Ontario take on Nova Scotia’s Shaun Adams.  But I must have still been half asleep as I didn’t realize just how well Ontario’s third Richard Hart was playing.  From what I saw he was making just about everything.  However, that usually translate to a shooting percentage in the high 80s or low 90s.  According to the official CCA (Canadian Curling Association) statistics Hart shot a remarkable 99%.  Now, Richard Hart is a good curler, no one will question that, but shooting 99% is beyond remarkable – it is almost miraculous.  And with those kind of numbers, it’s no surprise that Hart was this year’s winner of the Ford Hot Shots Competition.

To understand why such a performance is miraculous, we need to look at exactly how the shooting percentage number is calculated.  Each shot that a player throws is given a score out of 4.  If the shot is exactly what is called, then the player gets a 4 for the shot.  If the shot is missed completely, then the player gets a 0.  As such 1, 2, and 3 are reserved for anything between perfect and missed completely.

What this means for Hart’s percentage of 99% is that of all the shots Hart threw throughout the game, only one was anything less than perfect.  Only one rock rolled just a little too far or curled a little too much.  Every other shot was inch-perfect with what was called.  At the third postion, after both front-ends have thrown and left any number of rocks in play, only missing one shot – and that shot by only a fraction – is one of the most amazing feats I have ever witnessed on a curling rink.  It was also probably one of the main reasons why Howard’s Ontario rink won the game 7-4.

Another highlight of the Ontario-Nova Scotia game was the vocal crowd support spearheaded by a couple of crazy flag-waving fans.  Since the tournament is being held in London, Ontario, Glenn Howard’s rink has been getting great support as the de-facto home team.  The Ontario supporters were rivaled by a loud section of Nova Scotians (who happened to be sitting in the same section of the arena as I was) wearing bright yellow boating hats and chanting songs.  Whenever Ontario would score, an old man (he must have been nearing 80) would run around the rink waving a giant Ontario flag.  At one point a young Nova Scotian (around 8-10) also got up and ran around with a flag.  Eventually, both flag-wavers wound up chasing each other about the rink, which had the rest of the crowd up and cheering.

The afternoon draw also featured two games that went into extra ends: Quebec-Saskatchewan and Newfoundland-Northern Ontario.  Oddly enough, I didn’t stick around to watch the end of either of them.  Newfoundland and Saskatchewan ended up winning, but I was off the the Purple Heart Lounge at the London Convention Center to get in line for the autographs of Kevin Martin’s Alberta rink.

I’d been waiting to get Kevin Martin’s signature for a while, about a year in fact.  After Martin, John Morris, Mark Kennedy, and Ben Hebert won Olympic Gold in Vancouver Morris, Kennedy, and Hebert made a brief stop in London, signing autographs at the White Oaks mall.  So for almost a year I was missing Martin’s signature and when the opportunity arose to get the signature, I wasn’t going to miss it.  Now my hat is complete and I have a Team Martin autographed t-shirt to boot.

The evening draw was fairly uneventful, although Ontario flattened Saskatchewan, Manitoba beat P.E.I., and British Columbia squeaked past Newfoundland.  Yukon/Northwest Territories’ Jamie Koe, the brother of last year’s Brier champion Kevin Koe, overcame New Brunswick in an extra end.

Sunday’s games gave us a good idea of who the teams to beat are, but it is still early on in the tournament and a team cannot truly be considered to be out of the running until they lose five games.  Four losses will be cutting it close and will probably require you to play a tiebreaker to qualify for the playoffs, but five losses will require a miracle for you to even get a tiebreaker game.

All in all, Sunday’s games have got me extremely excited about the Brier (as anyone who as seen me recently can attest to) and I can’t wait for next Sunday afternoon’s Final…