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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Let Me Root, Root, Root for the Home Team...

And they didn't win, and it's a shame, arguably on several levels.  It's a shame that the Home Team, Alberta, whose lineup was ceremoniously shouted out by 11,855 fans during the team introductions, will not continue to play over the weekend.  It's a shame that these same fans shouted, jeered and catcalled during the very late stages of the round robin, first for Glenn Howard and then for Jeff Stoughton's final shot.  It's a shame that curling is stuck between two generations of fans, and I don't know which side of that fence I am on.

Jeff Stoughton's final extra-end draw against BC

It was one of the longest days at the Time Horton's Brier in my memory.  Before the morning draw, odds were long that Team Alberta could survive the day with two wins AND have other teams stumble to the finish.  Martin's odds were at their lowest right before Newfoundland skip Brad Gushue's final shot in the 6th end of their morning game.  Leading 3-2 with hammer, and sitting 3rd and 4th, Brad had a makeable "crotch" double for at least 2 and possibly 3 points.  Needing to hit both stones simultaneously (or possibly one stone first), he hit the other rock and scored a mere single to increase his lead to 2 points.  Still down 2, Alberta was able to battle back and score a deuce in the 10th end to win 6-5 and keep their play-off hopes alive.  Would that miss come back to haunt Newfoundland and the rest of the field?

With a shocking Manitoba loss to the Territories during that same draw, suddenly four teams had 3 losses and the potential to drop to 7-4, and a possible tie-breaker with Alberta.  With two of those teams playing each other, Newfoundland and Quebec in the afternoon draw, Martin needed only one other team to falter in order to have a chance.

Quebec, my vote for scrapiest team of the week, battled back from Gushue deuces in the third and eighth ends.  Trailing 4-2 in the 9th end, Menard sat 4 before Gushue's final stone.  Quebec saw the formation in the house and knew it was worse for them than it looked.  Brad made a triple with his last shot and Quebec had to settle for two.  After Gushue finished up with a single in the 10th end, Newfoundland was in at 8-3 and Quebec sat at 4 losses with one game to go.  Menard and Martin both needed a win in the final draw and a loss by either Manitoba or Northern Ontario to get to the weekend.

The chance for Alberta at this point still appeared small, with a battle against undefeated Glenn Howard and Stoughton and Jacobs facing 1 win teams in BC and Nova Scotia.  Online oddsmakers had Martin's chances just below 9%.  

The interesting thing about numbers is, they can never tell the whole story.  The chase for 61 (previously written as 61*) home runs by Maris and Mantle involves the pursuit of a statistic, but has a backstory and a legacy that lived on in books and film even after both players had passed on.  

There was an electricity in the building that started during that morning draw against Gushue and built towards this round robin finale with all four games having play-off implications.  The crowd was large (nearly 12,000), it was younger (ok, average age dropped to 53 from 58 in prior years), and it was pro-Alberta.    

Introducing Team Albert before the draw

If you could write a storybook ending in which the hero doesn't get the girl or the save the day, but comes really close, this would have been it.  That 9% chance for Alberta got stretched to the limit.  Both Manitoba and Northern Ontario were in tight battles, each holding a 1 point lead without hammer at the 5th end break, a position Howard also had against Martin.  Quebec, in a similar position as Alberta, fighting hard from an early 5-0 deficit were down 2 without hammer.

Jeff Stoughton is a veteran of this game and one of the finest players Manitoba or the World has ever seen.  He's played in front of crowds before, but as the game wore on, this one became more engaged in the action on the ice, and ultimately more emotionally invested in the outcome.  Briers are often battles of provinces held in other provinces.  This was the Dallas Cowboys venturing into Philadelphia for a final regular season game against the Eagles to determine the division.  A football game so intense they even made a movie about it, spotlighting the absurd behaviour home town fans have for their team.  For a darker and more comic version of this storyline (but without the eye candy of Jennifer Lawrence or Bradley Cooper) you should really see this previous film by the writer of The Wrestler.

The game between Alberta and Ontario was another epic battle that deserves a longer analysis, which I may yet do in days to come.  A steal in the 8th end and force in the 9th end flipped Alberta from an underdog to a heavy favourite, tied with hammer in the final end.  On Howard's last shot, the Coliseum, and old and aching building, reached decibels that, though below those of the mid-80s and the reign of The Great One, attempted to rival those of the 2010 Olympic Games.  Glenn embraced the chants of "Hooowwwaaard....Hooowwwaaard", raising his hands in the air begging for more, a la Bubba Watson during the Ryder Cup (though the cheering was for the other side in his case).  Good sport that Howard, then again sitting at 10-0 removes some of the pressure on his final shot.  Granted, he still understood the importance of keeping Kevin Martin out of the play-offs.

Glenn made his shot and Kevin his, a draw through a port to seal the victory.  Both teams moved to the end of their sheet to sit and watch what was transpiring beside them.  Northern Ontario had already pulled out a win by scoring three in the final end to defeat Nova Scotia 5-2.  Jeff Stoughton had previously needed only an open hit and stick for his victory, but a surprising roll-out (which may have been a pick) had allowed BC to get extra time, albeit without hammer.

If you rolled back the clock to the beginning of Alberta's 10th end and Manitoba's extra end, Martin's chances were about 16%.  If you include the start of the 10th end in the Northern Ontario game, it was 29%, the highest it had been since their 1-4 start.

BC had a rock nestled over the pin and third Steve Kopf was attempting to throw a guard.  The chants of "BC! BC! BC!" may have had an effect (I'm certain Steve didn't get this type of support during playdowns) and his guard attempt slipped into the top of the house.  Jon Mead doubled the stone off the button, leaving a BC rock in the back of the rings.  As the noise increased and the tension mounted, BC skip Andrew Bilesky made a great shot with his final stone, to louder cheers than most 1-9 teams usually receive.  

Manitoba's Jeff Stoughton has had plenty of tense moments and made great shots in the past, including a draw in an extra-end against Martin in 1996 to steal one and win his first Brier.  This crowd may have been nothing he's experienced before.  Jeff calmly dropped into the hack and slid out, hit the four foot, and raised his fist into the air in triumph.  Was it directed at the crowd? Perhaps. But it showed the emotion of this shot and of this moment.  Emotion that, in a strange way, had been building throughout the week, the day and this final round robin draw.  

In that moment, as I watched the situation unfold, it seemed fine to me.  The crowd was noisy, but didn't seem to attempt distraction (like random shouts of profanity in your backswing), and fans clapped heartily for Jeff when he made his last shot.  I was also caught up in the excitement and felt like more curling events need to be like this.

Then I read Paul Wiecek's tweet.  I quickly sent a note back saying I didn't agree.  Then I started thinking about it.  Then I spoke to a few other curlers from the event.  I'm 41 years old.  I've played and/or followed 
this game for over 30 years.  With all sports I've always been a fan of the history and rich traditions that exist.  Curling, like golf, has prided itself on its etiquette.  You don't cheer a missed shot (or putt).  You shake hands and congratulate your opponent in defeat.  And you don't make noise when someone is about to throw their rock (or hit the ball). 

I got caught up in the moment at Rexall place, and I liked it.  I liked that curling was gaining a new and younger audience.  I liked that the atmosphere was thrilling and dramatic, with the sensation of overtime hockey or, more because of its static nature, the extra-innings of a major league baseball play-off game.

I also feel for Jeff Stoughton having to make that last shot.  This isn't the game he or I grew up in.  This isn't the way it's suppose to be.  And I don't like that either.

I don't have the answer.  We may not get to decide ultimately what the role of the fan becomes in the new "Olympic era" of Curling.  Unknown to most at the rink, it was rumoured that the CCA could have let Jeff retry his draw attempt if it had failed.  There is apparently a rule that allows for replay of a shot that is affected by outside distraction.  I expect Jeff would not have taken that opportunity if it had been presented, but what mood would the crowd have taken then?  

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