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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Going Like a Pro at The National

The broom news this week from the WCF has distracted me from focusing on the task at hand, rewatching and analyzing games from the National. The conversation has shifted away from "directional fabric" to water proofing and a "hardening" or "stiffening" insert. I leave the related adult jokes to your own imagination, but these new regulations appear to put one company in a tough spot. Hardline responded with their statement later in the day, disagreeing with the decision and stating they will "do what is necessary". Not certain this will come to legal action but given that the icePad was a previously approved broom and, two years later, is not, it's easy enough to feel empathy for their position. If you were a small business owner, how would you react in the same situation? Then again, it's possible all this news coverage might increase their sales. The Donald always said "all publicity is good publicity", or "there is no bad publicity" or something to that effect. Heck, they even made the New York Times.

It appears the WCF (and possibly soon the CCA) feel the need to make a quick decision because, well, we are in the middle of November and a third the way into the season. Unfortunately, more time is needed and I hope this is not the final resolution. The WCF begins stating this ruling is in place until further notice but ends by commiting to continue to "work to establish a well-defined equipment policy". This last statement might lead someone to think their current policy is poorly-defined. Some think the ruling smells of corporate conspiracy. With Balance Plus being a sponsor of both the CCA and the WCF, it's reasonable that questions would be raised and fair to expect them to be answered. In any case, more to come I'm sure. Perhaps in 10 years an ESPN 30-for-30 documentary, released on Blu-Ray, digital download and 3D hologram, just before the 2026 Olympics.

Let's move on.

Mens Final: Brad Gushue vs Reid Carruthers

The Carruthers squad can look back at a few situations as missed opportunities to change the outcome of this game. In the second end, tied without hammer, Gushue was in trouble most of the end until Carruthers third Braeden Moskowy came deep on his second shot. Brad was able to draw in to possibly escape, but Reid then made a fantastic shot with his next, leaving 3 of his own tucked in behind a corner guard. Gushue was unable to tuck his last rock completely but a whisker rub on Reid's final shot gave Brad the steal, a 5 point swing. Rather than being up 4, Carruthers ended up one down. A very poor mistake as they had no need to be so close to the guard or their own rock in the house (the one they rubbed). Carruthers could have been an inch further out and still scored 3 points. The difference between 3 and 4 (We =87% to 94%) is not large enough to be too cute on the shot.

In the fourth end, some discussion from the broadcast crew on sweeping techniques, as they watch a single sweeper. A few good points raised that led me to think how much of the current controversy is over the technology and how much can be attributed to teams being innovative and doing things differently. In this game we saw teams corner sweeping hits with hair brooms in an effort to get them to curl. Kevin Martin bemoaned that he should have used one sweeper back in his day (which isn't really so long ago). Didn't mean to come back to this topic...damn you Mike Harris for bringing it up.
Another missed opportunity in the 5th end. After a centre guard, Gushue calls for their first rock in the house and out to the wings. Martin suggests they would prefer a "soft deuce", ie. one without much risk, but their primary goal is a blank. A slight faux pas by KMart as they can't have 2 primary goals. Again, this is based on thinking that holding hammer in the 6th is the best situation, and as I've said at nauseum, this strategy is over thought. But not much harm, unless your opponent puts up a second centre guard and then play moves to the centre. Carruthers however, doesn't want to get that aggressive and choses to hit and sit for one. After a miss and a pick, Gushue gets into some trouble but Reid comes light on his first and then faces this with his final shot.

Gushue is Red

It's unclear who is sitting shot, but by chosing to try the double (green line) Reid may believe it's Gushue. However, Harris, Martin and I all agree it's a strange call. Even with a made shot, Gushue is still likely to score his one. It could be a higher percentage shot for Reid to play a draw to the back four foot (blue line) and make Gushue's draw more difficult, also increasing the chance of a steal. In the end, Gushue drops an out turn draw to the back four foot to score two. The same draw that, if Reid had thrown, would have been a great result and perhaps changed the outcome of the game.
Down two in the 6th end, Carruthers puts up two corner guards, one on either side. We've seen some teams choose to put two on the same side, one long and one short. Still not sure which strategy I prefer.

Perhaps an error in 7th end or a change in strategy by Carruthers. As we return from commercial, lead Colin Hodgson is drawing around a lone centre guard. Perhaps his first was in the wrong spot (halfway between hog and top twelve) so they decided to come into the rings instead. In this situation, down one without hammer and 2 ends to go, two centre guards is a preferred position. However, a pick and a miss by Gushue third Mark Nichols puts Carruthers in a good position to force or even steal. Some discussion by Mike Harris about teams maybe preferring, under the 5 rock free guard zone, to be tied with hammer rather than two up without in the last end. Not enough data yet to prove out this theory but I would guess it is closer but still a small advantage to be up two. Under the four rock free guard zone, up two without hammer has a WE = 88%. Perhaps with the 5 rock rule we may see this drop a percentage point or two. Tied with hammer WE is historically 76% but per my article last season is closer to 80% and for some teams that are proficient with the tick shot, possibly higher.

Gushue gets his single and holds on in the final end for the win.

Womens Final: Rachel Homan vs Tracy Fleury

A great battle for the first ever Womens National Grand Slam. A couple of interesting situations.
In the third end, Homan is 1 up and could draw to sit two and force Fleury to a single (green line) but instead chooses to hit (blue line) and allow a blank.
Homan is Red
Kevin Martin suggess Rachel is concerned about leaving a possible shot for two. The decision might indicate that Rachel doesn't expect her draw weight to be accurate enough. I expect many other skips would have drawn to sit two in this situation, but in Womens the WE is actually about the same (58% vs 59% for tied with hammer). So perhaps Rachel does trust her draw weight, and trusts CWM and curling analytics even more.

In the 7th end another interesting situation. Homan lead Lisa Weagle attempted a tick on her first shot. She instead tapped the Fleury stone into the back four foot, leaving her rock as a centre guard. Tracy should have thrown a long guard in front of the Homan stone. Instead she chose to come into the rings. The probelm is, Free Guard Zone only stops a team from removing their opponent's guards. Homan was able to play a runback on Lisa's next shot. Of course, that runback left another centre guard and ultimately Homan got into a mess, eventually surrendering a steal of one point. Or was it?

Back to the title of this article. The Fleury team acted like pros in a difficult situation. After the final rock of the 7th end, Homan second Joanne Courtney cleared a Fleury stone that could have been measured. The TV monitor appeared to show it was likely not second shot, but we've seen those overhead cameras lie to us before. Heather Nedohin was certain she had lost to Jennifer Jones in the 2012 Scotties Semi-Finals, but ended up winning the measurement and went on to win the national championship. Team Homan also acted like pros in the situation. Rather than pouting about their mistake or brushing it off as no big deal (as I recall seeing a famous third in mens do in a similar situation many, many years ago), they properly gave the option to Tracy of deciding what her team wanted to do. It is ultimately the non-offending team's choice to decide the course of action. Tracy chose to take a single point and went on to lose when Homan scored a deuce in the final end. Not an easy situation that tradition and curling etiquette creates and many teams don't always take an empathetic position. I recall one instance from my early days in mens where a well known and well liked team from Manitoba made a tough choice against us in an important game. On our skips first shot we tapped a stationary guard with our broom while attempting a hit. Rather than put the rocks where they would have gone (we either would have made the shot or hit the guard and they would would split apart), our non-offending opponent chose to remove our stone from play and keep the guard in its place, actually tapping it back into its original position. Thankfully for us, our skip then made a runback for two points on his next shot and we went on to win the game and knock our opponent out of contention for the provincials.

Homan wins again. Her numbers this year are nearing Steph Curry and Golden State levels. I will enjoy watching them both for the remainder of the season.

Until next time...

Friday, November 13, 2015

A Quick One on The Masters

The National has already started but let's take a quick look at a couple of scenarios from the Masters.

The first situation involves the 7th end of the Men's semi-final between Kevin Koe and Mike McEwen. This would have been a great game to watch but television viewers were instead served a potpourri of shots from all four games taking place. I understand the desire to capture the best shots across all games and the SportsNet crew has improved with this broadcasting approach, but I would prefer to watch a single strong game and see how ends develop rather than jump around. McEwen scored a critical three in the sixth end and we never saw how it happened. Curling's version of the NFL Red Zone isn't something I'm interested in watching but I wonder if other viewers would disagree.

Following a pick on McEwen second Matt Wozniak's final shot, Brent Laing drops a corner freeze into the rings that sits 5th stone and, up two points without hammer, Mike is looking at this:

McEwen is Yellow

Despite sitting first, third and fourth, McEwen is not thrilled with his position. A runback on the corner guard could drive the Laing stone onto his shot on the top four. A straight peel could help but the staggered stones will conttinue to create trouble. At this stage everything Mike does should be to avoid three or more points. He would gladly hand over a deuce right now and take last rock tied into the final end. After some discussion they chose a corner freeze onto second shot. BJ is light with his attempt and sits beside the corner of the red stone in the top twelve. Kennedy then hits and rolls behind cover and things have gotten worse:

McEwen is Yellow

BJ now noses with his runback of the corner guard and when the dust settles Koe is sitting first and second behind cover and fifth stone biting. With a Kennedy hit on the back stone Koe then sits 1,2,3 and 5.

Ultimately, Mike makes two spectacular shots, a triple followed by a runback double and Koe has no choice but to blank the end. The McEwen squad could simply look back at this end and thank their skipper for saving their bacon, or they could examine whether they put themselves in the best position possible.

Consider if they had simply peeled the guard on BJs first shot. Granted, he came light on his freeze attempt and a made shot would have created a better result, but even if he had come into the rings, Koe would have been left some type of hit and roll behind cover or freeze into an expanding pile. If BJ peels, Koe now either replaces the corner guard, freezes to his second shot stone or attempts a hit and roll. Lets look at each:

Corner guard, Mike now can chose to peel or try the same corner freeze with BJs second shot. If he comes light (as he did), we're into the same mess. If he makes the shot, Koe now has one less rock to try and score 3 or more points.

If Kevin freezes to his own rock, Mike can blast the staggered rocks, but will have some risk of jamming the red stone onto his shot stone top 4. Koe would then sit 1,2 and 3 and will likely score three unless Mike is able to make a triple or runback double, depending on where Koe places his first shot. Assuming both rocks are buried, a better choice in this case would be for Mike to hit and roll off his shot stone and remove one or both of the buried red stones. In the case that Kevin is not fully buried, Mike may be able to blast one or more of the reds out of play.

With a hit and roll Koe will have his two rocks close together, Mike can now blast the staggered rocks on his first shot and Kevin will have the option to guard his two stones or draw to the open side to sit 3. If he sits three, Mike should have a high probability of a double (and possibly triple) and Koe will likely end up with his deuce. A guard will leave a runback for Mike to try and kill at least one Koe stone and again, Koe will get a deuce.

I'm not certain trying to corner freeze on BJs first shot is the best decision. I'd prefer to open things up at this stage, and not play further into a draw-behind-corner strategy. However, you can see that all scenarios will result in Mike needing to make a big shot to get out of the end. Interesting how this all resulted from a corner freeze from Brent that left McEwen sitting 3. Reminds me that staggered rocks are a real pain in the derriere and teams should try to create this type of situation when they are behind in order to stymie their opponent.

Women's Finals, 6th end, Homan is up 3-2 with hammer. On second Joanne Courtney's last stone they attempt a difficult soft weight hit (green line) rather than peeling a long guard (blue line).

Homan is Yellow

Perhaps they misjudged the amount of curl, but the shot is swept to get past the guard but does not curl at the end leaving two red stones in the four foot. A poor first shot by Sweeting third Lori Olson-Johns and subsequent hit and roll by Emma Miskew helps Homan escape the early danger. Sweeting then has Lori attempt a long runback (green line) that overcurls for a straight peel and Homan sits 2 with 5 rocks to go in the end.

Homan is Yellow

I'm not thrilled by this call and clearly the nose hit is critical to leave a centre guard that could help them escape the end or even sneak out a steal. They could have instead tried a soft weight hit with the inturn, the exact same shot that Val makes on her first shot two rocks later!

Rachel and her team have some deliberation, before deciding to throw a guard. Commentator Mike Harris asks Kevin and Joan their preferred options. Both are wary of the guard. I agree. Rachel has a one up lead with hammer and clogging up the centre here could leave her without a path for a final draw if the end starts to go badly. Granted, it looks great for her right now, but she is essentially assuming her tight centre guard can be promoted later if she gets into trouble. She is placing stones that give her a chance at a big end but also leave her opponent a possible escape hatch. The problem is, Homan doesn't need to score more than two points. With a deuce her Win Expectancy (WE) = 94%. In fact, scoring 1 is still a great position (WE= 83%) and her only real mistake would be to allow Val to steal (WE=62%).

In the end, Rachel makes an angle raise for two and goes on to win the game. Proving once again that questionable strategy only becomes apparent when it leads to a bad result.

Until next time...



Saturday, November 7, 2015

Of Brooms and Men

Firstly, I want to point out that technology is a wonderful thing. I was schooled as an engineer and have a generally optimistic view that we can avoid a bleak dystopian future (at least until our Sun reaches super nova) by aligning our great scientific minds to create advancements for the betterment of humankind. Just think about what we've already accomplished. The wheel. The printing press. The Internet (brought to you by Al Gore). Figuring out how to deep fry a snickers bar. Inventing a sensor for a new wi-fi enabled fridge that will update your mobile phone to tell you when your meatloaf has gone bad. Yes, the future does look bright, and not just because carbon emissions are heating the planet. This does not mean I'm naive to the possibility we will soon live in a world resembling Bladerunner and have oceanfront property in Arizona. I'm just hopeful we can avoid that outcome with the use of technology.

When it comes to feelings about high tech advancement in Sports, the glass appears more half-empty to me. When I was younger, my favorite players and athletes were "throwbacks" who "play the game the right way". Some of this nostalgia is misleading when you realize that many legendary players were racist, violent and possibly criminal. Yes, I'm talking about Ty Cobb, but there were many others. In any case, I prefered a player like Will Clark, first basemen for the San Francisco Giants over a Deion Sanders of the Cowboys/Braves. Will's Wikipedia page previously (now removed) suggested he could have been a better player if he had exercised on occasion and been in better shape. What's more throwback than that? How could anyone born before 1975 not get choked up seeing classic photos of Guy Lafleur lighting up a cigarette between periods? To me there is more appeal when sports heroes are regular guys and not perfectly shaped athletes who appear to have been built in a lab.

So where am I going with all of this? Brooms of course. Where else did you think we were headed?

The advancement of golf technology has improved my game (or at least kept it from getting much worse), but in the days of balata balls and persimmon woods, it was much easier to determine who was a true shotmaker. Today, everyone on the PGA tour can hit it long and straight. Back then, straight was a skill and length was a marvel.

Tennis seemed more creative when there were wooden rackets, flowing locks and multi-coloured wristbands. The power game of 300 mph serves from NASA composite rackets takes a little something away.

Featherweight goalie pads the size of giant shmoos lowered scoring, but thankfully were reduced in 2008 and again in 2013. This is a rare example of a sport scaling back advances to improve the game.

When the protection or well being of the athlete is considered, technology should be encouraged. Few will argue helmets in football and hockey, or lab designed sneakers that reduce injury in basketball aren't for the better. But golf and curling (Brad Gushue's recent fall not withstanding) generally have less need for advancement in the safety of its competitors.

But what about when technology changes the game? The skills required to excel at golf and tennis have changed based on technology, but people still watch and play the games. In the latter case with more pleasure from those same advancements that have altered the play at the highest levels. There is no doubt broom technology can help the club curler. The fewer heart attacks at the local rink, the better. But what does it do to curling?

Over its history, curling has seen many technological improvements. Most noteably, the move to push brooms from corn and improved ice conditions made the game more precise, but resulted in the need for rule changes to make the game more entertaining. There was a transition that many of us endured during the mid 80s to the early 90s, but thankfully the free guard zone saved the sport from a slew of 2-1 games and possible extinction. Interstingly, the free guard zone was largely driven and supported by the players. Sure, those pesky "old school" Canadians held out for a few years at a conservative 3 rock FGZ while the world moved immediately to 4 rocks, but eventually everyone agreed more offense made more sense, and maybe we'll see the 5 rock FGZ become standard in the future.

The broomgate situation that has exploded in the early stages of this season, also appears to have begun with the players. The governing bodies appear to be behind in taking the necessary steps to properly police those pesky sport scientists who are working on the roaring game. Now they are playing catch-up, and maybe moving a little too quickly. The World Curling Federation released a statement on October 30th that stated "This is a very complex subject...taking the time necessary...we believe it is better to do this "right" than to do it fast". Then they made a ruling in less than week. Not sure how your government operates, but 1 week for this type of organization seems to be relative to the speed of the Berne particle accelerator. Granted, they have stated it is an interm decision and applicable for the Pacific-Asia Championships, being held this week, with further rulings to come.

At stake in the short term is the possible fate of one company (Hardline and its IcePad) and the reputation of another (Balance Plus). Putting claims of corporate underhandedness aside, the key question ultimately raised by this situation is "what impact should sweeping have on the game?"

The rules of curling state something to the effect that equipment should not alter the playing conditions. Strange, because ice has been "fudging" from use of synthetic push brooms since their inception. Before that, the use of corn brooms and their "chaff" dramatically alterted the path of rocks on the ice. The very nature of sweeping is to help alter the conditions of the path of the rock. The intent is that following a shot, the conditions should then revert back to their original state for the opposing team. We know that this is never completely possible, (pebble is being broken down with each swept rock) but at least if the conditions alter in a consistent manner that each team can analyse and adjust to, it could be deemed more competitively fair.

I'm not as concerned with Nolan Thiessen or Ben Hebert's arguement related to physical conditioning and the elimination of "athleticism". The days of corn brooms for 12 ends, three draws a day are long gone and every advancement since has made it easier to sweep well. I'm not so sure the fans care as much as some players might and don't feel that's the primary arguement for scaling back the technology. Even the ability for brushers to make the rock do strange new things (like fall rather than curl) could be argued. Granted, if it reached the point where guards no longer "guard" anything then we're back to 1990 again and no one wants to see that. But if one broom can do "new" things, maybe we should be open to allowing some of this in the game and letting all teams take advantage? I'm not agreeing with this statement, I prefer that sweeping only make a rock straighter and go further, but that doesn't have to be the case.

Fundamentally Curling must deal with answering two questions: what is acceptable for the impact on the speed and direction of a stone from sweeping and to what level should conditions of the surface be altered.

I'm not going to answer these two questions, it's not a simple task. But in a sport that is over 400 years old, is this something that should be handled in the matter of a few weeks? Probably not.

I feel for the folks at Hardline and suggest you listen to Dean Gemmell's latest episode of The Curling Show with Archie Manavian, President of Hardline to get his perspective. You can also check out his previous show with Ben Hebert and Mark Kennedy on the same topic, or read up on the many forum posts on CurlingZone.

Also see CurlingZone's Gerry Geurts recent post here. A must read.

The fact this topic is putting players and their sponsors at odds is unfortunate, and seems to be encouraging a quick resolution, but let's hope the players, manufacturers and governing bodies deal with this properly to lay out a foundation for the future that can satisfy everyone. (Um, not much precedent for this but we can always dream). The good news is the broom issue could be dealt with well before the Olympics and curling getting major news coverage (not just the CBC but home of Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post) is always a good thing.

Enough about brooms. Baseball playoffs are over, The Slams are already two events in and I'm ready to do some traditional CWM analysis. Watch for a Masters write up coming up sometime soon...