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Sunday, March 13, 2016

Another Brier in the Books

The 2016 Tim Horton's Brier is come and gone. I was fortunate to travel and attend for most of the week, visiting my parents in the process. Look for a thoughtful, well meaning article in the upcoming year end issue of The Curling News. For now, here is a haphazard list of unconnected thoughts from yours truly...

  • If you listened to my brief interview with Dean Gemmell of The Curling Show podcast and this is your first time here, welcome. It was my first time meeting Dean in person and gave me a chance to praise him for his fantastic skills as a podcast host and contributions to curling. He's been at it many years and only seems to get better each time he breaks open the microphone.
  • The top four teams we expected to challenge at the beginning of the week were there at the end. The semifinal was an entertaining game with an anxious measurement, reminiscent of the 2012 Scotties semifinal between Nedohin and Jones. In both cases, the difference of a millimetre or two resulted in a National Championship for Alberta.
  • The Championship Final included a 7th end that appeared out of a skins game. After thirds stones every rock was in play. Not what you often see from Team Koe when up with hammer. The result, after 3 time outs and team deliberation on several shots, an eventual clinching three points for Koe to go up 7-3. So much for blanking odd ends with hammer.

Team Koe from Alberta is Yellow and Brad from Newfoundland is vexing

  • Gushue's comeback in the 1 versus 2 game was a shocker. Jacobs was 24-1 when up 3 points with 5 ends remaining. Not sure the in-off attempt was their best shot choice in the 7th end. A very difficult shot with little margin for error attempting to score two when a soft hit on shot stone may have gotten Northern Ontario a single or at worst hold Newfoundland to one. If Jacobs cuts Gushue to a steal of one and takes a tie with hammer into the final three ends, their Win Expectency (WE) is 65%, but with a steal of 2 they dropped to 39%. Score one point and NO has an 81% WE. There was no imperative to score 2 points in this situation. Then again, ice conditions in that spot may have been an issue and Jacobs may have felt there was a better chance to score with the shot he called.
  • Parking was painful. My parents live in Kanata, possibly in the most western tip of Ottawa and driving to Lansdowne Park to the TD Place Arena was relatively painless if you avoided rush hour, but parking was not easy. Bus services were available along Bank street, enabling you to travel from your overpriced parking lot to the event. I discovered a bus from Kanata that could have taken me right to the gates, except, as the women I spoke with from OC Transpo explained, it only runs for special events. By this she means RedBlack football games and not Canadian Curling Championships. Not a big deal for most out of town guests but because of the parking pain, my parents may not have gone to more than one draw if I hadn't been visiting. This could have been an issue for other local attendees. Curling Canada's Angus McBreakAndEnter may have a magical portal to the event, but everyone else has to get there on their own.
  • TD Place Arena, previously the Ottawa Civic Centre (approx. 10,000 seating), was built in 1967 to replace the Ottawa Auditorium. My father told me how he and his older brother (my uncle Al) used to walk down Bank street from downtown to save 5 cents on bus fare to watch hockey games. In 1948, my uncle walked back home without my dad (then 11 years old), who was left to sleep in the mayor's section while he was locked in the arena. That same type of family dysfunction follows me to this very day.
  • The arena had leaking problems a few weeks before the event and I'm not entirely certain it was the best building for curling ice (warm and humid temperatures created frost problems later in the week), but the size of the venue seemed to properly fit the size of recent Brier audiences.
  • With the exception of having to step outside to grab food from a truck (though nothing beats poutine from a poutine truck), the Patch location could not have been better. It was held in the Aberdeen Pavilion. Built in 1898, nearly demolished in 1991 and most recently renovated in 1994, it is just a few steps from the North East gate of the arena. I correctly guessed it was used for cows. In fact it's nickname was (and perhaps still is to some) "Cattle Castle" because of the many agricultural shows it hosted. It is also the oldest surviving building in which the Stanley Cup was contested (1904).

Aberdeen Pavilion. From cows to hockey to curlers

  • Hair brooms being banned from play meant teams were limited in their ability to battle the frost during play. This likely needs to be addressed for next season. I hope some type of hair solution can be found that doesn't contribute to directional sweeping.
  • On the topic of sweeping. This might go down in the history books as the Brier with an asterisk. Most players, coaches and fans all seem to agree something more needs to be done to curb the impact of sweeping to put back the premium on shot making (and not shot adjusting). One hall of famer mentioned to me it was "offsides" and teams may as well use a hockey stick to stick handle the rock down the ice. We also need to consider teams have only been implementing these techniques for a few months. With more practice, what level could this reach by the 2018 Olympics?
  • I spoke to Mike Harris who sees this could be an evolution in the sport, and that the maneuvering of rocks (ie. improved placement of stones and sweeping for curl) puts more emphasis on strategy, but we all want this to be within reason. I tend to agree that some directional sweeping itself may not be a problem, but the ability to correct poor shots is not something we want. Perhaps a balance can be reached.
  • For Worlds the directional technique can't be used, players need to sweep across the path. Haven't found anything definitive online on what this actually means and not sure how it will be policed, but all eyes will be watching to find out.
  • More on the World Curling Federation. One rumour I heard was the WCF had rejected a new material submitted by Balance Plus. A material that was in fact the exact same one (from the same supplier) submitted by Hardline and approved as their replacement for the flipped IcePad. If true, it implies their testing techniques are not yet foolproof.
  • Further material discussion. Talk of several BP teams using different heads on their brooms at this event. I'm going to avoid getting any deeper into this topic but will state that I always support a team that will do what it can within the rules of the game to win. This behaviour isn't new to sports and nothing less should be expected. Ideal gas law not withstanding.
  • What is troubling in all this broom controversy is the behaviour of some players just a few months ago and the animosity that bubbled in an otherwise respectful sport. Calling out other players as cheaters was clearly premature and we now have seen that technique is as much of a concern as the fabric (or hair) itself. I suggested to coach Jon Mead that Mike McEwen, a rep for Hardline, may have been impacted by the broom battle and it was reflected in their results earlier in the year. He agreed, mentioning Mike is a thoughtful guy who takes things to heart and ultimately wants to do what is best for the game. He also said there are players out there who still owe Mike an apology for what has been said in the past.
  • Jacobs decision to pull the Brent Laing burnt stone in their round robin game is something most every other skip at the Brier would have done. As another future hall of famer mentioned to me, it's bad sportsmanship to pull a draw that gets tapped as it's stopping in the four foot, another issue entirely on a peel weight shot that's 25 feet from its target. If the tap had come a few feet earlier, prior to the hogline, Jacobs would not have had a choice, it's suppose to be pulled immediately. The reason the rules allow for the option by the non-opposing skip is to deal with an intentional burn that would benefit his team if it had not been touched and removed. What it also does, unfortunately, is place the team in the courtroom of public opinion. Not many sports where a non-offending team gets put into this position. Rather than be critical of this anomaly (like many posters on CurlingZone), I appreciate this unique aspect of our sport, even though I empathize with teams who are put in this position.
  • Relegation came and went with fans thankful there is only one more of these pre-Brier fiascos to go. It just doesn't seem like a Brier without all the yellow hats.

Bluenosers watch the Draw 1 "play-in" qualifier game anxiously.

Nova Scotia would go on to lose to Team Jaimie Koe of Northwest Territories and miss a second Brier.

  • With Warren Hansen's announced return as a consultant to Curling Canada, we can only wonder what the 2018 Brier format could be. If you read Warren's article from the December 2015 edition of The Curling News, he advocates a Brier in two parts to take place over 9 or 10 days. A 14 team field in 2 groups of 7 to determine a single entry to a 7 team round robin (a la Canada Cup) against Team Canada, Canada Cup winner, and other Slam winners and/or CTRS points leaders. Interesting concept that I see some merit in, but limiting it to one qualifier makes the entire first portion of the event less, ah, um, eventful. If the Brier goes this route (and I hope it doesn't), I'd recommend 3 or even 4 teams come through the 14 team portion, otherwise there seems to be very little point.
  • On drinking rules that make no sense, a fan who had attended the Scotties in Grande Prairie told me they were required to open the cap on water bottles before leaving the bar. No word if they were limited to two per person.
  • Many examples of teams positioning their hammer in even ends and trying to play the scoreboard. After the Sunday morning draw where scorekeepers ran out of zeroes and a Friday morning game between Newfoundland and Northern Ontario that ended 4-1 with 6 blank ends, some fans are wondering if curling needs newer rules to make it more entertaining. I have a few thoughts on this that I'm leaving for my article in The Curling News. Stay tuned.



Friday, March 4, 2016

Scotties Strategy and Brier Preview

Wrapping up my week of work and heading to Ottawa tomorrow morning, but just enough time to look back at a strange call from the Scotties Final and a look ahead to what could be the most competitive Brier in history.

This was the first year of TSN expanding coverage of the Scotties (as they did with last year, and now this year's Brier). There are too many games on my PVR to catch up but from what I've seen so far there is a sense of strange strategy throughout the event. I'm not sure if this was attributed to new sweeping techniques (and over emphasis of their impact), the condition of the ice, or just my imagination. In every game I watched it seemed there were 1 or 2 calls that did not make sense. I don't have the time to go through everything, but here were a couple of key shots.

In the semi-final, Jennifer Jones chose to hit a rock in the eight foot rather than draw to the four foot. She even mentions the hit felt like the easier shot. Ultimately, she rolled too far and McCarville stole 2 to go up 1 into the last end. In a vacuum, this call makes no sense. McCarville's 2nd and 3rd shots are full twelve foot and all Jennifer has to do is at least bite the eight foot to give up a steal of one and be tied with hammer coming home. To believe a hit was easier implies the ice was not conducive to making any draw and perhaps not up to the quality it should have been for the Scotties final weekend.

In the final game, Krista McCarville is tied without hammer against Chelsey Carey and facing this:

McCarville is Red

Krista choses to hit on the nose to sit second in the top twelve foot (green line) rather than attempt a double on the two Alberta stones (blue line). She mentions that by hitting on the nose she'll force Chelsea to draw with the inturn. Perhaps it was an unknown path, but all Carey needed was (take note Jen), to bite the eight foot for her deuce. I don't understand why, if she intended to surrender the deuce, she didn't just blast the rock out of play and take away any risk of a jam. If Krista was worried about jamming on the double attempt, it was just as likely based on the shot she attempted. The promoted stone missed the back yellow by one or two inches. Maybe she felt confident her sweepers could keep it straight, but didn't Jennifer's rock over curl in an almost identical shot the previous game? If you don't like the double, I also like the call to hit the back yellow stone, attempting to roll partially behind the top yellow stone and put more pressure on Carey's final shot. In the end, Krista made a riskier shot than she needed to get to the same result, a deuce, when a similar or possibly easier shot could have held Chelsea to one.

Brier Preview

Recent posts on the Curlingzone forum suggest this is one of the toughest Brier fields in history. Not sure it's the hardest to win but may be the toughest "field". If you were one of the other 11 teams during Kevin Martin's 2 year run in 2008 and 2009 (26-0) you might say it was the toughest Brier ever, because there was no way you were going to win. 2016 may, however, be the deepest. Glenn Howard is ranked 5th according to online betting sites. You can't even blame the entry of Team Canada; take out Simmons (odds have them ranked 7th) and it still might be the toughest field ever assembled.

Past notable Briers of the FGZ Era:

1995. Burtnyk, Martin, Hackner, Folk, Werenich, Heidt (with Dacey). Seven teams 6-5 or better. Two more were 5-6. Five teams had 7 wins or more and made the playoffs.

2001. Burtnyk, Ferbey, Hackner (past his prime), Middaugh, Dacey, Hemmings, Harcourt and Sullivan's were no slouches either. Seven teams were 6-5 or better, two more at 5-6.

2009. Martin dominates a field that includes Howard, Stoughton, Gushue, Menard, R Howard, Dacey. You could call 2007 through 2012 the Howard-Martin-Stoughton years, with one Koe thrown in during 2010 over Howard. The big three dominated over that period.

I think Ottawa has the most wide open field in some time with many teams either nearing their potential peak level (Jacobs, Koe, MacEwan, Gushue), one who may be getting close as well (Laycock) one fallen from their mark but still grinding (Howard), one a wild mess that showed they can do it despite adversity (Simmons) one who can make shots but hasn't been able to put it all together (Cotter). A tough Brier out (Menard) and up and coming squad (Casey). 

With a little digging, I was able to calculate the head-to-head records of the top 8 teams against each other since the 2010 Olympics and since the 2014 Olympics. Some skew in the numbers as I counted all Cotter games whether they included John Morris skipping and counted numbers from Team Koe before 2014 as Team Simmons. Here's what I found:

  • Howard is 68.7% since 2010 but only 41.9% (13-18) since 2014 against this lineup.
  • Only McEwen (37-18), Koe (27-23) and Gushue (28-21) are better than .500 since the last Olympics.
  • Jacobs is at 49% (25-26). Simmons 43.3% (13-17) and Laycock is 20-30 for 40%.
  • Cotter is the only team below 40% (32.1% at 9-19) in that time frame.
  • Gushue has shown the best improvement since 2010, jumping 22% in winning percentage the last 2 seasons.
  • Howard has seen the greatest drop in winning percentage, 36.6%. But it would be hard to keep up the 78.6% he had from 2010/11 to 2013/14.
  • Laycock and McEwen have improved around 14% in winning percentage while Jacobs and Cotter have been flat.
  • Howard was 14-2 against Gushue between those Olympic years, but 1-5 since the beginng of last season.
  • McEwen has a winning record in all match-ups, except Howard (6-13 and 3-3 since 2014/15) and Simmons (8-13 and 2-3 against the true Simmons/Morris skipping duo).
  • Gushue is 14-13 against Jacobs since 2010/11 including 6-3 in the past 2 seasons.
  • McEwen is 7-2 against Jacobs since fall of 2014
  • Jacobs only has winning records against Howard (4-3) Laycock (4-2) and Cotter (5-1) recently. Howard had his number in the previous 3 years (13-4).
  • Laycock is 5-1 against Simmons, but that one loss was an extra end defeat in the 3 vs 4 playoff in last year's Brier. Pinnacle has Saskatchewan at +965 to win it all this year. Sounds tempting but that equates to nearly 10% and that sounds high. My gut tells me they may not be ready to win it all.
  • Cotter appears to be a huge long shot out of this bunch, but +2138 isn't high enough for me.
I'm not making any predictions. It's too damn hard. There are also too many stories to pull for; I can't even cheer for one team over another. Howard the old man miracle. Koe abdicates his throne as skip of Team Canada only to return two years later and reclaim it. Saskatchewan wins the Brier after a 36 year drought (no one mentions this enough). McEwen makes the first time a charm. Simmons 3-peats. Gushue finally comes through in his lucky 13th attempt.

If you can't be in Ottawa, enjoy the expanded TSN broadcasts and don't let Angus MacBreakAndEnter of Curling Canada make you feel guilty about not being there.

Until next time...