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Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Episode 47 - Ron Anton

Ron Anton was the original boy wonder.  He starting skipping a men's team at the age of sixteen.  With his father at third, they reached the semifinals of the Swift Current Carspiel in 1959, holding their own against the great Matt Baldwin.  Matt's third in the event, Hec Gervais, returned to skipping a year later and recruited Ron as his vice.  Joined with Ray Werner and Wally Ursuliak, they would represent Alberta at the next two Briers, winning in 1961.  Ron and Hec teamed up again in 1974, this time with Warren Hansen and Darrel Sutton, winning a second Canadian Championship.  Ron shares many stories from his time with Hector, their battles against the Richardsons and his coaching experience during the 1967 Canadian School Boys with Stan Trout and later with Team Canada at the Calgary Olympic Winter Games in 1988.

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Sunday, December 2, 2018

Episode 46 - Lloyd Yerema/Brian Chick

Lloyd Yerema would sooner curl than eat.  The second of 13 children, Lloyd grew up in Gilbert Plains, Manitoba, learning to curl on a unique two sheeter that had the hockey rink sandwiched in between.  It was in 1968 that Lloyd and teammates Roy Berry and Jack Yuill picked up Burke Parker as their fourth for the local zone playdowns and found themselves representing Manitoba at the Brier in Kelowna.  Lloyd shares their Cinderella story and what happened next, along with his early tutelage under 1938 and '53 Brier winner Ab Gowanlock. Before getting to Lloyd, Brain Chick joins for a quick chat about his new book "Written in Stone: A Modern History of Curling".  It's an oral history of curling's past three decades as told by forty-eight of the biggest names in the sport.  

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Saturday, November 17, 2018

A New Statistic: Hammer Factor

Welcome to the new stat of 2018. To be fair, this is a simple calculation using two existing statistics: Hammer Efficiency (or HE) and Steal Defense, otherwise known as SD, though in the early days it was SDE.  These are the two primary stats that Gerry Geurts and Dallas Bittle created over a decade ago to measure a team's performance with hammer.  They also created Force Efficiency (FE) and Steal Efficiency (SE) which measured a teams play without hammer.  Here's a quick refresher on what these actually are:

  • Hammer Efficiency (HE) the percentage of time a team takes 2 or more points with hammer, in ends which are scored. Includes all non-blank ends in which a team has hammer.
  • Force Efficiency (FE) - measures the ability of a team to force their opponent to one point. Calculated by number of ends in which the opponent took 1 point divided by all ends against without hammer where the opponent scores. Stolen and blank ends are not included in the calculation.
  • Steal Efficiency (SE) - the percentage of ends a team is able to steal. It's calculated by dividing ends stolen without hammer by the total ends played without hammer, Blank ends are included.
Steal Defence (SD) - ability to limit the number of stolen ends. Calculated by number of ends stolen against divided by ends with hammer. Blank ends are included

Over the years, HE and SD have provided some indication on whether a team was average, good or great.  Generally, stats without hammer are less of an indicator of success.  

Looking at last season, I grouped teams into several categories, based on World Ranking.  Top 5, Next 5, Top 11 through 20, 21 through 30 and 31 to 50.  Let's first look at without hammer numbers. For men, FE ranged between .48 and .63 with average for each grouping .55, .56 or .57.  The .63 was Gushue, an anomaly at the top, however Tanner Horgan (Rank 23) was .62 and Karsten Sturmay (Rank 48) was .61.  For comparison, Reid Carruthers, Ranked 6th, had an FE of .49.  For all groups SE averaged .25 with only two teams below .22 and two above .28.  Often these non-hammer stats are an indicator of the level of competition.  A top 5 team (like Carruthers) can have a much lower FE than a 35th ranked team who plays against weaker opponents.  In the womens game, FE last year may have been a subtle indicator, with the Top 10 teams averaging .6 while 11 through 50 averaged .55.  SE was similar to the mens, with an average between .25 to .28 for each grouping, with top teams actually being the lower number.  Now on to our new stat...

When digging into these CurlingZone stats, over the years it's become apparent that strength of a team was related to how much they avoided stolen ends.  A low Steal Defence (say, below .20) meant a good team.  When combined with a high Hammer Efficiency (above .45) , indicated likely a great team.  Some teams have differing styles and you could see one team with higher HE but higher SD, and vise versa.

Oddly enough, it was staring at us all along and we only just recently thought to combine these numbers into a formula...  

Hammer Factor = (Hammer Efficiency) - (Steal Defence)

Going back to my team groupings from earlier, when I took this formula and averaged it for each grouping, it jumped off the spreadsheet.  Have a look:
Team World Ranking
(2017-18 Season)
Hammer Factor
Women Hammer Factor 
Top 5
6 to 10
11 to 20
21 to 30
 31 to 50

Now, looking at teams individually, there's still some oddities.  Edin and Gushue are top of the rankings and have the highest HF by far (.33 and .39 respectively).  Howard was .3 at a ranking of 11 and Koe only .24 while being ranked 3rd.  In the womens, Jones and Hasselborg were .28 and .35  while Einarson at 14th had an HF = .27.  But for the most part, Hammer Factor seemed to drop with a teams ranking.

I haven't yet gone backwards to compare past season results and also haven't yet analyzed against W-L records (just rankings).  Perhaps HF could be used in a Bill James Pythagorean Expectation to estimate a team's winning percentage or a Bill James style log5 formula to estimate win probability head-to-head.   More to be done with this new calculation, but for now it's fair to say that the higher the Hammer Factor, the better.

Episode 45 - Robin Wilson

Robin Wilson grew up a fighter.  She was active in supporting social change during the early 1970's and, after earning her business degree, applied for positions in male dominant companies. Her path eventually led to one of the greatest sponsorships in sport.  Robin met Lindsay Davie at the North Shore Winter Club while in their early teens.  Robin, her sister Dawn, Lindsay and Lorraine Bowles would eventually capture the 1976 Macdonald Lassie.  In 1979, they won again and were able to represent Canada at the first ever Women's World Curling Championship.  Robin is the Leadership Director for the Sandra Schmirler Foundation.  Visit to read the incredible stories of babies and parents who are helped by the Foundation.  You can donate online or add a $10 donation to your cell phone bill by texting the word SANDRA to 45678.   

Check out the latest episode of Curling Legends Podcast

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Episode 44 - Pierre Charette

Pierre Charette may have been a little feisty. Regardless of his position for Team Quebec at the Brier (and he played them all) he was intensely focused on trying to win.  During a phenomenal run in the late nineties, he nearly won it all.  Teamed with Guy Hemmings and the front end of Dale Ness and Guy Thibaudeau, Pierre reached two consecutive Brier finals in 1998 and '99.  Pierre reflects on the early days, his Brier experiences, the evolution of the free guard zone and the beginning of the Grand Slams.

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Thursday, October 18, 2018

Episode 43 - Ron Green

Ron Green grew up in the Toronto curling scene of the 1960s. After a close loss in the Ontario school boys, the opposing skip asked if he would join up the following year.  Ron would go on to curl with Paul Savage for over a decade, with three trips to the Brier and a lifetime of memories.  Ron talks about his early heartbreak, just missing out on a Purple Heart in 1969. Then he explains how the team with Paul, Bob Thomson and Ed Werenich was formed and touches on the battles they had, sometimes with their competition, and sometimes with each other.

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Thursday, October 4, 2018

Episode 42 - Linda Moore

Linda Moore was always willing to have an open mind.  After losing the Scotties final in 1986, instead of a direct entry to the first ever Olympic Trials, the Moore rink had to participate in the evaluation camp before qualifying to compete.  When told in advance they could be split up as a result, rather than battle the process they went ahead and kept a positive attitude.  The result was a gold medal at the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary.  Linda reflects on that experience and the lessons that helped get them to that moment.  We cover from Linda's early days as a junior in North Vancouver through to her years as a broadcaster with TSN. Linda shares some Ray Turnbull stories, her thoughts on shooting percentages and explains what led to her departure from the booth.  

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Thursday, September 20, 2018

Episode 41 - Ian Tetley

Ian Tetley isn't afraid to give his input.  Sometimes a front-end player has to speak out before the wrong shot is called.  According to Ian, his teammates were often too quiet to speak he had to.  His enthusiasm for curling began while watching father Bill win the Brier in 1975.  When he and teammate Pat Perroud got a call to join Al Hackner, he went to his first Brier, and won.  Ian went on to win three World Championships with different skips and left a legacy of double peels (often, it's been said, because he usually missed the first one). We'll discuss the early days in Thunder Bay, the famous Hackner Double in 1985, the first Canadian Olympic Trials, and tales from Toronto during his time playing for Ed Werenich and later Wayne Middaugh.  

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Friday, September 7, 2018

Episode 40 - Don Bartlett, Part 2

In Part 2 of my conversation with Don Bartlett, we cover the boycott years, dig deeper into the Ferbey rivalry and reflect on his Olympic experiences.  Don will also talk runback strategy, handling emotions in big moments and eventually weigh in on the greatest teams and players of past generations.

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Thursday, September 6, 2018

Episode 39 - Don Bartlett, Part 1

Don Bartlett's greatest skill might be assessing talent.  He recognized early on that Pat Ryan and later, Kevin Martin, were going to be the best skips in Alberta.  Don had a short run with Pat and eventually joined Kevin in 1990, starting a run that would last 16 seasons and include 7 Briers, two Worlds and two Olympic Games.  In Part 1, we cover Don's early development and the success and disappointments of the 1990's.  We dig into corn broom controversies, Randy Ferbey's brief stint on Team Martin and Don shares his viewing perspective on the famous Hackner Double as fifth man for Alberta at the 1985 Brier.

Check out the latest episode of Curling Legends Podcast

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Episode 38 - Barry Fry

Barry Fry was known as "The Snake" for his unique version of the tuck-slide.  As a young skip he teamed with Orest Meleschuk, reaching the provincial semifinals while in their early twenties.  He later helped Rod Hunter bring Don Duguid out of retirement in 1969. Over the years Barry watched friends and ex-teamates win Purple Hearts, wondering if it would ever be his turn.  He won the Canadian Mixed in 1973 and finally conquered Manitoba in 1979 with Bill Carey, Gordon Sparkes and Bryan Wood.  They would capture the Brier in Ottawa, the last sponsored by Macdonald Tobacco. Disappointment followed at the Silver Broom and years later his legendary senior rink of Don Duguid, Terry Braunstein and Ray Turnbull fell short in the Canadian Championship.  Barry shares many stories, including "Orest meets Ernie Richardson", "Ray offers advice" and tales from his year as a hired player for Dr. Joe Zbacnik in Fargo, North Dakota.

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The Past, Present and Future of Curling Analytics

When we look back at the 2017-18 Curling Season in another 5, 10 or 20 years, it may be remembered as a major turning point, leading to dramatic changes in the sport. 

The debut of mixed doubles at the PyeongChang Olympics could draw new fans to watch and possibly even try on a slider and start-up the game as well.  Gold medals for Canada’s John Morris and Kaitlyn Lawes in the Olympic Mixed Doubles, despite having joined forces only weeks before, showed that talent and experience in big moments outweighed the specialized skills of other countries at the new discipline.  It will be interesting to see if players will continue to specialize in mixed doubles or if high performance curlers will pursue both versions of the sport.

The other Olympic curling result for Canada may bring dramatic changes to the qualification process.  Failure to medal will lead those who run Own the Podium to question if Curling Canada should change the process to determine its representative every four years.  Canada has been inclusive, with many teams receiving funding and allowing multiple paths to qualify through competition rather than selection.  We won’t likely see Canada hand pick teams in 2022, but could there be a reduction in teams at the next Trials?

John Shuster’s Olympic Gold medal could lead to further expansion of the game in the Unites States. We could see increased funding and TV exposure and greater sponsorship move the sport even further to professional status.  Jamie Sinclair’s win at the Players Championship may not have reached the same audience, but the first ever Grand Slam win for a US team will help curling grow and, along with Anna Hasselborg’s gold medal, perhaps change how teams think about the game.

Team Hasselborg raised their play over the last couple of years, winning the Gold medal for Sweden in South Korea.  Jamie Sinclair reached new levels in a matter of months, going 6-2 at the Players, against teams in which they previously had a 3 and 32 record.  Both teams (and Shuster as well) have revealed that their success came with some contribution of using analytics.  This past season may be remembered as the one where curling with math moved from novelty to strategic weapon. 

Let’s look at how we got here, what happened this past season, and what we might see in the future.

The Past

In the ninth end of the 2005 Brier finals, five-time champion Randy Ferbey faced a decision.  Tied 4-4 with hammer against Shawn Adams of Nova Scotia, the Ferbey Four were sitting shot at the back of the eight foot with no other rocks in play.  Randy and fourth thrower David Nedohin discussed their options.  In this situation, Randy and Dave guessed that Adams may not simply surrender a deuce, but instead try a freeze, attempting to limit them to a single if successful, at the risk of Team Ferbey scoring three points.  One year earlier, they were two up in the final end against another team from the Bluenose province, skipped by Mark Dacey.  Nova Scotia had beaten them with a score of three in the final frame, thwarting the Alberta team's chances of winning an unprecedented four Briers in a row.  That 2004 loss, combined with their confidence in David's ability to draw the button on his final shot, led them to a very strange call.  They took out their own rock.

My first reaction was, like many, shock.  My next thought was “what would Bill James think?”.  Twenty years earlier, as a pimpled teen running my own fantasy baseball league, I had stumbled across a book called the Baseball Abstract.  As he did for many others, Bill James transformed the way I thought about baseball and statistics.  Before the 2005 Brier, I had recently read Moneyball, the 2003 Michael Lewis book about Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics, and analytics.  Reading Moneyball had jarred my memory of those Abstracts and the way Bill challenged his readers to think differently about sports. 

My next step was to search the internet and it led me right to CurlingZone.  I lived in Calgary at the time, as did the website’s co-founder Dallas Bittle, who then introduced me to Gerry Geurts.  Dallas and Gerry were, like me, disciples of Bill James.  The first release of their Black Book of Curling included new statistics (Hammer Efficiency, Force Efficiency, Steal Efficiency and Steal Defense Efficiency) and results from the 2004/05 Season. 

CurlingZone had collected line scores of most every meaningful game from previous years.  Lifting a concept from baseball, I took this data pool and created a Win Expectancy chart.  In baseball, you can determine the odds of winning during each static position in a game.  Based on the inning, score, number of outs and runner(s) on base, a team will have an expected chance to win the game.  With curling, there were limitations, but at least we could determine some chance of winning based on the score and the number of ends remaining.  The second edition of the Black Book of Curling in 2006 included articles from me and Gerry, using the results from these charts. Gerry examined 1 up without hammer in the last end and I dove into the legendary Ferbey take-out from the same 2005 Brier final that had launched the idea in the first place. 

Don “Buckets” Flemming was a sports writer from Edmonton who focused on horse racing and curling after the Edmonton Flyers hockey team folded in 1962.  Don brought his interest in numbers and math from the horse track to the rink.  Shooting percentages and the 4-point system were born.  Larry Wood, then covering curling for the Herald in Calgary, had devised a similar 3-point system around the same time.  Larry mentioned to me he and Don used their own systems, and often had a similar result.  They shared their ideas, with Larry bringing the actual perspective of a curler and Don of a handicapper.  Calculating shot percentages, Larry surmised, was also a wonderful way to stay focused on the game and avoid tipping too many beverages in the lounge. 

On August 1st 2006, Don Flemming passed away.  Over four decades after its creation, the four-point system, still the standard for curling statistics, had out-lived its founder.  Dallas and Gerry attempted to improve on its design and in the 2006 edition of the Black Book revealed Shot Tracker Shooting Statistics.  Built on a similar point system, they added sweep factor and a degree of difficulty modifier.  Before, a team that played conservative and attempted simple shots would have higher percentages than those with a more aggressive strategy.  Now teams could be compared more closely, regardless of their own ice strategy.

With Moneyball released in 2003 and the Black Book in 2005 and 2006, you might imagine curling went through a historic transformation, with teams clamoring for this new information and adjusting their preparation and in-game strategy to align with these findings.  Not quite.

Canadian Curlers are generally a conservative bunch.  Push brooms had been in existence for 100 years in Europe, but it took a long-haired junior with plaid pants to show Canadians that the corn broom was a less effective device.  Beginning with their early use in Calgary, the full transition for Canadians from corn to push brooms took over a decade.  The single sweeper technique unveiled in 2015 was available 40 years earlier, but curlers never figured it out. When the world embraced the four-rock free guard zone in 1993, Canada held tight.  A year later, we dipped our foot in with the three-rock rule, and many older players still grumbled it wasn’t needed.  Ten years later, Canada finally aligned with the world and moved to four rocks. With the rich curling history of staying squarely in the past, is it any surprise analytics would take some time to catch on?

The third release of the Black Book of Curling in 2007 would be its last, but the work was just beginning.

Around this time, blogging under Curl With Math became my outlet to write a Bill James version of curling analysis.  The small group of followers were loyal, but the dismal add revenue amounted to an extra cup of coffee each season.  In 2013 I released an e-book, End Game: An Olympic Viewer’s Guide to Curling, which was a collection of articles with additional information (thanks if you paid for a copy).  Other than the realization 1 up (without hammer) was better than 1 down (with) in the last end, only a few players took a passing interest.  One exception, a young underdog skip at the Canada Olympic Trials in 2009 by the name of Jason Gunnlaugson.  You might have heard him spewing numbers on mic over timeouts while playing fifth for Brendan Bottcher at the 2017 Olympic Trials, or during a recent Grand Slam, referencing Kevin Koe’s success in the final end when tied.  His approach against Mike McEwen in the 2018 Brier Wild Card game, leading to a narrow extra end loss, was a prime example of great execution matched with a data derived strategy.  

Gerry eventually built a presentation around these new statistics and concepts, and evangelized with anyone who would listen.  Scott Higgins of the USA High Performance program had seen the Black Book and invited Gerry down in the summer of 2009.  Though there was some mild interest, teams rejected the analysis as a tool to compete. In some instances, the stats were examined to identify why a team lost, rather than help them win.  Gerry had the coaches support, but ultimately the teams and their skips did not see much benefit.  Several showed some interest in the reports Gerry was generating, but did not demonstrably alter their approach to the game or use as a tool to prepare for their opposition.

Following the 2010 Olympics, Gerry coached Matt Hames (joined at lead by podcast legend Dean Gemmell) on their way to a 6-3 record and play-offs at US Nationals.  During the event there were some numbers used in preparing for each opponent, and it helped guide their play in the opening ends.  This was the first instance for Gerry of teams using the numbers to prepare for opponents.
After 2010, Gerry continued to provide reports to the US program, but it wasn’t until 2016 that he would again test the use of analytics directly with a team.  Jacqueline Harrison had him assist with strategy for the 5-rock rule and determine where they needed to improve.  Ultimately, Gerry helped them recognize the importance of planned aggression, particularly against a stronger squad like Team Homan.  Team Harrison had (to date) their best season in 2016-17.  It started with a win in the Tour Challenge Tier 2 event, and a Quarterfinal appearance at the Canadian Open, including two wins over Homan.  Their best result was in the 2017 Champions Cup.  They faced Team Hasselborg in the semifinal, a team Gerry had also started working with around the same time.   The Moneyball-Bowl ended in a 7-2 win for the Swedes on their way to a 5-4 loss to Homan in the finals.

The Present

Team Hasselborg retained Gerry’s services over this past season, leading into the Olympics.  Gerry provided scouting reports with situational analysis for their competition, showing how teams performed during various scoreboard situations (up 1 or down 2, etc.).  Following their Olympic Gold medal, Sweden coach Maria Prytz was quoted on working with Gerry. “He is incredibly skilled at tactics and numbers so he can look at different teams and explain how they play in different modes. It has been worthwhile for me to raise different scenarios for the team”.  Maria explained that when she and the team started working together, they first looked at their own game plan, "Then we started thinking about how we could take another step in tactics and start matching our game with the opponents,"

In the spring of 2017, Gerry provided reports to South Korea, and that summer participated in a camp with six USA teams.  When it came to analytics, Teams Sinclair and McCormick seemed the most engaged with Team Shuster appearing less interested.  However, on a recent podcast with Nate Silver and Neil Paine of ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight, they mentioned CurlingZone, with second Matt Hamilton sharing, “He [Gerry] sat us down at our summer camp and explained to us where we sat [among] elite players at certain things, like with the hammer/without the hammer, up by one with the hammer/down by one with the hammer … and it went on for all of the potential scoring scenarios. And he gave us feedback [on] which positions we could be better at, which ones we’re really good at, where we need to keep doing what we’re doing. Then he gave us some info on other teams in those same kind of numbers. … I’d be lying if I said that didn’t come into play at all.”

Jamie Sinclair saw Hasselborg’s success and engaged Jason Gunnlaugson to provide analytics consulting for her team.  Using Gerry’s data and reports, Jason worked with them prior to the women’s Worlds in North Bay.  They narrowly lost a Bronze medal when Russia’s Victoria Moiseeva took two in the final end, but her breakout victory at the Players Championship in Toronto, and her quotes on working with analytics, has opened more eyes to what using numbers can do for a team.

Let’s be clear.  I’m not suggesting these teams studied a few statistics and then flipped a switch, turning from also-rans into champions.  Analytics in sports is a guiding tool that can be leveraged for many uses, but execution and performance are ultimately what determine the outcome.  Three-point shooting in the NBA is now the norm, but Lebron James is still the best player and the Golden State Warriors win with sound team defense and exceptional skill from some of the most talented players in the league, not simply because they jack up shots from beyond the arc.

Curling data currently available is limited to line scores (and shooting percentages) and can be susceptible to error, based on results from mismatched teams, or misinterpreted when putting too much emphasis on small sample sizes.  Teams can examine their opponent’s tendencies and plan their attack.  For example, Sweden was very aggressive against Canada but very conservative versus China.  There is always danger in drawing too much from inconclusive information however, and ultimately Hasselborg’s strong play may have led to wins in both cases regardless of their approach.  But in a game often decided by inches, every tool a team uses can help make a difference.

Gerry and Jason found that the use of the statistics has been a benefit to teams simply by forcing an open dialogue amongst the players and improving pre-game planning.  A team can use this information to confirm what they are seeing from another team or help highlight a hole in their game they may not have noticed.  Essentially, they use it as a tool to talk about themselves, their opponents, and how to approach the game.  Data can provide a solid base for teams to come to agreement on why they might make certain decisions, remove doubt during a game and improve performance.  Rather than the second sitting in the hack questioning in her mind the skip's decisions, she is focused on the shot, having already reviewed the team goals and strategy in advance. 

Second for Sweden Agnes Knochenhauer on their use of analytics “Firstly, it always comes down to how well we perform out there on the ice. But what we could see when we started to work with the numbers was that our own performance in combination with the statistics gave us confidence in certain scenarios and patience in other. We’re using the statistics to put the four of us on the same path, so that we all know how to take on each opponent. It gives us strength and courage as a team. It also shows the importance of each and every shot, from lead to skip, for us to be able to control the game. The numbers combined with our own experiences of every opponent gives us a good discussion on how to approach every team.”  More from Agnes on how they approached Korea in the Gold medal game “The stats played a major part because we knew how to play them to put them in an uncomfortable situation. We also knew what didn’t work since we lost to them in the round robin getting trapped in their game plan. With stats from CurlingZone we knew what type of game they had been playing all week with great success and it was our job to break that and take advantage of the game.”

The idea of game planning in curling is less developed than many might suspect.  Traditionally, skips ruled their teams like a drill sergeant and players were rarely asked for their opinion.  Years ago, pre-game warm-up might be held in the lounge with a brief chat over a cold beverage.  Teams have begun to spend time on preparing, but it can be dangerous to say, “we’re going to be a more aggressive team” without looking at data to understand how aggressive and in what situation.  Gerry noticed one team that had great statistics when playing without hammer but in attempting to become more aggressive with last rock, their defensive play suffered and they dropped in the rankings as a result.  The application of strategic adjustments based on opponents is still in its infancy but these results this past season show what is possible.  Curling is often called chess on ice.  I doubt there are many grandmasters who use the same opening moves in every match.  In football, a team builds a game plan during the week from watching film and studying their opponent.  Why would curlers want to step on the ice expecting to play the same way every time? 

Rachel Homan’s coach Adam Kingsbury recognizes the benefits of analytics.  Like Gerry, he believes it can benefit a team many ways, like reinforcing team principles on strategy, or recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses.  Team Homan was not surprised that their opponents took an overly aggressive strategy in PyeongChang.  They were prepared for the onslaught of guards, freezes and come-arounds faced.  Rachel generally has a consistent strategy against all opponents, usually forcing their style of play rather than adapting to their opponent.  The challenge is when you don’t execute to your expected level, the other team can start to dictate the style of play.  Adam suggested this was the case in the Olympics, with the difference coming down to perhaps five critical moments that swung the difference in qualifying for the medal round.

It was through Adam that I heard about funding from Canadian Tire to assist Curling Canada in an analytics project.  When we discussed this in spring of 2017, we were all excited by the potential to move curling analytics forward.  From what I understand, it appears more work needs to be done.  I’ve not seen what’s been built, but Adam described it as the same information that was generated from those Win Expectancy charts back in 2005, but with better graphics.  Perhaps this is only Phase 1 of the project, and maybe they’ve built a potential analytics engine that will add value as it evolves.  Understanding the funding model from Own the Podium and the delicate position of being responsible for Canadian teams, I respect why our governing body finds it necessary to keep the development a secret and limit those who have access.  Imagine if Glenn Howard had used the system to gather data on our teams ahead of coaching in the Olympics for Team Muirhead?  Sadly, it is this restrictive nature that limits the adoption of this analytics initiative.  Holding onto this information until it’s revealed to the Trials winners two months before the Olympics ensured it would only be a minor novelty.  A competitive team, particularly those who’ve excelled at the game without using analytics, is not going to introduce some new concept eight weeks before the most important event of their lives.  I believe Curling Canada could have benefitted from engaging more outsiders in the original inception, including players and coaches to help develop something more valuable that would have become ingrained in a team’s preparation.  I’m also a realist and this would likely have taken too much time, grown the scope beyond what the budget allowed, and as mentioned risked the scrutiny of those who are paying to protect Canada’s medal count.

In his early days, Bill James had battles with the Elias Sports Bureau.  They refused to provide him with detailed major league baseball data, claiming it was proprietary.  In the end, Bill developed a volunteer army called Project Scoresheet to collect what was needed to progress the analytics movement forward.  Elias had their reasons for withholding information.  They are a corporation and making money is one of the essential pieces to running a successful company.  Curling Canada won’t dramatically alter their position in the future, so innovation may have to come from other sources.

The Future

When progress happens we often regret how far we are to the finish, until we stop and look back on how far we’ve come.   There are now several players and coaches quoting on their use of analytics in preparation this past season.  Those of us toiling in the data for over a decade may be dismayed we still only have basic information, but acceptance is the first step.  No doubt there will be greater opportunities in the coming cycles to push the possibilities. 

In 2012 I submitted an idea for a curling paper to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference. It got rejected.  In 2013, I tried again.  This time they agreed and, with help from Gerry I submitted a paper which, among other concepts, examined the even ends theory.  It got rejected.  Now that Shuster has a gold medal, perhaps next year curling may finally get its opportunity to join the conference.

Coaches, teams and even countries are starting to ask Gerry and Jason for more information and how to get started.  Others are likely to expand their past efforts or join the fray.  As mentioned, Curling Canada could develop a next phase of its analytics program, and other countries are sure to invest as well.  Andrew Denny has been writing analytics articles for The Curling News the last few years but perhaps now he’ll have a chance to bring his ideas from newsprint to the ice.  Mike Bowling and his team at the University of Alberta have been working on an Artificial Intelligence program for curling, but have lacked the required data and interest.  Perhaps with Shuster’s success and the new focus on analytics, we could see a renewed investment (perhaps with help from Google’s DeepMind) to accelerate their work.

There is more analysis that can be done even with the data available today.  Shooting percentages could be examined further with the ability to link results to the outcomes.  Grouping similar teams and factoring strength of opponents with the data is another next step.  The real opportunity, however, will come when we have a data pool full of shot information.  Eventually we will be able to collect every shot, it’s direction, speed, rotation, eventual location, linked to each game and situation.  We’ll be able to determine what Brad Jacobs’ scoring chances are when there are 2 guards and 1 opponent rock above the tee line in a tied game.  Brandon Corbett has developed a camera system that can track curling rocks within ¼ inch.  As a training aid for the delivery it’s phenomenal, but with a little more development and funding to implement at major events, this system could record everything that happens on the ice, like Second Spectrum does for the NBA today.  In the meantime, perhaps a Bill James Project Scoresheet for curling would be possible.  CurlingGeek has data available on rock locations, as does the World Curling Federation for many of the major events.  Video libraries exist that could be mined for more information, and perhaps Curling Canada would even share its data as well.  I understand that several coaches share some information today, such as rock sequence to reduce the effort of having a scout with binoculars in the stands.  It’s information that is open to the public and available to all, but just needs to be logged.  Could we do the same to record every shot?  If there was one application that coaches used to input shot data from their games, would they want to share it in order to get everyone else’s data?  I’m skeptical, but there might be a chance.

The fear today is the data is too valuable and must be kept secret.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  At this early stage for curling, the path to greater insight and adoption will only come when information is shared.  The way to create and collect the large data pool we need to advance analytics is to have interested parties with the required skills and background working together.  The competitive advantage is not the data itself, but from its analysis and how it is put to use on the ice.  A quote from the 2018 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference “The toughest thing about analytics is not the math, it’s figuring out the right question to ask”.  In curling today, we have so many questions.  We only lack the data to answer them.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Episode 37 - Morning Classes/David Padgett

Welcome to Morning Classes.  Since 1948, members and friends of the Fort William Curling Club in Thunder Bay have held classes each morning during the Brier.  During my detention, Fred Coulson and Alfie Childs share the history of this tradition and tell a few stories as well. The next time you attend the Brier, try to wake up early at least one day and attend a class.

David Padgett started on his path to Ice Maker over 50 years ago.  He began in Lindsay, Ontario at the age of twelve with his father, moving to the Avonlea in Toronto and eventually in 1980 to the Bayview Golf & Curling Club.  It was there he invented the original "Little Rock", a plastic composite stone that would simulate a real one at half the weight. David shares the evolution of ice making, thoughts on Shorty Jenkins, and explains the original controversy over conditioning rocks.

Check out the latest episode of Curling Legends Podcast

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Episode 36 - Joan McCusker

Joan McCusker takes humour seriously.  The 1998 Gold medal winning Schmirler Rink almost never happened because Joan and Marcia were concerned that Jan and Sandra were too intense.  Eventually they agreed and everything clicked.  Their team had balance, with Joan providing levity when it was needed most.  She shares her days growing up on the farm and learning to curl at a two sheeter.  We cover her University days, playing with sister Cathy and the early Scotties and Olympic experiences.  Joan reveals the team's emotional turmoil the morning of the finals for the 1997 Olympic Trials and shares a few road stories as well.  
Joan is a broadcaster for Sportsnet/CBC and you can hear her coverage throughout the season at major events including Pinty's Grand Slam of Curling

Check out the latest episode of Curling Legends Podcast

A Redemption Story

Much has been written lately about John Shuster and the label he has carried.  It’s tough enough spending your life dedicated to a sport that many Americans are either unaware of its existence or chuckle about every four years when it appears on their television.  In the early days of Wikipedia, it must have been cool to search and find your name, but to discover it’s been added to the Urban Dictionary as a synonym for choking?  Even Johnny Miller wouldn’t go that far.

Curling is a sport (yes, it is) that involves big muscles for sweeping, small muscles for precision and one big gray blob that’s sort of a muscle and fits between your ears.  In a game where finesse is required, adrenaline and nerves can impart the smallest change to the delivery or release of a stone and result in a miss. The re-introduction of curling to the Olympics (officially) in 1998 and the growth of sponsorship and televised events has led players and teams to raise their level of play the past two decades.  Shot making has improved considerably, but also mental preparation and the ability for teams to be more consistent and reach their potential despite the enormity of the moment.  But it’s still sports.

The clearest example of mental control driving small muscles is golf.  How can Scott Hoch miss a 2 foot putt that he makes on a practice green (or at another event) 100 times out of 100?  Because he’s on the 10th hole at Augusta National, in a sudden-death playoff, attempting to win a green jacket.  Twenty years later, Kenny Perry birdies the 16th hole, then hooks his next two drives leading to consecutive bogeys and loses the Masters.  Canadian curling fans may remember one of its greatest players, Kevin Martin, had a similar collapse on the very same day as Kenny.  In control and tied with final rock in the last end against Scotland, Team Martin gets into a hot mess. Kevin inexplicably decides to throw away his first skip shot of the end, misses his last, and hands David Murdoch the World Championship.

John Shuster deserves every accolade in the coming weeks and months.  Being a curler, he’ll likely be the first to remind everyone that he couldn’t have done it without the team (Tyler George, Matt Hamilton and John Landsteiner).  Unlike football, where an NFL quarterback receives $20M per year, while being protected by lineman making $1M a year, curlers share their winnings equally.  You can make the argument that Canada in the semifinal and Sweden in the Gold medal game, both lost because they played poorly.  This is unfair to Team Shuster.  Championships are rarely about two teams who play their best and the better (or luckier) wins.  As often as a sporting event will unfold by the script we expect (2012 Heat, 2017 Warriors, most Yankees championships), often we see the opposite.  Just this past decade we have the 2011 Mavericks, 2012 Kings, 2014 Giants, 2012 Ravens, and 2018 Eagles; all teams Vegas pegged as longshots before their respective playoffs began.  Isn’t that why we watch?

If Canada had performed to their highest level, USA would likely have played for a bronze medal.  What John Shuster and his team showed was the ability to play their very best when it mattered.  Despite the early setbacks (2-4 start) and even later ones (see 5th end vs Sweden), they held together mentally and when the dust had settled, earned the (women’s) Gold medals.  I don’t think you can argue that Team Shuster took advantage of their underdog position.  We often overlook a team or player succeeding because they were loose, playing like they had “nothing to lose”.  John Shuster only had the scrutiny of an entire nation, a high-performance program that rejected him and his name coined as a verb for failure.  Players and teams often have to lose one or more times before they can attain the next level.  The list is long and includes the 1983 Oilers, ’85 Giants, ’03 Red Sox, Tom Watson, Mike Weir, Jordan Spieth…and curlers like Al Hackner, Pat Ryan, Kevin Martin, and possibly anyone who has every laced up sneakers, skates, spikes, or a slider.  Some never return to those moments again, the many battle scars actually prevent rather than enable the person to rise above their past disappointments.  After six games, it looked like John Shuster might suffer that fate.  Thankfully, for him and his team, and the (now growing) number of fans, the summit was reached.

On to the analysis….

First End:  0-0 - SWE has Hammer

Edin was 101-22 starting with hammer the past 2 seasons, including 47-6 in his last 54.  Two of those loses however, came from Team Shuster.  This USA team had actually beaten Edin in 3 of the previous 4 games, so if there were any nerves it wasn’t because they lacked confidence against their opponent. 

First rock goes in, Sweden hits, and the blank is on.  Now everyone can breathe a little.

Second End:  0-0 - SWE has Hammer

Centre guard then corner guard, game on.  On his first, John considers going around the centre, but decides to hit the Swedish rock at the back of the rings.

 USA is yellow
As John might have suspected, Niklas ignores the USA rock and goes around, biting the top four foot.

John’s original call looks conservative, avoiding any chance of three but possibly increasing the chance for a deuce.  In retrospect, if Shuster had instead gone behind the centre where Edin placed his stone, he could have pressured Niklas early in the contest and gotten a force of a single point or possibly a steal.  If he made a poor shot on his first and Edin makes a great shot, worst case he can remove the back stone on his last shot and concede the deuce, avoiding the three in either case.  John may have been thinking further ahead, wanting to play the runback on his final stone, attempting to stick it behind cover of his delivered rock or the red corner guard.  Runbacks look difficult, but top players range from 75-85% success and often use it as an offensive weapon in the modern game.  I prefer John draws on his first shot because he can dictate the proximity to the button and increase a steal chance, but it’s more a preference of setting up his last shot than a tactical mistake.  In this case, John misses the runback and Sweden draw for two points.

In the last 4 years, Niklas Edin up 2 points without hammer and 8 ends remaining: 16-1.

Third End: 2-0 SWE - USA has Hammer

A plan B split by Matt Hamilton sets up a potential deuce. 

They even comment afterwards it might be the better outcome.  An example of how a team can ignore an opponent’s rock(s) sitting shot and make a play elsewhere to set-up for the rest of the end.  If Matt’s shot had gone around the guard instead, play would be towards the middle and if rocks aren’t positioned well, Shuster may end up chasing with runbacks later, just to score a single. 

Eventually, Edin rolls too far on his last shot and Shuster is left with a long double takeout for two points.  A key shot that if thrown a fraction off could hand Sweden a point.  The usual miss is to hit the first rock too thick and get a single, a common result under pressure.  John nails it.
Shuster smiling after making the shot of his life...for now

Fourth End: 2-2 - SWE with Hammer

Half the end is over and every rock is in play…

And John looks like a man working out a geometry problem…

" Hmm.  Squareroot of the long side of the triangle and carry the 2..."

An interesting end with too much discussion for me to cover.  I suggest you find a link (depends on which country you are in) and re-watch the entire 4th end.  If you’re in Canada, here’s a link to the CBC and for those of you in the US, NBC.   I would show these final eight shots to anyone who wants to understand the appeal of curling.  

Arguably both teams struggle getting rocks placed to their advantage and before Swedish third Oskar Eriksson’s shot we get a long discussion with he and Niklas that reminds me of this famous Swede.  Yes, I know, it’s poor taste in humour, poking fun at the language of Scandinavian people steeped in culture and history…but who doesn’t love the Muppets?  

Niklas misses his first shot, leaving USA an opportunity. A great example of body language from the Shuster squad as John sits in the hack.  Tyler yells out to tell John the weight and Matt barks back “even if I’m wrong?”.  Smiles and laughter from everyone involved.  You can tell this team is enjoying the moment. Unfortunately John is a touch heavy, the rock stays straighter and they leave Edin a shot for his deuce.  Sweden likely didn’t have a chance at two points before John threw it. 

This is just like...

...those spot the difference games.

In what is possibly the shot of the game, Edin’s double attempt also hangs out and when all the granite has stopped, a measurement leaves USA with a steal of one.  

Difference for Sweden, their Win Probability (WP) dropped from 75.1% (2 up without hammer) to 41.5%.  

Fifth End: 3-2 USA - SWE with Hammer

After Tyler's first rock it appears USA is in good shape.   

Sweden still has hammer and Niklas is looking at ways to get two but also ensure he leaves himself an escape plan for his final shot to get one.  Before Tyler’s next shot, the Shuster squad ponders how not to leave Sweden a triple or quadruple.  It seems unlikely, but against this team, you can never be too careful.

What to do...what to do...

On John’s first, the guard is too high and leaves Niklas a draw to get out of the end.  It’s a touch heavy and overcurls, leaving John a chance follow him down, lock his final stone on top and possibly steal.  He’s heavy.  Tyler in fact, yelled down that it’s ok to be a little heavy and push the Swedish stone back.  Maybe a poor choice of words as John does throw it heavy, it runs straight and slides past the rock entirely.  Niklas has a draw to the full four foot and makes it for his two points.

Sixth End: 4-3 SWE – USA with Hammer

Edin misses a runback on his first shot, allowing Shuster a chance to sit two. Difficult to find a spot that won’t leave a double, but they are able to draw close to the Swedish stone at the back of the rings in an ideal position.  An example of how rock placement is critical.

No double to see here

Niklas only has a hit and roll on John’s stone at the back, hoping to duck behind cover over the USA stone at the top eight foot and leave a more difficult shot for two.  It overcurls and John is left with a draw for two.  WP for USA jumps from 35.6% if they had been forced to one to 60.4% with that extra point.

Seventh End:  5-4 USA – SWE with Hammer

After Swedish second Rasmus Wrana comes short with his second shot, the house again looks favourable for USA.

A few shots later, Shuster comes deep with a guard attempt on his first, and Sweden attempts a hit and roll, hoping to sit second and third and possibly also graze their red stone top button with the top yellow rock. 

Niklas sets it back (a subtle motion in the release to move the rock off line) misses all but a rub on the red stone, leaving the same mess he had before.

USA places a guard and Niklas has to make a double raise on two yellow stones to get his single.

Eighth End: 5-5.   USA with Hammer

Three ends to go and USA is in a great position (WP=64.4%). Sweden manages to place two centre guards. Lead John Landsteiner, who missed a tick attempt on his first places his next perfectly.

Matt’s second stone rubs a long centre guard but luckily continues towards the house, curling in at the last second at almost 3 o'clock for a biter.

Sweden has a lonely shot stone at the back of the four foot with USA sitting 2nd, 3rd and 4th.  This is an example of the right way to miss a shot.  Edin replaces the centre guard, but fails to cover their shot stone.  

Shuster has a decision between whether to continue peeling guards or going into the rings.  They switch to aggressive play, attempting a hit and roll on the red stone behind the button.  The rock overcurls, jamming the Swedish stone at the back, however USA sits two. 

In what may have been another shot of the game, Oskar’s draw attempt rubs the yellow in the top eight foot, leaving his stone open rather than buried on the button.   

That fraction of an inch is the difference between a possible steal or force and what happens next.

Tyler fails to make the double, but his shooter sticks around and USA sits 1,2,3 and 5.  Notice that there have been several half shots by USA but Sweden is going for broke at this stage and can’t dare switch to damage control trying to remove these stones.  A deuce by USA would drop Sweden’s WP to 13.7%.  It’s force, steal or a prayer at this stage.

Edin’s first draw attempt hangs straight and Shuster is able to hit and roll away.  Before his last, Niklas calls a timeout, looking at this:

      "And you may ask yourself, well...How did I get here?" - David Byrne

The hit and roll attempt fails to get behind cover and USA is left with a double for five points.  Here’s the link on NBC. Shuster calmly makes the shot of his life and the game is, (for all intents and purposes) over.  Gold medal.  Well done.

Epilogue:  Will this launch Curling to new heights in the USA?  Probably not.  But it can’t hurt.  In the very least, perhaps Urban Dictionary will direct the web link for “Shuster” to a new word, “Miracurl”.   Definition: "an unheralded person or team, holding brooms, achieves the unexpected on a sheet of ice, painted with rings and covered with granite stones."