There’s something a little odd about the sport of curling, and I don’t mean the design of Team Norway’s pants. No, I’m talking about the fact that for some reason every media outlet I’ve seen has reported that an entity called “Team Alberta” has won both the Brier and the Tournament of Hearts this year. In fact “Alberta” has seemed to dominate Canadian curling for the past few decades, scooping up eleven of the last twenty Briers and a couple Tournament of Hearts as well. Strange. What accounts for this? Has curling surged in popularity in Alberta over the past couple decades? Have Albertans tapped into some magical curling elixir?
Upon closer examination, the answer is clear. Alberta has become the New York Yankees of curling. Instead of winning national championships with homegrown Alberta talent, “Team Alberta” is often made up of all-stars raided from other provinces. Three of the four members on Alberta’s 2016 Brier championship team, including skip Kevin Koe, are from out of province. It wasn’t so long ago that young Kevin Koe led the Territories team to a Canadian junior final, but now he’s been miraculously transformed into “Alberta’s Kevin Koe.” On the women’s side, Team Alberta national champion skip Chelsea Carey is a recent transplant from Manitoba and, in fact, won that province’s championship just two years ago.
Chelsea Carey and Kevin Koe are not the only non-Albertans to win for Alberta. Of the thirteen men’s and women’s championship teams that Alberta has produced in the last two decades, not a single one–not one–has been purely Albertan. Just last year, Saskatchewan’s Pat Simmons won (as Team Canada) for Alberta with a team that was seventy-five percent Albertan-free. A few years back, Randy Ferbey recruited Manitoba curler David Nedohin to shoot fourth on his team, a position usually reserved for skip. This strategy led to four Brier championships for “Team Alberta.” Kevin Martin, another Brier champ, also had non-Albertans on his team such as John Morris who was born in Winnipeg and had competed in Ontario before joining up with Martin. Now, it seems, Alberta’s women’s teams are being similarly de-Albertanized. Before Chelsea Carey moved to boost Alberta’s chances, the former Alberta skip, Heather Nodohin, brought in two Nova Scotians for her 2012 championship team. Other provinces have done this (Kelly Scott’s teams were as much Manitoban, as they were British Colombian), but Alberta seems to have taken this tactic to new heights.
I’ve written before about my distaste for the New York Yankees and their purchasing of World Series titles, but to me this curling scandal is even worse. After all, no one is under any illusion that the Yankees represent the best players from the New York area. Sports fans know that players change teams all the time, and that a championship says nothing about the quality of players from a certain area. In Canadian curling, however, the impression is that these tournaments are like the Olympics in structure. In both the men’s and women’s tournament, each province or region is represented by only one team, even though it’s arguable that some jurisdictions could field multiple competitive teams. This regional structure means that, in theory, the victorious team represents the province who produced the best curlers that year. Alberta’s pan-Canadian all-star teams have completely discredited this regional system. If players are allowed to relocate to other provinces, in what sense do the provincial distinctions have any meaning?
Of course, the problem is that, unlike the Olympics, there is no provincial “citizenship” and people (including curlers) are free to move wherever they want within the country. And it’s perfectly understandable that a player like Koe might want to move to a place where the curling is more competitive. The move makes sense, but tallying his victory in the Team Alberta ledger does not. When Canadian pro athletes in other sports sign with American teams, they still compete for Canada in the Olympics. Similarly, Canadian tennis star Milos Raonic, like many athletes in his sport, resides in Monaco. Like Koe, he relocated to improve his game, but as a Canadian citizen, Raonic still competes for Canada in international tournaments.
I’m not suggesting there’s any kind of conspiracy here. Alberta is not “buying” victories like the Yankees do, at least not in a literal sense. Nor am I suggesting that curlers be forbidden from moving; after all, most of them have day jobs. Instead, what is needed are changes to the provincial classification in Canada’s two major curling championships. If the Brier and Tournament of Hearts are to mean anything at all, something needs to change. Here are a few options:
- for the purposes of these tournaments, players must compete in the province of their birth, or in the province they first curled competitively. (You cannot compete for one province in one tournament and another in a different tournament.)
- all players on a team must have lived in the province for at least ten years. (This would prevent raiding of the best players from out-of-province, while allowing players who moved provinces as children to still compete for the province where they learned the sport.)
- players cannot move solely “for the purposes of curling.” (We know that Chelsea Carey moved specifically to curl. However, this would be hard to enforce, as who can determine whether a player moved to curl or for some other opportunity).
- provincial teams could be classified based on the skip alone. (As the leader of the team, the skip’s province alone would matter. However, this wouldn’t prevent Randy Ferbey’s shenanigans, where he retained the title of “skip,” while passing off the most difficult and important shots to his out-of-province fourth David Nedohin)
- get rid of the provincial teams and just have the best curling teams regardless of province. (This would mean the tournaments would assemble the best curlers in the country, but some regions would go unrepresented. Still, I think that since “Alberta” has rendered the provincial labels meaningless in recent years, this may be the best option.)
Changes needs to be made. Until then, however, I say congratulations to the Northwest Territories on your recent Brier victory. Congrats to Manitoba on your Tournament of Hearts success. Better luck next year, Alberta.