There’s Something Rotten in the State of…Curling

men_curling_-_1909_-_ontario_canada

Back before the game was corrupted….

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.

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Yellowknifer Kevin Koe pretending to be Albertan

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.

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14 thoughts on “There’s Something Rotten in the State of…Curling

  1. Great article!
    Did you know that team Australia used to be a bunch of transplanted Manitobans?
    Also… I’ve read that too 5 table tennis stars in China play the China. The rest emigrate to play table tennis for their new countries.

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  2. I didn’t even know Australia had a curling team. Yeah, it would make sense they’re mostly Manitobans. I know that in Olympic baseball, Team Italy was mostly Americans – they had some rule where if your parent or grandparent was born there, you could play for Italy. This was allowed because baseball didn’t have enough competitive countries to have a proper tournament. This is probably also why baseball is no longer in the Olympics.
    We should swap curlers for table tennis players with China. Though, I think they already have decent curlers now, too…..probably transplanted Manitobans 🙂

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    1. Thanks for the comment. Fair enough. Though, do you mean curling jobs or other jobs? Because most of these curlers already had curling jobs. Chelsea Carey, Pat Simmons, etc. skipped for other provinces in previous championships. But, anyway, as I stated in the article, I have no problem with curlers (or anyone else for that matter) moving wherever they want to in the country. The only problem I have is with the way their championships are awarded. In these two tournaments the trophy goes to a particular province. As such, all the players competing should actually be from that province. My argument is that it should either be strict, like the Olympics, or get rid of the provincial designations altogether and just have the best teams compete regardless of province.

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  3. The requirement to assemble members based on place of birth would drastically alter the competitive level of most teams. And since the winner of either event is then sent to the World Championships as Team Canada we would be almost guaranteeing that Canada was no longer sending their best possible team. These teams are assembling the best possible combination in an effort to wear the Maple Leaf at the Worlds and/or the Olympics. How and where they find these combinations should be much less important than the national pride we take in the quality of team representing us. Besides, even if the second best team in Alberta is better than any other in the field, he’s still not the best team, since he clearly lost the provincial finals. Any sporting playoff system has an elimination process – sometimes that process means that stronger teams get eliminated before weaker ones. Even if the Yankees, the Red Sox and the Royals are all better teams than the Mets, only one of them can actually make it to the World Series to play the 4th best team overall – the Mets. You can look at it more as “regional playdowns” rather than “provincial boundaries” if that helps.

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  4. Thanks for the comment, Allison. I get what you’re saying, and I do agree we should field the best possible team in international competitions. So, perhaps, then the fifth option I stated is most suitable – get rid of the provincial classifications completely. Just have the best teams compete under the name of the skip, rather than the name of the province. There really isn’t any reason to retain these provincial labels as they are meaningless. Alternately, if we insist on having these provincially based classifications, then teams could assemble (based on strict geographic rules) for these tournaments alone, and the team we send to the World’s could be selected some other way. (After all, for the Olympics there already is a separate qualification tournament that has nothing to do with the Brier/Tournament of Hearts.)
    I’d also suggest that for many Canadians, the Brier and Tournament of Hearts is almost more important/prestigious than most world championships. People certainly pay more attention to it. It’s arguable that the level of play at most Canadian championships is actually higher than the Worlds.
    The argument that the level of competition would decline if we enforced geographic rules, could just as easily be applied to the Olympics. (If the geographic rules were more flexible, many countries could recruit Canadians and field better teams). And yet, if the Olympics did abandon these rules, and then, say, Brazil was winning curling gold at the Olympics because they brought in Kevin Koe or whatever, I’m quite certain that Canadians would cry foul. People are proud of their provinces, just like we are about our country. The current system undermines this tremendously.
    Anyway, my point is not to in any way decrease the level of competition, but only to accurately convey the winning team, either by labelling them solely by the name of the skip, or by actually having a real legitimate tournament to determine which province has the best curlers – the current system does not do this.
    Even if no changes are made, I would like at the very least, for media and fans to publicly acknowledge the meaningless of these provincial teams. It cannot accurately be said that Alberta produced the best curlers in 2016. There’s no reason for Albertans to take any pride in Koe or Carey winning, nor is there any logical reason to even cheer for “Team Alberta” if the team is not actually Albertan. I’d like this to be stated more often and more prominently, so that there’s no confusion about this issue. All I’m asking for is clarity.
    Another reason to change this is actually for Alberta’s sake. Someone raised this point on Facebook. Think of the Alberta teams that are actually made up of Albertans – they never win because some teams are recruiting Manitobans or Nova Scotians or whatever and building dream-teams. The current system is unfair to both the fans of provinces who are being raided, and to the truly provincially-based curling teams that are not able to compete with these dream teams.

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  5. I agree with your argument that the provincial designation no longer means anything in curling, but I would like to bring up a point that you failed to in your article.
    For the 2006 Olympic trials, Brad Gushue, from Newfoundland-Labrador had gained a birth through Curl Canada’s sanctioned tournaments. He gained this birth WITH THE TEAM HE REGULARLY COMPETED WITH FROM THE PROVINCE OF NEWFOUNDLAND-LABRADOR. When the time came to compete in the Olympic trials, Mr. Gushue decided NOT to play with the team that got him this birth, but instead, dropped one of his regular players and parachuted in three time Canadian champion, Russ Howard to play third for his team. There was nothing in Curl Canada’s rules and regulations prohibiting this act of “cheating”. “Team” Gushue went on to win the Olympic Trials and became the Canadian Men’s Curling representative at the 2006 Winter Olympics. Because of this shady manipulation of the Olympic Trial rules, I could not bring myself to cheer and support the Canadian Men’s team and felt that I had been cheated out of that enjoyment. To this day, I cannot bring myself to cheer for Brad Gushue in any type of competition.
    My point in relating this story is that I believe this is where the practice of “province jumping” began to produce the best possible team FOR the province, not necessarily FROM the province. In the 2016 Brier play-offs, only Team Manitoba was made up entirely of curlers raised in that province and where they got their start in competitive curling. Has winning become that important that we are willing to allow this rule manipulation by teams/provincial governing bodies?
    In an above comment, Allison indicated that this is necessary to compete with European countries. I disagree because most European countries have a much smaller pool of competitive curlers to draw from, many smaller than one Canadian province so they can draw from the best curlers in their country.
    I agree, something has to be done about the blatant manipulation of the rules which seems to be sanctioned and allowed by Curl Canada.

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  6. Canadians move from province to province for a variety of reasons: a new job, an education, sometimes to join a curling team. If they’re actually living in the province, why should they be disqualified from playing in the Scotties or Brier because they were born or have lived elsewhere? Curling Canada relaxed the residency rules so each team can have a member who is from a different province, but 3/4 of the team has to actually reside in the province they’re representing. How many people do you know who live in the same province where they were born? And of that number, how many are decent curlers, let alone competitive ones?

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    1. Some good points, Liz. I think I did address some of this in my options. Yeah, people move. People don’t reside in the place they were born, so the rule wouldn’t necessarily have to restrict people to the place of their birth. But it should certainly be more restrictive than it currently is. Whichever province you first competed for is the province you must always compete for – that’s one option. You must live in the province for ten years (not since birth) – that’s another option. As I read these comments and discuss this topic with a variety of people, though, I’m more and more leaning toward getting rid of the provincial classifications altogether. Just have a tournament with the best players, regardless of province.
      People like to take pride in their province winning the tournament – but I just don’t see that as having any value or meaning anymore.

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