Tuesday, December 23, 2008

When Curling catches World Junior fever

by Keith Borkowsky, The Curling Guy

Every year the Continental Cup is held, I ask myself whether anyone really cares about this 'made for TV' event.

Perhaps this is the year I got my answer.

Canadian hockey fans put the NHL on the back burner every Christmas to live and die vicariously through the strides of the next 17- or 18-year-old phenom lighting up their respective major junior hockey league. Admit it. Every time the Canadian entry fails to live up to the second coming of the Montreal Canadiens dynasty of the 1970s, people panic, wring their hands on whether Canada is a hockey power anymore and demand drastic changes to how Hockey Canada prepares the next generation of hockey players.

What did I hear after Team World beat Team North America on Sunday in Camrose, Alta.?


Not a peep.

Never mind Anette Norberg's Swedish rink thrashed defending world champion Jennifer Jones in a skins game Canadians should know all about.

Forget the North Americans lost points because of lineup violations.

Or that the goofy format, designed after the Ryder Cup in golf, just doesn't make sense to a lot of curling diehards. I mean, mixed doubles curling is an interesting idea if half your team doesn't show up for league play, but could you imagine baseball with six players on the field? To a purist, that's not a game. That's a freak show.

I am paid to follow the sport and I don't understand why people would pay to watch mixed doubles curling. I understand the appeal of seeing the best in the sport duke it out and there are some interesting skills tests available. To use appropriate golf references, what curling got wasn't the popularity of the Ryder Cup, but the confusion of the Fed/Ex Cup. There's a reason the Continental Cup isn't played outside of Canada. It's a tough sell where there are curlers, let alone where curling is a fringe sport.

Still, the Continental Cup serves a role in showcasing the game's top players, and what the 2008 event told us is the World has simply caught up with the Canadians. That's thanks in part to a Chinese curling federation that didn't even field teams on a regular basis six years or so ago, but now takes the sport seriously enough to build a decent-sized curling centre in Harbin, the Chinese winter sports capital and regularly hires a Canadian icemaker to ensure quality playing conditions.

We all knew about the European rinks and know their top teams have some game. That's not a shock. It's now clear to everyone now that Asia is the new threat to Canadian supremacy in Curling because of the money national federations put into the sport. Fengchung Wang (also known within the curling community as Charlie) and Bingyu Wang have come a long way in six years. They spend 10 hours or more every day training to curl. That's a lot easier to do when you are an officer in the Chinese military, paid to curl and develop a sport in a Communist country. Still, the results are paying off, especially when these Chinese rinks are training in Canada during the competitive season. That's right. Charlie's playing regularly in Edmonton, and Bingyu also trains in Canada. And now they are good enough to beat our best. Just ask Kevin Martin, whose record against the Chinese includes a few losses.

Thankfully, curling fans have been spared the bloodletting world junior hockey fans experience whenever Canada finishes seventh overall. Or fourth.

That doesn't mean Canadian curlers can afford to take it easy.

BITERS — While Canada's position at world championships is relatively secure (based on performance), the United States has always been vulnerable to a challenge from another upstart country. In 2009, The United States champion will have to play off against a team from —  wait for it —  Brazil, with the winner advancing to the World Men's Curling Championship in Moncton, N.B. Apparently, the Brazillian entry, not unlike the Australian squad, includes some ex-pat Canadians. But if the Brazillians pull this off, you know they will provide a show like the Jamaican Bobsled team in 1988.

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