Saturday, November 07, 2009

Curling into the Olympic Trials

by Keith Borkowsky, The Curling Guy

There's plenty on the line this week in Prince George, B.C., where 24 of the top Canadian teams battle to determine the four men's and four women's teams that advance to the Canadian Olympic Trials.

So much, that there's rumours that some may retire if they don't advance.

For those that may know (and you're forgiven), Canada has a multi-step qualifying process to select it's Olympic curling teams. Earlier rounds require a PhD in mathematics, so we'll just focus on the present circumstances. Four men's and four women's teams have already qualified for the Canadian Olympic Trials. Four more spots remain. That's what's on the line starting Tuesday, with a triple-knockout draw. Teams can earn one of the four berths with either a perfect record through the A-side, one loss through the B-side or two losses on the C-side. Three losses kills your Olympic dream.

Here's a quick look at who's in the men's draw at the Canadian Pre-Olympic Trials (marketed as the Road to the Roar), which runs Nov. 10-14. Look for an upcoming post on the women's draw.


The top four rinks don't play first round games and have byes directly to the quarter-finals. They are seeded as follows:

1. Jeff Stoughton, Winnipeg (13-6 in 2009-10 World Curling Tour games)
Stoughton's had success this year, winning the Manitoba Lotteries Classic in Brandon and qualifying for the semifinals at the Meyers Norris Penny Prairie Classic in Portage la Prairie, Man., He's also suffered a 1-3 record at the Cactus Pheasant Classic in Brooks, Alta., in his final tune-up event leading into the trials.
Among Manitoba rinks, Stoughton is one of the most seasoned, mature rinks you'll find, as evidenced by a 5-0 record in one-point games. That's why they win when it matters. They haven't played as much as others, with only three World Tour events on the schedule so far. That was by design. Stoughton, and his rink of third Kevin Park, a past Canadian champion, second Rob Fowler and lead Steve Gould, wanted to build gradually towards the Olympic dream and peak at the right times.
As Stoughton faces the winner of eighth-seeded Bob Ursel of Kelowna, B.C., or ninth-seeded Ted Appelman of Edmonton, you'd wonder whether being the top seed really gives you an advantage. You'll see why later.

2. Wayne Middaugh, Toronto ( 7-4)
Another team that didn't play a heavy schedule leading into the Trials, and may not need it. Middaugh made his only appearance in the playoffs in Portage la Prairie, backed up by third Jon Mead of Winnipeg, second John Epping and lead Scott Bailey. He will face the winner of seventh-seeded Jean-Michel Menard or 10th-seeded Pat Simmons of Davidson, Sask.

3. Brad Gushue, St. John's N.L. (22-8)
For a minute, let's put aside the debate on how ridiculous it may be to have a defending Olympic gold medallist without a direct berth into the Roar of the Rings Canadian Olympic Trials. His team has changed — frequently — since 2006. But he's settled into a nice routine with third Mark Nicholls, second Ryan Fry and lead Jamie Korab. He won early and often in Baden, Switzerland and in Brockville, Ont., two September events, and made the semis at the World Cup of Curling in late October. He's currently ranked fourth in the world, and beats teams by an average of three points a game. It's a bad idea to let them have the hammer.

4. Mike McEwen, Winnipeg (18-12)
Consistent play is key for the best of the "next generation" of Manitoba's top teams. When they play well, they have beaten the Gushues, Middaughs, Stoughtons and the other top teams in Canada. A key stat to keep in mind. They are 7-2 in one-rock games, and 2-1 in extra-end games. They need to keep the game close, but can force the issue. The 2003 World University Games champion, McEwen plays with third B.J. Neufeld, second Matt Wozniak and lead Denni Neufeld. He will know his quarter-final opponent, as it will be either Kerry Burtnyk or Jason Gunnlaugson, both Manitobans. Burtnyk and McEwen also curl at the same club. And Gunnlaugson eliminated them from the Portage WCT event with a 7-2 loss. There will be an incentive to win.

There will be upsets at this event, at least on paper. That's the nature of curling, especially when the stakes are this high. Someone will come out of nowhere (as much as it applies at this level. As they are seeded in the draw, here's the rest of the field.

5. Kerry Burtnyk, Winnipeg (19-11)
Burtnyk is one of of two teams in this draw, aside from Stoughton, that knows what coming second at the Olympic Trials means. You watch on TV while the guy that beat you plays for gold. He's retired once after such a loss, and there are rumours he might do it again if he does not advance. Burtnyk's lineup of former world champion Don Walchuk at third, second Richard Daneault and lead Garth Smith won the Portage la Prairie WCT event with a field that included three of the top four seeds at Prince George. He has to beat fellow Manitoban Jason Gunnlaugson and McEwen to get to the A-semifinal, where he could meet Stoughton, the man that beat him in the 2009 Manitoba championship game.

6. Joel Jordison, Moose Jaw, Sask. (8-11)
Jordison, who won Saskatchewan last year, hasn't looked good all year. If that continues, he won't last long here. Jordison's lineup of third Scott Bitz, second Aryn Schmidt and lead Dean Hicke could get a first round win as they face 11th-ranked Greg McAulay of New Westminster, B.C., but the next game puts him against Gushue. If he qualifies, it will be from the B- or C-side unless his team gets their game in gear fast.

7. Jean-Michel Menard (10-3)
The rink from Quebec, which includes third Martin Crete, second Eric Sylvain and lead Jean Gagnon could be one of those teams that comes out of nowhere. Menard won the 2006 Canadian championship and could beat 10th-ranked Pat Simmons in his first game. He'd face Middaugh next if he did, and then all bets are off. While he hasn't played a lot on the World Tour, he won a smaller event, the Challenge Casino Lac Leamy. In those 13 games, Menard was aggressive, played well with the hammer and beat teams by an average of three points per game.

8. Ted Appelman, Edmonton (27-11)
It's hard to call a 27-11 team an upset special. But just like the March Madness college basketball tournament, there's upset specials waiting to happen. He's played five events, got paid at all of them and has built up a solid CV of success. If he played anywhere but Alberta, you would likely see his rink of third Tim Appelman, second Brandon Klassen and lead Brendan Melnyk at the Brier once in a while. playing a heavy schedule of 38 games, there's a risk he put it on the line too soon. But he's no worse off than his first round opponent, ninth-ranked Bob Ursel. And this young team has an experienced Don Bartlet as an alternate. Watch them.

9. Bob Ursel, Kelowna. B.C. (23-6)
One of those teams, where the skip doesn't throw last stone, Ursel has posted lopsided victories, beating teams by an average of more than three points per game. His team of fourth Jim Cotter, second Kevin Folk and lead Rick Sawatzky beat Kevin Martin at the Westcoast Curling Classic and went on to claim the title. He's lost two other finals. That sounds like a pretty good lead-up to the most important event in November, and is one reason the Stoughton rink may not see the top-seed as an advantage. Either Appelman or Ursel will play the Stroughton rink in the quarters.

10. Pat Simmons, Davidson, Sask. (25-7)
A past Saskatchewan champion, Simmons, third Gerry Adam, second Jeff Sharp and lead Steve Laycock have dominated with the hammer. They've been paid at all five events they have entered this season, winning the Horizon Laser Vision Centre Classic in Regina. It will be interesting to see how he plays Menard in his first-round game, as it could set the tone for a good week. A loss there wouldn't kill his chances.

11. Greg McAulay, New Westminster, B.C. (8-8)
A past World champion, McAulay brings experience. But at 49, his Olympic window could be closing. If Jordison wasn't struggling as much as it has this season, McAulay would probably be sent to the B-side early. A first-round win nets a showdown with Gushue, so he will likely have to make a run through the B- or C-sides, where luck of the draw plays as much a role as skill. He's backed up by third Ken Maskiewich, second Deane Horning and lead Aaron Watson.

12. Jason Gunnlaugson, Beausejour, Man. (21-12)
Gunnlaugson is a gambler. It says so right on his CCA bio, where he lists his career as poker player. So you know he's not going to be scared of facing Burtnyk, a legend he grew up watching, in his first round game. He's capable of throwing a takeout shot in four-seconds flat. Check it out on YouTube. There's evidence. The knock on Gunnlaugson in past years is he's been so eager to use it for a highlight reel shot that he's ignored easier options and missed his shot. This year's team is different and includes third Justin Richter, second Brayden Zawada and lead Tyler Forrest, the remnants of the Reid Carruthers rink that actually earned the spot in the pre-Trials. Like most young teams, when things go well, they storm the gates. When they go badly, games can fall apart. They have faced Burtnyk before this year, losing the final at Portage 6-2. Burtnyk opened the game scoring three and stole a single in the fourth end for a 4-0 lead. So a steady start will be crucial, and if they get it, they could do damage. However, 2014 may be a more realistic goal if this team stays together.


Anonymous said...

Now that baseball/softball is out and curling's in, how long before horseshoes makes it in?

Keith Borkowsky said...

I disagree with the IOC's view that softball and baseball don't belong in the Olympics. I can make a case for rugby. Your comment suggests that curling isn't a sport and that you've never actually played it. On those grounds alone, it's hard to take seriously.

Anonymous said...

Played it, enjoyed it, it's difficult, requires skill, very social, NOT an Olympic sport though. Not played much throughout the world, even though, to be fair to it, once in a while a handful of people dedicated enough to it and from a "non-curling" nation sneak a medal, so in that regard, success is at least attainable. Curling has a great tradition in a couple countries, admirable. But it's like a parlour game, darts, horseshoes, it's not an Olympic sport.

Keith Borkowsky said...

Sounds like grounds for a decent debate on the subject then.

What should be in the Olympics? What should be out?

My view? I have an issue with sports that require an judge to assess the scoring being in the Olympics

Swimming is fine. Synchronized swimming is not. Neither is diving.

I am fine with hockey, less so with figure skating, though in their defence, they have done some work to clean up the sport.

I like boxing, but I have seen too many athletes get jobbed of medals because of politics.

Golf could be an Olympic sport, if more countries played it.

Curling does require athletic prowess at some level, especially with front ends, and obviously I support it's inclusion in the Olympic games.

Which sports do you think the IOC should keep, and which ones do you think the IOC should scrap?