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Picking Canada's Best for Worlds — Opinion

by Anthony Reimer • 2016-02-18

It's been a really interesting season in the competitive curling world. In the Fall, when Broomhaha (a.k.a. Broomgate, Brushgate) started to capture our attention, I seriously considered writing my first opinion piece for the Curling portion of my site. I currently use equipment from 6 different vendors, so I felt I could present something unbiased. Thankfully, I chose not to write that piece, as even a well-considered piece at that time would not have made a contribution to the hair-raising situation we have now (see what I did there?).

And then the 2016 Scotties playdowns came and produced the weakest (or second-weakest*) field in the past 10 years if you use Curling Canada's own team ranking system (CTRS) as the measure. (*One could argue that 2012 was as weak or weaker, depending on what factors you find most important.) This is not really a concern if all that is being decided is a National Champion — may the team who wins the right games get the spoils. In this case, however, we are determining who gets to represent Canada at the World Championships. The last time Canada won Gold at the Women's World Championships was 2008. Since then, Canada has won 3 Silver medals, 3 Bronze medals, and has had 1 fourth place finish. At the Olympic Winter Games in the same time period, Canada has won 1 Gold and 1 Silver. So why the discrepancy? I've been thinking about this for a number of years, so I did some more research and decided this was the topic with which I would launch the Opinion portion of my web site. Note that I have focussed on the Women's game in this piece, but the solutions I suggest would make sense for the Men as well.

The Essential Problem

It used to be that a Scotties field was as strong or stronger than the field for the World Championships. That did not mean by any means that a Gold was a given for Canada, but it did mean that if you survived the Scotties, you had a really good chance at winning the Worlds, especially when it changed to being held in Canada every second year (and the predictable ice conditions that go with that). So in the past, there seemed to be no harm in selecting Canada's World Championships representative by granting that to the winner of the national championship.

The play at the world level is better now. Does Canada have impressive depth? Absolutely. But when Switzerland can win three of the last four World Championships with three different teams (something only Canada was previously capable of doing), Curling Canada can not make the assumption that a championship of regional champions will create the best representative for Canada.

You may say, "but we've been sending Jennifer Jones and Rachel Homan most of those years. Those are strong teams. Even when we sent Heather Nedohin and Amber Holland, they medalled. Where's the problem?" On the surface, that is completely correct. I have no question that Canada has sent one of the best available teams to the Worlds in that same period where Gold has been elusive. But this is not guaranteed structurally under the current system; it is more by happenstance.

The Scotties is explicitly an event where all the Member Associations of Curling Canada get the opportunity to send a representative team. I say "Member Associations" rather than "provinces" because that is the anomaly that gives Ontario two berths rather than one, and now gives each of the Territories a berth. If you look at the 8-team women's field for the most recent Roar of the Rings, only three Associations were represented: Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario. Looking back over the past few years, you'll see that that is not an anomaly; those three Associations reliably have more than one team in the Top 15 and Saskatchewan and Northern Ontario are next best, almost always having a Top 15 team or two. So, structurally, you are keeping at least half of the top teams out of the field simply because of geography. (You are also eliminating the possibility that a team could have players from multiple geographical regions, but I'm not even going to open that can of worms here.)

Member Associations came around to the idea over the past number of years that top-ranked teams should have a way to get into the "provincials" other than just by playing in the qualifying spiels (often "zones" within the larger region). Alberta, for example, expanded from 8 spots (exclusively zone berths) to 12, adding the defending champion, plus the top ranked team from CTRS and the top 2 teams from Alberta tour events with CTRS points. Such moves have helped ensure a strength of field for those events, retain the developmental benefits of representation from each zone, and retain the possibility that an emerging team can still win it all. This is the type of idea that Frank Roch of the From the Hack podcast would like to apply on the National level (described on Extra End Week 25)—more on this later.

The Team Canada berth, for all of its faults, guarantees a top seed in the Scotties draw—or, at worst, a team with Worlds experience. How many top seeds out of 12 should there be in the draw? We can only look at how many there have been in the past.

There have only been two years in the last 10 where there were as few as 3 Top 12 teams in the field: 2012 and this year. In 2007 and 2013, there were 4 (including three of the Top 4 teams each time), and every other year there were 5 or 6. Contrast that with the Roar of the Rings, which in 2013 had 7 of the Top 10 teams in the country based on the previous season's rankings. Remembering that the Roar is an 8-team field and the Scotties a 12-team field (after pre-qualifying), that's a huge disconnect.

Most years, only one or two of the top seeds will not get out of their region, leaving plenty of competition for the national championship, but that is just by chance. This year, there could have been as many as 6 of the Top 10 teams at the Scotties — a really strong field. Whether it was the fact that the Women's "provincial" championships were held on club ice, or certain teams had a couple of untimely misses or picks, or some teams figured out how to sweep with the new "techniques" better than others, that dream alignment for Curling Canada became more of a nightmare, with only Jennifer Jones having "above the title" billing.

Team Canada

Those who know me know that I have been opposed to the Team Canada berth for a number of years. There are a few reasons:

I've been convinced by the arguments of elite players that giving teams a spot one level below the national level is OK if that doesn't eliminate spots that otherwise would be available, but I could never see the CFL, for example, offering last year's Grey Cup finalists a free pass into the playoffs the following season. It makes people question curling as a sport.

There is also the anomaly in an Olympic year where there are two Team Canadas and the one that doesn't go to the Olympics gets the free pass into the Scotties next year. That's a complete head scratcher from a sporting perspective. Give the berth to the one that finished higher in their international championship? I could live with that. Have a best of three playoff between the two teams around Canada Cup time? Also a reasonable solution. However, Curling Canada clearly doesn't see this as a problem. It is another thing that makes the Team Canada berth less legitimate.

What about results? From 1986 (when Team Canada was added to the Scott/Scotties) to 1999, the team who had the Team Canada berth won twice and both times went on to Gold at the Worlds. In the past 16 years however, the results have been substantially different:

2000–2015 Gold Silver Bronze No Medal
Team Canada 2 2 1 2
Association Champion 3 2 3 1

What we see is that Team Canada won the Scotties more times but arguably could not match that performance level at Worlds, even with their experience at the event. My conclusion: the only reason to keep Team Canada in the National Championships, especially while relegation is in place, is for strength of field. If strength of field is the reason, however, then there should be more than just one non-Member Association berth.

That is the rabbit hole Frank Roch goes down when he suggests expanding the field to 24 teams. There's only one problem with this idea, and it's a big one: money. The cost to transport and house that many teams plus the extra volunteer hours needed to support that many people make his plan unworkable. I would think 16 teams would be the functional limit.

My previous stance was that the best solution, should a Team Canada berth still be desired, would be to give it to the winner of the Canada Cup from the Fall. It would give that event more meaning and I would have no problem giving the past Scotties winner (and the Olympic representative in applicable years) an automatic berth into the event. It requires a team to earn their way into the national championship and to be playing at a high level in that season. It also gives them plenty of time to qualify for "provincials" if they don't happen to win that spot.

That is still a reasonable stance, and I would rather see that happen than have nothing change. Upon further contemplation, however, I think a more radical change would suit Canada better—radical enough that I am certain many of you are not going to like it, particularly if you serve or have served one of the Member Associations directly. It reflects the fact that Canada can no longer expect to just show up to Worlds and medal.

Changing Perspective

It occurred to me that I was looking at this all wrong. The question is simply, "how does Canada send its best to Worlds every year?" It should presuppose nothing. The Americans currently select their representatives to Worlds based on points. Some European countries have the national coaches select their representative. In Canada, just sending the top-ranked team would probably not pass muster, so the constraint I'll add is that there will be a competition for the spot.

If I accept that, then the solution becomes obvious because Canada has already been faced with this problem and has solved it. It's called the Olympic Trials. So what if we had a single Trials-like event to decide who represents Canada at the Worlds? Conveniently, we already have an event in place in non-Olympic years called the Canada Cup that can provide this function. Curling Canada may want to tweak the eligibility for this event because of its increased weight, and it may want to move it to January to be closer to Worlds, but it has all the elements to give Canada the best possible representative.

Olympic results would seem to bear that out. In the 5 Winter Olympic Games since Curling became a full medal sport, the Canadian Men have won 3 Gold and 2 Silver, the Women 2 Gold, 1 Silver, and 2 Bronze. If you just count the last three Games (where the qualification process has been gradually refined), Men won three Gold, and the Women went from Bronze, to Silver, to Gold. (One can also argue that the differerence between Silver and Bronze is small in the Olympics because they do not use the Page Playoff system.)

How would such a plan work? Let's deal with non-Olympic seasons first. The Canada Cup is held in mid-January, giving the winner about 2 months between winning the spot and playing at the world championship (which is the same amount of time between the Trials and the Olympics, but far more than the current Scotties to Worlds time). You can hold provincials and the Scotties a little later, since they no longer have to be done a month before Worlds. You can also choose to include all regions without even having to have a Team Canada (which is what I would choose). Spectator support of your province/region is the central selling point of the event, since it becomes unique in that way.

What's the bonus prize for winning the Scotties? The first berth into the following season's Canada Cup. This scenario still gives any team in Canada the chance to compete for a World Championship, but instead of a non-Slam team being asked to make two spectacular runs over the course of a few weeks as they are now, they get some development funding from Curling Canada and the chance to grow over the rest of the calendar year. Sure, the fairy tale might take longer to come about, or may never manifest itself, but if the problem we are trying to solve is diminishing results at Worlds, then this plan gives even Cinderella a better chance to win if she reaches Worlds. By retaining funding for Scotties winners, the teams that are geographically-challenged have a real carrot to shoot for.

In an Olympic year, it's all about the Trials, so it makes sense to retain the system that Curling Canada currently has in place. That also means the winner of the Scotties that season would have the opportunity to go directly to the Worlds. In the following Canada Cup, both the Trials winner and the Scotties winner would get a berth. Without the guaranteed Team Canada prize that we currently offer our National Champion, this would allow teams that were about to split up at the end of a 4-year cycle to do so with minimal penalty.

It's Not Without Risk

We know that the Scotties and the Brier (and the TV revenue from the Season of Champions) are the core revenue generators for Curling Canada. Doing anything to change the importance of those events could have significant financial consequences. We also know, however, that attendance at those events peaked a few years ago, to the point where the Brier is actively being bid on by smaller centres. Conversely, the Trials has succeeded in drawing crowds comparable to the Brier at its best.

Would selecting the World Championships representative at the Canada Cup create a must-see, "live it live" event? Honestly, I don't know. The Grand Slam has always had in-person attendance problems, so it would in no way be a gimme. We won't know unless we try.

In the end, it comes down to what Curling Canada prioritizes. Curling Canada is governed by the Member Associations. If those Associations are perfectly content with Canada's current results internationally in Men's and Women's Team play, then nothing will change. Or if the majority want to make certain that someone from their area has a shot to go to Worlds each and every year out of pure self-interest, then the status quo will remain.

I heard Bob Weeks sum up the current situation perfectly on the aforementioned From The Hack podcast, Episode 17. "…What do you want the National Championship to be? Do you want the National Championship to be inclusive or do you want it to be representative of the best curlers? … I don't think you can really bring sort of a hybrid approach to it, which is kind of where we are right now." The hybrid approach, he concluded, "is really not working very well."

I agree. The greatest beneficiary of the current system is not the Member Associations. It's the teams Canada that competes against at the World Championships. That should change.