#BetweenTheSheets: Elite(-ist ?) Grand Slam Season Continues
The Elite 10 hits the ice in Victoria, B.C.
Have you had a chance to catch your breath yet after the curling action in Ottawa? Caught up on the lost hour of sleep from Daylight Savings? Ready to dive into more exciting curling action as #MarchMadness continues? Well no rest for the wicked as they say. With the 2016 Tim Horton’s Brier barely a faded memory, the curling season forges on with the next stop on the grand slam circuit.
The infamous Elite 10 comes out of the hack on St. Patrick’s Day and hopes to be another #gsoc success this weekend. The Elite 10 offers a different format than what most traditionalist curling fans will be used to. This event follows a match play format, differing from the traditional scoring. Basically, similar to golf, you win your match by winning the most ends. To win an end you need to either score at least two (with hammer) or steal (without hammer). If the team with hammer scores a single point or the end results in a blank, the hammer switches to the other team. The format is very similar to the TSN All-Star Skins Game with one huge difference, no carry over’s. Game format will remain 8 ends and the victorious team will earn 3 points for a regulation win, 2 points for an extra end win and 1 point for an extra end loss. The “Elite” 10 teams will be divided into two pools of 5, each playing the other pools teams during the round robin with the top 6 overall advancing to the playoffs. Sound like fun yet?
Ok, last year I wasn’t the biggest fan of the format. I give props to the grand slam organizers for trying to mix it up a bit with a different format though. Change should be embraced and can be a good thing. However, I am not so sure this format is the right answer. Last year I thought my issue was with the actual rules of the format but, after reflection, I realize that wasn’t the real issue at all. My real problem with this event is the elitist style of it all. Heck, the word is in the title of the event: Elite 10. Really?
In a sport where a huge concern is the growing gap between “elite” and “B-level” curlers, we want to have an event drawing attention to the biggest issue in the sport? And then be in your face about it, almost accepting it? We already see the same teams competing at each grand slam event as it is….so hell why not just name an event exactly what the overall grand slam format is all about. Only the elitist teams can play on this ice. Sure team have to qualify and the qualification is based on events entered and points earned as of a cut-off date and blah, blah, blah….don’t paint a duck black and white and call it a penguin. Curling fans are a bit smarter than that. If it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, curling fans will call it a duck. The Elite 10 is just another opportunity for these elite teams to win more big points, further the gap between the “elite” and “B-level” and, overall, win more money. The rich get richer right?
But props for at least making this year’s event co-ed…kind of. Team Homan, after dominating and destroying the women’s tour this season, will be competing against the 9 men’s teams who qualified. An inter-gender battle is always exciting for fans I suppose. And the format does level the playing field in a way so do not underestimate Homan and company. However, again, “quack, quack, quack, Mr. Ducksworth.” Inviting one woman’s team to play with the men does not solve the elitist image of this event. If anything it draws attention once more with the still inequality we see in sports between men and women. Curling generally has done a great job in being an equal balance so why even bother having a men’s-only event like this? And then why go out and grant a “special wildcard invite” to the top women’s team on tour? Just to sell tickets and make this laughable event marketable? I still think curling fans can see through this marketing gimmick.
Now I don’t want this entire preview to be bashing the event. It is not my intent to bring down the positive of the grand slam’s and what they do for the sport. Instead, can I at least offer a suggestion? Keep the identifiable format. Like I said, change is good. But, similar to golf’s match play event, why not make it a huge #MarchMadness bracket format? The Match Play Championship invites the top 64 golfers in the world (at a certain cut-off point) to the course to battle in a true bracket style play-off. You win, you keep playing. You lose, see ya later! Imagine the possibilities. Currently ranked #45 on the Order of Merit, newly crowned World Junior Champions Team Mouat of Scotland would be battling #20 ranked Jean-Michel Menard in the opening round. Or even #57 seed Dayna Deruelle taking on #7 Steve Laycock. Upsets could happen at any time in a one and done game. And don’t give me the excuse that timing would be an issue. The Brier JUST ended and a grand slam is starting the same week. Teams will make it work..they already are anyway right? Oh but will teams come to play with the risk of maybe ONLY playing ONE game? Suck it up “athletes” who want to complain. Golfers do it, why can’t you? I actually think many would love to compete in this style of event. What about scheduling? Let’s take a closer look at this. The current format runs Thursday to Sunday, with a total of 23 games scheduled (not including tie-breaks). The #TwineTime suggested format would have a total of 63 games, almost 3 times more action on the ice. The current format is only using 3 sheets of ice though. We find a location where, at minimum, 4 or 5 sheets of ice are available and run the event Wednesday to Sunday. Sure teams may have to play 2 or 3 games per day, I can see a draw back there. But again, golf runs a match play event over 5 days. Last year Rory McIlroy won 7 match play games, you cannot possibly tell me a curling team cannot do the same? Teams double down at the Brier and Scotties and those are 10 end games. These are 8-end games.
What about the gender balance you ask? Hmmm, good point. Perhaps we make it a 32-team event for the men and a 32-team event for the women. Or, if you really want to be unique, take the top 32 teams of both genders and seed them. Let it be men vs women vs women vs men….see who comes out on top. With the build-up over the #MarchMadness tournament, the marketing side alone of a 64-team knockout event would sell itself. Add in some bonus coverage through live streaming and ensure devoted sites like CurlingGeek have a strong presence and…Voila!….masterpiece theatre! Plus imagine the fantasy curling options available. Curling struggles on the fantasy sports scene, yet fantasy sports are one of the biggest opportunities to really #growthesport. Heck, I entered two Brier winner pools and one Brier loser pool because I enjoy the added excitement (BTW, #TwineTime did win BOTH winner pools…jsut sayin’). With all the hype around the NCAA Basketball Bracket Challenge, this would be perfect timing to capitalize on a Curling Bracket Challenge. Who will be the cinderella team? Who will be the bracket busters? Can the top seeds make the final? Be honest #TwineTime fans, would any of you really hate this suggestion? Aren’t you already salivating at this possibility and wish it was happening right now? Would any of you rather see the current format over the one I propose? My guess is not many of you disagree with me, whether you want to admit it or not!!! The format works for golf. The format works for tennis. Why could this format not work for curling?
Ok, time to jump off my soap box for the week and get to what we do know is happening this week…The Elite 10. Let’s bring on the tradition of #TourLifePredictions:
Elite 10 Grand Slam of Curling
2015 Champion: Team Mike McEwen
Format: 10 teams divided into 2 pools with 6 qualifiers. Top 2 seeds earn bye’s to the SF.
Team Kevin Koe – You just won another Brier championship, how are you going to celebrate? By hoping on a plane, flying across the country and playing a grand slam event of course. Here is where we give props to curlers. Unlike other sports like tennis or golf, after competing in a major event (and winning) teams sometimes get no time off to truly celebrate the win and enjoy time with family and friends. Team Koe will barely have time to wash their socks and lucky boxers before heading back on the ice for another event. However, given the resume of these 4 men I would not underestimate them this weekend. Fatigue is going to play a factor, without a doubt. But at least they get the opening draw off. If they can keep the momentum and winning rush going, they will be very hard to beat. On the flip side, this is a totally different format and strategy then what they have been playing for the past week. It could derail them a bit. Shot for shot though, position by position, this team is on fire and has to be considered the favourites. Koe’s draw is scattered with fellow Brier participants Laycock and McEwen (whom he plays back-to-back on opening day) as well as World Champion Nik Edin and Brendan Bottcher. Koe, Laycock and McEwen all play twice on opening day…after a gruelling week at the Brier. Any one of them could be primed for a rough start….or, in the case of Koe, continue riding a wave of momentum.
Watch Out For
Team John Epping – The hottest team heading into Brier playdowns was Team Epping. With many expecting John to finally nab his first Brier spot, he would only be denied in the Ontario final vs. rival Glenn Howard. Epping has had weeks and weeks to stir over the loss and should be anxious to get back on the ice for competitive curling and resume his winning ways. Epping won the last grand slam even, The Canadian Open, and made the SF at The Canada Cup. If he can rediscover the magic on the ice from those events, he will be a team to watch this weekend. The question here will be IF. Those hot results were more than 3 months ago now….did the Epping fire cool off? An advantage for Epping could be his draw. He starts with one game on Thursday against Homan in a media-frenzy game where it is tough to say who has more pressure on them. He then plays Carruthers and Thomas back-to-back before ending with Gushue. Carruthers and Thomas have not played competitive curling since their provincial eliminations as well so consider this an open draw for all three teams. Gushue comes to Victoria fresh off a tough Brier week and difficult loss in the final. By the time Epping plays him to end the round robin, will fatigue and frustration already be in Goo’s head, having him checked out of this event?
The Dark Horse
Team Rachel Homan – Welcome to the history books once again Team Homan. This week the Ottawa, ON team will become the first women’s team to play a men’s grand slam invite event. I’ll spare my thoughts on this as you already read them above. No question on the Homan credentials though to be considered an Elite 10 team. They have dominated the women’s grand slam season, winning all three events thus far and will aim for the elusive calendar grand slam next month. They also won the Canada Cup earning them a coveted spot in the Roar of the Rings….on top of winning 3 other events this season. Unfortunately, the one that mattered most perhaps, The Scotties, was not meant to be after losing in the Ontario final to Jenn Hanna. Perhaps I just write “See John Epping” for my thoughts on Team Homan. Which Homan team will we see in Victoria? The one who dominates grand slam events and is easily one of the best, male or female, teams on tour this season? Or the error-prone team we got a glimpse of in Banff at the TSN All-Star Skins Game and Ontario Scotties? You have to imagine Homan and company are ready to put the Scotties disappointment behind them and no better way than to get back to winning ways. The other question will be how they handle this whole media circus of being the first women’s team to compete with the men. Honestly, I think this should be a non-issue…it is 2016 after all. But we know the story will reign supreme in all the media Rachel has to deal with leading up to and during the opening day. Luckily she is in the pool with Epping, Carruthers, Thomas and Gushue. Similar to Epping’s comments above, 3 of the 4 have had just as much time off the ice as she has and one will come into this tournament with a mixed bag of emotions. In a match play format, anything can happen and this is where Homan is most dangerous.
Qualifiers: Team Epping, Team Gushue, Team Carruthers, Team McEwen, Team Koe, Team Edin
ELITE 10 CHAMPIONSHIP: Team Edin over Team McEwen – The rematch from last year with a different outcome. There is something about Nik Edin and the month of March. Regardless of how his curling season is going, the man turns it on late in the season when the stakes become the greatest. This will be the perfect tune-up event for Team Sweden heading into the Men’s World Curling Championship. This season has been a better one results-wise for Edin on the grand slam circuit too, qualifying at The Masters and Canadian Open. The current world champion will look to build momentum going into defending his crown…get it Sweden…crowns….right? Ok never mind…geez! I think the #redpants will finally make an appearance back on the ice after having to be shelved during the Brier…and curling fans will rejoice. Mikey and the boys turn it on at grand slam events as well. While they may be disappointed to miss the podium at the Brier, the experience of being there and knowing overall they actually curled quite well can be seen as a positive. I wouldn’t be too surprised to see McEwen repeat his title of a year ago either.
Ok my friends….my stoners and rock heads alike….I apologize for being a bit frosty this week in the preview. But I hope you read this as more of a passion to continue along the path of #growthesport rather than a negative attack on the sport, teams and those in charge. I will try to be a bit more #mintyfresh in the future.
This is also a special week as the 2016 Women’s World Curling Championships begin Saturday March 19 in Swift Current, Saskatchewan. I will have a very special blog preview coming your way shortly….with a very special guest! If you thought #Keaner (Mark Kean) did a great job helping preview #Brier2016, wait until you read the #wwcc2016 preview. As always, stay tuned…..
Spark Sports Curling Analyst