Wednesday, May 11, 2016

From Behind That Pane In The Glass

As you can see by the title, what follows is my two cents on what arguably is the hotest topic in the curling world, brushing! And, once again borrowing a line from one of my favourite movies, "The Sound of Music", let's "start at the very beginning"!

But even before returning to yesteryear, I want to put on my "Conan the Grammarian" hat in stating that for the purpose of this blog, I'm drawing the distinction between sweeping & brushing as well as broom versus brush. Note to sport governing bodies, we no longer sweep with a broom (and have not done so for quite some time). We brush with, ahem, a brush! To use the terms "sweep" and "broom" is embarrassing! We should know better! With that off my chest, let's return to those windswept lochs of Scotland where this great game was incubated if not born.

Curling really was more shuffleboard on ice than the game we enjoy today. We've all seen those dusty photos in curling club lounges of Scots, complete with kilts and other regalia, sliding what can only be described as "boulders" down an expanse of a frozen body of water to a target which in the photos was almost imperceptible. I didn't look like much fun to me but everyone seemed to be having a great time so who am I to judge (perhaps like their golfing brethren, a little Scotch whisky from time-to-tome during the match was more responsible for the smiles than the game itself).

Brushing was as much an afterthought at that time as was dribbling at the very onset of the game of basketball. I'm guessing that it seemed only natural to use some sort of implement to remove natural debris (snow, twigs, dirt etc.) from the path of the stone as it made its way down the ice. Besides, it gave members of the team not engaged in the regal art of stone delivery, something to do. The implement of choice seemed obvious, a broom, and the essence of the game had been established.

Curling became more fun as the skill of stone delivery was more the determining factor to the outcome of the contest, than which pile of snow one's stone may or may not encounter on its way to the target. The entire experience was more enjoyable. What a concept and one to keep in mind as I proceed!

As the game moved indoors, and those boulders were replaced by either "irons" or granite "stones", that very unpredictable playing surface too became more consistent. Air temperature and humidity could be controlled. The pebble applied could be regulated. The ambient air temperature could be adjusted so participants could enjoy the game more, without freezing their (insert body part[s] here) off! And those brooms that were borrowed from kitchens & barns also morphed into an implement designed for the purpose of affecting the distance a stone travelled and the trajectory it took to arrive at its destination.

I'm gong to go out on a limb here to suggest that at least some of those hardy Scots who braved the aforementioned natural elements on those outdoor surfaces collectively shook their heads in dismay as younger devotees of the game with their "sweeping" could make a poorly delivered stone still result in a shot that would at least improve the current situation. I can hear the echoes, " Ah, that's nae curling!". Well, it may not have been acceptable to them but it was to a new generation and as a result the game enjoyed unprecedented popularity!

If the ratio of influence between delivery and sweeping was 10:1 on the frozen lochs, indoors with real curling brooms changed he ratio dramatically, arguably to 10:2/3.

Thanks to European curlers, brooms in North America gave way to more efficient brushes. Corn straw and the iconic sound of two powerful sweepers faded into the rear view mirror. Brushing was here to stay. Was it more enjoyable than sweeping? Not in my books! Did brushing produce better shot making results? Absolutely!

And as brushing technique, knowledge, fitness and equipment evolved, that delivery-to-brushing ratio moved as well. The importance of brushing kept closing in on delivery to the point where we find ourselves today, at something of a crossroads in this conundrum.

The sport covering bodies charged with dealing with what has become a front burner issue are somewhat up against it in terms of time. Fans, curlers and of course equipment manufacturers want to know where this is all headed. Let's deal with each of these groups of stakeholders.

FANS

This group in my mind has two subsets. On one hand we have those who have never darkened the door of a curling facility but would not miss a televised event if their life depended upon it. On the other side you have another group of fans (remembering that "fan" is an abbreviated form of "fanatic" and all that the term implies) who also would never miss a televised game but who make use of their PVR in case they happen to be at their local curling facility when that TV game is scheduled.

I'm guessing that the members of the first mentioned subset couldn't care less about the hullabaloo around brushing. They want to see shots "made" not "missed" and if it takes revolutionary equipment to do so, bring it on! These are the same fans who watched Mark McGuire & Sammy Sousa knock baseballs out of baseball stadia at unprecedented rates all the while knowing full well that Messrs. McGuire & Sousa were "juiced". They didn't care! They wanted to see great performances and if it took some PED'S to do so, well, that's fine with them. Oh, by the way, that group of fans is still out there and not shrinking despite the best efforts of the World Anti Doping Agency. The second subset I'm also guessing see the matter somewhat differently given their on ice experiences. And, to make matters in this fan category even more complicated, there are recreational curlers, serious curlers and competitive curlers, so let's deal with the players.

CURLERS

Recreational curlers just want to curl (what a concept)! If somehow equipment can help them make more shots despite their lack of expertise, great! Where do I go to buy this new brush? This is the same group of golfers who are now enjoying that game more because the equipment, especially the clubs, are much more forgiving. Missing that elusive "sweet spot" on the club face no longer results in the horrific shots they might have experienced twenty years ago. Whereas back then some might have given up the sport, they now play regularly knowing they can keep the golf ball on the short grass. The same will be true in curling! To that end, I would have been very interested if in that dramatic video produced by Team Gushue, some recreational curlers would have been recorded as well as Brad's world class brushers. There's a project for you Brad! :)

When that recreational curler starts to have thoughts of more competition (joining the "serious" and "competitive" groups), his/her view might change to some degree on this brushing thing. Now they're spending more time practising (another novel idea). Perhaps they might not be so forgiving knowing that a competitor who has not put in that same amount of training time is, due to directional brushing with equipment that can really manipulate the path and perhaps even the velocity of the stone, might not be so enthusiastic about his/her competitors making up for that same dedicated training by an equipment innovation.

You'll notice that I've left out a fourth group of curlers, the truly elite, those who attract what can only be described as legions of fans who consume this product, and it has become a significant, marketable product, via various platforms (TV, computers, smart phones, tablets etc.). I'll make one comment about the athletes in this group at the risk of offending some of them. In the fall of 2015, in chorus this group rose in righteous indignation over the new brushing equipment, vowing to deal with it as a group, not needing to wait for any sport governing body to issue decrees. What window dressing that turned out to be! When push came to shove as the season progressed, it seemed as though those same athletes had no problem using whatever equipment was available to enhance the likelihood of victory!

For those of you out there shocked at this view on my part, consider this. Why do you think there were bushing moratoria issued during the past season? If the players had stuck to their lofty prognostications, those moratoria would not have been necessary. I generally don't worry about this elite group of stakeholders. They tend to find a water level that ultimately floats their boat and all others in their competitive environment! I care much more about the first three groups of curlers mentioned above and the jury is out on their feelings.*

EQUIPMENT MANUFACTURERS

I'm somewhat jaded as I write the section of the blog. Why? One of them, the innovator in all of this, had to know during the research and development phases of the manufacturing process that they had a tempest in a teapot! From what I know, this company went ahead and manufactured a brush which it had to know was going to cause exactly what we've witnessed during the season. Therefore, as I read their lament about the "brushing summit" which will be convened in Ottawa, in regard to the manufacturing of equipment for the 2016-17 campaign, I say this, "Too bad! You started this, now deal with its consequences, one of which is this manufacturing dilemma in which you find yourself"! You'll notice I did not use the plural form of the pronoun in the last sentence. I do feel for the equipment manufacturers who have been dragged into this. That said, I'm all for private enterprise and if a company can produce a better mouse trap and reap the rewards, great!

There are those out there who feel I'm being somewhat harsh on this matter. I can hear the comments now about the manufacturer whose idea this was, "Well, he/she was completely within the rules." True! But was there no concern for ethics? Hmmm.

To state it simply, it was irresponsible on the part of the innovating company to simply flood the market with a device that it had to know would fundamentally alter the sport. You may wish to remember the bold face, italicized words in the last sentence, as that seems to be the line in the sand for all sports when innovation rears its head, regardless of the category be it rules, equipment or anything else. It's why elite golfers can no longer employ the "belly putter". It was decreed by its sport governing body to fundamentally alter the sport (even though it took that same sport governing body what seemed like an eternity to do so).

One of the decisions that may come out of the summit is equipment certification/approval. When a manufacturer wishes to offer a product to the curling world, it has two choices, get it certified by the sport governing body before distribution to retail outlets so customers know it's a device approved for play or go ahead and produce a device that may or may not be used for play at one's curling facility. Curling has never been in a position to have to consider equipment approval but it sure is there now!

OFFICIALS

Historically, curling officials, a most dedicated and greatly under appreciated group of people, have assumed a role that was seen by most as supporting the athletes (i.e. stepping into a situation to help the athletes clarify rule application). It was an "invitation" to participate. Curling officials could not be more unlike their brethren and sisters in virtually any other sport! And for decades upon decades, that somewhat passive role worked, and worked well. Well, as much as I hate to say it, I believe we're on the cusp of a change. Given current circumstances around brushing technique, officials are going to perhaps for the first time, remove stones that have been illegally brushed (if afforded the authority to do so by rule [see Brenda Rogers comment below]). With the new equipment brought "directional brushing" (full credit here to Brad Gushue & Co.). It was in my view a brilliant idea! Good for you Brad but for me, not a surprising one. Brad took what the then Canadian Curling Association learned from a trend setting brushing study conducted prior to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games and married it with the new equipment. The result was "one brusher directional brushing'!

On that note, directional brushing has been alive and well for many, many years. Brushing only a portion of the path of the running stone has been a skill used by most serious, competitive & elite teams, perfectly consistent with the rules (and in my mind the ethics) of the game. In fact, to read the World Curling Federation rule re. brushing, the wording literally instructs an effective brusher to only brush a portion of the path of the running stone when attempting to influence the amount of curl. It has always been my view that if you're allowed to the brush the ice surface at all, you should be able to brush a portion of it if you so choose. Polishing a portion of the path of the running stone does not place an "debris" (for me defined as something other than ice) in the path of the running stone.

The problem this past season came with the one brusher, who in an attempt to augment the amount of curl near the end of the stone's journey, with the stone now "carving" (I dislike that term but it works here) significantly, finds him/herself now brushing so that the brush stroke is virtually parallel with the path of the stone. That's a rule violation and the officials should removed the stone. That would only have happened once! The curlers would have gotten the message and that would have been the end! Are you listening officials and sport governing bodies? You would only have had to do what I'm sure you regard as totally distasteful, only ONCE! The 2016 AB Scotties was the most egregious, in your face display of complete disregard for the rules of brushing as I've witnessed, especially in the final game. I was jumping off my couch calling for the officials to remove a stone as a way of telling the players to stop the rule violation.

It's going to come down to our level of tolerance with that delivery/brushing ratio. At this year's World Senior Curling Championship (Karlstad, Sweden) I felt the balance between delivery & brushing was more than acceptable. Did delivery and brushing get closer together in importance? Absolutely! Did the ratio as exhibited in Karlstad fundamentally alter the sport? No, not in my opinion, not at all! It moved the needle but only as a way of involving the brushers more but not to the point that the curler charged with delivering the stone, the fundamental skill, could dismiss his/her challenge, allowing the brushers skill, athleticism, knowledge & equipment make the shot for him/her. When we cross that line, "We're not in Kansas anymore Toto!"

But clearly making a decision on whether an innovation fundamentally alters a sport is a subjective determination. One way or another, some faction is going to be miffed at the decision! That's just the nature of the beast and it's going to be so for curling this summer! I don't envy the task but hopefully this blog will in some small way make a splash with this august body.

To those charged with the unenviable task in Ottawa to wade through what I'm sure will be mounds of data and opinions to ensure that the fundamental skill of the game remains in tact but not to the point that it stops the evolutionary process which on balance has the innate ability to make the game more enjoyable for all stakeholders (not just the ones we see on TV) I say good luck and thank you for the time and effort to safeguard this great sport.

* You can have your say by clicking on  www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/3PP266to complete a short survey. I encourage everyone to do so!

8 comments:

  1. I don't know exactly who to credit - Sportsnet, the teams, Pierre Charette - but the experimental rules used at the last few Grand Slams have been very enlightening.

    The first was the rule allowing only one brush head per player for the event - I don't think this is a viable solution because it weakens the brushers as you get closer to the championship, and some teams selectively used one brush in order to preserve the other for "carving" critical shots.

    But the next variation, restricting brushers to two heads - one for each side of the sheet, no exchanging - worked really well. Teams could no longer preserve a head for carving and as a result, we started to again see two brushers at the same time when distance was required.

    Pair that rule with some stricter equipment guidelines, so that abrasiveness, padding and endurance are similar between manufacturers and I think we have a reasonable solution to the problem.

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  2. I agree with most of Bill's comments, but I don't think manufacturers (or one particular manufacturer) can be blamed for what happened. Other sports have regulations and certain standards for equipment. New equipment needs to be tested according to regulations prior to approval. It is like this in golf and several other sports. Curling never had anything like this. The manufacturer didn't infringe any rule regarding equipment, because there is almost no rule for that in curling. I think governing bodies were simply not proactive enough and didn't see the evolution of sweeping as something that could potentially affect the game, though that was already becoming evident in 2010. Different pads with different levels of impact on ice came out right after that, but still nobody paid enough attention. Hopefully there will be some basic standards regarding both equipment and sweeping after this strange season.

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  3. I always appreciate and enjoy your 'View' but must weigh in on your comments regarding the Officials section of your blog. As you know, I was the CU at both the 2016 Scotties (Nationals) and 2016 WSCC in Karlstad that you reference. I have spent a lot of time this season regarding the 'brush head moratorium' educating other umpires (officials) and competitors alike. Here is my point: The Rules of Curling are different for Canada and the World. At the Scotties, the Canada rule is in affect and reads " there must be brush head movement" Therefore, sweeping in the direction of the stone or any direction, is acceptable. The penalty in Canada has 3 options, removal of the stone, letting play stand or placing stones where they would come to rest if there was no violation. At the WSCC where the World rules are used, the rule reads ' the sweeping(should be brushing) motion is in a side to side direction (need not cover the entire width of the stone). Therefore sweeping in the same direction as the stone path is NOT allowed at Worlds, but IS permitted in Canada. The other difference is the penalty. There is no option at the World level to remove the stone from play. This to me is a fault as the rule has 'no teeth' as seen at the Men's Worlds this year. When teams were told that a stone had been improperly brushed, the non-offending team did nothing but responded with ' we are all doing it' so no penalty was administered. I believe like anything in life, if there is a rule, it must have a penalty and it must be enforced. The problem I see as an Umpire, is the view and vantage point that we observe from. The best way to view the brushing direction, is from overhead (like a TV angle), and we rarely have that opportunity. I have had to view this season's brushing as a new 'technique' that teams/players have perfected, much like the 'tick shot'. Some are better at it than others. I too look forward to the findings of the summit in Ottawa, would love to participate from the officiating or rule enforcement portion.

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  4. There was obviously a missbalance in reglementation: Stones were much more precicely reglemented than brushes (but no team could ever use different stones and take advantage by it - while it can do so with brushes). Now, it is the responsability of the WCF (and not the manufacturers or players) to set the rules. And no regelmentation was worse than bad reglementation would have been in this case. Players have to do everything for the win that is within the rules and the spirit. Manufacturers produce products to help them. Being effectiv in their job is very positiv. Now, elite players have contracts with manufacturers - and most teams where bound to bad brushes... Those teams in cooperation whith their manufacturers started to create new rules (not that this have been bad rules, but it is absolutely not their role!) and the other teams as a rather small minority had really no choice than to give up their advantage and agree on it. In my view, this was the real unfair action. And the WCF followed (I don't know if they didn't have better choice for staying master of the rules). Obviously the traditional manufacturers had not only interest to protect their products and let them stay valiable, but also they had interest of keeping a positive image - and they had many elite teams under contract to help them telling the new manufacturer would have been against the ethics (should be the bad boy) and they protect the spirit of the sport with their old traditional products. As you see I don't feel that way. Now, what to do? WCF should do everything to get back the power over the rules. They, together with national associations should implement them and defend them against any (monetary) interest of players or producers. And there should be the same reglementations for any level of play and in any country. And than players and manufacturers should get back to their role and restart the contest for best play within those rules.

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  6. Bill, to say 1 company flooded the market with a product that fundamentally altered the sport is way off. Please remember that hair, which has been around for 30 years, altered the sport even more than any innovation to date. Would it be fair to say all the manufacturers who have produced hair brushes for the last 30 years we're fully aware that it would fundamentally alter the sport?
    You speak of ethics. How about everyone who has used hair for the last 30 years, including those teams you've coached? how about your ethics? You should have been fully aware you were using an "innovation" that would change the sport.
    The governing bodies have had no issues with any equipment prior to this year, even when they've had them tested at the Savill. No CCA coaches, icemakers, or players have had issues. If you want to keep blaming innovations, please go ahead. This goes much deeper than that. When you can manipulate rocks with old, used grimy pads, this goes way past innovations.
    FYI, belly putters are still "employed" in golf at the elite level. Only thing that's changed is how you swing it. in other words, technique.

    With all due respect, those that think they're "in the know" are the ones who don't have a clue.

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  7. As for the belly putter in golf, it is not illegal. The way it is used can be. One cannot anchor the putter or upper hand to the body. 2 examples...Adam Scott used a belly putter until this year. Now he uses the standard short one. Bernhard Langer on the other hand still uses the long putter but does not anchor it.

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