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.


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.


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.*


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!


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 complete a short survey. I encourage everyone to do so!

Monday, May 2, 2016


In last night's (04/29/16) Champions Cup Grand Slam game (Simmons v. Laycock) curling showed why it is in a very different category from most sports and why those who play it at the highest levels, with significant rewards on the line, demonstrate strength of character and adherence to the culture of curling. Here's what happened.

On skip Simmons' last shot of the game, with the outcome very much on the line, his attempted draw was touched by one of his brushers as it was about to come to rest in the 8' circle. It was meant to guard the Team Simmons shot stone. By rule it was a "touched running (i.e. moving) stone". And, full credit to brusher Tom Sallows, he immediately indicated that he had indeed touched the stone. Team Simmons' role in the matter ceased at that point.

By rule, skip Laycoack had three choices, a) allow the play to stand as though the rule infraction had not occurred b) reposition all stones including the stone touched by the brusher where he thought they would have come to rest c) remove the touched running stone (repositioning any stones affected). Skip Laycock never hesitated in his selection of option "b" (he replaced the touched running stone to where in his estimation, it would have come to rest) and by doing so, made his last shot more difficult.

He missed that shot! And the handshake following demonstrated class on the part of both teams. There was no elation on the part of Team Simmons, just a nod of the head acknowledging the sportsmanship and a congratulatory (good luck in your next game) handshake on the part of Team Laycock.

For his part, skip Steve Laycock expected no accolades for the option he chose. He was certain had the situation been reversed, Pat would have done the same. End of story! Except, it isn't the end from my perspective.

Anyone watching who felt skip Laycock's actions were somewhat out of the norm, doesn't know nor understand the culture of this sport. I've written about this topic previously in a blog of the same name ("The Culture of Sport" [03/04/15]).

Lost in the annals of time, especially with sports like curling and golf, are the origins of the culture. I can't find any definitive reasons why a curler would chose the option Steve Laycock chose or why a golfer, with no one watching, would impose a penalty on him/herself for grounding his/her club in a hazard and yet we see this regularly. In fact, if you were to read the new book by arguably the most recognizable caddie in golf, Steve Williams, you may be surprised to learn of his disdain for a well known professional golfer who did not live up to the sport's culture.*

I'm not intending to wave the curling flag exclusively here as there are other sports that foster a culture of respect for rules, teammates, opponents, coaches etc. Sadly, there are some sports whose culture is something else. Parents would do well to consider the culture of the sport they are contemplating as an extra-curricular activity for their children. It can make a lasting impression on the values that child will take into the rest of his/her life including those all important friends and the influences they bring to bear.

Before I leave you today, one more point about the incident described above with Steve Laycock. He knew the rules, including the options available to him and knew exactly what had occurred. If you're a third/mate or skip and you're charged with the attendant responsibilities in and around the house, it's hard to make the ethical decision of you're not fully aware of what happened. There were some comments following the game on social media criticizing the official for not asserting his/her authority (i.e. removing the touched running stone). That's simply not the official's role. It was Steve's role. He knew it and immediately knew what to do (and he didn't see any need to confer with his teammates)!

But then I know Steve Laycock personally. I could have told you what he would do before he actually did it!

* Out Of The Rough: Inside The Ropes With The World's Greatest Golfers (Penguin Canada)
   ISBN - 10:0735232776