Somehow, the very Canadian debate on the format of the Brier/Scotties nationals has bubbled to the surface amidst this pandemic. Once again, the debate of what these championships are and how we should qualify the teams has been the subject of podcasts and newspaper articles.
Curling Canada, understandably desperate to run its most lucrative events, has scheduled a Brier and a Scotties to be held in an NHL-style bubble.
Some curlers and media types have emerged from isolation to suggest that Curling Canada should use this occasion to finally eliminate all the weaker teams from the Brier and just invite the top 10 or 16 Canadian Team Ranking System (CTRS) squads in the country. The current format guarantees a spot at the Brier for each of Canada’s provinces and territories. Changing the format to the top 16 would eliminate many of the smaller provinces that do not have a team in the top 16 (including Quebec). The proponents of this change would hope to make it permanent.
The arguments I’ve heard in favour of eliminating the quaint idea of provincial representation go something like this:
• The first few days of the Brier and Scotties are crap, and nobody watches because there are too many crappy teams from crappy provinces in the field.
• Good young teams in tough provinces never get a chance to be at the Brier, depriving them of the fame and glory that come from curling’s biggest stage (other than the Olympics).
• Teams now cross provincial boundaries; many of the top teams are made up of players from across the country, so why should we still define teams by provinces?
One podcast which I really enjoyed at its onset – featuring Kevin Martin and Warren Hansen – has now shifted to pretty much inviting guests on every week to discuss how to “fix” the Brier. They paint anyone who actually likes the current format into the corner of being “against change” or at very least as failing to see the evolving demographics that drive the game.
Let me say this clearly: Abandoning the provincial structure will kill the Brier.
To understand this debate, you need to understand the current world of curling has split into Pros versus Joes. If we go back 20 or 30 years, there was no such thing as a “pro” curler. When I got out of juniors, I would never have considered a career in curling (not that I was that good anyway). Even the very best curlers I knew went to university, or got jobs. We were all Joes, not Pros.
Today, thanks to the Olympics, the World Curling Tour and Grand Slams, elite curlers can now make a modest living at the game. Make no mistake, there are no millionaires in curling (or if there are, they likely made their money elsewhere), but the top four or five teams can likely “get by” on what they make from winnings, sponsorship/endorsements and Olympic funding for the elite few. Even then, many of the top teams still find themselves working summer construction contracts, running side-hustles or actual businesses to make the mortgage payments and support their families.
Pretty much the entire competitive curling world now revolves around these elite four or five teams in Canada, who are now joined by the top 10 international teams from around the world that get together to play in the Grand Slams. The Slams are high payout, Sportsnet-covered exhibits of the best men’s and women’s curling in the world. They have been successful at allowing the top teams in the world to play each other on a regular basis, and the Slams provide the funding for them to continue doing so. Beyond the Slams, the Canada Cup (run by Curling Canada) now provides an event for the top eight Canadian men’s and women’s teams to play for some big money and a berth in the Olympic Trials.
This system has emerged as the way to support the elite curlers that aspire to play in the Olympics. The Slams are an exclusive club that is incredibly tough for young and emerging teams to break into. The rankings are stacked to favour the teams already in the Slams, meaning that teams outside of the top seven or eight in Canada need to play in about 20 events per year, all over the world, with the hope of getting enough points in the smaller events to crack the elite.
While the Slams and the Olympics have done a good job at supporting the top teams, they have helped all but kill competitive curling at the level below. This system has all but eliminated the “middle class” of curling. These Tier 2 events shrink in both number and importance every season. Twenty years ago over a thousand teams would enter to get to the Brier; now that number is now in the low hundreds. The money has filtered to the top. For teams outside the elite seven or eight in Canada, the climb to reach the top tier is just too steep.
So why do teams keep playing? What keeps the Joes from packing it in, and just playing club-level curling? Why do teams like mine keep working and practicing?
The answer, at least for now, is the Brier.
The Brier is special. Whereas the deck is permanently stacked against the Joes when they try to climb the world rankings, getting to the Brier has always been egalitarian. The Pros have to beat the Joes to get there. John Epping has to win Ontario. Brad Gushue has to win Newfoundland. They have to beat all comers. Anyone willing to enter the ring and pay the modest entry fee can take a shot at it. Some say that this is unfair; that the top teams deserve to automatically get an invitation to the nation’s biggest event. I see their point, but there is certain charm to the notion that this is the one event with no free rides. You have to win your province or territory.
Is this a raw deal for teams from Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario? Absolutely, it always has been. But there are perks to curling in Canada’s curling meccas; you get better games, better instruction, you have cashspiels in your backyard that help you get boatloads of CTRS points, and you regularly get to test your skills against the best, which makes you better. Curling in Alberta, Ontario or Manitoba has its advantages to offset the tougher road to the Brier.
This higher level of competition is evident when you look at the curling world today. Alberta’s Brendan Bottcher has gotten better in part by taking his lumps against Kevin Koe. Epping gets no free pass to the Brier, he knows he has to beat Glenn Howard, Scott MacDonald and some other teams that will likely never make the Brier, but are damn good. Being from a strong province makes you better. Yes, it will be tougher to get to the Brier, but hey, as Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own: It’s the hard that makes it great.
I would not suggest the current Brier format is perfect, but can we at least acknowledge that at least part of the magic of the Brier is the provinces, the colours, the flags, and the regional charm of our nation put on display for all to see?
Can we acknowledge that turning the Brier into another exclusive Slam will all but kill curling in a number of smaller provinces? Try cracking the top 15 in Canada if you play out of New Brunswick or Nova Scotia. The CTRS inevitably favors teams from the west. If you live out east, in order to climb the world rankings you would need to be on a plane pretty much every weekend from September to December, trying to get to the higher-payout CTRS events in Ontario or further west. The additional travel time and cost make it all but impossible.
Provincial representation gives teams in smaller provinces a reason to keep playing competitively. It gives them a reason to get better. Yes, it inconveniences the top five to 10 teams in the country, but it serves to drive the next 100 teams.
The best men’s team in the country right now is from Newfoundland (actual term “Newfoundland & Labrador”). NEWFOUNDLAND! The national champs are from an isolated, far-east Atlantic province of a half-a-million people. If ever there was a perfect argument to let all the provinces play, that would be it. Who knows where the next great team may come from? Maybe the Yukon? Maybe there is some 12-year-old kid sitting in New Brunswick that will be dominating the game 15 years from now.
Let me now acknowledge that I am completely biased in this debate. As I write this, my team is currently ranked 19th in the country, so changing the Brier would likely exclude me from the mix. As the expression goes, it’s usually tough to get the turkeys to vote in favor of Thanksgiving. So my case for the current Brier is very much in my own self-interest. But heck, I am 49 years old. I clearly do not have many Briers ahead of me, regardless of the format. I just feel that someone needs to speak for the many competitors across the country who now find themselves on the outside, and who might soon find themselves excluded from our national curling championship.
So what about the current format?
Is it perfect? Hell no, but it makes an effort at walking the fine line between provincial representation and elite pro curling.
Yes, you have teams from P.E.I., Nunavut, the Yukon, Northwest Territories, the Maritimes and Quebec who are not likely to win – but you also have the Wild Card and Team Canada squads.
Yes, it means a few very good teams will find themselves sitting at home in March watching because they happen to live in a tough province.
Yes, it means you have some mismatches early in the week.
Yes, it means you have to have complicated residency rules that will inevitably result in curlers dancing between provinces.
Yes, all of this is true, but the Brier works anyway. The Brier last year was awesome. It is by far my favorite TV event to watch, even if the curling at the Slams is better. And it was fun to watch all week: The early going provided gems like the Jason Gunnlaugson shot to beat P.E.I., and Matt Dunstone making a quad to beat B.C. Both of these were early in the week, against provinces that likely would not be there if the format was changed.
The Brier is Canada. It is a collection of very different people from all over the country, whose love of the game brings them together for 10 special days in March. If we start excluding parts of the country, it would be like amputating the very soul of the event.