Time To Fix The Playdowns – Once And For All

We welcomed two-time Olympic champion John Morris as a columnist in our December 2018 issue. This is his first installment of The Athlete Angle, offering occasional perspectives on hot topics – from a high-performance curler and fan of the game.
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John Morris at the 2014 Brier (Curling Canada/Michael Burns)

John Morris at the 2014 Brier (Curling Canada/Michael Burns)

By John Morris

This is the first column I’ve written for The Curling News and I’m choosing to write about a hot topic that is on a lot of fans’ minds these days. Canada’s playdowns – the system used to decide a champion, from local curling club or zone play right through to the national title – has been receiving a lot of criticism of late, and I’m going to pipe up with my two bits on the matter. There will no doubt be a few people and provinces that may be slightly offended by my points of view. However, when it comes to the playdowns it would be near impossible to keep every party happy anyway, and I think it’s worth having the conversation in the hope of righting this ship for good.

I want to first point out a few changes that Curling Canada has done very well and that have made a positive impact on curling in Canada. The first being the subtle downsizing of the Brier, and taking it back to cities like Brandon and Kingston. Although their arenas are considerably smaller than the Calgary’s Saddledome or Edmonton’s Rexall Place, they will almost guarantee a sellout for many draws. Also, this brings a major event back to some really great curling hotbeds which have a good track record of hosting successful curling competitions. We as players would much rather play in a full 5,000-capacity barn than a half-full 15,000-capacity arena.

Secondly, the inclusion of a Team Canada in the Brier was a great idea. I find that to win a major championship like the Brier, you should have to beat the defending champ to officially dethrone them. And to borrow the longtime women’s Team Canada argument, this also allows Curling Canada to have a guaranteed strong team in the event to help market and pre-sell tickets.

Good point Gushue

Although I must admit I don’t watch a lot of TV curling when I’m not competing, I did tune into some of the 2018 Scotties and Brier and it gave me a different perspective. This was the first time in almost 20 years that I wasn’t an active participant. When all was said and done, I really did not enjoy either of them as much as I would have liked, and I think one of the main reasons was the format. In the first part of the week it seemed the games lacked meaning and intensity. Most of the games did not go the duration, and there were many lopsided scores. Then all of a sudden, near the end of the week, there were a bunch of really meaningful games going on at the same time and viewers could only tune into the one match that was being featured.

I must tip my hat to Brad Gushue – it is very easy to criticize a format when your team is losing and under those circumstances the criticism can lack merit. However, Gushue publicly commented on the format several times during the 2018 Brier stating that he wasn’t a fan and it needed a fix, and he was winning the thing (and he did). Coming from the skip of the team that has won the last two Briers… this type of comment in the media holds a lot of credence and I’m glad he said it, as I believe it now has a better chance of being changed for the better.

Trial and error

It seems to me that Curling Canada has been trying to fine-tune and update the playdown system for about the past decade. First there was the relegation experiment, which was introduced in an attempt to make provinces more competitive and also to make room for a Team Canada addition. In theory this made sense, but when I first experienced it and saw all of the negative feedback from most of the provinces, I, like many other Canadians, felt this was not fair. First of all, the costs to fly these teams in and accommodate them to play a mini-bonspiel before the Brier starts… I’m sure that was very expensive for Curling Canada. Then for the fans of those provinces, who may
have been loyal Brier attendees, not being able to know if their home province
is even in the Brier until the very last minute… no doubt this uncertainty had
a lot of people not booking their tickets.

Fast forward to last year's 2018 season, which featured the two-pool system and the addition of a Wild Card entry. I have grown up through the traditional playdown system for most of my life and when Curling Canada first starting introducing two-pool play at the Canadian Juniors, it had me baffled. I consider myself fairly knowledgeable in understanding draw formats, as I’ve pretty much seen all of them at some point throughout my career. The two-pool system – to put it frankly – is tough to follow. I can only imagine how confused the average Canadian curling fan feels. In this format there was even a draw played that was completely meaningless, and held strictly for seeding purposes… this would have been what my old friend Benny Heebz calls “human torture” as you would have had a bunch of guys or gals – who are already feeling badly because they missed qualifying for the championship round – back out on the ice, not wanting to play in a meaningless game, where at least half of them would have been sporting a hefty Brier patch hangover from the night before.

(Editor’s note: the seeding draw was eliminated from this year’s STOH and Brier. According to a recent tweet from Curling Canada, “The game on Fri. morning (was) removed in consultation with all stakeholders. The players no longer in contention for the title are just as happy not to play in that game. We haven’t heard a complaint yet.”)

2015, Calgary Ab, Tim Hortons Brier, Team Canada skip John Morris, third Pat Simmons, second Carter Rycroft, lead Nolan Thiessen, Curling Canada/michael burns photo

Morris watches his stone at the 2015 Brier in Calgary (Curling Canada/Michael Burns)

In my opinion, a Brier isn’t a Brier unless you are competing against the whole field. Every time I qualify for a Canadian curling championship, I open the event schedule for the first time… and it’s like Christmas, finally getting to see when the marquee matchups are, and also predicting when it might be a good time to hit the Patch with friends. From the fan perspective, they can organize their trip to the Brier accordingly to see their favourite teams do battle. From a cost perspective, this format would still be through the roof as Curling Canada would be flying teams in from every province and territory, especially the Yukon, Northwest Territories (NWT) and Nunavut players whose flights costs cost mucho dinero.

Maybe this is just my competitive perspective here, but does a team really want to play in a Brier or Scotties and get shellacked in every game? Last year the teams qualifying from Nunavut at both the Brier and Scotties both brought in a player from another province right before the event started; in one case the team had never even met their teammate before the Scotties began. As my favourite NFL football announcer
Chris Berman would say… c’mon, man! That doesn’t seem like a whole lot of fun
and also takes some competitiveness out of the Brier, which has always been a
historically competitive event.

Going to the nationals should be earned and not necessarily due to geographical
locations. Kerry Galusha, who has had a wonderful Scotties career and has always represented the NWT with class, has even said that she isn’t a fan of the current system. In a series of tweets with Braeden Moskowy and Benny, Kerry said:

“People thought they hated the pre-qualification process aka relegation but people are going to hate the pool format way more... they are going to wish for relegation to come back.

“Nobody knows better than myself and my team how cruel relegation was... but we understood why it was in place and dealt with it. I do think it made our team stronger and work harder. Not sure what the right answer is though... but I don’t think pools is one of them.”

We The North

Instead of having the NWT, Yukon, and Nunavut having separate teams, I recommend that each territory’s champions compete in a special championship that rotates the hosting location. Format could be double round-robin, with the top two teams playing in the final unless one of the teams goes unbeaten. Curling Canada would cover the expenses for these teams which would help ensure that there are no teams complaining that it is too expensive to fly into other territories (which is one of the reasons that it was decided to have all of these teams compete in the Brier).

Yes, there is still a cost incurred but it would no doubt be a fraction of what it would cost to fly all of these teams into a Brier for the week. Also, this would help produce development and competitiveness amongst the territories which will ensure that whomever represents the North will be pretty darn good. With the money that would be saved by doing this, you could even kickstart development funds for those territories that don’t make it – their reps could fly into one of our national training centres and access to our nation’s skilled high-performance consultants. This would no doubt have a more positive impact than sending them like sacrificial lambs to the Scotties or Brier only to get crushed in most games.

The Ontario issue

Growing up, the Brier wouldn’t have been the same without the likes of Al Hackner or Brad Jacobs representing Northern Ontario. As an avid outdoorsman and archery hunter, my favourite sound from Brier fans is undoubtedly the NONT moose call.
However, I think the time has come for there to be only one representative from
Ontario.

It made sense to separate the two back in the early Brier days because efficient
transportation was a key issue, and flying wasn’t an option. Back then there were also a huge amount of entries from Northern and Southern O, but things have changed. We now have multiple flight options to get across the province and I read that for the 2018 Ontario Scotties playdowns, the south had over 50 entries and Northern O had only four. So I think it’s time to amalgamate the North with the South and have a single Ontario representative.

And when Brad Jacobs or Krista McCarville can still come out of Ontario with a purple heart, the Northern fans can dust those moose calls off and make those sweet sounds. Here again, there should be some cost-sharing with Curl Canada/CurlON as you wouldn’t want the excessive costs of travel to deter a team from entering playdowns. Therefore, it may only be fair to cover the plane tickets for the few teams that have to travel long distances for provincials.

Johnny said WHAT about Northern Ontario? (Curling Canada/Michael Burns)

Johnny said WHAT about Northern Ontario? (Curling Canada/Michael Burns)

Player’s lounge

As a side note here, the Brier used to have a player’s lounge that was one of the highlights of the event. This was a really comfortable lounge that allowed us to enjoy a wide array of beverages and some food items/snacks, where all of the players and their families could hang out after the games. It was one of the special things that set the Brier apart and was something every team had the privilege to enjoy. More importantly, it provided an area for the teams to hang out together and this was one of the few ways we were able to get to know our opponents. My favourite part of a few Briers was getting to meet the families of my longtime competitors in the lounge and
seeing how excited their kids were to hang out as a VIP.

Apparently this was removed due to budgetary restraints and it was thought that the players would not even notice its disappearance… however, I can tell you it was an immediate dissatisfier for the players and it had many Brier competitors asking “What the heck?” With some minor sponsorship from certain suppliers, I think the costs could be kept at a minimum, if any, and its return would have a positive impact on the great
traditions of the Brier.

CTRS teams, Wild Card

I have to admit that I’m not a fan of the Wild Card concept for two main reasons. First off, the Brier/STOH starts becoming too much like our other championships, such as the Grand Slams or the Canada Cup. As great as these events are and as much as the actual shotmaking and talent is better in these events, I don’t think we need another one of them.

Secondly, by doing this you make the event too large, and as a result you have to break it into two-pool play or have a round robin that would be too long, thus extending the event. I do like the idea of having Team Canada back, for the reasons expressed above.

A possible option

There are some competitive curlers who argue that certain provinces should not be in the Brier/Scotties because they consistently post losing records. Well, I’m kind of on-the-fence on this one, because I have a soft spot for my friends out east and I don’t think it’s as easy as just lumping all of the Atlantic provinces together and giving them one spot.

One step might be to eliminate the province at the Brier that has the worst record (and break ties the same way you would for the teams tied for playoff positions). That team can only be eliminated for one year in a row, as the following year they would replace that year’s last place team. One clause could be that if a province is hosting a national, they would get a guaranteed entry.

The positives of this would be that every game at the nationals would be a battle and I, for one, would definitely tune in to see PEI versus NFLD (sans Gushue of course) as one of the last round-robin draws to see who makes it into the following year’s Brier. Now you may have the perennial bottom-dwelling provinces crying foul… but before you criticize this too much, won’t this inevitably help to improve these provinces and put some ownership on the provincial association to develop their high-performance programs? Overall, I believe this would lead to more competitive national championships thus creating higher quality champions, and this at a time when many have heard the rumblings from curlers and fans across our country as to why we aren’t as dominant on the international stage as we used to be.

I believe this is one step in the right direction that will help strengthen our system from coast to coast to coast, and give us a better chance at creating consistent top podium results for Canada for years to come. This has been used successfully at the European Curling Championships for years and really helps with the overall competitiveness of the event, and every single game has meaning.

2015, Calgary Ab, Tim Hortons Brier, Team Canada skip John Morris, P.E.I. lead Robbie Doherty, second Anson Carmody, Curling Canada/michael burns photo

Morris battles some P.E.I. buddies in 2015 (Curling Canada/Michael Burns)

The solution

I never enjoy hearing naysayers point out a problem without having an idea for a solution, so here goes. Over the years, Curling Canada has gradually lengthened the Brier and STOH inch by inch. I will reiterate that it is next to impossible to keep all of the curlers and curling fans in the country happy, so some people will simply not agree, but here it is:

Scrap the two pools and go back to a traditional round-robin system, where every curler in Canada still has a chance to qualify for the Brier/Scotties. Have one rep from all the territories, a Team Canada, and only one rep from Ontario, all for the reasons mentioned above. The team list would be BC, NWT/YUKON/NUNAVUT winner, ALBERTA, SASKATCHEWAN, MANITOBA, ONTARIO, QUEBEC, NEW BRUNSWICK, NOVA SCOTIA, PEI, NEWFOUNDLAND and TEAM CANADA. Use the same Page playoff format that has been used successfully over the last decade, and finally, consider the option of eliminating the last place team for the following year’s event.

Boom. Now tell me what you think.

John Morris is a two-time Olympic champion and multiple Brier, world and provincial champion who is now focused on the Mixed Doubles discipline. Follow him on Twitter @johnnymocurler and on Instagram at johnnymo_7