From NFL head offices ...

“Gentlemen, I propose we adapt some of those Canadian rules to help speed up the game and make it better for TV. We’ll have four downs in the first half but three in the second half. No fair catch rule anymore, we can create more action with the no-yards penalty. And a rouge ... always liked the sound of that.”

“Great idea. When should we start?”

“The Super Bowl.”

To be declared a World Champion usually involves a sense of pride. Relevance. Gravitas. History. It should be significant, to be crowned the best on the planet. Now curling’s global governing body, the World Curling Federation, is potentially risking the legacy of its marquee 2022 events by making drastic changes to the next world men’s and women’s championships—the ones that aren’t part of the current “Olympic cycle”—and the reactions have been varied. 

The WCF have chosen to strip off the dull and drab five-rock outfit they’ve worn for all of three years and wear a flashy new ensemble to the Met Gala event on their calendar ... before anyone knows if it actually fits.

Iman at the 2021 Met Gala • Charles Guerin/Abaca/Sipa USA

Iman at the 2021 Met Gala • Charles Guerin/Abaca/Sipa USA

It’s an odd choice for such drastic changes given the worlds’ elevated place in curling history. There’s no indication the new rules will stay beyond one year, or how their use will be evaluated. Many players and fans were surprised by the news coming out of the WCF’s recent annual general assembly. Here is the context.

Members at the 2019 AGA were discussing a possible switch from 10 ends to eight ends (remember that?). A vote was considered but it was decided to commission some research via a working group, and study not only the number of ends in a game but “other issues that impact the presentation of curling at an elite level.”

Since that time, the working group has considered multiple concepts with the goal to “broaden curling’s appeal to audiences, broadcasters and sponsors.” A major fan survey was also conducted last April (remember that?).

The feedback from the various stakeholders pointed to these areas:

• Pace of play—the need to make the game exciting over its full length, whether that is eight or 10 ends.

• Length of game—the need to fit four-player curling into a clear broadcast window which in most territories would be around 2.5 hours. The agreed window should not be exceeded.

• Predictability—whether this was about the ability of teams to come back from a deficit in the last few ends or that the team with the hammer is the overwhelming favorite in an extra end.

• Blank Ends—the WCF says “from the fan survey the feedback on blank ends was not positive.”

WCF graphic

WCF graphic

And so, the WCF announced the men’s and women’s worlds would be the testing ground; COVID-19 prevents World Curling Tour events from providing evidence, and this season’s worlds come after the Olympic Games and with no qualifying points available for Milan-Cortina 2026.

A Canadian media operation published a story, full of angry quotes from aggrieved Canadian competitors. A follow up story featured more tempered reactions, including  Curling Canada musings that they should probably test the new rules as well.

And that’s where we are. If good faith abounds, data from these trials will be added to the years of eight end game data already available and a final decision on the rules of four-player play for the 2023-26 quadrennial will (probably) come next September. I’ll have more to say on this process in the future, but for now let’s dig into the three rule proposals that will be all the rage in March and April.

Generally, I applaud curling fans, players, and administrators for moving fast to adapt. Since Canada took its sweet time to adopt the four-rock rule (see three-rock era) the collective sport has usually moved swiftly to test and implement ways of improving the play and product. The brushing controversy of 2015 prompted a near-immediate response and new rules adapted for that very season. It’s hard to imagine another sport acting so quickly. 

In our Rock Logic podcast episode discussing the tick shot, Ken Pomeroy considered this openness to change a positive compared to other sports. I tend to agree but the venue for testing these changes is certainly suspect. If you’ve listened to the episode, you’ve heard several opinions on the first of these rules to examine …

No Tick Shot rule: If a rock is touching the center line within the free guard zone, it cannot be moved off the center line until after the fifth stone of the end has been played.

Pushing a center guard out of play (but not removing it) when tied in the last or extra end has been a tactic used since the early days of the free guard zone. The use of these “tick shots” earlier in a game to develop corner guard play was a concept Gerry Geurts of CurlingZone and I may have discussed when we were first introduced back in 2006. Men’s teams were late to adapt to this strategy and the first prominent use was by Rachel Homan at Canada’s Scotties Tournament of Hearts. The “weagle”—named for former Homan lead Lisa Weagle—became synonymous with splitting a centre guard early in the game. Teams have been using the tactic more often lately and, when executed correctly, it does provide a great advantage to the team with last rock advantage.

By “freezing” a guard to the center line, teams will be unable to use this strategy at any point in the game. A similar rule has been trialed at the Champions Cup but only for the final or extra end of the game, with player feedback mostly positive. The use of this new rule in a tied or extra end will likely reduce the high winning percentage we’ve recently seen from teams with hammer. Top men’s teams have been creeping over 90% in the last three years and mid-level teams have also been improving. The hammer team still has a considerable advantage and should win most often, but the play itself of the final end is certain to be more entertaining.

Will this rule reduce the corner guard game and create more play to the middle with less variability? Perhaps. But the greater risk might come when a team trying to get past a guard rubs it slightly and has their stone removed. This isn’t as common on swingy arena ice, but if it’s adopted for a club event, watch out. 

I applaud the attempt but prefer testing it further and like Geurts, Mike Harris, Håvard Vad Petersson and others have suggested, perhaps we should create areas or zones on the ice to make the attempt at “freezing” your guard more difficult than simply straddling the centre line.

I am literally shocked that this type of rule, which has a significant impact on play, will be used at the 2022 world championships. I would have expected further analysis to take place at other events first but as mentioned above, this year is special.

Thinking Time per end: Four minutes per end for the first five ends; then 4:15 per end allowed in the last five. If you run out of time, your opponent can throw their remaining stones.

A similar rule was used at events a few years ago and feedback leaned towards the negative. As I understand it, one of the factors behind this rule is to eliminate those blank ends in which teams are trying to bank time for use later in the game. I’m not certain this was a significant issue in recent years and though I agree it may reduce a few “quick” blank ends, it won’t reduce interesting blank ends taken for strategic reasons. Which is fine by me, because blank ends are part of the sport and essential to its appeal as “chess on ice.” Remove the option to blank and the game will not be the same. This is not the place to dive deeper into this topic, however, so I’ll save that for another time.

Thinking time per end at the 2018 Canada Cup • Michael Burns-Curling Canada

Thinking time per end at the 2018 Canada Cup • Michael Burns-Curling Canada

My primary concern: this rule could limit the dramatic build up to final skip stones, and produce rushed situations toward the later ends of a game. More time allows room for everyone to breathe a little, giving fans a chance to analyze what is happening and look at options while the tension builds. I’m not suggesting we need too much time—see the last two minutes of an NBA game for example—but the choice to add an extra 15 seconds of thinking time during the final five ends seems undersized, insignificant, and downright strange. Contrary to my initial thoughts, this might actually benefit Kevin Koe because now everyone will be throwing their final stone with some four seconds remaining on the clock.

No extra ends in round robin stage: In the event of a tie, each team will throw one draw to the button. For standings/rankings, teams will earn three points for an outright win, two points for a draw to the button win, and one point for a draw to the button loss.

This rule may receive the most angered response from players. The idea matches with other Olympic sports but may have a greater impact in curling where it alters the strategy of game control. Its use could have a significant impact on how games are decided and type of play that develops during the final ends. A team may take a passive approach to shot decisions in late game situations, with the knowledge a tie leads to one or two points, rather than playing aggressively to increase their chances of a win. I am certain this decision will alter team strategy in late game situations. Whether it is more or less entertaining to the viewer —I suspect less—remains to be seen.

Apparently this is being trialed to shorten play but I’m certain the time taken for draws to the button—especially if both skips cover the pin—is not significantly shorter than playing a full end within 8.5 minutes (of thinking time).

Speeding up play and fitting games into a window of TV coverage was a significant factor in two of these decisions. Many thought, and no doubt still believe, that simply shortening a game to eight ends would be the eventual solution. Not for now, it appears, or at least until this round of experiments are concluded … and perhaps not until we reach another petri dish world championship season in 2026.