Cracked backs change tacks in the hack

By Benjamin Massey · February 15th, 2017 · No comments

Curling is awesome. It belongs to the people in a way no other major sport does. And curling is major: its championships are broadcast, its stars get endorsement deals, its television ratings routinely outdraw soccer in Canada, it’s in the Olympics and a gold medal is realistic for more countries than, say, the men’s 100-metre sprint. The fact that it maintains its proletarian atmosphere in this day and age is nothing short of a miracle. It makes the sport entertaining even apart from the fun on the ice, and there’s plenty of that.

Next to no curlers make a living off the game; even touring pros are happy to turn a profit, and almost everybody holds down a job in the curling industry or with a sympathetic boss who doesn’t mind an employee telecommuting for most of the winter. Important tournaments, with cash prizes, take place in ordinary local clubs, staffed by volunteers with tickets priced within most means. The prestigious Canadian Open was most recently played in the 14,000-strong town of North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and the men’s Elite 10 will take place in the even smaller Cape Breton community of Port Hawkesbury. In these little clubs, the shouts and even conversations of the players ring through the rafters, and a joke much above a whisper will make hundreds of fans laugh. In a televised tournament the players, however humble, wear microphones, and audibly struggle to police themselves for obscenity. Curling may be the only professional sport with strict rituals about which athletes buy drinks. Where most athletes engage expensive public relations firms to make them look good on social media, curling has the legendary Glenn Howard’s daughter Carly retweeting photos and complaining about ice conditions. It is certainly the team sport where men’s and women’s teams draw the most equal amounts of fan attention, and female curlers became famous because they threw good rocks, not because of their looks or because it was politically correct1. Even mixed curling has a solid following, and a modified format with one man and one woman (“mixed doubles”) will be in the 2018 Olympics.

Find three friends of the same sex and you could be playing in the 2018 World Championships. All you need to do is join a curling club, enter your regional curling playdown, win, gain entry to your provincial championship, win again, qualify for the national championships, and win once more. Your costs are some cheap equipment, hotels (or camping; it’s been done), airfare once you reach the national stage, a few hundred bucks in fees, maybe ice time for practice if you’re feeling ambitious. Every year, every single year, there are teams at the Canadian championships who nobody has heard of, who came out of nowhere, who have only the most hastily-cobbled together sponsorship and who will beat one of the world’s best on national television. Then there’s the age factor: this year’s men’s Canadian championship features skips from 61-year-old Jim Nix of Nunavut to 25-year-old Brendan Bottcher of Alberta, with most of the field in their mid- to late 30s. For the sports fan sick of feeling old every time they turn on TSN, curling is the cure.

This year’s Canadian women’s championship, the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, has seen favourites massacred by amateurs before it has even started. With the exception of the defending champion every team must qualify through its province. Jennifer Jones, who is only the 2014 Olympic gold medalist, lost in Manitoba. A deep Saskatchewan field fell victim to inexperienced Penny Barker. Nova Scotia favourite Jill Brothers was beaten by Mary Mattatall, an unknown sponsored by her family’s signage company. British Columbia was weak overall but the victory of veteran Marla Mallett, whose only previous moment in the spotlight was a surprise run eight years ago, was still a stunner. Of the ten top-ranked teams in the country only two will play for the national championship.

The best show was in Alberta. Venerable 41-year-old Heather Nedohin was called in to skip—make tactical decisions and play the vital last two shots every end—for the Shannon Kleibrink team, as the even-more-venerable 48-year-old Kleibrink had thrown her back out. Kleibrink, in a province featuring the young and world-class teams of Val Sweeting and Casey Scheidegger, was not expected to do much. Neither Nedohin nor Kleibrink curl “full-time.” Kleibrink has finished in the money at some modest tournaments in Alberta and British Columbia the past few years and is ranked surprisingly high but well behind the expected contenders. Nedohin “stepped back” from competitive play two years ago, giving up her professional-standard team to Manitoba transplant Chelsea Carey, and has contented herself with the same casual community events as thousands of her fellow curlers. When called upon Nedohin actually had to find a volunteer to cover her day job, as the Sherwood Park Curling Club she works at was in the middle of a major event.

That anonymous volunteer might be the biggest difference-maker of the 2017 curling season. Nedohin was perfect in the opening rounds of the Alberta provincials, including a win over former Prince Edward Island champion Geri-Lynn Ramsay, and cheered on the returning Kleibrink when the veterans twice beat Sweeting in the playoffs. The win sends Kleibrink, Nedohin, and their team of Lisa Eyamie, Sarah Wilkes, and Allison Thiessen2 to the Scotties in glamorous St. Catharines, Ontario. With Kleibrink’s back still a concern Nedohin will skip the occasional game at the national championships. It’s semi-common for teams at this level to rotate a player: usually a weaker rink swapping leads around every draw because they’re going to finish 1-9 anyway. But for skips to do it, and particularly two skips of such fame, is probably a first.

Five years ago Nedohin was a world-class curler in her own right, leading her team to the 2012 Canadian title by beating two World Champions (Jennifer Jones and Kelly Scott) in the playoffs after winning a difficult Alberta title against two Olympic medalists (Kleibrink and Cheryl Bernard). She also achieved unlooked-for immortality: after throwing an imperfect shot Nedohin rasped a frustrated “shitballs!” into her microphone, to the enduring delight of a national audience. These days she prefers “sugarballs” on Twitter, but we all know what she means.

Yet Nedohin is not highly-rated in hindsight, because she lost her World Championships semi-final to South Korean also-ran Kim Ji-sun, because she was only average trying to defend her Canadian title, and because she finished out of the playoffs at the 2013 Canadian Olympic trials: without doubt, the toughest curling tournament in the world. These are the standards we hold our curlers to. Kleibrink gets the same sort of disrespect. Ten years ago she won two Grand Slam tournaments, finished second to Jones at a Scotties, won the Canadian Curling Trials in 2005, and finished second twice more; she is the most successful woman in the Trials’ short history. But she never won the national title, never played at the Worlds, and, at the Turin Olympics, lost a semi-final to the world-class Swiss rink of Mirjam Ott, so off Kleibrink goes to the list of also-rans.

Of course the life of an athlete is sacrifice. Nedohin will miss the mixed doubles provincials this weekend in Camrose, which she would have formed an interesting team with her former-best-curler-alive husband David. But there might be a heck of a reward. As mentioned, this Scotties field is astonishingly uneven, and based off recent results Team Kleibrink/Nedohin may genuinely be a medal favourite. The only way to the trophy is if Ontario’s Rachel Homan self-destructs, but she’s by no means immune to that, and the Alberta fivesome ranks with the even-more-experienced Michelle Englot out of Manitoba, Northern Ontario’s Krista McCarville, and defending champions Carey in the second tier. An upset to win the Canadian championship would only be a little more astonishing than the upsets that got them there, and then suddenly players who were supposedly done years ago would be getting free trips to China for the world championship.

Curling is awesome.