Can’t talk politics; let’s talk curling

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Has there ever been a game in the history of televised sports that has put itself through more contortions and rule changes for the sake of a TV audience than curling?

Yup, we’re talking curling this week folks. The election was yesterday. As I write this I have no idea who won. Maybe we don’t even know as you read this. We’ll discuss next week.

But for now… curling!

I first started watching curling back in the 1970s on CBC. Probably because we only had one channel and my dad watched it.

So I’d sit there and be lulled into a semi-stupor by the dulcet tones of the two Dons Duguid and Wittman.

Now back in those days, curling was wide open, and frankly, a bit boring. Although I can still hear the slap of the corn brooms on the ice.

But there was no free-guard zone rule — in which you cannot remove guards until after the fifth stone of the end. It was simply draw in, take out. It worked for a while because, let’s be honest, in those days you could rely on the other team to probably miss at least one shot per end.

But since curling became an official Olympic sport in 1996, and more and more curlers around the world took it up, it has become much more of a skill game.

In the early 90s it was decided that the game wasn’t going to catch on to other than a niche television market unless it became more exciting. And it was none other than legendary curler Russ Howard who began the changes that would bring in the free guard zone. The Howard team had a practice drill where you couldn’t remove the first four rocks of the end. They suggested its use at a bonspiel in Moncton and it proved very popular indeed. And with a few tweaks here and there, the rule exists until this day.

It fundamentally changed how the game was played. Players had to develop the soft and the hard shots. Whereas before a lead played the draw, and the second was most often called on for takeouts, now, with so many rocks in play, finesse shots abound. It has changed the game and made it far more exciting.

But they just can’t stop with the tweaking. Thinking time became a thing, in a move to make the games shorter.

And now, for the 2022 world championships, the tweaks are many and they have some top curlers in an uproar.

There will be no tick shots allowed. Once the free guard zone came into being, players began to develop a shot — the tick — where the guard is not removed but nudged away from the centre line without removing either stone. It’s a true skill shot and players were getting better and better at it.

But the one that has the players really wound up is that games in the round robin section at Worlds will now be decided by a draw to the button rather than an extra end.

Darren Moulding, third for Brendan Botcher, likened it to deciding the Stanley Cup with a shoot out rather than overtime. Brad Gushue says curling’s entire strategy is to make sure you have the hammer in the last end, to position yourself for the extra end should one be required. And now you don’t get one.

And Chelsea Carey stated the obvious, it’s obviously being done to make the game shorter for television, so why not just play eight ends instead of ten? Some events already do. Players have been advocating for that for years, saying by the ninth end the ice is breaking down.

But, no. Rather than do the obvious, the World Curling Federation has tweaked the tweaks and then tweaked them some more.

It remains to be seen if just cutting two ends off would have been a better solution. I’m betting it would be.