OAKVILLE, Ont. — Team Matt Dunstone arrived at the Oakville Curling Club in shirts, shorts and sandals. Despite the fact it was still summer with humid mid-20s Celsius weather, Canada’s winter pastime was heating up.
Dunstone and his crew were among several teams competing in the Oakville Fall Classic this past weekend looking to get a head start and collect key points to climb up the World Curling Tour ladder.
Although the average sports fan may associate curling with the months of February and March, the roaring game’s season seemingly never ends now starting in August and stretching all the way into May. Here in the season premiere of Eight Ends, we’ll take a look at how and why curling got its early start.
1st End: How did we get here?
The World Curling Tour has seen several new tournaments added to its schedule in recent years but with curling’s winter months primarily occupied with playdowns and world championships, these additional bonspiels have found a home at the start of the schedule.
The season actually began during the first weekend of August with the Hokkaido Bank Curling Classic in Japan, which was established in 2016. On this side of the pond, things got underway two weekends ago in Winnipeg for the Goldline Icebreaker at the Granite (also created in 2016) followed by the aforementioned Oakville Fall Classic, which started in 2015.
Not every team jumps out of the gate and plays in these early events as those at the top of the mountain have built enough of a points cushion enabling them to ease their way into the swing of things later this month without losing their spot. A little further down the rankings though and things are different.
2nd End: Who benefits from an early start?
Team Dunstone entered the season ranked 18th on the World Curling Tour’s Order of Merit and saw the early start as an excellent opportunity to get a leg up.
The all-new squad featuring skip Matt Dunstone from Winnipeg plus the Regina-based trio of third Braeden Moskowy, second Catlin Schneider and lead Dustin Kidby are aiming to work their way into the top 15 in order to compete in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling as well as vie for the final spot in December’s Canada Cup tournament awarded to the top non-qualified team.
“I know for a team like us, because we’re right on the brink of the Slams and being in or out of them, if we were to wait and start our season at the end of September like a lot of other teams are doing, we’re going to miss the 8-ball because that’s what teams just outside of the bubble are doing is to try and get those early points to try and put themselves into a good position,” Dunstone said. “With the Canada Cup this year and with one spot being up for grabs, that’s something we’re striving towards and trying to get. Playing the most is going to give us the best chance to do that.”
While Moskowy enjoys arriving to the arena in summer threads rather than a parka, he reiterated the team’s early start is necessary to move up the rankings.
“It’s nice to get away from the game for a bit and just enjoy the summer, get out on the boat or on the golf course and stuff like that but us being a new team now we’re chasing some points trying to work our way into the Slams,” Moskowy said. “We don’t have the luxury of sitting around and picking and choosing what events we want to play in and when we want to start. We have to get out here and get to work.”
3rd End: Practice by playing
Another reason Team Dunstone has hit the road early is they don’t have any ice to practice on back home in Regina. Considering they’re also a brand new team and how key it is to establish chemistry, the only way to achieve that right now is by competing.
Team Dunstone scheduled three tournaments in three consecutive weeks to open their season beginning with the Goldline Icebreaker at the Granite in their skip’s hometown followed by back-to-back events in Oakville.
“I think four new guys who haven’t played together recently anyway, it’s important to get games in, just to kind of get an identity for your team and see what the team actually is,” Dunstone said. “We’ve been chatting and three weeks in a row is a little bit much but I think as of right now we wouldn’t want to have it any other way.”
While they missed the playoffs in Winnipeg, they were able to turn their fortunes around at the Oakville Fall Classic finishing runner-up to Team Yuta Matsumura. Team Dunstone’s 9-2 fall to the Japanese side was their lone loss of the week and included a thrilling comeback win in the semifinals against Team Rich Ruohonen.
“We figured, well, we might as well throw ourselves into the fire,” Moskowy said. “It’s more or less a practice weekend and figuring each other out. That was the first time we’ve played together, thrown together, so it was a great learning weekend and obviously we brought it here, improved a lot of things and took a good step in the right direction.”
Curling doesn’t have a pre-season like other sports either forcing teams to iron out the kinks as they go.
“It’s tough to be uber-precise out there,” Dunstone said. “You’re probably fighting it a little bit one way or another and there’s still some little technical flaws but I’m pretty happy about the results thus far.”
“This weekend was a huge step in the right direction,” Moskowy added. “As much as it’s practice and working on things, we need to put some Ws together, pick up some points and get ourselves into the Slams because that’s where we want to be.”
4th End: Future flexibility
As the schedule continues to grow, top teams may turn to these summer tournaments as a way to spread out their schedules. World Curling Tour operations manager Gerry Geurts believes as the game becomes more professional and more tournaments are added, it’ll enable teams to tailor their schedules better so that they’re not as hectic as they’ve been in the past.
Geurts said he’s already seen changes in the way teams are building their schedules within the past couple seasons.
“I think the days of teams playing four weekends in a month is gone,” Geurts said. “We did see some of that in the past. I know ahead of the 2013 [Olympic] trials, Mike McEwen played four times in October. It’s a busy schedule and for these guys you need to think about the recovery part of the game as well.”
Geurts points to the Asian market for future growth, especially with the 2022 Winter Olympics being held in Beijing, and predicts those summer months will start to fill up with more tournaments.
“There’s some opportunity in Asia to grow the market there,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a couple new events where it’s almost like a bit of an Asia circuit the teams can focus on and travel and play a couple events and then focus on North America in the fall months and then after Christmas it really ends up being playdowns that the teams start to focus on.”
5th End: Matty is so money
Give Dunstone an opportunity to make a ridiculous runback and chances are he’ll take it. Such was the case during the second end of the semifinals against Team Rich Ruohonen. Dunstone pulled off this run double to score big time resulting in a score of four points and an early 4-0 lead.
— Jonathan Brazeau (@JonathanBrazeau) September 2, 2018
Ruohonen rebounded though and not only erased the deficit but briefly took a one-point lead before Dunstone responded with yup, another four-ender in the sixth en route to a 9-5 victory.
Considering Team Dunstone is trying to get into the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling, scoring a pair of “Grand Slams” will surely help their case.
6th End: Japanese teams take the titles
It was a double win for Japan at the Oakville Fall Classic. Not only did Matsumura topple Dunstone in the men’s final Sunday, Team Sayaka Yoshimura beat Team Erica Hopson 5-1 for the women’s title.
“I’m very, very happy,” Team Matsumura’s Shinya Abe said. “This is our first season together, it’s a new team, so it’s a good start for us.”
This season marks the first time the five-rock free guard zone rule has been implemented across the board in all tournaments on the curling calendar. The rule is an expansion upon the previous four-rock rule only now teams must wait until five rocks are in play before they can start eliminating guards sitting in the free-guard zone (outside the house from the tee line up to the nearest hog line).
Giving the team with the hammer an extra guard can lead to more aggressive play and generate more offence to give teams a better opportunity to mount a comeback.
“No lead is safe, especially in the last two or three ends,” Abe said. “If there is a three- or four-point difference, there is still a chance. It’s fun and curling is improving. I think we’re going in the right way.”
We’ll have more on the five-rock rule in next week’s Eight Ends.
7th End: Coming up tnis week on tour
The action continues right back at the Oakville Curling Club for the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard.
Team Silvana Tirinzoni is the double defending women’s champion (and was also the winner in 2014) but enters with a retooled roster. Say goodbye to vice skip Manuela Siegrist and lead Marlene Albrecht and welcome Alina Paetz, who plays fourth with skip Tirinzoni sliding over to third, and lead Melanie Barbezat.
There will be a new champion on the men’s side as Team Bruce Mouat will not be returning to defend the title. Among the new-look teams in the men’s division are Team John Epping (with the reunited front-end duo of Brent Laing and Craig Savill), Team Glenn Howard (who picked up lead Tim March from Team Epping) and Team Kirk Muyres featuring brothers Kirk and Dallan Muyres as well as twins Kevin and Daniel Marsh.
The HDF Insurance Shoot-Out is also on this weekend in Edmonton. The women’s tournament will be the first time out for the all-new Team Chelsea Carey and Team Laura Walker. Carey has joined forces with third Sarah Wilkes (Team Shannon Kleibrink), second Dana Ferguson and lead Rachel Brown (both formerly with Team Val Sweeting). Walker has linked up with third Cathy Overton-Clapham and lead Laine Peters (both previously with Team Chelsea Carey) and second Lori Olson-Johns (Team Val Sweeting).
If all the musical chairs has you confused, and we don’t blame you, check out our team tracker to get all caught up.
8th End: Pinty’s GSOC season awaits
We’re just three weeks away from the start of the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling campaign. Kicking things off this season is the Princess Auto Elite 10 taking place Sept. 26-30 in Chatham-Kent, Ont.
The match play event has doubled in size now with the addition of a women’s division after being a men’s invitational previously.
Tournament passes and weekend passes are available for the Princess Auto Elite 10 but they’re going fast. Visit ckelite10.goigniter.com to purchase yours today.
If you can’t make it to Chatham-Kent, Sportsnet will have you covered beginning Sept. 27 at Noon ET / 9 a.m. PT with online streaming available in Canada via Sportsnet NOW. Check out the full broadcast schedule by clicking here.