It’s hard for Brad Gushue to say, but he now believes shorter curling games at major championships are the way to go.
World Curling Tour and Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling games are already eight-end affairs, but tournaments such as provincial and national playdowns, the world championships and Olympics are played to 10 ends.
The World Curling Federation has actually been looking into the possibility of reducing the number of ends from 10 to eight for those events since curling became a full-medal sport at the Winter Games over 20 years ago. It’ll still an ongoing issue as members deferred a motion regarding shortening games during the WCF’s annual general assembly earlier this month in Cancun, Mexico.
Gushue isn’t alone in preferring shorter curling games — Sportsnet polled 102 players during tour events in Ontario this month and found 71 were in favour of eight ends, 21 were fine with keeping 10-end games at major championships, and 10 were undecided/indifferent.
“I think it’s a better TV product. We need to start drawing a younger audience for curling and the younger audience doesn’t want to sit for three hours to watch a full 10-end game,” said Gushue, who has won 11 Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling titles. “We’ve seen the impact and the excitement that the mixed doubles has brought — that shorter compact game has an impact. Just for that alone, I think bringing that younger audience obviously brings more sponsorship in it, it’s going to help grow the game and start that ball rolling. That’s where I’m at.
“I think it needs to be eight ends but for me personally, 10 ends you’re going to get the better team winning more often. I’ve been playing 10 ends now for 25 years. It’s hard for me to say that but I think for the betterment of the game, that’s the direction we need to go.”
While Gushue might be a bit torn, there isn’t a doubt in Eve Muirhead’s mind eight-end games are better for curling.
“I’ve always been a believer that eight ends is a good amount,” said Muirhead, a four-time Grand Slam champion. “People always say, ‘Well, we’ve got more time to come back in 10,’ well then don’t get that far down before. I’m a big eight-end fan.”
The physical toll was a commonly cited factor by those in favour of eight ends. Players are competing in more events during the season than ever before with tournaments lining the calendar from early August all the way into May.
Silvana Tirinzoni and her Swiss team played in 14 tournaments during their world title run last season while Matt Dunstone’s team from Regina played in 16 tournaments as they rose into the top-10 rankings. Even when it appeared to be an off-week on the schedule for teams, that wasn’t always the case as some players also competed in numerous mixed doubles events.
The events themselves are getting longer too, with fields expanding as the sport reaches new markets. Teams played nine round-robin games to qualify for a four-team playoff (semifinals and final) at the world championships in 1980. This year teams played 12 round-robin games, leading to a six-team playoff (qualification round, semifinals and final).
“We are playing so many games during the season it’s different [from] past years or the generation before us and it’s also hard on your body,” Tirinzoni said. “At the world championships we experienced it last year. There were so many games and no breaks or no recovery. I don’t think it’s healthy anymore. Eight ends are enough.”
It’s not just physically but mentally with the relatively recent introduction of the five-rock rule. The WCF altered the existing four-rock rule last year as now teams cannot eliminate stones sitting in the free-guard zone — outside the house from the tee line up to the nearest hog line — until the fifth rock of the end has been played.
Having an extra guard requires players to think more critically about their shots as even one mistake can open the door for opponents to capitalize.
“It’s a lot more aggressive curling out there, so it is a little slower but my brain is frazzled, I’m not going to lie,” Muirhead said. “It’s been really good for curling. Yes, there are bigger ends going on out there and there are a few more comebacks but overall I think the five-rock rule has really changed the game of curling and I think it’s for the better.”
Some players believe the five-rock rule, which has been implemented in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling since 2014, is better suited for eight ends.
“Back in the day, it was like you had to wait for a miss because it was all bang-bang-bang and you needed that extra time,” four-time world champion Glenn Howard said. “I don’t think we need it anymore. I think we’re at a point now with the five-rock rule you can score points. You have the ability to score points, who cares if you need a couple more ends. It’s not needed. The game is long enough as it is.
“The ice conditions we play under now are perfect. You can go at somebody. We used to have to break the ice down for a couple ends back in day, now you don’t — the conditions are perfect, so we can just go. I’m a big proponent of eight ends.”
Maintaining perfect ice conditions from warm-ups all the way through to the 10th end (and possibly an extra) was another issue some players cited.
“I think that with five-rock rule now and with such long practices beforehand and breaks and everything, it’s really tough for the ice to hold up for all of that, for like four hours,” Team Homan third Emma Miskew said. “I’d rather see eight ends of quality ice surface than 10 ends where the last couple of ends are a little bit of a gong show out there. We’ve seen ice hold up and we’ve seen it not, so I know my preference is to go for eight ends now just with the five-rock rule — it’s a lot more draws and a lot more sweeping — and just for ice conditions.”
There’s also the issue of blanking the first couple ends, which can often turn a 10-end game into an eight-end game anyway. While it’s a sound strategy for teams as they’re able to get a better understanding of ice conditions early and the team with the hammer is able to maintain control of the game, it’s not exactly entertaining for fans to see teams going through the motions of knocking each others’ rocks out of the house.
“Ten ends drag on a little bit too long, I think,” Team Epping third Ryan Fry said. “I also think that there are a lot of ends that you’re trying to burn in 10 ends to get to the later ends, so to put guys right on the mark early, it makes you have to play really well right from the get-go.
“If you start noticing through the Briers and Scotties, you start seeing a lot of people throwing it [into the house] in the first end and hitting, so it really turns into a nine-end game with the 10 ends. I just think eight is so much better for TV.”
Teams play eight-end games most of the time anyway with 10-end tournaments making up only a small percentage of their schedules.
“We play eight for, what, 95 per cent of our events all year and there’s five per cent that are 10 ends,” said skip John Epping. “You see it at the worlds and the Scotties and the Brier and maybe Canada Cup, trials and Olympics. That’s five percent of what we play in though, the rest of it is all eight ends. To me, I don’t know why we just don’t stick to something [that’s] the same. I don’t think there’s a real reason to change and go back and forth.”
The length of games is not an issue exclusive to curling as other sports are also looking at ways to speed things up, with entertainment options seemingly unlimited these days.
“At the Olympics, you’re trying to figure out the best team but at the end of the day, we’re trying to grow the game too,” Gushue said. “If we want more people to watch, I think the shorter game is going to help. Just the way our culture is going, nobody wants to sit and watch for three hours and you see baseball is trying to do everything it can to shorten the game.
“Basketball, I think why it’s really taken off in the country, obviously the Raptors winning helped, but it’s a fast-moving game and really it’s two hours, two-and-a-quarter hours maybe. It isn’t that long, three-hour stretch you see in baseball or four or five depending on extra innings. That’s where we need to go with the sport is to shorten it to get a little bit more viewership, excitement and a younger audience.”
Of course, the players polled weren’t unanimously in favour of eight ends across the board as some prefer maintaining the status quo with 10 ends at major championships.
“I think international championships and world championships, 10 ends is the way to go,” Team Jones third Kaitlyn Lawes said. “It’s nice to have something to differentiate between our Grand Slams and regular tour events. At the end of the day with 10 ends, most of the time you’re going to get your best teams winning so that would be my vote.”
“It’s kind of like tennis, the majors of tennis will play five sets and the other ones will be three,” skip Kirk Muyres added. “I think it’s a good mix and it’s a good system right now. I’d keep it the way it is.”
At least it’s not like back in the day where they had to play 12 ends and carry their own rocks to the club, right?
“It’s still tiring, man,” Muyres said with a laugh. “That’s what my old man tells me — they used to play 12 ends, both ways, uphill he said.”