All you need to know on mixed doubles curling

Chelsea Carey at the 2015 Pinty's GSOC National in Oshawa, Ont. (Anil Mungal)

Curling fans might be caught off-guard by some of the differences between mixed doubles and a traditional curling game.

For starters, teams only have six stones total and the team with the hammer is spotted shot to begin each end with a rock on the centre line in the house and the opposing team having one of theirs guarding it about a broom-length away from the top of the paint in the free-guard zone. Player one throws the first and last rocks while the second player delivers stones two, three and four. With fewer rocks being played and only eight ends, it makes for a much quicker pace.

There’s also the two-player dynamic with some teams opting to have both sweep their own stones while others will keep one player in the house while the thrower has to bounce back up after their delivery and follow their rock down the ice.

Colin Hodgson, lead for Winnipeg’s Team Carruthers and mixed doubles partner with Chelsea Carey, said it’s a completely different game.

“There’s a lot more emphasis on every shot because there’s less to bail out,” he said. “It’s very different, we’re still learning the strategies but we’ve come a long way from a couple weeks ago in Portage. It’s a lot more physical of a game than the regular. … It’s fun for me to hear in the locker room all of the skips whining about how much their bodies hurt and they can appreciate us (leads and seconds) a little bit more in traditional curling.”

Carey explained how their team’s strategy changed following their disappointing finish in a previous event in Portage la Prairie, Man.

“The first event we played in we tried doing it a certain way where we didn’t have anybody in the house and the person who wasn’t throwing was sweeping,” she said. “That didn’t work very well because we didn’t get a very good read on the ice. We had lots of shots that we threw pretty well and weren’t getting any results because you’re not watching your’s or the other team’s from the far end come down, watch the curl and when it finishes. It didn’t work very well so we changed that so that I’m down there when he’s throwing to get a read on the ice and for us it works better.”

“Every team has to figure it out for themselves,” Carey added. “We had to figure a bunch of that stuff out, some strategy things — it’s just a totally different game. The more you play it, the more natural it becomes. It’s definitely a steep learning curve as we discovered in Portage.”

The traditional atmosphere of curling is still present with teams relying on each to make sure those two starting rocks are placed just perfectly on the line and are not an inch or two off, something that will probably get a precise scientific makeover once the Olympics roll around.

“I’m sure something will be painted on the ice or whatever so that they’re always in the exact spot but that’s the good thing about it,” Hodgson said. “There’s a lot of camaraderie between the players and it brings a lot more honesty into the game about always putting things properly and working together to do it because if you’re not down there helping the other guy put the rocks down there you kind of look like you’re not a very nice person and sometimes I honestly forgot so I had to catch myself. It’s a very different game, it’s a different feel than normal, traditional curling. You’re not with a team, you’re with your partner but there’s a lot interaction between teams especially at this event.”

Mixed doubles has had some TV time during the Continental Cup but in an environment like that where it is more laid-back and everyone is relaxed and treating it like a gimmick, it’s a far-cry to the serious business in Oshawa, Ont., during the Wall Grain Mixed Doubles Classic with points towards nationals on the line.

“Everybody was having fun out there, don’t get me wrong, but everybody wanted to win too,” said Mike McEwen, who won the event with his wife Dawn. “I think as we go forward with all these new players getting comfortable with the format, there’s going to be some intense battles out there.”

Introduced this season to the mixed doubles format is the power play. A team can call a power play once during each game — and only when they have the hammer — where the opening rocks are placed on the side rather than the centre of the sheet. With most of the game being played down the middle of the ice, it can flip the momentum of a game in an instant. While it’s possible to score “short-handed” and steal an end, for the most part it has led to scores of three and four and has been a key ace in the pocket for teams towards the middle of the match to light the fire and close the gap or for teams to bring out the handshakes early.

So far, reaction has been positive to the new rule.

“Every time a team pulls it out against you, it’s like ‘how do we not give up more than three?’” McEwen said. “You have to make some really quality shots and it worked well for us. We had a few power plays where we got threes and fours. It really adds a new dynamic to the game. It adds because a lot of it is to the centre with how the setup is. This totally changes the look at least a couple times during the game. It adds a unique dynamic to the game, gives people different looks. Yeah I love it, it’s perfect.”

Hodgson believes there’s a lot of strategy involved when teams decide to call their power play as they become more familiar with it to maximize its use.

“We were lucky in our last game against John (Epping) to get three in our last end when we were down two,” Hodgson said. “He had his power play (in the eighth) and that ultimately made us have to make every shot perfect and every though we had a pretty good end they still had a shot to win and they made it. The timing of using it is very important and the execution of using it and not wasting it is pretty much the whole game. You can certainly win a game just by using it at the right time.”

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