Eight Ends: An inside look into curling’s free-agent frenzy

Val Sweeting shoots a stone during the quarterfinals of the Pinty's Grand Slam of Curling Tour Challenge in Regina on Sept. 9, 2017. (Anil Mungal)

The road to Beijing 2022 has already begun.

It’s February, we’re deep into the Pyeongchang Games, all the hardware hasn’t even been handed out yet and teams are looking ahead some 1,400-plus days away to the next Winter Olympics.

Even the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling season still has two more months to go but it hasn’t stopped players from assembling their teams for the fall.

The sport doesn’t have a set free-agency period like hockey, basketball, etc. and there was a frenzy of activity on the market over the long weekend.

Kerri Einarson joined forces with three former skips including Val Sweeting; Tracy Fleury linked up with Einarson’s teammates; Kelsey Rocque announced her all-new lineup including two players from her 2015 world junior championship-winning squad; and Casey Scheidegger said her team is staying put.

How did it all go down and why now? Here’s a glimpse behind the scenes of the wild chain of events.

1st End: Things falling apart

The end of an Olympic cycle is the natural point for teams to return to the drawing board but the wheels started turning after the pre-trials and trials. When the Olympics is the ultimate goal it’s time to start planning for the next one as soon as you miss that target.

Team Fleury of Sudbury, Ont., sat down together then and came to an agreement they would part ways.

“We didn’t want our result at provincials or at the Scotties to potentially influence our decision either way,” Fleury said. “We met in December and decided this was the best thing. It wasn’t because we weren’t getting along or because we didn’t like playing together. It was just a shift in priorities.

“I think that’s why the team did last so long is because we are good friends and did have great team dynamics.”

Winnipeg’s Team Einarson was another case where regardless of its result earlier this month at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts — finishing runner-up to Manitoba’s Jennifer Jones — the split was inevitable.

“Things haven’t really been working with our team for a while now,” third Selena Kaatz said. “We just knew that after the end of the season we were going to need a change.”

2nd End: Stick around

Following the Scotties Tournament of Hearts came the wave of squads sticking together: Team McCarville of Thunder Bay, Ont., and Toronto’s Team Duncan moved the chains the following week with Team Scheidegger of Lethbridge, Alta., and Winnipeg’s Team Robertson joining suit this past weekend.

Scheidegger’s case is interesting as lead Kristie Moore just joined the team at the tail-end of last season. Skip Casey Scheidegger believed even then it would be more than just a one-year commitment and that didn’t change after the Scotties Tournament of Hearts.

“After the Scotties we just said that we would take a couple weeks off and talk to our families and things like that because we really felt like if we were going to continue curling it would be together for the next four years, for the next cycle, and make a really good run at the trials and the Olympics,” Scheidegger said. “After our Scotties run, I think that we had a really good feeling that we would continue curling together. It was just perhaps stepping back for family or some things like that but we all have that support so we’re really excited to continue playing.”

3rd End: Breaking news

Alright, back to doom and gloom as here’s where it really took off with the Scotties Tournament of Hearts complete and teams reaching an agreement to go their separate ways.

Team Rocque was the first to announce on Feb. 6 followed by both Team Fleury and Team Einarson on Feb. 12 and Team Sweeting on Feb. 14.

With all the free-agent pieces set, onto the fun part.

4th End: A new start

To be completely clear, there was no tampering involved as none of the players interviewed for this article started looking for new teammates until their current (now old) teams finalized their dissolutions.

“There were no discussions at all until I had talked to our team from last year about making the decision to leave,” Rocque said. “I held off on any conversations until that had been discussed first.”

Birchard and Meilleur approached Einarson right after she returned from the Scotties.

“I had just gotten back from nationals on Monday,” Einarson explained. “I gave it a couple days to settle in. Shannon actually reached out to me first and told me that her team was changing. Briane and I have texted the last few years, since I took her as my fifth at Scotties, and we were close.”

Sweeting, who skipped out of Edmonton, said she had thought about playing third for a while but never really entertained the idea until now when she was a free agent.

“As things unfolded it became an option,” Sweeting said. “It was just something I decided would be good for me. Kerri is obviously a good shooter, a good player and had a really great season and a great run at the Scotties. I just threw my name out there with her.”

The original plan was Einarson at skip with Birchard playing third and Meilleur throwing second until Sweeting entered the equation.

“She was like, how would they feel if they played front end? I was like, ‘Oh! I don’t know. I’ll have to ask them,’” Einarson said. “I sat down with them, we talked and they thought it was an amazing opportunity for them to get themselves out there and to get into the Slams as well. I think we’d be on the bubble for that or close or in.

“That was one of their goals, for Shannon and Briane, to be into the Slams so they thought it would be great. They would love to play different positions, embrace them and be the best lead and second that we need.”

Meanwhile, Fleury opened talks to join Kaatz, second Liz Fyfe and lead Kristin MacCuish.

“It was actually the week after the Scotties,” Fleury said. “Selena and I chatted on the phone and she said that their team was making changes too. We both thought it would be a good fit. It all happened pretty quickly actually.”

Rocque, third Danielle Schmiemann and lead Jesse Iles were already good friends from their world junior championship days and it was just natural their talks would soon turn into plans for next season. When Nadine Scotland’s team in Calgary split as well and second Becca Konschuh became a free agent, that’s when her name popped up as the possible final member to complete their Edmonton-based roster.

“When our team went our separate ways, I wanted to continue curling,” Rocque said. “I’ve always been talking to Danielle and Jesse. They’re really good friends of mine and we’ve had some really great success in the past. That was an idea that we had, we started talking and decided that would be a great fit.

“Then Becca came into the mix as well. We all think she’s a great player, a really good person, so we started talking to her. She came onto the team about a week ago and we’re excited to get going.”

5th End: Why now?

Once the dominoes started falling, they gained momentum and for good reason. Nobody wants to be scrambling at the end of the season for new teammates. There’s too much on the line with sponsorship deals to sort out and schedules to plan that you don’t want to be left in the dust while others are making moves.

“I haven’t had to do this for the last five years,” Einarson said. “We knew we had two events left but it’s not until April so we can’t wait until then to figure out a team. I know teams have already been looking and teams that weren’t at nationals were already forming before we knew it. We definitely had to get a jump on this.

“When they approached me I was like, OK well I guess teams already started to look. I didn’t start really messaging anyone or anything. I just wasn’t sure how it all worked. As soon as I got these messages from Shannon and Briane I just went with it.”

Once Scheidegger saw other teams making announcements she believed it was necessary for her team to get the message out there as well.

“We’re really excited and we just sort of followed along with the trend,” Scheidegger said. “I think it’s good because there are a lot of shakeups happening. We had talked to a lot of other teams as well asking if we were shaking things up and whatnot so it’s nice to have that set in stone.”

It can be hard when you’re conflicted about your own plans too. Rocque handed over skip duties to third Laura Crocker earlier this season (Rocque continued to throw fourth) and considered playing a different position before her teammates told her to remain in charge.

“The girls talked to me and said, ‘You’re a great skip and we really want you throwing those last rocks and calling the game.’ They gave me that little extra boost of confidence that I think I needed,” Rocque said. “I’m really excited to head back to the full skipping position and give it a go next year.”

While John Morris and Kaitlyn Lawes were victorious in the inaugural Olympic mixed doubles competition and Kevin Koe and Rachel Homan’s teams were gunning for gold in men’s and women’s play, it was business as usual on the tour.

“In a perfect world we would all wait until May 1 to start talking and planning, but that’s just not how it goes,” Sweeting said. “It’s not intended to disrespect anyone or anything. I think we all understand that. The offseason is just so short as is it, and there’s planning and sponsorship and stuff to do, which is hard to do starting in spring/summer.

“So despite what’s going on here, we are all super happy for John and Kaitlyn and we are all rooting for Homan and Koe to bring home the gold, and we will do the same for Jones and the Brier champ. We are all looking forward to what’s left for ourselves this season too.”

6th End: It’s not over

There are plenty of more big announcements to follow. A few curlers who I reached out to over the weekend told me they’re still weighing their options for next season.

We can also expect to go through the same process on the men’s side following the Tim Hortons Brier next month. Stay tuned.

7th End: Can it work?

Considering how we saw teams break up, one has to wonder what will make their new teams more successful.

If you’ve read The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons, a quote from NBA Hall-of-Famer Isiah Thomas stands out: “The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball.” On the surface, it makes no sense, plus you’re probably wondering what it has to do with curling, but it’s a lesson that applies to all sports. Talent is key, of course, but the missing ingredient for success doesn’t come on the field of play. Unity, unselfishness and sacrificing to help each other for the greater good of the team are all integral to the formula.

Quite a few people commented online when the new Team Einarson formed about how four skips could get along. Too many cooks in the kitchen, right? Considering those three players approached Einarson about playing new positions and not the other way around is a positive sign it isn’t going to be that case.

Having an out-of-province player isn’t unprecedented either as other teams have pulled it off — most notably both Canadian men’s and women’s Olympic teams — but it’ll still be something new for Sweeting and she’s willing to make the sacrifice.

“We don’t have everything figured out yet by any means but I said I’d do whatever it takes,” Sweeting said. “I’m not in a position in my life where I can move to Manitoba. I’ll be playing out of Alberta and training here. I have a lot of good resources here too. There’s lots to figure out still but I’ll be working hard here.

“Once the season kicks in you see each other quite a bit at the events anyway but we will have to have training in Winnipeg so I’ll have to be prepared for that. There are lots of options, lots of ways to make it work and lots of teams do it so I’m sure maybe we’ll chat with some other teams who do it, get some ideas, figure out what works for us and go from there.”

Keep in mind curling isn’t like other team sports. They don’t play half their games at home and in Fleury’s case, there aren’t any events in Northern Ontario to begin with.

“It’s going to be different for sure not having someone practising with us at all times but Kristin, Liz and I used to practise a lot together, just the three of us, so we’re used to that,” Kaatz said. “I think it shouldn’t be too much of a change but just getting to know Tracy and her getting to know us will be something that we’ll have to learn early on in the season.”

8th End: Remainder of the season & onto next year

Hold up, just because teams announced they are splitting up doesn’t mean they have right now.

Again, there are still three Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling tournaments to follow including two women’s events. It might seem awkward but it’s something that happens every cycle and was discussed among the teams before they broke up. Einarson and Rocque are both within the top 12 and could qualify for the Players’ Championship.

“When I had phoned and talked to my other team I just said, ‘Ladies, let’s go out into our last two events, have some fun, make some money and do the best that we can do,’” Einarson said. “We all agreed to do that.”

Sweeting already has her spot secured for the season-ending Humpty’s Champions Cup.

“It would be great to have a good performance in the last Slam,” Sweeting said. “We did accomplish a lot together. Just to think back on all of the events we played and everything we did together, it’s incredible. To come together one last time and do really well, it would mean a lot.”

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