Lefko: Morris replacement search begins

John Morris and skip Kevin Martin show off their gold medals after defeating Norway during Olympic men's curling finals action at the Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver in 2010. (CP/Nathan Denette)

Wanted: A curler looking to play third for one of the greatest skips of all time and two outstanding teammates; shoots in the 90 per cent range; most likely lives in Alberta although it’s not crucial; and is willing to go hard — really hard — for purposes of getting to next year’s Olympics and playing in major cashspiels.

That’s basically what Kevin Martin, and teammates Marc Kennedy and Ben Hebert, will be looking for now that they have an opening at vice-skip following the departure earlier this week of John Morris. He resigned having lost the competitive fire and passion when the team, once the best in the world, sagged noticeably the last season and a half.

Changes with teams happen all the time in curling, but this one has caused reverberations because Martin’s team had been one of the most dominant of all time and has qualified for the Canadian Olympic Trials in December. Four years ago, the team won gold at the Olympics, but of late they looked more like fool’s gold.

“That’s the way it goes in sports, all sports,” Martin told sportsnet.ca. “Any team if you’re under performing, change is reasonable, and it’s not just our team but any sport. We’re not immune to it.”

Martin has made changes before, either because he felt the team started to slide and the chemistry no longer worked, or one or more players could no longer handle the demands of the skip. One player quit, saying it was simply too tough because of all the practice.

“The only difference (this time) is the amount of success we had for at least five years — incredible success — but the fact still remains we need to get a player of the right calibre and ready to go for December,” Martin said.

Martin is referring specifically to the Trials, which his squad qualified for by winning the Canada Cup of Curling in 2011. Only eight men’s and women’s teams will contest the tournament and the top one in each will represent Canada in the Olympics in Sochi in 2014.

The 46-year-old Martin still believes he has a few more years of competitive curling in his belly, which is why he’s looking beyond whether or not this team gets to the Olympics. He could easily recruit his son, Karrick, who played a few games for him in the recent Brier, but he’s too young and has his own team, or he could go back into his past and bring back the retired Don Walchuk with whom he had many great years.

“It would have to be somebody that could get to that level that fast,” Martin said. “It would be fun to go with Wally again, but I’m afraid that’s going to have to wait for a fun spiel or something. … Curling is a numbers game. We want someone who can shoot in the 90 per cent range at a fairly consistent level.”

Martin said when Morris organized a conference call with the team members — it was done by phone because half the team is based in Edmonton and the other in Calgary and all have conflicting work schedules — he had no idea what specifically was about to be discussed. But as the conversation unfolded, Martin understood.

“John handled it with complete class,” Martin said. “We had a good chat, all of us. No problem. I wouldn’t say it caught us off guard. When we put this team together, we won our first 35 games against the top teams and won five finals in a row. It happened right away with John, Mark and Ben. It was fantastic.”

But the wily Martin knows that there are no certainties that will happen again.

“That’s sport, you don’t know,” he said. “That would be a great thing to know, though. You’d sell that for a lot of money to a lot of teams.”

In Martin’s career, he has been part of teams that have won $1 million on the cashspiel circuit and has stood atop the podium for the biggest tournaments in Canada and the world. The team failed to qualify for the playoffs last month in the Brier, which took place in Martin’s home town, and in last week’s Players’ Championships in Toronto, where Morris has many family and friends having curled their competitively for a long time. The body language of the team was not good. By that point, Morris had already had enough of losing.

“The decision itself wasn’t a split-second decision or an impulsive decision,” Morris told me. “Every great team has an expiration date. As much as there was nothing more than anyone of us would have loved to represent Canada again in the 2014 Olympics as the same team for 2010, all four of us are too competitive. When we start losing to teams we feel we should be beating, that is tough to take as an athlete. It took its toll on me and I’m sure it took its toll on the rest of the guys. I felt that Kevin and myself were no longer thriving in our back-end role like we did leading up to 2010. I think it was in the best interest of the team that they needed a change in the back-end position for them to have a good shot at the Trials. It wouldn’t be fair to have Kevin leave town.”

Martin said he has no set timetable for signing up a new teammate. He’s running a junior spiel this weekend in Edmonton, but come Monday the search will begin in earnest.

“The word’s out on the street,” he said. “Next week there will be lots of phoning. It could come together really fast or it could easily take a week or a month. It’s all good. There’s going to be a lot of work to do, but luckily we live in Canada where there’s a lot of really good curlers. We as a team — Ben, Marc and I — have some work to do to get a new player. You’d have to get the right guy. Hopefully that happens. We have a whole summer to work with somebody, so that’s pretty good.”

Before you know it, the curling season will be back and the focus on Martin’s newest team will be quite bright. It always is.

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