Lefko on curling: Olympic trials a work in progress

Despite Brad Jacobs winning the Brier, placing second in the world championship and posting a better round-robin record than Epping in the Players’ to close out the 2012-13 competitive curling season and World Curling Tour, Jacobs hasn't qualified for the Olyimpic trials.

Compared to some countries, which pick a men’s and women’s curling team to wear their emblems in the Olympics and essentially pay them to develop, Canada’s system is different.

Depending on your viewpoint, it’s either good or needs to be improved, but as far as the players are concerned it’s come a long way.

If you think value should be placed on the teams that win the Brier national men’s championships and the Scotties national women’s championships, it’s not. It’s more about what teams have done in select tournaments, notably in the 2012-13 season and over the two-year period from 2011-2013. This is why there is the distinct possibility that this year’s reigning national men’s and women’s champions may not be representing Canada next year in the Olympics.

In fact, it just may happen that Canada’s representatives have never won a Brier or Scotties or even played in one. It has happened before.

The selection method is a work in progess that shows how the Canadian Curling Association and the elite competitive players can work together for the greater good of the sport. It wasn’t always that way.

"You won’t hear too many curlers complaining about (the selection process) anymore like they used to," Calgary’s Kevin Koe, the 2010 Brier winner, said during a CCA conference call on Tuesday. "I think everyone, for the most part, thinks it’s pretty fair."

The CCA organized the call to talk about the trials from Dec. 1-8 in Winnipeg. So far six of eight men’s and women’s teams have been decided through a variety of ways, none of which are solely based on winning a Brier or Scotties.

Rachel Homan, the 2013 Scotties winner, qualified for the trials from a formula based on leading the 2012-13 Canadian Team Ranking System, which places points on various tournaments.

Canada’s reigning men’s Brier winner, Sault Ste. Marie’s Brad Jacobs, hasn’t qualified as of yet. Jacobs’ squad had a shot to grab an automatic entry in last week’s Players’ Championship in Toronto, pending its finish. Toronto’s John Epping narrowly edged out Jacobs because his team had more points in the 2012-13 CTRS.

So, despite Jacobs winning the Brier, placing second in the world championship and posting a better round-robin record than Epping in the Players’ to close out the 2012-13 competitive curling season and World Curling Tour, it didn’t give him any added reward.

Jacobs can still qualify in the last-chance qualifier in November in Kitchener. It will bring together 12 men’s and women’s teams, and the top two from each will go on to the trials.

Mike McEwen and Chelsea Carey, both of Winnipeg, were two of four skips who participated on the CCA call and neither have played in their respective national championships. Both have slugged it out annually on the cashspiel circuit and have tried to make it to their respective nationals, but have come up short in the provincials.

It’s the reason the CCA and the players jointly decided to place value on the CTRS for this past season, and from the last two years when they devised the 2013 trials’ selection process. The only tournament that places direct entry into the trials through a win is the Canada Cup.

The Canadian Curling Trials first began in 1987 when curling was a demonstration sport, but changed significantly in 1997, one year before curling became an official medal sport.

The ’97 trials had 10 men’s and women’s teams, some of which gained entry because they were the Brier or Scotties winner. Mike Harris’ Toronto team, which had been a good cashspiel team that had never played in a Brier, scored a huge upset by winning the men’s division in the trials and went on to score silver in the Olympics. Sandra Schmirler’s Regina foursome, which won the ’97 Scotties, won the trials and then continued its success, winning gold in the Olympics.

So the question of whether or not there should be value on the Brier and Scotties winners in the year of the trials is an interesting one, in particular because of what happened to Jacobs.

"They had a great year for sure, but I think the one thing with the system is it’s been a work in progress over the last few systems," Koe said. "We were with (Jacobs’ team) after they lost (in the Players) and they certainly weren’t thinking they deserved it. It was more of the lost opportunities. They had some chances."

"I did feel bad for the Jacobs team," said McEwen, who lost out to Coldwater’s Glenn Howard in the Players’ final. "They were so close. They had two chances in the Players’ Championship to take it away from Epping. But the system had evolved into a pretty good qualifying process. I don’t know if I would make many changes."

Carey, who qualified by virtue of her finish in the 2011-13 CTRS rankings, defended the trials’ qualifying process.

"The idea is not to have just one good weekend and take away a spot from somebody that’s been consistently good over a couple of years," Carey said. "We’re probably in favour of the process even when it was first announced just because of that…It’s a little bit arduous for sure, but it’s the right way to do it."

The CCA will announce the trials’ draw on Friday and will conduct a weekend orientation process in Winnipeg in two weeks for the teams that have already qualified. All of the teams are expected to employ a sports psychologist or mental toughness coach (that’s what Homan has) leading up to the trials.

In the meantime, all teams are looking toward a well-deserved break.

"I don’t know too many sports that have a season like we have," said Coldwater’s Sherry Middaugh, who has also qualified for the trials through the 2011-13 CTRS. "I don’t know if our sport is the most ideal for being prepared. I don’t know how many sports teams or individuals play 11 games in a weekend either. It’s definitely a long season but not a very balanced season."

"You do need a break, you do need to step away and get that proper rest and be rejuvenated for when the season starts again," Carey said. "You do miss the people and the weekends and the curling and all that stuff, but you do need the break."

"It’s been a long year and we have no interest in seeing each other for quite awhile, I think," said Koe, whose team has members in both Calgary and Edmonton. "We’re talking about getting together in August to really start gearing up for the year, but we don’t all live in the same city. You need a break. It’s been such a big buildup to next year already. You’ve just got to get away from the game and refocus."

"We’ve had past years where we’ve burned ourselves out way too quick," said McEwen. "We did a little better job this year. Rest and recovery are so important. A lot of teams and athletes sometimes neglect that. It’ll be nice to park the game a bit and take it easy from the pressure of competing."

McEwen is engaged to be married in the summer to Dawn Askin, lead for Jennifer Jones’ Winnipeg team that has already qualified for the trials.

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