Lefko on curling: The Martin-Morris divorce

The 2013 Brier will go down as the last tournament Kevin Martin (left) and John Morris curled together. (CP/Jonathan Hayward)

Curling teams break up all the time, usually following a season in which they fail to accomplish what they planned to do, but rarely does it happen that the divorce of one player or several from the squad happens with the defending Olympic champions.

So it was a little surprising, although not shocking, when it was revealed – first via Sportsnet.ca and then an official media release from the Canadian Curling Association – that John Morris and Kevin Martin had split after seven years together as one half of one of the premier teams in world curling history.

The M&Ms were damn good when they were on their game.

Yes, Martin’s rink with Morris at third has qualified for the Canadian Olympic Curling Trials in December, but this squad had exceeded its shelf life. Ever since winning the 2011 Canada Cup of Curling that earned it an automatic berth into the Trials, the Martin team had basically lost its ability to beat the premier teams – and even more so the lesser ones – with regularity.

In the last month it imploded for all to see. In the Brier in Edmonton, which is Martin’s home town, the team failed to make the playoffs after starting off sluggishly. The body language of the players showed a dysfunctional team. At times when the team had fallen so far behind or the few occasions when it controlled the scoreboard, Martin inserted his son, Karrick, the team’s fifth, into the lineup. Martin was not the first skip in history to do that. In fact, Ontario’s Glenn Howard did the same thing with his son, but that was a squad that wasn’t in danger of missing the playoffs.

Martin came into the tournament hoping to make history by becoming the first skip to win five Briers in three decades. When his team failed to make the playoffs (though it did make a valiant run when it found its form late in the tournament) it only underlined the existing problems. But when Martin’s team failed to make the playoffs in last week’s Players’, it punctuated the end.

Martin is a big-time money player and loves tournaments such as the Players’ because it’s one of the four men’s Grand Slams that are part of the World Curling Tour that he fought so hard to develop and grow. He has won a record 14 Slams as a skip and his teams have won $1 million in prize money since the Slams began in 2001.

He is one of the most successful players in world curling history and does not tolerate losing. When his teams have started to fizzle either because of performance and/or personality issues, he changed the lineup, either dropping one teammate or all of them. It is part of who he is and what he does to win.

He has had more divorces in curling than Elizabeth Taylor has had marriage breakups, but from what I’ve learned it was Morris who initiated this break, simply having grown tired of losing and not seeing it changing in the future. He organized a conference call on Wednesday during which he announced his decision to leave the squad. Because the team has players that live and work in both Calgary and Edmonton, the conference call made it possible for all to communicate without physically meeting. But the split was deemed to be more of emotional disappointment than anger – this was a divorce, but not a bitter one.

What it really came down to is the fact that both Martin and Morris are extremely competitive and Morris, for one, didn’t want to continue because the losses simply became too difficult. Yes, he is known to have a fiery temper and some people thought he and Martin would never co-exist because of that, but winning has a way of solving things. Losing has a way of stoking the frustration of failure, independent of the prospect of playing in the Olympic Trials and, maybe, turning things around and making it back to the Olympics.

When Martin broke up his team after the 2006 season, he immediately sought out three players with a drive to succeed. Morris had been a two-time Canadian and world champion junior skip who went on to do well at the men’s level, leading an Ontario team to the finals of the 2002 Brier.

Two years later he moved to Calgary and two years after that he, Marc Kennedy and Ben Hebert aligned with Martin. In only their second season together, they won the Canadian and world championships and it was the start of an incredible run that made the foursome one of the best in all-time world curling history. But those days started to become distant memories.

It is only because the Trials are nearing in December and Martin’s team is the reigning champion that the split became such a national story; to the point the CCA issued a media release. It also speaks to how big curling has become, notably in Canada. Canada’s curling teams will be under the spotlight to win a medal at the Olympics, notably gold. Martin won it in 2010, but came up short in the final in 2002. The loss hung with him until he won.

At age 46, this is quite likely his last shot at getting back to the Olympics. He is old enough and experienced enough to know when it’s time to shake hands and go in another direction with his team. So when the conference call was initiated by Morris, it’s hard to think Martin would have been completely blindsided by his vice-skip’s decision to leave.

At least this way it gives Martin ample time to find a replacement, which should not be hard. It’s really about finding someone who will be as motivated as he is, both for purposes of winning the Trials but also to succeed with a heavy workload on the cashspiel circuit. A new person could inject something into the team that is missing. Great teams become stale, which is why new players create a different dynamic. It has worked often in the past for Martin.

Morris can go back to skipping or possibly take a break from the game. It may be hard for him to reach the heights he did with Martin; then again, he may be satisfied with what he’s done and perhaps go in another direction with his life and career.

Once a skip, always a skip, although these two skips, combined with a solid front end, worked well together. Seven years together for a curling team is an eternity.

Both Martin and Morris will discuss the split and their futures in separate media conferences on Friday. Morris will do his in Calgary, where he lives and works as a firefighter, and Martin will do his in Edmonton, where he lives and works as the owner/operator of a curling supplies store. He is also an entrepreneur who has built his own brand with a personal app because of his success. Martin translates to money.

If both Martin and Morris become emotional talking about the breakup, it will be understandable. You don’t spend that amount of time together without having memories that are both good and bad.

Johnny Mo, as Morris is known, is no more with Martin. But they had a hell of a run.

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