J ennifer Jones has been yelling “Wooooo!” for a good long while, and she has Jocelyn Peterman, her second, in a bear hug. When the skip’s arms free up, her third, Kaitlyn Lawes, jumps in. Jones is taking breaks from the woos only for breaths and excited words. Next, she embraces her coach and two leads, Dawn McEwen and Lisa Weagle. Then the famed Winnipeg skip crumples to the blue rinkside floor at the Sasktel Centre and covers her face with her hands. The wooing stops, for now. Her team just qualified for the 2022 Olympics.
And you better believe that from the comfort of her home in Stockholm, about 6,000 kilometres east of where it all happened, reigning Olympic champion Anna Hasselborg was watching all the action that led to this moment. Hasselborg and the rest of Team Sweden — third Sara McManus, second Agnes Knochenhauer, lead Sofia Mabergs and alternate Johanna Heldin — were, in fact, glued to Canada’s Olympic Curling Trials, which Team Jones won in November in Saskatoon. “We have a pool and we bet — it’s very serious,” Hasselborg says. “We bet on every draw, the top three, and the overall winner.” That’s 21 bets in all, for anyone counting.
Sadly for Hasselborg, she didn’t win a single krona, and instead had to dish out, though not to who you might expect. Team Sweden’s coach, Wayne Middaugh, a three-time Canadian and world champion, didn’t correctly pick the winners, even with his homegrown knowledge. It was the alternate, Heldin, who won the pool and collected the pot of money. Heldin not only correctly chose Jones, but she also picked the winning men’s team, Brad Gushue’s foursome from Newfoundland. “Johanna nailed both — that’s very impressive,” Hasselborg says. “All six of us had different picks, different winning combinations. That says a lot about the field. And that’s why we bet on the Canadian Trials, because it’s so much fun and all the teams are so equal. They’re the best in the world, and we do everything we can to keep up all the time with Canada. And to learn.”
For Hasselborg to say her team is trying to “keep up” with Canada and “learn” is awfully generous, with an Olympic gold and two world championship silver medals already dangling from their necks. The Swedes are among the world’s best already. What drew her team to make a pool and wager on Canada’s Trials, though, illustrates an undeniable fact: Canada boasts unbelievable depth in world class curlers, and no other country comes close to matching it. Five of the world’s top 10 teams on the men’s side are Canadian, while three women’s teams crack that mark.
But, when it comes to being the absolute best, the picture is far less red-and-white than it once was. Ben Hebert, who won Olympic gold in 2010 with a team skipped by Kevin Martin, describes that year’s competition in Vancouver like so: “Blindfolded, we were gonna be in the finals.” Hebert adds: “That’s not the case now.” Jones’ and Gushue’s teams will need their full vision in Beijing.
Casual curling fans may want to take a deep breath, because Canada isn’t the favourite it once was. In fact, if both the men’s and women’s teams come home from Beijing with a medal of any colour, “I’ll be drunk for a month,” says Curling Canada’s director of high performance, Gerry Peckham. “No apologies.” None needed, Gerry. It’s no longer a given that Canada’s men’s and women’s teams come home with medals, let alone gold ones. Look no further than the last Olympics for evidence, when the country’s star women’s and men’s teams, skipped by Rachel Homan and Kevin Koe, both missed the podium — a historic first for Canada on that stage.
There’s no need to sound alarms here, though. This country isn’t getting worse at curling, and this isn’t a national crisis. But it is a moment of reflection for Canadian curlers, a downturn in results that is sparking some very tough questions about the sport’s identity. Curling Canada has acknowledged change is necessary to keep up with the rest of the world’s elite. The thing is, theirs is an amateur athletic association trying to maintain the grassroots and small-town club feel of the sport while also producing elite athletes that win international championships. It’s a near-impossible balance, and there are no simple solutions to any of the problems that make it so difficult to strike. “Can you say shitshow?” asks one elite Canadian curler. Yup, that sums it up nicely.
B rad Gushue was “very pumped” when he arrived home in St. John’s after his team won the Olympic Trials, and he finally got to celebrate with his wife, Krista, and two daughters, Hayley and Marissa. “The excitement level was as high as it can be,” Gushue says.
The level didn’t remain sky-high for long, though, and not just because he and third Mark Nichols, second Brett Gallant, lead Geoff Walker and alternate Marc Kennedy faced a bubbled-up Games during a global pandemic with no idea how any of that might affect their team or the competition. “The reality of me having to go to Kingston to finish my MBA set in pretty quick,” Gushue says. “That really dulled the excitement.”
The 2006 Olympic gold medallist spent just shy of a week in the Eastern Ontario city in December. Gushue, 41, handed in his final school assignment — a group project — a month before the scheduled start of the Games. “Convocation is in May,” he says.
That Canada’s Olympic skip is pursuing an MBA and juggling family life and a full-time job is high-performance curling in this country in a nutshell. Canada’s best have always had day jobs. Gushue co-owns two Orangetheory Fitness studios in St. John’s. Jones is a lawyer. McEwen works for the government. Weagle is in communications. While there are full-time curlers in Canada, they’re few and far between. Look to other top curling teams in the world, though, in Sweden and Scotland, say, and they’re all full-time. Asked if it feels like Canada is semi-pro and competing against professionals from other countries, Brad Jacobs, the 2014 Olympic gold medallist from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. says: “Correct.”
“I think it’s important for us as the top teams in Canada to not ignore what those other countries have done, and maybe take a page out of their book,” adds Jacobs, a marketing director for World Financial Group, whose team is ranked No. 3 in the world. “Because the recipe they have for success is clearly working.”
Scotland is the shining example on the men’s side. The country’s world No. 1 foursome is led by 27-year-old Bruce Mouat, and their team is the favourite or at least co-favourite, in Beijing. Since the last Olympics, Mouat’s team members have been full-time curlers, funded by the British government. “That team is on the ice any time they want, they’re training full-time in the gym, they have their sports psych, their trainer, their coaches, and that’s all they do right now in their life is: ‘How do we get better at curling?’” says Brent Laing, a three-time Canadian and world champion. “Very few Canadian teams have a life that they can do that — if any. That’s the way we were brought up in curling. It was, how do you fit it in and juggle the rest of your life? But to think that we’re going to be able to continue to do that when more and more countries are doing what Scotland or Sweden does?”
Laing is sitting rinkside, watching Jones, his wife, get in solo practice time during the Olympic Trials. He won here four years ago along with Team Koe, who lost in the bronze medal game in Pyeongchang. Jones will stamp her ticket to Beijing here tomorrow, in an extra end over Tracey Fleury’s previously undefeated team from Manitoba.
“Jenn and I, as an example, we have kids and jobs, so it’s just not realistic to be able to do what some other countries are doing,” says Laing. “Full-time curlers would be nice. And if we’re going to continue to compete, that’s what it’s going to take.”
T he pain of returning home from an Olympics empty-handed as a Canadian curler is something Lisa Weagle carried with her for quite some time. She was Team Homan’s lead in Pyeongchang, when the Ottawa-based group, ranked No. 2 in the world, failed to qualify for the playoffs, opening with three straight losses they never recovered from. Theirs was the first Canadian curling team in history to fail to make the playoffs at the Olympics.
“A lot of tears,” Weagle says of the way she coped. “I remember it being quite a few difficult months for me. You go into the Olympics with the expectation that you’re going to win a medal, and as a Canadian, you hope that you’re going to win a gold medal. When that doesn’t happen, mentally, it’s quite challenging,” she says. “That was a week where we had a performance that wasn’t typical of our team, and it was the wrong week to have it happen.”
Hasselborg won the final against the hometown favourites from South Korea. She was surprised to see Canada wasn’t in the mix for a medal, “but it could’ve happened to us, it could’ve happened to Korea, it could’ve happened to Japan or Great Britain, because the field is so, so tough,” the 32-year-old says. “You can go to the Olympics and have a great week and you can end up ninth. And that is the honest truth.”
The women’s international field is especially deep. Where it used to feature mostly Canadian teams in the top 10, there are now three — all Manitoba-led crews in Fleury’s (No. 1), Jones’s (3) and Kerri Einarson’s (6). “Back in the day, you would have at least seven Canadian teams in the top 10, so when a Canadian team would go to the Worlds they wouldn’t have to play all the other six top teams,” Hasselborg says. But now they do, because more and more of those other top teams are international.
The last time Canada’s women won a world title was 2018 (Team Jones) and it’s been even longer for the men, who won for the last time (Team Gushue) in 2017. Canada’s women didn’t make the podium at the last two world championships, and the men came fourth last year. “It’s been 10 years now at least that this has been a trend with the rest of the world getting so much better,” says two-time Scotties Tournament of Hearts champion, Chelsea Carey, who skips a team out of Saskatchewan. “They’re coming hard for us.”
Carey twice represented Canada at the world championships — her team lost in the bronze-medal game in 2016 and failed to make the playoffs three years later. She believes a schedule change could help improve those results. Both times she played at world championships, Carey says her team felt less than energetic, because they’d won Canada’s national championship just weeks before. “You’re not coming in rested, because you don’t really have time to do that,” she says. “To come out of Canada, it’s so tough on you both physically and emotionally, and then to have to peak again in a few weeks at a world championship, it’s just really hard to do that. And it’s frustrating,” she adds. “You want to go to worlds, and it’s just like hockey, people expect us to win a medal, and when that’s not happening, people get upset and I don’t blame them. It’s upsetting as the team that did it, too. Like, it sucks. But you’re leaving it all out there, that’s all you can do. And you won the right to be there.”
Curling Canada runs the Scotties and Tim Hortons Brier, and none of Carey’s frustration is lost on them. Peckham, the high performance director, jokes that players barely have enough time to put their clothes in the dryer after they win a national championship before they’re off to worlds. “The scheduling is truly not conducive to peak performance, but we used to be good enough that we could send teams out the door with a half a fuel tank, who were running on fumes, and still expect them to be in the medal rounds at a world championship,” Peckham says. “That’s a very daunting task these days.” World championship results help to determine Olympic qualification and funding for the program. “We can’t afford to have a couple of off years at the worlds, because we’ll be on the outside looking in,” Peckham says.
Some of the feedback Weagle gave to Curling Canada following her team’s Olympic debut four years ago was along the same lines: She believes Canada’s Trials are too close to the Games. Gushue and Laing are among a group who believe the Trials ought to take place in April or May of the year before, instead of November or December, ahead of a February Olympic start. Weagle didn’t specify new dates, but she believes extra time can only help. “Especially as a rookie team, there were a lot of demands,” she says, of the weeks after they won Trials in 2017. “You have Christmas and then all of a sudden it’s the Olympics, so I felt like there just wasn’t enough time.”
The existing schedule, TV contracts, the time of year relative to other major sporting events, sponsors’ interests and more have to be taken into account when changes are made. But Curling Canada heard Weagle’s concern ahead of this latest edition of the Olympic Trials, and responded by running the qualifying tournament a week earlier. And so, instead of the 67 days Team Homan had between Trials and the Games in 2018, Weagle and Team Jones got 74 days to prepare this time around.
Hey, every little bit just might help.
E laine Dagg-Jackson has seen firsthand what a country’s investment in curling looks like when the primary focus is on Olympic medals. The three-time Scotties champion, who won Olympic bronze back when curling was a demonstration sport in 1992, was Japan’s head coach for the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano. She later also spent three years as the head national team coach in Korea. “A lot of countries that were not traditional curling countries thought that curling medals were low-hanging fruit,” says Dagg-Jackson, who’s been Curling Canada’s national team program manager since 2004. “Japan, China, Korea, they all invested heavily into creating world-class curling athletes, which they did in a very short period of time compared to the rest of the world. They came on, and within 10 years they were on the podium.”
Canada made a different decision when the sport was officially included at the Winter Games (it appeared in 1998, and returned as a permanent medal discipline in 2006). “We made a choice to have as major an impact on the wellbeing of the sport as we possibly could with our Olympic inclusion,” Peckham explains. “That meant that we needed to be incredibly inclusionary, as opposed to elitist.”
Curling Canada continued with its club-based survival-of-the-fittest model, where a team that represents a province or territory has to win its way to represent the country. And the elite of the elite were not the primary focus, nor are they today. “The pursuit of medals is one part of what we do, and we want to continue to pursue those medals – like, there’s no doubt about it, that’s something that we want,” says Curling Canada’s CEO, Katherine Henderson. “But not at the risk of tipping the apple cart to the point where Canadians no longer have access to watching their heroes and their inspirations sort of develop and come into their own.”
Adds Dagg-Jackson: “We need to protect the sport of curling in addition to looking to win medals. It’s at what cost would you invest in the national team program? … We so far have believed that [Canadian athletes] will find their way to the podium, and we’ll help them get there.”
Curling Canada’s model gives a number of elite teams the chance to represent Canada on the biggest stages. Olympic Trials feature nine men’s and women’s teams going toe-to-toe, and still permit a Cinderella story. Jaqueline Harrison and her Dundas, Ont.-based foursome, ranked 49th in the world, won a pre-Olympic Trials event to qualify for Trials, the biggest bonspiel they’d ever played in, and fell one win short of making a playoff tiebreaker in Saskatoon. “Does it come with some risks? Absolutely,” Peckham says. “But I think that’s part of the flavour.” Had a Cinderella like Team Harrison broken through, though, you better believe there would have been concern within Curling Canada.
Olympic gold medallist and four-time Brier champion Kevin Martin believes the governing body needs to dial in its focus. “I think Curling Canada should be in charge of high performance — provincial associations should not even worry about high performance, they should worry about grassroots curling and trying to get into schools and just grow the sport that way,” says Martin, a curling analyst for Sportsnet and host of the podcast, Inside Curling. The grassroots are Martin’s primary concern, getting more kids involved, something he believes would only increase the number of elite players in the country. “I think it’s really important,” he says.
Henderson doesn’t believe that change is possible, in part because Curling Canada supports its member associations with both funding and programming. “If we just went to an Olympic model, like the Swedish model, a model in which you isolate the high-performance athletes, the elite performers, then we wouldn’t need championships and at that point we become a very small National Sport Organization that doesn’t have the money to afford all the services and club support and all the things that we do,” she says. “We can’t really separate them. I guess we could, we would just become very small and very concentrated.”
Some 75 percent of Curling Canada’s revenue comes from money made through its Season of Champions events, and the biggest revenue-generators are the Brier and Scotties, which “keep the lights on” for the organization, as Peckham puts it. Those national championships see all provinces and territories represented, plus a team from Northern Ontario. Usually the bonspiels include one wildcard team (determined by a playdown between the top two ranked teams that weren’t already in the field) but this year, because of cancellations due to the pandemic, both fields have increased to include three wildcards. Residency rules form the set-up here — teams must have three players either living or born in the province or territory they represent, and they’re allowed one import player. “People love these events, and it is because of our residency rules,” Henderson says, adding that she believes the rules give the event a true all-Canadian feel, unlike any other sports’ national tournament. “I would submit, it’s the last true Canadian championship,” she says.
That may be, but the Brier and Scotties are not the best way for Canada to choose its world championship representative. In the current landscape, the three top women’s teams in the country are out of Manitoba, and at most two could qualify to play at the Scotties (if one wins the single wildcard usually on offer).
“You’ve got all that strength in one province and only one team can go to nationals? Whoa, whoa, whoa!” says Martin, who represented Alberta 12 times at the Brier, qualifying his team out of an incredibly deep province that included six-time national champion, Randy Ferbey. “You’re leaving two of our top five teams in our nation out of the national championship because of where they live? Well, that’s not fair. The top 10 teams in our nation should be at every national championship no matter where they live. Period.”
Team Fleury, the world No. 1, lost in the final of Olympic Trials in an extra end. Weeks later, the rink had an uncharacteristic performance at Manitoba’s provincials and didn’t make the final. They’re included in the Scotties thanks to one of three wildcard positions, along with Team Carey and Team Homan.
“By the way we do the Olympic trials, we’ve already admitted that the Scotties and the Brier formats aren’t the best format to decide who goes to a world championship,” says Carey. She wonders about determining the world representative through the Canada Cup, which is a best-on-best between the country’s top-ranked teams.
“We’re fortunate because we have so many good teams that we’d never send a shitty team to worlds,” adds Laing. “But there are teams on the sidelines that might go and win the world championship, but they can’t even get into our national championship.” Laing wants to see the Brier and Scotties return to a more amateur level, that might not even see the top teams playing in it. He knows that won’t sit well with the traditionalists. “But hey, where do we want curling to go?” he asks.
“Part of it is it’s a heritage event, it’s a tradition and it’s about celebrating curling and getting the different provinces represented in there,” Laing adds. “And the other part of it is, we want our best teams to go. Well, those things don’t jive.”
Gushue wonders about skipping an elite team for world level play, and another team at the Brier, bringing in a local player to replace team’s imports. “Then the Brier is a separate event where it’s more about the provinces, and who wins,” he says.
Ask 14 elite curlers what to do about Canada’s national championships and you’ll get 14 different answers. What’s crystal clear, by Curling Canada’s own admission, is the system has to change if success on the world stage is a primary goal.
“If your only objective was international medals, you never would have come up with this model,” Peckham says. “I’ve always been prepared to tell people that sometimes I thought we won medals in spite of our model, not because of it.”
B en Hebert is a four-time Brier champion, and he’ll be playing for a fifth title in March with Team Koe. They’ll be wearing Team Alberta’s colours in Lethbridge, Alta., after winning provincials in January.
The lead can’t imagine a setup in Canada like they have in Scotland, where the top men’s and women’s curlers are plucked from the system to train together in a national centre with the aim of becoming the world’s best. The teams then represent the country on the biggest stages. “They would be great,” Hebert says. “But the problem is, that would kill our sport in Canada.”
This country can’t mirror the model adopted by other top nations without sacrificing arguably the greatest thing about the sport in Canada: Its depth at the top level. As Kennedy, the 2010 Olympic gold medallist and three-time Canadian and world champion, puts it: “Our depth is our greatest asset, but it also creates our biggest complications.” The No. 1 challenge is that resources end up being spread mighty thin among the competitive teams.
Peckham says that some 50 percent of Curling Canada’s annual expenditures go to supporting its elite teams and delivering high-performance events. The organization’s financial support for its elite players comes from the government-run Sport Canada. Historically, the top six men’s and women’s teams are given funding through the Own the Podium (OTP) program. Peckham says in a non-Olympic year, the top-ranked teams each receive between $40,000 and $50,000, while that top end increases to $67,000 during an Olympic year. The lowest-ranked teams who receive funding are given between $25,000 and $30,000 per season. “We spread our funding around as much as we can, and as much as OTP will approve,” says Peckham.
More than a few curlers believe that spread goes too far. “There are some teams that are getting funding that I believe are not necessarily going to be medal contenders at the Olympics,” Gushue says. “We can narrow it down. But then that becomes a bit of a political game — who gets it and who doesn’t, and there’s going to be some people that are upset by not getting it. There are more issues and concerns on that side as well.”
Kennedy, the third who’s headed to his third Games, believes the top two or three men’s and women’s teams should be allocated all the available funding. “If Curling Canada down the road is able to provide more money to fewer teams, well those teams could really dedicate their time and efforts to being the best, because we’re being challenged by the internationals like we never have before,” Kennedy says. “If we don’t get that level of commitment, then we are going to continue to fall behind the young international superstars. That’s just the way it is. So, it’s time for us to adapt or die.”
Hebert wants to see the gap in funding between the top- and lower-ranked teams increase. “I think it creates a competitive mindset for the Canadian curlers to say, ‘If you are ranked four and five and six, mediocrity isn’t good enough. We’re not going to continue to pay you nearly the same as the top teams to be average,’” he says. “Where if you’re in the top three and you’re going to world championships and you’re bringing home medals, yeah, we want to reward that. The gap needs to be sizeable for your top teams to be rewarded, and give the lower-ranked teams incentive to get better. Because right now, there’s none.”
Among Team Koe’s financial supporters, Hebert says Curling Canada isn’t near the top of the list. Team Koe is ranked No. 3 in the world and the team doesn’t have a curling coach, though it does employ John Dunn, a sports psychologist. More funding allocated by Curling Canada could only help. “Then we could hire a real technical coach and have him or her not go to Europe or Asia because they have enough money to pay a coach,” Hebert says. “Instead, maybe they would stay and work with us.” Asked if his team has ever had a full-time, paid curling coach, Hebert laughs. “Never in my life,” he says.
Gushue, Kennedy and Hebert would all benefit from the model they’re proposing. Carey, whose Regina-based foursome is outside Canada’s top three, has a different perspective. “I don’t want to see Curling Canada go to funding one or two teams, because that’s going to kill any kind of depth that we have,” she says. “We might win more world championships, but you’re going to kill a lot of people’s dreams, so I don’t think that’s necessarily the answer.” More money to spread around, Carey believes, is the only solution.
One financial point every curler can agree on is in the way teams represent their sponsors, or more accurately, the way they can’t. For the top teams in Canada, sponsors provide the lion’s share of funding and ensure they can travel the world and compete. And at Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling events, which are owned and operated by Sportsnet, you’ll see those sponsors plastered all over their jackets — Team Jones has “Princess Auto” across their chests in giant letters, and a slew of other companies’ logos adorn their threads; they look like F1 racers. But when they play at the Brier or Scotties, which draw the most viewers, their coats are provincial colours and splashed with the title of the event and Curling Canada sponsors. Players can’t represent any of their own partners.
At Olympic Trials and world championships, players are allocated three sponsorship spots, but, if you ask Hebert, “they’re chicken-shit spots.” And if any of their partners conflict with one of Curling Canada’s, the player can’t wear that sponsor, even if it’s the team’s biggest source of financial support. “We don’t touch their assets,” Hebert says, of the revenue Curling Canada gains from selling the ice and boards and commercials. “But when they sell, they sell all their assets and then they sell us.”
“Who owns the players’ bodies, is the question,” Laing adds. This is among the top frustrations curlers have with Curling Canada. Also way up on the list, Laing says, is scheduling. The high-performance calendar involves regional qualifiers to make provincials, provincial playdowns and then nationals. Every province decides how teams qualify for provincials, and they host those tournaments on different weekends. Laing says the process takes far too long, plus the calendar is blocked off for nationals, so teams that don’t make it to the Brier and Scotties have nothing to play for. “What happens in March and April? Where are the rest of the events?” he asks. “Well, it’s all taken up because you can’t conflict with the Scotties, you can’t conflict with the Brier and run events. It’s crazy, and it’s been like that for a long time.”
Curling Canada has mapped out its schedule through 2026, working with both the Grand Slam of Curling and the World Curling Federation to try to limit conflicts. There’s a window included for member associations to run play-downs, but it’s up to those members to pick the dates based on availability of facilities and other factors. Curling Canada works to ensure those teams are named at least 21 days in advance of any championships.
Laing says a players’ association is long overdue, for a seat at the table and bigger voice from the athletes when it comes to decisions on things like the competitive schedule. “Curling Canada has their reasons for the schedule, and it’s not often the players and Curling Canada see eye-to-eye on those types of things,” he says. “It’s an ongoing debate and battle.”
T he day after her team won the right to represent Canada, Jennifer Jones boarded a plane to Toronto, where she lives. Lisa Weagle headed back home to Ottawa. And Jocelyn Peterman, Kaitlyn Lawes and Dawn McEwen flew back to Winnipeg, where they live — which also happens to be in the province the team represents.
Most of Canada’s elite teams have at least one member who lives across the country from the rest. And it means that Canada’s best rinks, who’ve taken advantage of the import and birthright rules that allow them to live outside the province or territory they represent, are not together for most practices.
McEwen, the long-time Team Jones lead and 2014 Olympic gold medallist, says in the last year her team set up mini training camps and put in extra practice whenever they could, both before and after events, and on long weekends. “We focused on having a lot of time to be able to nail all those little things and be on the same page,” McEwen says. “We had to work our butts off this fall with technical and mechanics and any little thing we could do to try and get better, because it’s so hard to win. And I think it really paid off. I think we’re in the best place we’ve ever been.”
A better place, still, would be all together, full-time, and nobody disagrees with that. Hasselborg’s team members live within an hour-and-a-half drive. Mouat’s team is all within an hour’s drive to their training facility and gym in Scotland. Brad Jacobs’ team has three members in Sault Ste. Marie, and Kennedy, the third (who’s also Gushue’s alternate in Beijing), lives in Alberta. “I’ve been to Sault Ste. Marie probably four times in the last three years for some real training,” Kennedy says.
While Team Jones has three players living in Winnipeg and Team Gushue has three in St. John’s, change is coming. Jones’s second, Peterman, and Gushue’s second, Gallant, are getting married next summer. (It’s a love story for the ages, sports fans!) “Where do they decide they’re going to live?” Gushue asks. “A team is going to be impacted in the next year with life changes, and it’s a challenge. These are some of the considerations the top teams have. But it would be really hard for our team to say, ‘You have to live in Newfoundland to train together.’ It’s not a realistic expectation.”
If Gallant moves to Western Canada, Laing wonders what’ll happen, since Gushue’s lead, Walker, who lives in Edmonton, is the team’s import already. Their team is ranked No. 2 in the world. “You’re going to tell the team that won the right to go to the Olympics, Team Gushue, you guys no longer qualify for the Brier?” Laing asks. “You have to change your team? What are we trying to accomplish here?” He doesn’t believe residency rules should exist, because while it would be ideal to have the whole team in one city, it rarely happens.
Martin’s on the same page, and he questions what those rules mean for young stars who live in areas of the country that aren’t curling hotbeds. “Jennifer [Jones] doesn’t live in Manitoba. Rachel Homan isn’t in Ontario. It’s going away anyway,” he says of residency rules, which have evolved over the years to allow imports and birthright rules. “So, pull off the band-aid for god’s sake.”
Hebert says if the funding were better, he’d move “100 percent” (if his wife and kids are on board with the decision) to join a top team and make a push for another Olympic berth. He suggests the system could move to two imports to give teams a better chance of making that super team. “But to be honest, I don’t think that solves the issue. That’s just putting a band-aid on a bullet hole,” he says. “I think if you’re looking for true greatness, you need to have the four players training and practicing together in the same province anyway.” This past season, Team Koe’s third, B.J. Neufeld, flew in from Winnipeg for training camps ahead of big events. “That’s only 12 days the whole year,” Hebert says.
Peckham doesn’t see teams being required to relocate, but rather, spending more time together for training camps. “Centralization for the purposes of training, if it’s not the top box [on a list of necessary changes], it’s in the top couple,” he says. Henderson sees the residency rules continuing, at least for the short term. “We may have one of those moments where we say this isn’t working anymore in order to maximize team performance, but we’ve managed up until now,” she says.
Mackenzie Zacharias is the 22-year-old reigning world junior champion skip out Manitoba, and she and her teammates live in a house together in Winnipeg. Two members of Team Zacharias moved from the east coast this summer so they could train together consistently. “It’s basically eat, sleep and curl, so it’s been great,” says Zacharias, who made her debut at the Scotties last year. The setup paid off: In December, Team Zacharias qualified for their second Scotties, out of the hotbed that is Manitoba.
She’s hopeful that with more experience, her team can go beyond simply cracking the event, and contend. And with that will come opportunities on the biggest stages.
“I think Canada’s going to really have to take a look and say, ‘OK, what do we have to do to be able to compete with these other teams and stay at their level,’” Zacharias says. “I think dedication is definitely going to be one of those things — finding four people that really work well together and have the same goal in mind and are willing to put in the time and the effort to achieve that goal. Once you find four people like that it’s going to be pretty hard to stop them.”
T he last time Jones, Lawes and McEwen were at the Olympics together, back in 2014, the trio, along with Jill Officer, ran the table to win gold. “We thought that was a great field,” McEwen says. “And this year, you could probably pick six teams that could win a gold medal.”
Though Canada isn’t the favourite in Beijing, McEwen would never doubt her long-time skip’s ability to lead the team to the top of the podium. “She just has that extra gear, especially in big events and big games,” McEwen says. “I don’t know what you call it, but it’s in her. It’s so cool to watch and to be a part of.”
If that extra gear comes through, and if Team Gushue can again return home as champions, or with some hardware, don’t expect to see big changes at Curling Canada anytime soon. Medals have a way of sweeping problems under the rug, as they have for some time in this country. “If we come back from Beijing with a couple medals, then a lot of urgency will go from the conversation,” Peckham says. “If we limp home, then the urgency will go from code orange to code red.”
Homan and John Morris also have a good shot at contributing to the medal count. The pair was hand-selected to represent the country in mixed doubles (after Trials were cancelled due to COVID), where they’ll be trying to defend the Olympic gold Morris won four years ago with Lawes.
No matter the results in Beijing, Hebert is expecting change. His Team Koe plans to amicably break up after this season. “I think teams are really going to sit down and say, ‘How do we beat Niklas Edin [Sweden], Bruce Mouat, Peter de Cruz [Switzerland] on a regular basis and become the best team in the world?’” he says. “Because right now that’s not necessarily maybe what we have done. We’ve had the best teams in the world in Canada a lot, and there’s no question that between Kevin Koe, Brad Jacobs and Brad Gushue, that we’re three of the top teams in the world. But arguably Bruce and Edin are both better than all of those teams. If we’re three, four and five, how do we become one and two and three and have them at four and five, kinda how it used to be in the good old days?”
Hebert also believes there will be a new model put forth by Curling Canada for the next quadrennial, ahead of the 2026 Olympics, and he stresses big change isn’t needed, just tweaks. “They could change the system and you could still lose to Bruce on any given day, or Hasselborg, they’re amazing teams. But to go into an event not as an underdog, for it to be a 50-50 fight — if you just get there, that’s the goal,” he says.
Peckham is expecting tough conversations ahead, and believes the sport is finally at a point where everyone involved admits change is necessary to keep up. “Where before I wasn’t getting an awful lot of traction in regard to my own angst,” he says.
Henderson isn’t publicly committing to any changes, but did mention a few things the organization is exploring for this next quadrennial, like a greater partnership between Curling Canada and its high performance teams. “An athlete’s voice at the table, to involve athletes in a deeper and more profound way in the direction of the program,” she says. “What I would anticipate is probably a more concentrated and focused program on possibly fewer athletes with a bit more centralization on the table,” she adds, as well as possible shifts in the timing of events.
“I’m not committing,” she repeats. “We’re looking at these things.”
Many would argue the looking should’ve started an Olympic cycle or two ago, and changes should’ve already been made. “I’ve been trying to get lots of things changed since the ’90s,” Martin says. “It is frustrating, but things are definitely changing, no question. I would love to have seen them change quicker.”
“They’ve been very similar problems as long as I can remember,” Laing says. “I played in my first Brier in 2002, so we’re going on 20 years.”
McEwen sighs just thinking about potential tweaks to the model in Canada. The five-time Canadian and two-time world champion calls herself “old school,” and likes the date of the Scotties relative to worlds, and the Trials relative to the Olympics.
“I don’t think the system is perfect, but I don’t know how to make it perfect, either. All I can say is it’s worked well for us in the past,” McEwen says.
She laughs, and adds: “So, I guess we’ll see this time.”