It’s Just The Beginning I’m Afraid

Canadian curling fans have seen the future at this year’s men’s and women’s world curling championships and it’s going to be the 1970’s in ice hockey all over again. In that era, the Soviet Union iced hockey teams which were comprised of Red Army “soldiers” whose only real weapon was a hockey stick. For those much too young to know where this is headed, allow me to educate you with some international athletic history.

It was the “cold war” era. The space race was in full forward. Cultures were viewed in juxtaposition. Political systems clashed. Weapons of mass destruction were trained upon the principals with full intentions to deploy. In the midst of all of this tension, a game, played on ice, seem to be the battleground were the differences were to be settled. But, the ice surface was not level. The soviet national team was comprised of men who were listed as amateurs (occupation – soldier in the Soviet Red Army). Canada’s national team was comprised of players who played for teams that battled for the Allan Cup, emblematic of senior hockey supremacy in Canada. On their team roster, under occupation you saw car salesman, real estate representative, fuel station attendant, electrician, postal worker, plumber, educator, computer technician etc.

The Russian National Team trained and played full time. Canada was represented at world championships and Winter Olympic Games by club teams, one, on two occasions, from my hometown of Kitchener (the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen). It soon became evident that the Russian players, skilled as they were and they were very skilled, had a distinct advantage and rarely was the Soviet hockey machine tested as it won international event after international event. It was in no way, Canada’s best against the Soviet’s best. I have used the words Russian and Soviet interchangeably thus far in this post but that was not true. Russia was a country in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which really meant that on top of their “professionalism” they were drawing from several countries which now represent themselves internationally.

Then came the “Summit Series” of 1972 where, for the first time, Canadian players from the National Hockey League played the Soviets in what has become folk lore in Canada. If you have seen the film footage and/or the made-for-TV movie about the series, you’ll know that it was won on a goal by Paul Henderson in the dying stages of the last of eight games, in Moscow. But a new era had dawned. Canada no longer had a monopoly on hockey. The rest of the world was catching up and catching up fast.

Well my maple syrup eating, Tim Hortons drinking countrymen, the same thing is happening in curling.  All you had to do was watch the recent women’s and men’s world championships to know that the game that was born in Scotland but grew up in Canada, now belongs to the world. And Canada in general, and the Canadian Curling Association in particular, played in integral role in making it so and full marks to them! Canadian teaching materials, equipment and instructing/coaching personnel were dispatched to any nation interested. The game moved forward on an international scale.

Then came the Nagano Winter Olympic Games. Canada did not win both gold medals as many simply assumed it would. And many smaller nations at the doorstep of Winter Olympic participation were watching. The lesson learned was that with all that Canadian assistance, it too could identify a relatively small group of athletes, teach them how to curl, fund a national programme, send them to Canada for the invaluable experience and dream of a podium finish at a future Winter Olympic Games.

Sweden learned the lesson best it would appear and now funds not one, but two men’s teams comprised of full time curlers, training under a detailed, demanding, podium oriented training programme under the guidance of Peter Lindholm, three time men’s world champion. I suspect, but at this writing can’t confirm, that the same is true for female elite Swedish teams. Other countries are following in lockstep taking strides leading them to challenge the Maple Leaf teams just as effectively as the Swedes. The playing field is only a few degrees from being level. The future is now!

So as not to leave the impression that Canada has been sitting on its hands allowing the developing curling countries to track us down, our best young athletes and their teams have been identified, a posse has been formed and the cavalry is on the way! Programmes such as La Releve and a carding initiative have provided the funds needed for those identified athletes and those teams that have by merit, earned the funding. New funding formulae are being considered through the “Own the Podium” programme. That funding along with an array of performance enhancement professionals made available to the athletes hopefully will help to keep up with the aforementioned international challengers.

The “mine canary” in all of this is the results of the last 10 junior world championships. Of the potential 20 junior world championships, Canadian junior teams have won only 4, all on the men’s side. No, I have no explanation save the one that’s the premise of this post, the world is catching up and doing so at break neck speed. If Canada wishes to continue its dominance on the world curling stage, we’re going to have to do something and sorry, I don’t know what that something is at this point.

Before I sign off on this topic, to those burgeoning countries on the world stage, I have a question for you. Are you spending the same resources on the growth of the game in your country as you obviously are getting a team on that Winter Olympic Podium? I sincerely hope so because to not do so is disingenuous in my view and something of a slap in the face to the country that opened its resources to you to get you where you are!

But it’s a brave new world at the top which isn’t going to change anytime soon and it’s just the beginning I’m afraid! I believe we’d better tighten our chin straps!