As the last few rocks of another curling season nestle in around the four-foot, it's time to look back at the most interesting stories of this past season.
The jaw-dropping announcement of big changes to both The Scotties and The Brier came out of the blue in the off season and those changes add up to the biggest story of last year for curling fans.
Between that announcement last June and whatever surprises may lie ahead this off season, there's been a little curling going on, with some notable happenings.
Here now are my ten most compelling stories of the season. Of course, I may have left out one or two that you deem worthy of being decreed list-building material. That's what the "comments" section is for. Feel free.
10. Skins Game Finishes Run At Rama
So where to, now? After a very successful six years at the entertainment centre of the central Ontario casino, TSN announced it was taking the show elsewhere. While this year's event was winding down in January, there was speculation that an announcement on a new home was coming within a week or so. Still waiting. What's next? Toronto? Casino Niagara? An outdoor game? Will the event barnstorm across Canada? Changing the format up a bit this season, curling fans got to vote for their favourite players to take part. That was a good move. No women were placed on the ballot. That was a BAD move. Hope that changes moving forward.
9. Chris Schille gets kicked out of a provincial game
No one had ever heard of such a thing. Curlers don't get tossed from games. On Saturday, February 2nd, Chris Schille, second for Brock Virtue's team, did. That set off a firestorm in the curling world. Some blamed Schille, some blamed what they figured was an overzealous official. Then we found out that Saskatchewan curling overlords had been
dismayed with player behaviour for some time before the ejection occurred. No matter to Virtue. His team won with just three players in that game and when Schille rejoined them, they took the Saskatchewan title and earned a berth in The Brier. And Schille's twitter account blossomed.
8. Beijing to host the 2014 Worlds
New frontiers are opening. In January, it was announced that the 2014 World Men's Curling Championship will be held in China. Curling's international growth is notable, with stronger teams emerging from countries that were previously thought of as soft touches. Japan's win over Canada at this year's World Men's is a harbinger. The Czech Republic jumped up this year as well. The Chinese came up with a strong showing, too. That will please officials in Beijing, who undoubtedly want a podium finish from their guys when they host the world championship for the first time ever, next April. Women's championships have already been held in Japan and Korea. Asia's official embrace of the game is a boon to its worldwide fortunes. Will grassroots fans begin to sprout? Will Vic Rauter say "they're building their own great wall, Russ" if rocks crowd the free guard zone?
7. Colleen Jones returns to the national stage
This story made everybody smile. It also serves as a counterpoint to my number one curling story of the year. Legendary skip Colleen Jones came back to The Scotties for the first time since 2006. This time, she was working the broom as hard as she famously works a piece of gum during competition. Jones played second for Mary-Anne Arsenault's Nova Scotia team and said she loved it. At 53, she was the oldest player in the field. Her comeback story was all the more remarkable when you consider she'd faced a horrifying health scare in 2010.
6. Mixed Doubles steps up to the big leagues
Canada has been completely dismal at the World Doubles Curling Championship. Largely because no one really seemed to care about it that much. With more medals up for grabs
in that version of the sport at next year's Olympics, the Canadian Curling Association launched the first Canadian Mixed Doubles Championship. Quebec's Isabelle Neron and Robert Desjardins are national titlists and will represent Canada at the World Championship, beginning this weekend in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Will more people now care? Does this signal a new age in Canadian curling?
5. The Scotties will go back to Montreal
The Canadian women's championship hasn't been held in Montreal since a 19 year old Colleen Jones played second for Penny Larocque. That was in 1979. The Scotties returns in 2014, to be played at the Maurice Richard Arena, from February 1st to 9th. It's unclear as to whether the city will embrace the event, but kudos to the CCA for having the courage to venture back into a province that's demonstrated a rather tepid support for curling. Outside-the-box thinking might signal a willingness to stage a Brier in a place like St. John's, Newfoundland. Brad Gushue is feeling the vibe and is actively taking part in a campaign to make it happen.
4. Rogers gets in the game, big time
Not only did Rogers increase its curling coverage this past season, it became an active stockholder in the game, purchasing the Grand Slam Of Curling outright and tossing bags of money around at the sport. No, there won't be a million dollar bonus paid to a men's team this season, but Rachel Homan's rink has a shot at a $100,000.00 bonus at
next week's Players' Championship, in Toronto. Rogers' commitment to Canadian curling also stretched into live coverage of both men's and women's provincial finals in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario in 2013. That went so well that there's talk of adding British Columbia to the mix next year and organizers in Saskatchewan apparently want in, too.
3. New rocks for old. Not every change is for the better - Part I
A lot of grousing over those new rocks brought out for The Brier in Edmonton last month. The CCA replaced the old stones with a new set. Nothing wrong with that. Rocks get old and need to be replaced. However, the set unleashed on unsuspecting provincial champions seemed a bit much to take for some. Complaints ranged from polite exception to thinly-veiled rage. Some struggled more than others. Kevin Martin's team - hot as a pistol heading into The Brier - seemed particularly flummoxed, as they stumbled to an eyebrow-raising playoff miss. Those same rocks were used at the World Men's Championship and things seemed to go a lot better.
2. New rocks for old. Not every change is for the better - Part II
Another thing about those new rocks (whose 'twins' will be used at Sochi). Wider striking bands make the stones much more energetic and easier to move out of the rings. We already have super fast ice and incredibly lively houses. The addition of even easier-to-remove stones runs the risk of what used to be thought of as incredibly difficult shots becoming more run of the mill. I asked a recently-retired pro curler if I positioned a rock right on the button, perfectly frozen to a stone right behind it, if that shot stone was safe. He said no, it would be gone. Really? We're at the point that a perfect freeze in the middle of the rings is routinely taken out? I'm all for spectacular shooting, but let's not make bailout shots too easy.
1. Did you say "yutes?" Young blood takes over
Rachel Homan, Brad Jacobs, Eve Muirhead and Niklas Edin sparkled this
season. In some ways it's like Muirhead has been around forever so it seems a wee bit shocking that she just won the world championship at the age of only 22. Homan took her first Scotties last February at age 23 and has already likely changed the way people look at the game of curling. Jacobs is 27, making him the youngest skip to win a Brier since 24 year old Kevin Martin did it in 1991. Jacobs was bested by Edin, who is also 27, in the gold medal game at the World Championship. At that tournament, in Victoria, a rising Danish star added his name to the list of those to watch in Sochi next year. 24 year old Rasmus Stjerne showed a veteran's poise and very nearly led his team to the podium, losing the bronze to Scotland. Question going forward is: How will these youngsters do as the hunted, as opposed to the hunters?
That's a story for 2013-14.