Curling fans will not be shocked when they take a look at the final list of players who will be taking part in TSN's all-star skins game next month.
The votes are in, and the skips who'll run the show at the annual big time cash spiel are Glenn Howard, Kevin Martin, Jeff Stoughton and Kevin Koe. All-stars, for sure, and about the most recognizable names in the game.
You could term it "the usual suspects," with the real twist coming January 17th when teams are formed by having names plucked from a hat, as opposed to polished foursomes, consisting of players who've been teammates forever, taking the ice near Orillia, Ontario.
There's the difference. It's not that there's apt to be any real change in the shot making during the weekend event, January 18th and 19th, on the floor of the central Ontario casino's concert venue. Variety is the spice of life, curling included, and that means the sight of Howard, the top vote-getter among skips in balloting results just announced, shooting the breeze and plotting strategy with a vice not named Wayne Middaugh, just might inject some spice into the event.
It's a good initiative, then, to have a little something different breathing life into a competition that's been full of good curling over the years, but may have been getting just a tad stale around the crust.
A look at the possible players on the ballot when voting began last month in comparison to those who got voted in reveals little in the way of surprise. Hard to say that any of these players aren't deserving and my own opinion is that if there are any glaring oversights to be remarked on, it would be that the producers of the event did not include a handful of women's stars on the ballot. As well, outside of skips holding their usual positions, I would have loved to see a free for all draw format whereby a guy like Craig Savill might play vice instead of lead and someone like Pat Simmons could be forced to try his hand at throwing perfect guards and tick shots all weekend. You want to shake it up? Then really go Yahtzee on the thing.
Of the four skips that were voted in, three are in the top four of curling's CTRS (Canadian Team Ranking System) standings, with Koe and Stoughton a strong one-two, respectively. Martin stands fourth, while Howard's crew is 6th. If Howard is undeserving of being voted in here, it would only be based on that fact. And that fact is not nearly, nearly enough to remove him as his list of accomplishments in just the last year, never mind his career, is staggering.
Besides. As with all-star voting in any sport, it's not about stats. It's about who the fans love to see.
Which brings us to the case of Manitoba's Mike McEwen. Once again, McEwen's team is one of the top squads in the world, ranking third on that CTRS list for this season. It's true that he is becoming more and more well-known to the general curling fan but not enough to take votes away from the beloved four skips who garnered enough clicks to be sent to Rama. You can easily argue that McEwen's as good as any of them when it comes to strategy and shot-making. It's also probably plain to see that if he had even one Brier championship to his credit, or a few Brier appearances (only a matter of time, by the way) his name would be even larger, his reputation grown to the point where it wouldn't be surprising to see him finish top four among skips in a nationwide popularity contest.
McEwen's team is not without representation, by the way. Vice B.J. Neufeld is on his way to Rama, a voting result that was noted on the team's twitter account, @mcewencurling:
Disappointments? Sure. The fans get what the fans want, but wouldn't we have been served by the possibility of Randy Ferbey being voted in and ending up on Brad Gushue's team? That would have been fun. Alas, neither of them - never mind both of them - made it.
Not that there isn't the possibility of some personality, um, intrigue here. Stoughton's in and so is the long time lead he parted company with last spring, Steve Gould. That move (along with some others) set off a little navel-gazing in the curling world, over whether the sport of buddies had become the sport of cold, hard reality like all the rest of them. We're told it ended amicably, if not completely agreeably, and a pairing at Rama could put that theory to the test.
Interesting side note to the balloting: The top three vote-getters were all from the same team; Team Kevin Martin.
Vice John Morris led the way with 29,677 votes, while second Marc Kennedy received 29,482 and lead Ben Hebert gathered 28,751. Their skip was well back of each of them, with 22,596 votes. A quick scan of Morris', Hebert's and Kennedy's twitter accounts shows no playful slagging of their skip, but it's early yet.
Top vote-getters by position, and my picks:
Skip: Glenn Howard, 24,284 votes. My pick: Howard. The smoothest delivery in the game. Unflappable and undentable. Not just ice water in those veins. Pebbled ice water.
Vice: John Morris, 29,677 votes. My pick: Jon Mead. There is not a better clean up artist in the biz. When he fires out and lets loose, accuracy never takes a back seat to velocity. And he can hum it.
Second: Marc Kennedy, 29,482 votes. My pick: Kennedy. It's a match set, really. See "lead," below.
Lead: Ben Hebert, 28,751 votes. My pick: Hebert, grudgingly, over Savill. I love Savill's tick shot abilities but if I'm a foot or two light, or even fifteen feet light, I would want the rock-dragging abilities of Hebert and Kennedy together. I'm sure that when they shovel their driveways, little bits of asphalt end up in every mound of snow.