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Eh Game

Canadian coach has Chinese curlers flying high at Sochi Olympics. How has he done it?

Don Landry
Eh Game

It was the fifth end of China's crucial match up against Great Britain, on Monday, when the skip of China's team, Rui Liu, made a runback, double takeout that would bail his team out of a jam and eventually force Great Britain to take just one point, with hammer.

“Man! It never ends!" exclaimed commentator Mike Harris. "It just never ends. These are extremely difficult shots he’s making. Time and time and time again."

"He continues this curling clinic," added fellow commentator Joan McCusker.

It's been a superb week of Olympic curling for Liu and his teammates Xiaoming Xu, Dexin Ba and Jialiang Zang. They owe a debt of thanks not only to their own dedication and skill, but to their coach, Canadian Marcel Rocque, a three time world champion as a member of the Randy Ferbey team.

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The Chinese men's curling team has benefitted from some Canadian know how. (CP)

That the Chinese men are in the final four in men's Olympic curling is a bit of a surprise, although not a shock. Not thought to be a sure contender for the gold medal game, they were considered a tough squad that could find their way into the medal round if one of the big four - Canada, Great Britain, Sweden and Norway - faltered.

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Coach Marcel Rocque goes over strategy with the Chinese women's curling team at the Sochi Olympics. (CP)

As it turned out, they didn't need someone to falter. They made their own way, elevating themselves to contender status, equalling Canada's record of 7 and 2. One of those losses was a tight, 9 - 8 loss to Canada, in an extra end.

Rocque gets a lot of the credit as it was he who implemented changes when he took over as coach for the team last summer, at which time the beginning of his overseas adventure was chronicled by Yahoo Sports.

Rocque has helped bring Liu's team to the point where they are as likely to win the gold as any of the four remaining squads. "It's a coin flip, it really is," curling legend and TSN commentator Russ Howard replied when I asked him who would win China's upcoming semi-final game against Brad Jacobs and Canada (Wednesday morning, 9:45 am Eastern time, on Sportsnet). “It would not shock me to see them win this whole thing.”

[Curling: Team Jacobs to meet China in semi-final]

That's something a little different from Howard, who a year ago described Liu's team as not yet at the elite level. They are now and the question is: How has Rocque done it?

For one, he's had an excellent base from which to work, as the team is filled with curling ability.

“Their physical skills are as good as any team, I would argue a hair better," said Howard, who played against this Chinese team twice, in 2009, just before he retired.

Molding those physical attributes, however, took a couple of major moves by Rocque, according to the experts. Some Canadian curling values have been key in the team's elevation.

One move by Rocque was to implement an important change in the way they practiced. The other involved the way the men felt about - and interacted with - each other. A social sea change was in order.

That second element might surprise Canadian curling fans. Generally speaking, we're used to curling teams being buddies on and off the ice. According to Richard Hart, the former vice for Glenn Howard and now a commentator with Sportsnet, Rocque set about having Liu and his teammates get to know each other better as people.

"I did have a conversation with Marcel this season and he had said that one of the things he wanted to do was to try and change the culture of the team from just training all the time," Hart wrote in an email.

"He wanted them to learn how to be teammates and help show them the advantages of this. He had said that they did not see each other socially, did not know anything about each others lives, wives, girlfriends and kids."

[More: Jennifer Jones makes Olympic curling history]

When this element of Rocque's coaching technique was mentioned to Howard, he reacted with amusement and admiration.

“There was no team more social than the Randy Ferbey team,” he said with a laugh. “That brings a lot to the team. Most of the winning teams are great friends off the ice and you have to have that chemistry, for sure."

"So, I think that’s brilliant," he added.

 

That kind of cohesion is a boon in any team dynamic. It was apparently fostered by Rocque, who also made a major change to the way the four practiced. Reportedly, the team had been throwing rocks six days a week, six hours a day. That was much too much time working on mechanics and Howard, for one, believes too much sliding and shooting can kill curling passion.

“It was such a full time thing, I think they lost the love of the sport a little bit," he said.

Not only did less time on the practice ice allow Rocque to have the men spend more time with each other in a non-business way, it has probably kept them fresh and raring to go when they do enter a competition.

“I believe they’re more excited when they do play, because they’re not burned out," insisted Howard.

Hart is impressed with Rocque's success, which has come despite a language barrier - "there’s a lot of charades and acting things out in second language situations," Rocque told me last summer - and with a lot of travel and hard work.

"I think that whatever he has done it's had a profound effect on this team," wrote Hart.

Profound, indeed. No longer an afterthought in men's curling, the Chinese have come to the point where Russ Howard actually believes it's a coin flip between them and the traditional curling power, Canada. Five years ago, that would be unheard of. Last year, quite unlikely.

Now, with the integral help of a Canadian coach, China is taking its place on curling's big stage and looking to grab the top prize at the Olympics.

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