The pace of change in the world of Canadian curling has at times been described by its detractors as downright glacial. If that's so, a big, big chunk of that glacier has just sheared off and plunged into the sea with a mighty crash.
More teams added to the national championship mix, a push to springboard mixed doubles into the collected consciousness of the Canadian curling fan, as well as the adopting of a new game clock format, are all a part of sweeping changes.
A Team Canada entry will be added to the Brier in 2015, it was announced by curling's governing body, the Canadian Curling Association. That's a pretty big splash in and of itself.
But, wait, there's more.
Northern Ontario will get a team at the women's championship, The Scotties, beginning the same year. While there had been many advocates of adding a Team Canada to the men's side, safe to say that if you heard anyone say Northern Ontario should be added to The Scotties, you'd have replied with a fairly good chuckle, if not an outright guffaw. That's come right out of the blue for most observers, as have a few more changes.
"I'm a little surprised that they did go that way," said reigning men's World Champion Glenn Howard, over the phone from his home in Coldwater, Ontario. "I thought it would go the other way. Where, if the women aren't doing it then why are the men doing it and they'd get rid of Northern Ontario. I actually thought that was the way it was going to go and that was how you were going to get Team Canada (at The Brier)."
If you ask Howard if he'd like the idea of his team getting a free pass into next year's Brier based on it's championship in 2012, he'll humbly decline, though he understands full well the reasoning behind having a returning champ in the field.
"I understand the Team Canada concept and I understand that's the way it's going and maybe that's a sign of the times, but I'm old school. That's the traditionalist in me. I think you should earn it."
"I'm a big fan of momentum. If you get a bye back to the nationals, you may not even be playing that well. You may not be that great a team and maybe you don't deserve to be there," he added.
"I get the marketing, that you get to market the team for a whole year. I know that's what they've done with The Scotties. I don't really believe that's necessary with The Brier. I don't think that's going to make that big a difference with attendance because it's always well attended and well marketed anyway."
The CCA sees these, and other changes, as progressive steps in moving the sport forward. CCA Chief Esecutive Officer, Greg Stremlaw:
"With the final equitable opportunity to access Canadian Championships now approved, we were able to formalize exciting changes to the CCA's two marquee properties, the Scotties Tournament of Hearts and the Tim Hortons Brier."
Both The Scotties and Brier will become, in a sense, 15-team competitions, although each will still see 12 teams playing a round robin in the main event.
The 12th spot in each will be earned through a separate mini-playoff format, consisting of four teams, likely based on standings from the previous year's championship, held just prior to the big shows.
Instead of a combined Territories team, each of Nunavut, Yukon and Northwest Territories will ice their own rinks, and each will have their chance at making it in to the Brier or Scotties.
In essence, the fifteen teams will consist of:
Two from Ontario, one each from the other nine provinces and three territories, and the returning champs, Team Canada.
Team Canada, of course, will get an automatic berth in both events (as has been the case in The Scotties for years) with the next best 10 finishers from the previous year (assuming that the CCA uses the previous year's standings to rank provinces and territories) finding their way in as well. The final berth would be taken through the last chance event just beforehand.
As an example, if this format were to take hold for next year's Brier, Howard and his crew from Ontario would automatically be back in, as well as another team from Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta, Yukon (Jamie Koe's team represented both Yukon and Northwest Territories, but was based in Yukon), Northern Ontario, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, British Columbia, Quebec and Nova Scotia.
The two provinces that finished at the bottom of the standings, Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island, would have to fight it out in the pre-Brier tournament with Nunavut and Northwest Territories, for the final spot.
That might not be a very comfortable scenario for the players. When told of this example Howard said he couldn't imagine a Brier without Saskatchewan in it and wasn't thrilled that they'd need to play their way back in when they've been a traditional curling contender for generations. Not to mention that a bad year by someone at the previous Brier would penalize that province's new champion by forcing them to take another step before getting to the championship.
"It could easily happen to any of us," Howard lamented.
Not great for the players, perhaps, but it will be a boon for fans, with additional story lines and drama.
Each year, as the round robin progresses, you get an inevitable clutch of games later in the week that might seem meaningless, outside of teams playing for pride. This new arrangement could ensure that squads that have sunk to the bottom of the table would need to keep duking it out, lest they be the ones who finish in the bottom two, denying their province or territory an automatic berth in the following year's Brier or Scotties.
The CCA has also decided to add an annual mixed doubles championship to its schedule, with the first of them to be held this autumn. It's an effort to give that version of the sport a little more cache in Canada, where it is presently not much more than a curiosity.
The other big change being adopted is the implementation of "thinking" time, also known as "slam" time, because it has been used in Capital One Grand Slam events. It's a move Howard can wholeheartedly get behind.
"That's what we've used in the slams for a couple of years," he said. "I think it's perfect. It's a way better system than the existing system. The guys love it. I think the CCA has realized it's a better system and I give them great credit for adopting it."
"Thinking" time is different from the clock system the CCA has been using in that a team's allotted playing time is spent only between an opponent's stone coming to rest and their own stone being released. It's meant to encourage teams to play a more aggressive, draw-filled style. Or, at least, not penalize them for choosing shots that take longer to execute.