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Curling’s emerging economy: Sometimes your friends get hurt

Steve Gould and Jeff Stoughton in happier times. -CP

While the men with Brier brooms were in the early stages of trying to bring a national curling championship back to their home province, the effects of not even being there were being felt in one of those provinces. Manitoba.

2011 Brier Champion Jeff Stoughton surprised many in the curling world by cutting loose a teammate that he'd gone to the rock wars with for  years. Lead Steve Gould, who'd been one of the top power sweepers in the game, is now gone, with no replacement named.

It's the latest reminder that there's a notable difference between the dynamics of a world class competitive outfit and your Monday night skins team. Would you drop an old friend from that team due to performance? Stoughton's move on Gould is merely another in a long line of such curling team decisions, putting collective goals ahead of personal relationships. Some of those collective goals translate into cold, hard cash.

Brad Gushue added Russ Howard in order to win Olympic gold in 2006. He's been tinkering with his line up ever since, trying to recapture that magic. Kevin Martin said "so long" to old mates and also won Olympic gold. Jennifer Jones suffered the slings and arrows from some in the sticks and stones world when she made a big change. Now Stoughton.

Gould's ouster is just part of what continues to be curling's emerging culture of business models, branding and corporate bucks.

"Build the best team you can, give yourself the best chance to go to the Olympics as possible," Martin said, over the phone from Edmonton. "In the meantime while doing so, you attract more of the corporate community. You're building your brand. Be it the Howard brand or the Koe brand or the Team Martin brand. It's become more of a business."

Kevin Martin's team won Olympic gold in 2010. -CP

Martin, gold medallist at the Vancouver Games, in 2010, knows the difficulty of moving on without valued compatriots. After a disappointing Olympic trials performance in 2005, as well as a fourth place finish at the 2006 Brier, Martin cleaned house. Longtime teammates Don Walchuk and Don Bartlett, as well as relative newcomer Carter Rycroft were replaced with the men who remain with Martin to this day - John Morris, Marc Kennedy and Ben Hebert.

"Team has to come first," said Martin. "To compete with the top teams, you've got to put the sport right at the top and you've really got to compete hard, now, 12 months of the year. There's nothing that comes second, there's only one thing that comes first, that's all."

Sounds like the harsh realities that can dominate all pro sports do not cut curling any slack in this day and age. The money, while not anywhere near the level of most elite pro sports is beginning to mean more and more.

The spoils of curling wins are improving. Martin remembers that his team won $17,000.00 in total on the curling tour, for all of 1993. In 2012, Mike McEwen leads the World Curling Tour money list with just shy of $120,000.00. That's so far. There are three more big events remaining on the schedule, including the $100,000.00 Players' Championship, next month in Summerside, Prince Edward Island.

This year's Brier finalists will get $40,000.00 each and the winner will reap other financial rewards, like those of Heather Nedohin's Scotties champs. In addition to their $15,500.00 in prize money, Nedohin's team also gets $144,000.00 in development money from Sport Canada and another $40,000.00 from the Own The Podium program. Nedohin's Alberta team also earned a berth in next Fall's Canada Cup and a chance to fight for their share of $140,000.00 in prize money. This year's Brier champion gets the same bonuses.

With bigger prizes increasingly up for grabs, there is more incentive for top skips to do what they need to do in order to remain just that. Martin thinks it can be a tricky bit of business to handle.

"Curling is a unique sport. You don't have a general manager or a team owner who does this, it's the skip that has to. It is hard in a sport where everyone's such good friends," he said. He believes it would be good if curling teams did have owners and general managers, to take that burden off the players.

"Any time you have a team sport and one of the players has to cut people... one of the players has to do that," he repeated for emphasis, "...let's pick the Pittsburgh Penguins. And Evgeny Malkin. And he's the guy who's going to have to cut somebody off the team and put somebody else on -- how can that be, you can't do that! In curling, you're the guy that has to do that. That's hard."

Three questions immediately come to mind in the wake of Stoughton's decision: Why? Who will be Gould's replacement? How will curling fans react to what is, in essence, the firing of a longtime and devoted employee? The answer to the first question will likely be kept under wraps, at least judging by Stoughton's and Gould's responses to that question. Stoughton told Canadian Press:

"There's multiple reasons why we could keep a player or release a player. All of those things have been discussed within the team and they're going to stay within the team.''

So, unless Gould jumps in with an explanation, it looks like it will be up to the curling rumour mill to flesh things out in emerging in dribs and drabs as people close to the situation start talking (and they always do) about what they know. Gould was keeping dutifully to the high road, when he spoke with Winnipeg Free Press columnist Paul Wiecek:

"The reasons we're going our separate ways are going to be left amongst just our team, if that's all right. I don't need to air any laundry out there."

One of the possible reasons Gould is taking this all in stride is that, in Martin's opinion, Stoughton dealt with the matter correctly. Including the issues of money.

"A lot of times it's how you do it. I do like the way Jeff has handled himself in this case. He made sure there were no issues between them. Jeff went and met Steve at his house, they went through the financials, they went through the team, they went through the 'why'. So when Jeff left the house that night, Steve knew exactly where he stands, no questions, no doubt about the finances, no doubt about nothing."

"I think that's what Jennifer should have done and I don't think she did that just because of all the repercussions with Cathy afterward," said Martin.

Martin was comparing Stoughton's situation to that of Jennifer Jones, the Manitoba skip who let her longtime vice, Cathy Overton-Clapham, go almost two years ago.

"I do remember in Jennifer's case... Jennifer and I are really good friends... I do remember cringing at just how it came down, how she did it. I went 'oooooh, left yourself open for a lot of trouble, girl," said Martin.

Jennifer Jones at the 2012 Scotties. -Reuters

Jones and "Cathy O" were together for an awfully long while. Together, they won 4 Canadian championships and a world championship, in 2008. When Jones decided to let her Vice go, it seemed like a betrayal of the highest order, to some. They let Jones know it, hammering her with comments in social media circles and on comment boards. She still gets it from many, two years later.

Stoughton may get some relief from any backlash, for two reasons: First, he doesn't seem to be as polarizing a figure as Jones, who has people squarely in her corner or squarely not. Secondly, Gould's reaction to his release stands in stark contrast to Overton-Clapham's. While Gould is taking his situation, at least publicly, in matter-of-fact fashion, Overton-Clapham aired her injured emotions for all to see.

"We were very good friends," said Overton-Clapham. "I talk to Jen two, three times a day. We room together. So I thought there was a great relationship."

When Overton-Clapham publicly displayed her displeasure about her dismissal, it wasn't all about the demise of a curling family. She did mention money. So, it seems, finances may well have been a part of the friction.

Maybe Jeff Stoughton's dumping of  Steve Gould will provide Jennifer Jones with a little comfort, even if he doesn't find he's in for the same treatment she received over making changes to her team. Perhaps she can point to it as an example that you don't have to be considered a monster when you make moves you feel are difficult, but necessary.

Curling fans might have to get used to their favourite "families" breaking up over issues of finance, performance and the chance at future prosperity. As Martin observes, this culture is all relatively new.

"Corporate Canada's involvement on a team to team basis is probably only maybe 10 years old, with a lot in the last 5 years."

One thing is for sure. When it comes to chasing your curling dreams, it's all business. Stoughton has his sights set on representing Canada in Sochi, Russia, in the 2014 Olympics. Jones had her eyes on that same destination when she added Kaitlyn Lawes to her team two years ago. Still does. Sometimes friendships and long lasting associations are victimized by the march toward the prize.

Sometimes not. Asked if he remains on good terms with Bartlett, Walchuk and Rycroft, Martin replied:

"Yeah, no problem, we're still great friends."

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