Curling’s big shake up may leave Stoughton, Martin out in the cold

The chairs have been set out. The music is playing. More than a handful of well-known men's curlers are now circling those chairs and when the music stops, who knows where some of them will be?

The unfortunate thing about it is that when that music does cease, two of the game's greatest skips, Kevin Martin and Jeff Stoughton, might be forced from the scene a little bit earlier than they'd like and not in a manner of their choosing.

Jeff Stoughton's Sunday announcement that his team is breaking up at season's end is the latest to get chins wagging. He's now a free agent, looking for players to join him so he can continue to play the game he loves, next season. The list of takers should be long and the 50 year old Manitoba native can afford to be discerning. He will be just that, telling the Winnipeg Free Press "We'll see how things play out the next little while. And if nothing comes up, I won't play next year."

If Stoughton doesn't play next year, there's a good chance he might never be back and that would mean leaving the game on terms that were not his own. He told the Winnipeg Sun that "They all left me. Of course, I'm surprised. I'm surprised that Jon (Mead) said he didn't want to play with me. I would have played another year or two with Jon."

There's irony in that. It was two years ago that Stoughton made headlines for cutting his longtime lead, Steve Gould, in order to add Mark Nichols and take a run at an Olympic berth.

Now, Mead might retire, Nichols is apparently moving back to Newfoundland & Labrador and Reid Carruthers is checking out his options. Stoughton has wondered out loud if Carruthers might want to jump onto a team that has its eye on an Olympic berth in 2018, something Stoughton seems to find very little interest in.

This is where the that music and those chairs come into play, chairs that are situated not just in Manitoba, but in Alberta, Ontario and St. John's.

Could Nichols be reunited with Brad Gushue? The two won an Olympic gold medal at Torino in 2006 and if Nichols fancies himself a vice, he'd slide in well there if Gushue is ready to make changes on his team, something he has done with great regularity over his career. Gushue failed to make the playoffs at this year's Brier, but his current line up does have some great positives, if they decide to stay together.

In Ontario, it's all but certain that second Brent Laing - who's decided to not say a word until after the World Championships end two weeks from now - is heading west, rumoured strongly to be joining Kevin Koe. In fact, that's more than rumour if you go by the word of Laing's current skip, Glenn Howard, who reportedly told the Regina Leader-Post that it was indeed the case. Howard has his eye fixed on the 2018 Olympics. He's going to need a second. There's a guy in the province right next door - Carruthers - who needs a new team.

Howard's roster questions may not end at that position, by the way, as he has admitted that his other two teammates (vice Wayne Middaugh and lead Craig Savill) "haven't discussed what we will do, whether it's sticking together or moving on." If Middaugh steps away, the latest rumours have Howard's former vice, Richard Hart jumping back in, after a three year retirement. That seems rather unlikely, though, as Hart has repeatedly said that while he loves the game, he does not miss the grind of competing at the top level. As well, he's enjoying coaching his sons and has quickly become an excellent TV analyst, something else he rather enjoys. Not out of the question for Hart to play a few games here and there with his former skip but beyond that, it would be surprising.

In Alberta, it's a bit of a mess, that Koe situation.

The rumours of that team dissolving have been floating through the winter air all season long, with second Carter Rycroft saying definitely that he was taking at least next year off. The team struggled through the Olympic Trials and then didn't play at all until the Alberta Championship. Seemed a sure thing that vice Pat Simmons and lead Nolan Thiessen would be out, with Koe joining forces with Martin's current front end tandem of Ben Hebert and Marc Kennedy.

Although a Brier win had Simmons and Thiessen saying the right things about returning to defend that title, Laing's impending move to the team has the music fired up again, with Alberta's top curlers circling seats there. Indeed, as Koe and his rink head to Beijing to represent Canada at The Worlds, there is an insistence in the curling rumour mill that this is a victory lap, with those changes being inevitable.

Kevin Martin may have no choice in this matter and be forced to find a new team with which to play next year. He, like Stoughton, has made it pretty clear that he'd like to play a season or two more, but has no real interest in stretching that out through another Olympic cycle. He seems to have a good understanding that his mindset would lead to the loss of Hebert and Kennedy, saying that he does not want to stand in the way of their Olympic dreams.

Martin and Stoughton, when all is said and done and keisters are firmly planted in seats, might well end up with no chairs for the 2014-15 season. That's because most of the top players are looking ahead long-term, to the games of 2018. Those that aren't, are considering retirement.

That would be a damn shame, Stoughton and Martin on the outside before they really want to be. Here's hoping they can each find a group of like-minded teammates and are afforded the opportunity to play a year or two more then exit the stage gracefully and at a time they truly choose to head to the wings.

For now, the tunes are cranked, the seats are gathered together and the boys are circling.

This all sets up what should be a situation unlike one we've seen before, when April's Players' Championship is contested in Summerside, Prince Edward Island.

A scenario where so many current teammates square off against current foes, knowing full well, already, that they are next year's buddies.

All the while, I imagine Brad Jacobs and his Olympic gold medal-winning team - the only seemingly sure thing going forward - are looking on with amusement.

Sit back and enjoy the intrigue.

When the music stops just after the World Championship, the scramble for a place to plunk down really begins.

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