Grand Slam of Curling: Five-rock rule comes to The National. Does the game need it or something more?

The Eh Game

A little bit of a wrinkle is being thrown in to this week's Grand Slam of Curling event, in Fort McMurray.

The free guard zone rule grows by a rock per end and it may just be something that catches on, although it'd be unneccesary if the world of curling weren't so blessed with great ice, lively rocks and increasingly expert play. As well, while it should force more rocks into play much of the time, it does nothing to rid the game of its greatest annoyance; the blanked first end.

The National, with a field of eighteen teams from all over the world, including the reigning Olympic champions (Team Brad Jacobs) as well as the newly crowned Brier champs (Team Kevin Koe), will employ the much talked about five-rock rule and see how it goes.

It's not the first time the rule has been trotted out, as it was used at The Canadian Open in 2011, much to the consternation of one Mike McEwen, the Manitoba skip who leads his team into this week's event at the Suncor Community Leisure Centre. McEwen, though, has come around to the idea of the free guard zone being expanded from four rocks to five, as he explains in a column on the Sportsnet website.

McEwen also gives us a quick history lesson on the free guard zone and makes valid points about how forcing teams to wait an extra rock before peeling opposition stones out of the way (at least those in the guard zone) can mean a more cluttered sheet.

That, of course, can lead to more complicated situations. Those complicated situations, in turn, can lead to more interesting shot making, more mistakes and more entertainment.

That's if both teams decide to play it that way.

Which is why this rule - while a great idea when one team gets a lead and the other decides it needs junk out front in order to mount a comeback - might be in need of a slight alteration in order to do away with what has become much too commonplace a sight; the first end blank.

Drives many of us to distraction that two teams who've each had the ice for 15 minutes of practice time immediately before the game starts can then decide to blow through the first end in what amounts to a glorified extra practice session. You've seen it a million times. First stone into the four foot. Team with hammer then has a choice: Toss up a corner guard and mix it up or - and this happens far too often - hit the first rock out of the rings. Then the other team follows suit. And so on and so on.

Out of 66 round robin games played at this year's Brier, 24 of them started with a first end blank. Check the numbers at The Scotties and the figures are even more astounding, with 32 out of 66 games starting off with a resounding thud.

If you look at the stats from The Olympics you find that the women blanked the first end 18 times in 45 games. The men did it 21 times in 45 round robin matches.

Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with a good blanking. Those would be the kind where a team pulls off a couple of doubles in an end to get out of trouble and hang on to that hammer. However, there are just too many occasions where both teams are complicit in an end that is played as nothing but hits on rocks in the rings. That doesn't happen solely in the first end, but the lion's share of times, that's when you get it.

In what other sport do you get opponents ever tacitly agreeing to not trying to score? Yet we get it in curling time and time again.

There's a possible solution to that.

Instead of only stretching the four-rock rule out to be a five-rock rule, why not modify it further and make it illegal to hit any rock out of play - be it a guard or a stone in the house - until after the fifth rock comes to rest?

Russ Howard used to play it that way in practice sessions, back before anyone had ever heard of a free guard zone. "Moncton Rules," I believe it was called and it evolved into the free guard zone.

I won't profess to have a clear sightline to what that might do to the game in the future, whether it would improve it greatly (I have a hunch it would) or lead to nonsense.

What harm though, in trying it out at an event or two?

More rocks in play, more often, is a good thing in curling.

The five-rock rule would lead to that happening some of the time. A further change could lead to it happening all of the time.

Let's eliminate the boredom of those 'playing it clean' first ends.

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