Players' group gets results in Grand Slam talks as curling PA future appears cloudy

A member of the players' group that worked with Grand Slam organizers to address athlete concerns on the circuit is hopeful the interaction will lead to a stronger relationship between the two sides in the future.

Matt Dunstone initially reached out to organizers and was part of the five-player group that later met with representatives from Sportsnet to discuss format issues, tiebreaker and pre-game adjustments on the five-event series.

The effort paid off with changes to the Dec. 12-17 WFG Masters in Saskatoon and the Jan. 16-21 Co-op Canadian Open in Red Deer, Alta.

"We were able to get together and talk some things out, hear concerns and priorities from all parties involved, and things that each party needed to have happen to make it all work," Dunstone said. "Ultimately it landed on something that's going to be a good temporary fix for the time being and (we'll) see where it gets us moving forward."

Dunstone, who skips a Winnipeg-based team that includes B.J. Neufeld, Colton Lott and Ryan Harnden, said he's hopeful the two sides will reconnect for talks in the spring to discuss plans for next season.

"I think the biggest positive to be taken out of all of this is we're figuring out an alleyway to have better communication among the Slams and the players as a whole, and a better process for that," he said from Penticton, B.C. "That's sort of in the works now.

"I thought how everything went over the last few weeks was very appropriate and good from both sides. I think that's the biggest positive (moving) forward is that open dialogue is going to become more of a norm."

Many curlers were vocal in recent weeks about unilateral changes that were made at Slam events this season.

The biggest issue for the athletes was the elimination of tiebreaker games and use of cumulative last stone draw numbers to determine who advanced if teams had identical records.

Dunstone said five players -- including men and women from domestic and international teams -- were joined on a recent video call with representatives from Sportsnet, which owns and operates the series.

"Ultimately we're just trying to move the needle for all parties involved to continue to not only keep the (Slams as the) best events in the world, but to make them better than they already are," Dunstone said.

In addition to tiebreaker games being restored, the format of the preliminary round was adjusted for the Canadian Open to create more play within a team's pool rather than exclusively outside of it.

Using LSD numbers to break ties was unpopular among the curlers given the small sample size from the preliminary round at the Slams. Several teams were eliminated at the recent Kioti National with 2-2 records.

Tiebreaker games have been dropped from major events like the Winter Olympics and world championships but the round-robin portion of those events is much longer.

When LSD numbers are used, playoff games can be promoted the day before and the logistical and broadcasting challenges of squeezing in an extra draw aren't required.

At the Masters, a tiebreaker draw has now been slotted in to start at 7 a.m. local time on the Saturday of playoff weekend. Quarterfinals and semifinals would follow later in the day.

Tiebreaker games, if necessary, would not be televised, a Sportsnet spokesman said in an email. Interview requests left with the network were not immediately returned.

Dunstone said Slam players were given surveys to fill out earlier this season and the athletes' group spoke on those results at the meeting. The next step, he said, was for the curlers to get an elected committee together to work with event organizers in the future.

"I think once we have that, I think it's going to be a really good thing between us and the Grand Slam of Curling," he said.

The Curling Players' Association, an unofficial group unveiled last season by organizer Rylan Hartley that includes Sweden's Niklas Edin as its interim president, was not involved in the meeting.

Canada’s Emma Miskew, Switzerland’s Silvana Tirinzoni, American Korey Dropkin and other prominent curlers were also listed among the group's leadership. However, the association's next steps remain unclear and there's still no word on plans for formal ratification.

Several athletes signed an initial letter of support for the association last season, Hartley said, adding that player meetings and recruitment efforts remain ongoing.

The season-ending stop on the Grand Slam circuit is the April 9-14 Princess Auto Players' Championship in Toronto.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2023.

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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press