As we put 2018 to bed and start our collective 2019 curling journeys, I thought I would share some the curling-related stories that caught my attention in 2018:

How Swede it is… Can we take a moment to appreciate the year that Anna Hasselborg, Sara McManus, Anges Knochenbauer and Sofia Mabergs had in 2018?!  They won an Olympic gold medal, they won their first two Grand Slam titles, they won their first European Championship and Hasselborg still found the time to get married.  As impressive as all those achievements are, the one moment from Team Hasselborg’s year that stands out in my mind occurred in an event where they finished second.  In the final of the World Championship in North Bay, Jennifer Jones made a shot in the 9th end to take a 6-4 lead, the crowd erupted, and the building felt like it was shaking. It would have been easy for Team Hasselborg to fade in that moment, but they showed the type of resolve that will continue to serve them well for the remainder of their careers by coming right back to score two points of their own in the 10th end to quiet the crowd and send the game to an extra end.  Hasselborg did not “shoosh” the crowd as some golfers have been known to do following a good shot on foreign soil during the Ryder Cup, but she certainly could have after that shot.   

A miracle on ice…really??? Let’s be honest, Team Shuster’s gold medal performance in Pyeongchang was far removed from a group of college kids defeating one of the more dominant hockey programs in the history of hockey in Lake Placid.  Lest we forget that Team Shuster had won a bronze medal at the 2016 World Championship and finished fourth the following year.  

However, history will show that Team Shuster’s victory in Pyeongchang was a seminal moment for the growth of the sport in the U.S. and not just because it compelled Mr. T to tweet about his love of curling.  The Americans showed a lot of character in Korea coming back from a difficult start to their week, defeating Canada twice and then defeating Team Edin of Sweden in the final.  Americans love comeback stories and Team Shuster wrote quite the story.  John Shuster started the cycle by being excluded from the U.S. High Performance Program and ended the cycle with an Olympic gold medal around his neck.  There must be a “30 for 30” documentary in there somewhere.

A golden pair… When the “Roar Of The Rings” ended late last year both Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris went home disappointed, having failed in their efforts to return to the Olympics.  Little did either of them know that two months later they would each win their second gold medals while becoming the first-ever Olympic champions in mixed doubles.  Say what you will about mixed doubles, but it is a shot-makers game and both Lawes and Morris are among the best shot-makers in the world.

The Canadians dominated the round-robin losing only to the Norwegians, the team they would face in the semi-final.  One of the key moments in the Canadian team’s Olympic journey came during the 4th end break of that semi-final against Norway when Morris provided an emphatic defense of Lawes, who struggled in the first half of the game, in an interview with Colleen Jones of the CBC.  With Lawes within earshot, Morris reminded both Jones and the rest of Canada that their team would not be in the playoffs were it not for Lawes’ strong play throughout the round-robin and that he was confident she would turn things around in the second half.  Perhaps buoyed by her teammate’s words, Lawes excelled in the second half of the game against the Norwegians and was in full form in the final against Switzerland. With their victory, Lawes and Morris became the first Canadian curlers to win two Olympic gold medals. 

Curling’s “Free Agent Frenzy” …  The NHL has its “free agent frenzy” on July 1st of each year and pundits/insiders spend hours analyzing who will go where, for how much money and what impact they may have on their new teams.  The “free agency” period in curling is not quite as lucrative but it certainly captures the attention of the curling community at the end of each Olympic cycle. Despite all the buzz and excitement, curling’s 2018 free agent period was mostly a case of old faces in new places.  There were very few younger curlers that moved into prominent roles on teams expected to play and compete at the elite level, the exceptions perhaps being Shannon Birchard and Briane Meilleur on Team Einarson and the Anderson twins on Team Sinclair.

Four skips don’t make a…oh wait, never mind… Of all the new lineups that emerged for the current Olympic cycle the one that had the most people talking was the “all skip team” of Kerri Einarson, Val Sweeting, Shannon Birchard and Briane Meilleur.  Many curling “pundits” questioned whether four skips on one team could work.  What those pundits did not realize, and what the new Team Einarson never really discussed publicly at the time, was that all four members of the team had fully committed to taking the steps necessary to settle into their new roles.  They worked with coach Patti Wuthrich and consulted with people such as Marc Kennedy in efforts to design a plan that would best position them for early success they could build on, and it worked.  The team has won four events this season and have been runners-up on three other occasions.  They have yet to win a major championship but appearances in the final of the Canada Cup and the Boost National serve as proof that this is a team on the cusp of great things and a team that should be among the best teams in the world for the remainder of this cycle.

Hi, my name is Shannon… Let’s be honest, on this date last year, most Canadian curling fans had no idea who Shannon Birchard was and if you had predicted that Birchard, skip of the 5th ranked team in Manitoba and 29th ranked team in the world, would end the year as a Canadian and World Champion, you would have gotten some funny looks.   When her team finished 3-4 in round-robin play at the Manitoba Scotties, it certainly appeared like Birchard’s curling season was over and, truth be told, she likely would have ended up on a Tier 2 level team to start this cycle.  That’s when something magical happened for Birchard.  Jennifer Jones needed someone to fill in for Kaitlyn Lawes at the Scotties while Lawes represented Canada in the Olympics and the rest, as they say, is history.  Birchard not only helped Team Jones win the Scotties in Lawes’ stead but she also won the 2018 World Championship as their alternate. She ended up joining Team Einarson at second for the current cycle, won four events early this season and appeared in one of the more popular months in this year’s “Women of Curling” calendar. All in all, a very good year for Ms. Birchard!

Red Deer rebels… All was relatively quiet on the curling front on November 18th, as it tends to be the week following a Grand Slam event, when word started filtering out about an “incident” at the Red Deer Classic.  As we all know by now, a team skipped by Jamie Koe was thrown out of the Red Deer event for disruptive behaviour. The story made international headlines when it became clear that 2014 Olympic champion Ryan Fry was playing for Jamie Koe that weekend and that it was Fry who was at the centre of the incident which included foul language and damage to property.  All we can hope for as a curling community is that Ryan Fry will return to curling as a better version of himself.  This situation should also serve as a lesson to all current and future Olympic medalists in curling and other sports.  An Olympic medal certainly helps in securing sponsors and speaking gigs, perhaps even upgrades to first class on a flight or perhaps helps you secure a table at a restaurant that is fully booked.  However, an Olympic medal also comes with the expectation that you will act as an Olympic medalist and it also comes with the reality that people will be watching you more closely and will be expecting more of you as a representative of what is good in our country both on and off the ice.   

The jury is still out… I really wanted to be excited about the Curling World Cup when it was first announced but, like many other curling observers, I remain indifferent, yet hopeful, following the first two legs of the World Cup’s inaugural season.  I may be the only person who feels this way, but I felt like a World Cup event would have been an ideal way for the World Curling Federation to expose teams from developing countries to elite competition.  I’m not going to propose what I believe would have been a worthy format because then it becomes an exercise of parsing a proposed format against 1,001 other formats that other people may prefer.  The larger point is that the World Curling Federation could have used the Curling World Cup to the benefit of a larger number of curling nations as opposed to the same 8 or 10 countries that will end up at the different World Cup events for the foreseeable future.  The WCF has said that it is open to tweaking the World Cup as needed and perhaps there will be a way to involve more curling nations moving forward.

Vamos… It certainly seems like the teams involved in the final stages of most world curling championships always come from the same 8 or 10 countries which is why it is always fun to see a team from a developing curling nation make a run at a world championship.  That was the case at this year’s World Mixed Championship when the Spanish team of Sergio Vez, Oihane Otaegi, Mikel Unanue and Leiri Otaegi made it all the way to the final where they lost to Canada.  It was a second world championship medal for Sergio Vez who won a bronze medal at the World Mixed Doubles Championship in 2014.

Most year-end reviews in different sports and other sectors tend to include some of the following, so…here you go:

Player of the Year:  All Kaitlyn Lawes did in 2018 was win the Canadian Mixed Doubles Trials, win a second Olympic gold medal, win her first World Championship and her 3rd Canada Cup. I wouldn’t blame her if she did not want 2018 to end. 

Comeback of the Year… There were likely more heart-warming comeback stories that I could have chosen but my comeback story of the year, strangely enough, is the team that is the top-ranked team in the world and a team that never fell below 3rd in the world rankings in 2018.  It would have been so easy for Team Homan to implode following their disappointing result at the Olympics. In fact, many expected such an implosion and it seemed to be happening when Team Homan went winless in their first post-Olympic outing at the Players Championship. I’m not sure what they said to each other following the Players but, since then, they have won the Champions Cup, made the decision to stick together for another cycle, won the first ever Curling World Cup event and won the final two grand Slams of 2018.  We will never fully understand what that team went through in Pyeongchang, and in the weeks following, unless someone writes a book about it at some point.  What I do know, is that they turned the page and have done so convincingly.

Surprise of the Year… The surprise of the year didn’t really develop until late in the year and that was the renewed success of Team Jacobs after a few difficult seasons and amidst some off-ice turmoil following Ryan Fry’s situation in Red Deer. This is a team that looked awful at the Masters Grand Slam but came back to win the Tour Challenge and then won the Canada Cup with Marc Kennedy stepping in for Fry.

Shot of the year… There are always so many great shots to pick from during a year, Brad Jacobs’ pinball shot at the Boost National and John Shuster’s hit for 5 in the Olympic final come to mind.  However, if you combine difficulty with the moment at which a shot was made, the shot of the year for me is Jennifer Jones’ runback for two in the 9th end of the World Championship final against Team Hasselborg to give her team a 6-4 lead.

Quotes of the Year… My quote of the year is a tie between Jamie Sinclair of the U.S. and Victoria Moiseeva of Russia following the bronze medal game at the 2018 World Women’s Curling Championship in North Bay, ON won by Russia 6-5.  In the post-game media scrum, Moiseeva was asked what it felt like to win the bronze medal game:

“I don’t have enough English words to explain how much it means to win a bronze medal at the World Championship…we were not playing our best at the Olympics but it was a new life for us when we arrived here”.

A few minutes later, towards the end of Jamie Sinclair’s post-game media scrum she was asked what was next for her. Members of the media were expecting her to talk about going home to rest and prepare for the Players Championship which they ended up winning a week or two later.  However, Sinclair who had been working hard to keep her emotions in check throughout the scrum after such a disappointing loss, sighed deeply and said:

“I’m going to the Patch for a drink” before stopping herself and saying “…can I say that?”.

Yes, Jamie, you can say that and, although I never thought to ask her in interviews we’ve done since the Worlds, I certainly hope she had one or two or three well-deserved drinks in the Patch that day.

Disappointment of the Year:  My disappointment of the year came while preparing my 2018 Scotties preview when I found out that the skip of the team that was to represent Nunavut would not meet her teammates for the first time until they all arrived in Penticton for the Scotties. This was not an emergency replacement, there was only one team that registered for the Scotties playdowns in Nunavut and, as such, no games had to be played.  My point is not to engage in yet another debate on the format for the Scotties/Brier or import rules, I’ll leave that for another day.  My point is, if you are club-level curler and you are so eager to check “participating in the Scotties” off your bucket list that you are willing to “parachute” into Nunavut to do so, then at least parachute into Nunavut, meet your teammates and get some practice in.

Some personal highlights…

  • While watching the 2018 Canadian Junior Women’s final, TSN put up a graphic that Québec skip Laurie St. Georges was studying journalism.  A few weeks later, there was a death in my family right before the start of the Scotties and I needed someone to do my daily recaps for the first two days of the competition.  Out of the blue, I reached out to Laurie and her father/coach and not only did she accept to step in for me, but she did an amazing job! I certainly hope to have her back on FTH at some point.
  • My dad is 81 years old and never really got into curling until the 2014 Olympics when he became a BIG fan of “his girls”, Team Jones. He was so disappointed when I broke the news to him that Jill Officer was stepping away from the sport.  As much as I tried to tell him that the player replacing Jill was good in her own right, I’m not sure he believed me.  During the Canada Cup, after watching Peterman make a takeout the way Jill Officer made them, my Dad turned to me and said “…I feel better now, I’ve seen her make a few of those now, this new girl is not bad” which in my Dad’s vocabulary is a compliment! It took a while but, Jocelyn Peterman, you won my Dad over. 
  • Early this season, I stumbled onto a tweet that included a link to a YouTube show called the “Lazy Handle Show”. I must admit that my first reaction was to sigh and think “…another curling show/podcast…there were only two when I launched From the Hack and now there are over 10 of them”.  However, it took 12-year-old Kristina Frlan about 15 seconds to win me over and, as it turned out, it took about the same amount of time for her to win over most of the curling community.  Only time will tell if Kristina will pursue a career in journalism but it has been a pleasure to watch a young person that is so knowledgeable and so passionate about the sport use the platforms available to her to share that knowledge and that passion.

Happy 2019 everyone!!!

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A Final Look At 2018