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Glenn Howard: 5-rock rule ‘natural progression’ for curling

If you’ve ever watched curling with someone who is new to the sport, chances are you’ve heard this question before: Why doesn’t the team with the hammer just keep knocking out all of their opponents’ rocks?

Well, that’s exactly how things were back in the day until a practice exercise that was created out of pure boredom revolutionized the game. Funny how that happens.

Russ Howard set the wheels in motion with the “Moncton rule,” which was modified into the four-rock free guard zone. Now we’ve entered a new era with the five-rock rule, which has been implemented by the World Curling Federation across the board for all tournaments beginning this season.

It all started back in the mid-1980s. Brothers Russ and Glenn Howard used to face off one-on-one during practice and Russ became frustrated with the predictable play between them. Once one of them was in the lead, they would just bang away the other’s rocks and win. That’s when Russ came up with a new rule to make things interesting: the first four rocks (two from each side) could not be removed from play.

“Russ was always that kind of out-of-the-box thinker,” said Glenn Howard, who is a four-time world champion. “He’s always looking for different ways to make the game better and make our sport better.

“That just sort of came out of nowhere; it was out of boredom. It was literally out of boredom and frustration where if one guy would get up they would peel out. It got mundane, he realized we needed to make a change and it just sort of popped into his head. We started to do it in practice, had a ball and we were better curlers as a result of it because now we had to play a finesse sport, we had to move rocks around and you couldn’t remove them from play.”

The next step came in 1989 when the late Doug Maxwell approached the Howard brothers about doing something special for the Moncton 100 Cashspiel at the start of the following year and if they had any ideas (not knowing they already had an ace up their sleeves).

“I was literally elbowing Russ saying, ‘Tell him,’ so Russ told him the story about what we did and Doug loved the idea,” Glenn Howard recalled. “He talked to his committee and lo and behold we ended up playing that rule. You couldn’t remove the first four rocks and that was anywhere — in the rings or wherever — and then it sort of, as it turns out, morphed after that. …

“Of all the rule changes and all the things that have happened in curling, I think it’s the best move that we’ve ever made in the history of curling. It revolutionized our sport and the truth of the matter, it was my brother’s idea. Russ came up with the idea, we played it back as kids. If we didn’t change that rule back then, I don’t know where our sport would be today.”

Russ’ rule was altered so that stones sitting outside the house from the tee line up to the nearest hog line (the free guard zone) could not be eliminated until four rocks had been played. If a team violated this rule, their rock would be removed from play and the hit stone would return to its position. Four-rock play became the World Curling Federation’s standard although Canada adopted only a three-rock rule in 1993-94 until making the switch to four-rock in 2002.

The four-rock rule had a generational run but as ice conditions improved and the players themselves became better over the years, it appeared to need an additional tweak to keep up with the direction the game was heading. Players can now make such precise shots to tick aside guards, keeping them in play but rendering them useless.

The Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling, with competition director Pierre Charette leading the charge, was the first major curling organization to experiment with the five-rock rule, which not only adds an extra guard but also gives more control to the team with the hammer as they hold the power to decide whether to remove guards or leave them be. This leads to more aggressive play and gives a team behind on the scoreboard a greater opportunity to generate offence and get back into the game.

“You give up a three or four in the first end, you still have a chance to come back,” Glenn Howard said. “You still have to make a ton of shots, if the other team still plays very well they’re going to win, but you have an opportunity now as opposed to [before] you don’t have a chance to throw that extra corner guard and the other team can run you out of rocks sort of thing. I think it’s a natural progression and I’m really, really happy about it.

Case in point: Matt Dunstone’s game against Rich Ruohonen during the semifinals of the Oakville Fall Classic earlier this month. Dunstone scored four points in the second end before Ruohonen erased the deficit and pulled ahead with a count of three in the third followed by back-to-back single steals. Dunstone charged back with another score of four in the sixth to reclaim the lead and still had to fend off Ruohonen in the seventh and prevent another rally with a crowded house until a steal sealed the deal.

“We were up three playing the seventh end and you had 15 rocks in play,” Dunstone said. “I think it’s exactly what the five-rock rule is trying to do. It’s exciting for us to play and being on the other side of that I know being three down and you’re right in it. With four-rock rule, being three down and playing seven you’re almost shaking hands because there’s no chance.”

The five-rock rule was given a test run at the Canadian Open in December 2011. Mike McEwen wrote in a blog for that he had his doubts at first but was won over in the end (it probably helped his team went undefeated to win the championship, of course).

The National in March 2014 saw the return of the five-rock rule (with Glenn Howard emerging victorious) and the rule was once again implemented for the men’s division of the season-ending Players’ Championship. The Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling held a players’ summit that summer receiving input from the players themselves on the progression of the series. It was unanimous: five rock was the way they wanted to go and it’s been the rule in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling ever since.

Glenn Howard, who is one of the original 18 skips of the series, gives a ton of credit to the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling for its trailblazing efforts with not only the five-rock rule but other aspects as well.

“I’ve been a big part of that since its inception and I think some of the rule changes we’ve made — and I use the word ‘we’ because I think I’ve been a part of it — but all of these changes have been way better for the sport,” he said. “Again, the fact that we used the five-rock rule before everyone else has created the buzz about the rule and I think it’s forced the powers-that-be to change the rule earlier. Had we not, I don’t think we’d be adopting it in 2018. I really don’t, so kudos again to the Grand Slam series.

“We’ve had some amazing rule changes now, the thinking time and … we’re sort of like the guinea pigs but as players, we love it because if it works, great, it gets better. But if it doesn’t? We trash it but you’ve got to try it. That’s what we did with the five-rock and everybody loves it.”

World Curling Tour operations manager Gerry Geurts has seen the way Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling teams have handled the rule and is looking forward to the progression now that those teams can focus solely on playing that style in all events on the calendar.

“We’re definitely seeing a lot more rocks in play, players are working on figuring it out,” Geurts said. “There are certainly some new strategies being put into play, which is really interesting to see. You’re seeing a lot more guards up front and just the way teams have to pick and choose their level of aggression is interesting. I saw teams throwing centre guards up two and that’s something they’re not used to or comfortable with for the most part.

“It’ll be really interesting to see how that evolves and with the Grand Slams having played five-rock rule for about four years now we’ve seen some of this stuff go on but the one challenge there was teams were still balancing between four-rock and five-rock strategy. Nobody had fully sold out with playing five-rock yet because of the worlds, the Olympics and everything else was still under four-rock.”

“We’re lucky we’ve had some experience with it in the Slams,” added Team Einarson third Val Sweeting, who has won three Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling titles in the five-rock era. “That’s an advantage. We enjoy playing in it. It keeps lots of rocks in play and it’s been exciting so far.”

Not every Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling player is going to have an advantage with several switching teams (and positions) during the off-season heading into a new Olympic cycle. For someone like Kirk Muyres, who is just starting out as a skip after moving up from his previous roles at third and second, this is probably the ideal time to make that jump while everyone else is still trying to wrap their brains around it.

“We played a lot of five-rock in Slams over the last four or five years so for us we know how to do it, we know what we need to do but for me, it’s just seeing the game differently from behind versus in front of the house,” Muyres said. “Even the guys who have been skipping for a few years, everyone is in the same boat as me as far as the learning curve. It’s a nice time to get out and become a skip.”

It’s going to be growing pains for Dunstone too as he’s switched from vice skip duties with Team Laycock to calling the game for his all-new squad.

“People can only learn so much from talking about how they want to do things because you see things in a game that you wouldn’t talk about in a classroom and whatnot,” Dunstone said. “I think we do definitely have a step up just from having that experience playing with the five-rock as much as we have compared to most [teams] but even for me, I’ve never been in the house before and called a five-rock game so this is new for me and I’m still trying to figure out ways we can bring the best out of ourselves. It’s a little bit of a learning curve for me but luckily enough for us, we have a little bit of an edge, we feel.”

Glenn Howard doesn’t expect it’ll take long for other teams to catch up though.

“The key is deciding when to use it and when not to use it,” he said. “Do you use it when you’re one down with the hammer, do you throw an extra corner guard? Some guys do, some guys don’t. If you’re down two or three points you sort of have to force the issue but the other team could get aggressive, throw centre guards and steal more. It’s a decision as to when to go and that’s going to be the unknown is to know when to use it or not use it but teams are going to figure it out really quickly. The advantage is going to be waning every week as far as I’m concerned.”

It’s not the perfect solution for all of the woes in curling. Teams are aiming to hold the hammer in even ends and should the first stone of the game land in the house, you’ll still end up seeing back-and-forth hits leading to a boring blank end. It may also get to the point where a six-rock or seven-rock rule becomes necessary. For now, the five-rock rule is here to stay.

“There may be a day we continue to evolve and tweak the rules to make the game better but I think the five-rock rule is going to last for a while,” Geurts said. “When you look at the four-rock rule, it was implemented in 2002 so that’s 16 years of a run. That’s a pretty good cycle for a rule to maintain the balance and everything. You never know where it goes because these players keep getting better and making more shots.

“We like to call this chess on ice, it’s getting closer and closer to actual chess because the moves are almost automatic now in a lot of cases.”