Chelsea Carey didn’t realize she never had a left-handed teammate before until Dana Ferguson joined her Calgary club at second this season.
That shouldn’t be too surprising given that only 10 percent of the world’s population is left-handed and southpaws are just as rare in curling, especially at the elite level.
Among the 96 players who competed in the Players’ Championship, only five — Valentin Tanner (Team De Cruz), Oskar Eriksson (Team Edin), Bradley Thiessen (Team Bottcher), Val Sweeting (Team Einarson) and Ferguson (Team Carey) — are lefties.
It’s not so much Ferguson is left-handed but the fact she slides from the other hack that made it tricky for Carey to visualize her rock paths and they struggled to establish chemistry early in the year.
“I had always played with another lefty or I was skipping before, so it really didn’t matter,” said Ferguson, who previously played with Sweeting. “You can just throw it. Here my rocks weren’t doing what everyone else’s rocks were doing early and it was really hard.”
Carey added: “It was honestly, really different for me. We had to spend some time figuring that out.”
Team Carey turned to Marc Kennedy, who pretty much re-wrote the book for left-handed curlers during his time with legendary skip Kevin Martin and the 37-year-old from St. Albert, Alta., has become a guru of sorts for other lefties.
Kennedy, who took a step back from the competitive scene this season, didn’t even think curling left-handed was that big of a deal when he was growing up. It wasn’t until he moved up into the higher levels and became more aware of rock paths when he came to the conclusion he had to adjust his game to fit in with his right-handed teammates.
“That’s when you realize and what I’ve told other left-handed curlers is that you’re kind of living in a right-handed world,” he said.
Little did he know he was on the path to reshaping the way left-handed curlers played the game.
“There’s nothing worse than being a lefty and your rock is travelling a completely different path than everyone else on the sheet,” said Kennedy, who plans to return to competitive curling next season with Team Brad Jacobs. “It opens you up to different ice conditions, different speeds, different lines and as a result, your performance suffers.
“When I talk to lefties, it’s about what can we do to be a little bit more like the right-handed people on your team. I usually find it’s the left-handed curlers that have to make the adjustments to fit in the right-handed world.”
Sweeting, from Edmonton, has also counted on Kennedy to help her out now that she’s throwing third stones for Manitoba skip Kerri Einarson and is seeing the game more from the other end of the sheet.
“I’ve had Dana to go off of or Rachel (Brown) and I played together for so long that I’d do what mine would do based off of her’s,” Sweeting said. “It’s kind of different in that sense. It’s new and I’m out of province so that makes it a little bit more difficult to practice together to get used to that. I think technical is something teams will always want to work on and we’ll have to keep doing that.
“I feel like we’re getting a lot closer in that regard but ultimately I just try and be consistent and I think that helps getting the broom in the right spot and just accepting that it is different. I can’t be right-handed, it is what it is, just keeping that open communication about what that felt like or what that looked like and just figuring it out whatever that may be.”
Kennedy explained why it wasn’t an issue in the past as famous lefties like Scott Pfeifer and Richard Hart lifted their rocks off the ice rather than pull them back to the hack or their toe.
“When you think about that, their rocks are coming from the centre line, so they as well kind of had that line of delivery that a right-handed curler could have as opposed to a lot of lefties that bring the rock to the hack or to their toe, they’re starting on a way different angle than most right-handed curlers,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those two were able to succeed because of where they brought their rock.”
Kennedy and Martin spent countless hours together sliding through rocks in practice during their eight-year tenure from 2006-14 in order to bring their rock paths more in line. Considering they won Olympic gold, a world championship, two Briers and nine Grand Slam titles together, the success speaks for itself.
“If our starting position was closer together, we found that our lines would match a little bit better as far as rocks went down the sheet,” Kennedy said. “It was something we focused on quite a bit because Kevin wanted to be able to read the ice based on my rocks. We got to practice every day together for eight years. He wanted to be able to put the broom in the same spot for me as he did for himself.
“We worked on that together and by the end of it, our rocks travelled pretty much exactly down the same path. I would say my rocks would travel more like a right-handed player than they do your typical lefty.”
Carey and Ferguson have also been able to make the gap between them smaller thanks to Kennedy’s help and it has made a huge difference in their performance.
“We’d try drills where we’re using a laser, going through cones and things and she gets through the cones but it totally changes where her rock starts because she’s coming from the other hack,” Carey said. “She’s changed where her rock position is to get closer to us and long-term we’ll move a little bit closer to her, too.
“It was a really big change for her and she’s been so great. She just took it all in stride, like, ‘Yup, we’ll figure it out. I’ll get it done.’ She worked with Marc and did it. It’s made my life a lot easier and it’s a big key for us. I struggled at the beginning of the season and with this change, it’s just a night and day difference for me.”
Ferguson added: “He kind of moved my rock over and made me throw more like a righty and it instantly had success. I started making shots, Chelsea could see the line so easily and it’s really helped us.”
Kennedy said it definitely takes time to make incremental adjustments as a right-handed skip could be starting out looking at the edge of the 12-foot circle through cones while their lefty teammate at the other end of the ice is seeing the edge of the four-foot circle. It also needs to be a full-team commitment so the left-handed curler isn’t feeling like they’re the only problem.
“It’s something that needs to be discussed how are we’re going to deal with this left-handed issue as a team so everybody is on the same page and that left-handed person doesn’t feel like they’re on an island by themselves,” he said. “That’s what we focus on and I’m lucky that I’ve had that experience myself so I can really relate to the left-handed people myself. The first thing I usually start with when I talk to them is hey you’re probably the one that’s going to have to make the adjustment here to make everybody comfortable.”
That’s precisely why Sweeting, who just won the Players’ Championship with Team Einarson, has counted on Kennedy to work on her game.
“He knows exactly what I’m going through or what we’re going through,” Sweeting said. “Marc is definitely an exception. He really learned to throw like a right-handed person with Kevin. … Marc is just a really good resource and it’s nice to have him out if he can make it to my practices. It’s just nice to have another set of eyes and his feedback. He’s just so knowledgeable and it’s nice to have someone like that in your corner.”
Carey, who captured the Scotties Tournament of Hearts this season, believes it would have been way harder for her to figure it out without a resource like Kennedy around.
“The changes that he made when he played with Kevin were, as far as I know, really the first time anyone has done that and gone, OK, I’m left-handed but I’ve got to throw like a right-handed person,” Carey said. “They put a lot of time in figuring that out and we just picked their brains instead of trying to reinvent the wheel. I think that was a huge help to us with Marc’s involvement.”
Kennedy is happy to assist those like Ferguson and Sweeting and encourages young lefty curlers to seek them out to ask for advice given that they’ve gone through the struggles and have found success.
“I’ve had sleepless nights thinking about how to make this left-handed/right-handed thing work together and how Kevin and I were going to do it,” Kennedy said. “I like to be able to use some of that experience and some of the troubles that I’ve had to help some of these curlers maybe fast-track that process.”
“Lefty in-turns and right-handed out-turns react differently, so the closer you can get them together, the better you can perform as an entire team unit,” he added. “It’s either that or switch to your right hand and that’s not going to happen.”
Well, either that or we’ll start seeing ambidextrous curlers, which might actually be the next evolution of curling.
“We had a curler out here who used to do that for a few years. He threw the rock with both hands and didn’t use a broom,” Kennedy said with a laugh. “I don’t even know if that’s allowed.”