By Nolan Thiessen
The Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling started in the 2001-02 curling season under great tension and intrigue as 18 of the best men’s curling teams in the world announced they would be bypassing the Brier playdown process in order to provide the Grand Slam series with the exclusive rights to their curling talents. Not quite LeBron’s “Taking his talents to South Beach” but a statement nonetheless.
I am 34 and have always been interested in the history of the sports I enjoy, so I took it for granted that all of the teams that play in the Grand Slam series knew the story. I was floored when I found out recently that some do not!
I will give some of them a minor hall pass for not knowing, after all some curlers in the slams were barely 10 years old when the series started. Everyone competing in the Grand Slam of Curling loves the opportunity they provide to us as players, however, to know where we are and where we are going we need to know where we came from.
Every sport has a spot in their history where something big happens off of the field of play that ends up positively affecting the future. Marvin Miller helped lead the Major League Baseball Players Association and eliminate the owners reserve clause, Ted Lindsay of the Detroit Red Wings galvanized the NHL players in the 1950s to fight back and Bob Cousy of the Celtics got the NBA players together and threatened a boycott of the 1955 NBA All-Star Game without improvements for the players. Each one of those player movements took some sacrifice and guts in order to make improvements. At the time when the movement first happens there is animosity on both sides but when they come through to the end I feel like both sides ended up saying that it was for the better.
I am not here to pick at old wounds or get everyone riled up again, I think both sides are starting to work together in a more effective manner, but I do think that the story of the Original 18 needs to be told. The Original 18 were skipped by Dave Boehmer, Kerry Burtnyk, Glen Despins, Bert Gretzinger, Doug Harcourt, Glenn Howard, Russ Howard, Bruce Korte, Allan Lyburn, Kevin Martin, Greg McAulay, Chad McMullan, Wayne Middaugh, Rich Moffatt, Kevin Park, Scott Patterson, Vic Peters and Jeff Stoughton.
From talking to the guys who were there when it all happened, I know that a few did not jump at the opportunity right away. At the time there had been only one full medal Olympics so those changes to the game had not fully taken place, and all of the players at the highest levels of the sport had probably grown up wanting to lift the Brier tankard. When they first took the leap they would not have been sure how long this was going to last, they could have thought that they may never play in a Brier again. That is a lot to give up for guys.
There were guys that were scared of what it could mean and whether it was a good idea, but those 18 took the leap of faith to make the game of curling better and I for one thank them for doing that.
Most outsiders looked at the Grand Slam series boycott poster boys as teams like Martin, Middaugh, Stoughton, Howard and Burtnyk. Although there were other teams stepping up to the plate for the cause, there were teams like the Lyburn brothers or Glen Despins who could have easily looked at this as an opportunity to make the Brier and do some damage when they got there. After all, Lyburn could have looked at the landscape and said, “Well the top five teams in Manitoba are gone so we will be the prohibitive favourites if we play in playdowns this year,” but they didn’t think only of themselves. The other factor was teams giving up national team funding from Sport Canada such as McAulay (who had just won the 2000 Brier) or Martin (2002 Olympics). Some teams made big sacrifices. Those are the types of stories that people have forgotten; the strength of all the teams to stick with what they felt needed to be done for the betterment of the game in the long term, not what advantage they may have gained in the short term.
Many look at the money as the sole reason for the movement. I’m not going to patronize you and say that the money generated by major curling events wasn’t the leading factor in the players’ decision; they wanted to ensure that they were provided a fair share of what those events were generating. But other changes happened along the way. Most provinces now award direct entries to their provincial playdowns to the highest ranked team on the World Curling Tour as of December, thereby freeing up two or three weekends for the teams that are successful during the fall schedule. An additional byproduct of this change is that the historical spots for the provincial playdowns are not compromised by these changes and other teams have the chance to make their provincial finals without having the tour-hardened teams in those events to more than likely win the berths.
The series has had its well documented ups and downs however now 13 years in, the series is in its strongest position yet. There is more TV exposure than ever and the addition of a fifth event this year and hopefully sixth, seventh and eighth in the near future. The series has been on the leading edge of trying to find new ways to improve the game; whether it is “thinking time” — which is now the accepted timing rules for all major curling events including the next Olympics — or the four-rock and now five-rock free guard zone rule changes.
As I have said before I think the best thing that the Slams have done for the game is provide teams with the ability to play the highest-level competition, under excellent playing conditions, on a more regular basis. Young teams strive to get into the Slams, then they strive to consistently qualify at the Slams and those improvements show when they get into the highest leverage situations like the Olympic Trials and Olympics. The training ground that is the Grand Slam of Curling series is the best place for any team to learn the ropes and improve their game and the teams know it. Look no further than the amount of international teams trying to qualify for the events, they know that the GSOC is the best place to learn and it improves our game worldwide.
Things are better now between the CCA and the players, everything isn’t perfect but when is it ever? Perfect harmony is too much to ask for but there is a working dialogue, which is key to progression. There are no boycotts as teams play in both playdowns and the Grand Slams, which have significant CTRS points attached to them. This enables the Grand Slam series to have a substantial impact on the teams that gain access to the Olympic Trials and ultimately represent Canada at the Olympics. That’s a good thing as the best play in the Slams and we need to find a way to get the best to represent Canada on the world stage.
So when you turn on Sportsnet next week to watch the National in the Soo, make sure you remember the Original 18 and the stand they made and the steps they took in order to better our sport and create this great curling property where teams can compete, learn and win at the highest level. I know I thank them as without that stand our game wouldn’t be where it is at today.