Canadian champion Brad Gushue says curling in need of 'good kick in butt'

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One day, 2023 could be looked back upon as the year in which things truly started to change for the better in Canadian curling, or at least one in which enough voices began to clamour for new ideas and were heard.

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For all that happened on the ice during the year — Brad Gushue won another Brier and another silver medal at the worlds, Kerri Einarson won a fourth straight Scotties and a bronze at the worlds, and Italy’s Joel Retornaz won three straight Grand Slams and emerged as the globe’s top men’s team — 2023 will surely be more remembered for what has happened off the ice.

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And while there are great positives in the hiring of Scotsman David Murdoch as the High Performance Director for Curling Canada and the appointment of active athlete Laura Walker to the Curling Canada Board of Governors, the overwhelming sentiment from competitive curlers right now is there is so much more work to be done.

“Our sport is in need of a really good kick in the butt,” Gushue said from his home in St. John’s, N.L., this week. “We’re starting to at least change the direction, but I don’t know if we’re heading in the right direction yet.

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“Our game in general, and not just Canada, is in need of a bit of a shake-up and an image change and a marketing campaign to get people excited about it. I think we’ve done a very poor job since I’ve been in curling of marketing the game. We’ve always had this niche, folksy kind of marketing and I think we can put a little bit more excitement into the game by marketing to a younger audience.”

Gushue is never the kind of person to whom you’d say “Tell us how you really feel.”

He’ll always tell us, and he certainly didn’t hold back when asked to reflect on the last calendar year in curling.

“We need to change how we think, we need to change how we present the sport,” he said.  “We’re a long way from that but hopefully more players speak up, more stakeholders speak up, and speak loudly about some of the changes that we need.”

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Gushue did just that when he spoke passionately about the conditions for curlers at the Pan-Continental Curling Championships in Kelowna in late October and early November.

He ripped the World Curling Federation for its “incompetence” in staging the event in a curling club, where curlers were left in cramped and cold conditions not befitting some of the top competitors in the world.

He called it an “embarrassment” and “a joke” in the media and stressed that the WCF needs to do a better job with its new event, which is a regional qualifier for the world championship and is something Canada did not even need to participate in until 2022.

A month later, a group of curlers made their voices heard by forcing change to the tiebreaker system at the Grand Slam events, another positive for athletes who simply feel underrepresented at the planning levels of the game.

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“We are going to need a better voice,” said Marc Kennedy, a two-time Olympian and current third for Alberta’s Brendan Bottcher. “The athletes have a lot to say and we should have a lot of input in the decisions. It’s been a challenge and hopefully we can find a way to streamline that so we can have a little more impact on where our sport is going.”

If Murdoch can implement some of the systems that worked in producing Olympic medallists in Scotland and help Canadian curlers change the way they approach their preparation and if the players find a bigger voice and begin to make a difference that way, it will make 2023 a memorable year.

The only problem is, it will take time to see how those things pan out.

The World Curling Players Association was formed in 2023, with several Canadians in key roles, but it has had difficulties getting off the ground and hasn’t yet had the desired impact.

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Meanwhile, Canada still didn’t win gold, internationally, at the men’s, women’s, mixed doubles or junior levels in 2023 and until there is a return to the top of the podium in those events, the jury will be out on how things are developing overall.

“I think it’s starting to move in the right direction,” Kennedy said. “I think we’re all beginning to understand that medals aren’t a guarantee and we are going to have to do things differently in order to get into medal contention all the time.

“We have a few teams on the men’s and women’s sides that really understand that and are trying to push the envelope, be it technically, mentally, strategically or in terms of the hours they have to put in. You’re going to have a lot of the other teams that are either going to have to follow that model or learn really quickly that they aren’t going to be able to compete.”

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As 2023 comes to a close, the top teams in the world are not from Canada — Switzerland’s Silvana Tirinzoni and Italy’s Joel Retornaz occupy those spots — though there have been very promising fall seasons from Bottcher’s team on the men’s side and Rachel Homan on the women’s.

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Along with the likes of Gushue, Kevin Koe, Einarson and Jennifer Jones, Canada certainly has plenty of teams that could contend for world titles in 2024 and for Olympic gold in 2026.

The question is, are Curling Canada and the curlers themselves doing enough to make it happen?

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“The biggest challenge we have is that we have a very big country and a lot of land to cover for a guy like David Murdoch to get his ideas and principles spread out across the country,” Kennedy said. “It’s a slow work in progress but we’ve started to make steps in right direction and hopefully it can resonate across this big country.”

Gushue, for one, believes speaking out has already made a difference.

His rant against the World Curling Federation did not go unheard.

“I know it has made a difference,” Gushue said. “I don’t say this really easily, but to the World Curling Federation’s credit, I did have a couple board members reach out to me after that to get clarification on things that could change and what was done wrong and what can be done better. It’s my understanding, at least from conversations with some of the European players, that those changes were implemented quickly at the Europeans and there are some plans to make changes to the world championships, European championships and Pan-Continentals going forward. It did have some impact.

“Will it have the significant impact that I hoped for? I don’t know. But maybe, long term.”

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