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(published in Sweep Magazine - January 2007)

National team selection breaks with tradition

In a controversial break from Canadian curling tradition, the CCA has committed to an “all-star” selection format for wheelchair curling’s Team Canada, at least through the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver, BC.

The team representing Canada at the Worlds in Sweden (Feb/07) will be chosen by coach Joe Rea, team leader Wendy Morgan and the performance evaluation team. They will not have had to win their way to a maple leaf jacket. 

“The funders want it this way,” suggested Gerry Peckham, the CCA’s high performance coach and staff lead, in a letter to skeptical member associations, though he later admitted that it was not mandated as a condition of funding.

“Much of the CCA’s over $200,000 annual budget for wheelchair curling comes from funders like Own The Podium, and the Canadian Paralympics Committee,” he explained, “and their focus is winning medals. We want a program that maximizes their interest, so we have not only funding for the national team, but also for developing the sport at the local level.”

Jan Meyer, senior program officer and Sport Canada consultant responsible for curling, quoted a figure of $119,000 aimed at high performance programs. “Sport Canada does not stipulate how programs are run,” she said. “We do, however, recognise that with the Paralympics in Vancouver in 2010 the funding focus is on repeating the Torino success. Hopefully that will inspire a grassroots program. If the CCA felt that all-star selection was detrimental to the development of the sport, we would not insist on it. It’s their decision.”

The all-star model of national team selection was described by Wendy Morgan in a hastily distributed October email to prairie provincial representatives after word got out that the process was already underway. It detailed a series of provincial training camps to identify recruits for an 8-12 person National Team athlete pool.

“This is not an open try out process, rather by invitation, based on (your) recommendation and is not regionally or provincially balanced or based. We are looking to build a team that will include the best all round athletes for 2010,” Morgan wrote.

Five invitees from the list of nine names submitted attended the Ontario camp, and four invitees have attended BC camps.  Alberta’s Ernie Comerford, determined that his Calgary program would not be overlooked, is taking 14 people to the Edmonton camp. “They told me that they were only expecting five people,” said Ernie with a smile.

“Team Canada will play in April’s Nationals because they need the ice time,” said Peckham, “but they will not compete in the playoffs regardless of their record.”  That came as a surprise to coach Tom Ward, whose Ontario team went 5-0 through last year’s round robin. “I suppose it sidesteps potential controversy were they not to repeat as champions,” he said.

“What will be playing for then?” asked Team BC’s Brian MacDonald, a Paralympics sailor who feels frustrated by the lack of open communication and honest competition in the sport. “How can you hope to grow when the only athletes with any input are those already receiving elite training and funding?”

Quadriplegic Ontario skip Chris Rees wonders whether his level of disability will affect his chance at a maple leaf. “If my team was the Nationals winner and became Team Canada, this wouldn’t be an issue,” he said.

“The situation right now is a pyramid, where everything flows from the top down,” said Ontario coach Tom Ward. “We need to invert the pyramid, and establish a grassroots program from which elite athletes can emerge.”

Ontario has agreed to go along with the Team Canada concept through 2010, but sponsors playdowns, as do Alberta and Manitoba for their provincial team.

BC, without a program director or coach as of the end of November, refuses to hold playdowns, a policy endorsed by former Executive Director Linda Moore. Her successor, Ian Hennigar, an import from the world of speed skating, has declined to recommend a change until, as he explained to the chair of wheelchair curling committee “the numbers and the quality of the curlers improve.” The selection camp will be held in February though is it not clear on what basis athletes will be invited.

Since its introduction four years ago curling has struggled to engage the attention of wheelchair users and has attracted no cross-over interest from other Paralympians, to the chagrin of Gerry Peckham. “We’ve tried without success,” he admitted.

Manitoba skip Chris Sobcowicz doubts that siphoning off the top dozen curlers will help the sport grow. “We need a vibrant grassroots program before we obsess about medals,” he said, a view that Alberta coach Comerford wholeheartedly endorses.

“My strongest points are on the importance of grassroots development versus other lofty goals.  Latter cannot even exist without the grassroots expansion. To me this takes priority over all else,” he wrote in a recent email.

The all-star system may also have the perverse effect of discouraging recruitment by present curlers. “That would be very discouraging,” said Sport Canada’s Jan Meyer. “If you think that’s true, start a dialogue with the CCA. They do care about developing the sport.”

Jan, the conversation is just beginning.

by Eric Eales - Kelowna, November 2006

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