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(published in SWEEP! Magazine - February 2009)

Changing of the guard as Team Canada face tough challenge at Worlds

Sonja Gaudet, picked as alternate, was the sole survivor from Canada’s 2006 gold medal Paralympic team when Team Canada 2009 was finally announced a week before Christmas. To no one’s surprise Jim Armstrong will skip, with Darryl Neighbour at 3rd and Ina Forrest and Chris Sobkowicz at the front end. Chris, from Winnipeg MB, is the first non-BC athlete to make the team since the departure of Chris Daw.

Although Gerry Austgarden, Gary Cormack and Bruno Yizek did not make this season’s team, they will remain on the practice squad which may be expanded next season by a player or two. The standard of provincial curling continues to improve, and more players are commanding the attention of the national coaches.

While Canada hopes to do well at the 2009 Worlds, the goal remains 2010 and the coaches are not following the lead of many national teams such as Scotland and the USA, by committing to a settled team for the next year.

“There was so little to choose between the eight squad members,” said program director Gerry Peckham, “Every member of the squad will start with a clean slate after the Worlds, with a chance to make the 2010 Paralympic team.”

Team Canada had wins in Scotland and Ottawa in 2008 but Armstrong was beaten by Alberta in the final of December’s Richmond International Cashspiel, provoking new calls for the Canadian Nationals to decide who wears the maple leaf.

2009 Worlds
Last year Korea’s full-time curlers threw ten points better than accepted benchmarks for excellence, raising the question whether part-time athletes will be able to compete at the highest level. Lack of experience under pressure possibly cost Korea the 2008 final against defending champions Norway, not one of the better statistical teams, but that will make them more formidable this year. Newcomers China, looking to emulate Korea’s high level of technical ability, took the Worlds Qualifying tournament by storm, and will also be a threat in Vancouver.

Canada hopes their experience at skip will be decisive if the team’s throwing can support Armstrong’s tactical understanding and ice reading. Jim playing and training with Darryl several times a week should mean a solid back end that makes Canada a favourite to make the podium, something they have failed to do since Torino 2006.

Scotland, who brought two teams on a North American tour in December, have struggled recently, with observers wondering why they are choosing to throw from behind the near T-line rather than the near hogline. Canny or calamity? Time will tell.

Norway remain confident in their ability to win when they need to, and with back to back golds, must be considered Canada’s strongest challenger along with Korea. This year’s Worlds (February 21st -28th) will inaugurate the new Olympic and Paralympic curling facility in Vancouver.

Across Canada
Five provinces, BC, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Northern Ontario are holding playdowns for the Canadian Nationals. Saskatchewan, Newfoundland/Labrador, Nova Scotia, and Quebec, will also compete in the tournament’s largest ever field. While Team Canada, probably to avoid contention over team status, chose not to compete, individual national squad members will be allowed to play for their provinces but with no more than two on any one team. That will make for an interesting BC playdown with six national squad members competing and the four men each playing on a different team.

Development is paying dividends in several new provinces. Northern Ontario, guided by Dave Kawahara, now warrants a playdown. Saskatchewan will field its first team this year. Quebec has a program started by Lennoxville CC’s Al Whitier in Sherbrooke, and Chris Daw will be back skipping a team out of St. John’s representing Newfoundland/Labrador.

Coaching tips
Two tips this month. First, the skip should decide where the rock is placed for delivery, especially now that the rules allow the stone to be moved anywhere within 18 inches either side of the centre line. Rock placement will make a difference to where he puts the broom, so place the rock then move your chair to the rock, and not the other way round!

The second tip is something I have been advocating for years: if you want to win at wheelchair curling, get your front end stones into the rings. Let your opponents try to remove them if they choose. At least half of the time they’ll fail, and if they’ve thrown take-out weight, will probably not be in the rings themselves even if they succeed.

Tactical thinking has changed over the years. When Scotland were so successful, Angie Malone was putting her lead stones into the 4 foot and watching her opponents come up short of the rings. It’s doubtful that would work today at lead, but stones to the wings are a challenge. And how would I counter them? Tap them back softly, staying in front and in the rings yourself. Good luck!

Eric Eales - Kelowna, January 2009

 

 

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