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(published in SWEEP! Magazine - March 2009)

It's Championship time

I am writing this just before I leave for Vancouver to report on the 2009 World Championship. It's an event Canada have never won, and have not reached the podium since taking bronze in 2004. Last week Canada coach Joe Rea described the team goal as reaching the playoffs. USA team leader Marc DePerno said his team wants gold. Hopefully my blog prediction of gold for Canada came true.

Regardless of the result, Canada’s Paralympic team will follow the Olympic team process of late selection. There are advantages to a settled side with months to prepare, but choosing the players in form from a squad ready and sharp in the event of illness or injury seems sensible to me. Though skips must know how their team mates throw, wheelchair curlers have far less physical interaction than regular curlers, so practicing as a unit is perhaps less critical.

At the Worlds I’ll be discovering how far curling extends beyond each national team. Jim Armstrong told the Vancouver Courier that typically a sport establishes itself at the grassroots before it holds national or Olympic/Paralympic events. Not wheelchair curling. "They've already got all the perks like the world championships, the Canadian championship and appropriate funding," he observed. "Now it just needs more players."

Increasing the player pool is vital if the sport is to move beyond boutique interest. In Canada we are fortunate to have funding committed to grassroots development through TSX sponsorship of the CCA’s Discover Curling initiative, though recruitment remains a challenge.

This year's Canadian Nationals will see almost a full slate of provincial teams, although not without some controversy. Ontario decided to allow only one team per region at their provincials, while two are allowed in other curling categories. Rather than permit teams from any region up to the maximum eight before scheduling regional playdowns, the Ontario Curling Association insisted that the two Ottawa teams play for the right to represent Region One. Reducing the field from five teams to four sent a discouraging message to those in Ottawa who have worked hard to expand participation beyond just one competitive team. Disincentives to existing athletes to grow the sport are unfortunate and not what is needed at this point in wheelchair curling’s development.

Another issue that deserves attention is the inexplicable and unexplained ban on the use of electric wheelchairs in World Curling Federation competition. "We do not allow electric chairs at any WCF events." said vice president Kate Caithness in a recent email. A follow up email asking for a reference to the relevant rule or an explanation of the rationale for the prohibition drew no response.

WCF rule 10a states "No player shall cause damage to the ice surface by means of equipment, hand prints, or body prints." But according to the CCA's Gerry Peckham there is no evidence in Canada that electric wheelchairs cause damage to the ice surface. Dave Merklinger, who makes ice at Canadian national events and who manages the Vernon CC that hosted this year's BC provincial championship, also saw no need for the prohibition. "There were several electric chairs competing here over three days and I saw no ice damage," he said.

BC, Alberta, and Manitoba will be sending the same teams as last year to the Nationals in Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia, March 23-28. Jim Armstrong's BC team are defending champions and include two quadriplegics who use electric wheelchairs. Calgary's Jack Smart beat out another Calgary team and two teams from Edmonton for his chance at a national title. Last year’s skip, Team Canada squad member Bruno Yizek, moves to third. Current Team Canada lead Chris Sobkowicz moves back to skip for his Manitoba team, and is quietly confident of improving on their 2008 bronze.

Saskatchewan held a try-out camp, choosing a provincial team from the nine who turned up to represent the Callie CC. In Northern Ontario, Wayne Ficek's Kenora team surprised his Thunder Bay competition by earning a trip to Nova Scotia via a 3-way playoff. Al Whitier of the Lennoxville CC in Quebec has worked hard to prepare his small squad for a first national appearance. Chris Daw has been invited to skip a Newfoundland and Labrador selected team, and hosts Nova Scotia have held their selection camp and the players are awaiting notification.

I expect to be online with live interactive blogging throughout the competition. Look for details on the www.wheelchaircurling.com website closer to the event.

Coaching tip

One of the questions I am most frequently asked by wheelchair curlers is how, without the traditional national title route to a maple leaf jacket, players can make themselves known to the national coaches. One of the ways is to practice the Team Canada drills available at www.wheelchaircurling.com. They cover draws and hits, and timing where you are scored on your ability to throw a consistent 13 second draw weight and a 10 second take-out weight. The coaches are looking for consistently better than 70% accuracy, and if you can achieve that, then you have program director Gerry Peckham's word that Team Canada is not a closed shop.

Eric Eales - Kelowna, February 2009



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