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(published in SWEEP! d-Mag - November 2009)

Canada prepares for 2010

Coverage of wheelchair curling in Canada last season was dominated by the inclusion, declared ineligibility. and subsequent re-instatement of ex-Brier stalwart Jim Armstrong into the Team Canada training squad. There was never any real doubt that were he cleared to play in WCF sanctioned events, he would skip the team, and last February Canada won their first World Championship in the inaugural event at the arena that will host the Olympics and Paralympics in Vancouver next March.

Canada were off to a shaky start at the Worlds, losing early to Italy, China and the USA and also to nemesis Norway in the final round robin draw. They then regrouped to power past USA (4th), Germany (bronze) and Sweden (silver) in the page play-offs. You can read full accounts of the Worlds at http://fwd4.me/1G2 and follow rock by rock accounts of each of Canada's games in the February archives at wheelchaircurlingblog.blogspot.com.

Connoisseurs of how cruel curling can be should watch the video of the final two stones of the bronze medal game between USA and Germany at http://fwd4.me/1G5

The other big story of last season was how dedicated individuals in Lennoxville QE, and Kenora and Thunder Bay ON and Regina SK and across the country were instrumental in getting provincial programs to the point where the 2009 National Championships in Halifax NS fielded nine provincial teams, up from seven in 2008 and four in 2007. BC won for the third successive year, with Jim Armstrong skipping his second championship team. You can recap the championship as well as live bogging coverage of selected games in the March blog archive.

This season began with an eight person Team Canada training squad, With the coaching staff committed to two females, BC’s Jackie Roy was added as cover for Ina or Sonja. British Columbia continued to dominate the final team as Manitoba’s Chris Sobkowicz and BC’s Gerry Austgarden were cut. Skip Armstrong, 3rd Darryl Neighbour, 2nd Ina Forrest and lead Sonja Gaudet are all from BC, as is coach Joe Rea, Alberta's Bruno Yizek will be the alternate.

Sonja is the only holdover from the Torino Paralympic gold medal team. Chris Daw left the squad and is now manager of the Vancouver Curling Club that will take over the Olympic facility in 2011. Karen Blatchford retired, and Gary Cormack failed to make the cut last season.

Most coaches at the Worlds agreed that Jim Armstrong's 50 years of curling experience was instrumental in Canada's success. Canada were occasionally outplayed, most comprehensively by China, but rarely out skipped. Over the twelve games there was never an occasion where there was no path into the house for Canada's last rock. But before too many pre--hatched chickens are counted, it is also true that Canada without Armstrong's skipping ability loses much of their advantage.

What could go wrong? Well, Jim discovered that pushing a body his weight in a wheelchair stresses the shoulders worn down by years of sweeping. He experienced such severe pain on his non-throwing arm that he underwent rotator cuff surgery in August (http://fwd4.me/1GD). A serious car crash and a family bereavement has meant that he had barely visited the ice before leaving with the team for Norway and Scotland. Against speculation that he would ease back onto the ice, he played all eleven games on the tour, with Canada (4-2) taking second place in Norway, and then winning the 2nd Annual Kinross International with a 4-1 record.

Halden Curling Club, the hosts for the Norwegian Open had their facility closed by fire marshals just before the event was to start, and though Dordie Nordby can to the rescue by offering the teams ice, it meant a two hour each way bus ride from the hotel to Oslo.

"Very frustrating for everyone," was Armstrong's response. "And we had a dubious time keeping call in each of our two losses." Both his and Canada's luck seemed to have returned in Scotland where they drew the short pool, and advanced to the play-off with a 2-1 record where Great Britain, 2-2 and runaway winners in Norway, did not.

There were pre-season coaching changes on two teams expected to be podium challengers in Vancouver. Thoralf Hognestad, who led Norway to back-to-back World Championships after Torino had to give up the job because of work commitments. His place was taken by Per Christensen, previously coach of his Danish national side. While most of the national teams have already selected their players for 2010, Norway will not announce its team until January.

The other coaching change sees the return of the highly experienced former Swedish World Champion Tomas Nordin, who takes over the 2009 Worlds silver medalists, Skip Jalle Jungnell, is one of the most experienced wheelchair curlers in Europe, and the addition of a world class player as coach will make Sweden even more dangerous in 2010.

The Paralympics is attracting international teams to Canada for domestic competitions. Scotland and USA will be competing at the Cathy Kerr Memorial Bonspiel in Ottawa November 27-29. Regrettably the Czech Open is at the same time and Canada have decided to play in Prague that weekend. Japan will play an exhibition match against Canada November 23rd at the Vancouver Curling Club, and Korea and Canada are two of the teams that will be competing at the Richmond BC Invitational November 3-7.

Eric Eales - Kelowna, November 2009



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