Saturday, February 28, 2009

O Canada - Champions of the World

Canada crushed Sweden 9-2 in the gold medal game this afternoon, topping the podium for the first time in a World Championship. The win was every bit as definitive as the score suggests, with Sweden falling behind on a steal of two in the 1st and never recovering.

I had been most impressed by Sweden of all the teams that played this week aside from Canada, and felt they were unlucky to lose 6-3 to Canada in the round robin game. Some scraped guards and draws that went just a touch too long, suggested that in a replay Sweden would present a significant challenge.

But Canada were in unbeatable form, putting lead stones into the house and waiting patiently for rhe inevitable missed takeout. "Two words: patience and process," coach Joe Rea had said at the start of a very long day. And Canada were patient, keeping to a game plan that challenged opponents to hit, and then drawing accurately into the house as soon as there was a miss.

Though skip Armstrong did not have his best day, missing a couple of hits that brought his percentages down to just over 50%, that was still twice as good as his opposing skip, Jalle Jungnell. Armstrong's team came through time and again, with the front end shooting over 80% and Darryl Neighbour a more than respectable 64%.

The team benefited from never being asked to make shots beyond the precision available without sweepers, and that has been the story of the week when Canada has played well. They were always taking high percentage shots.

Coach Joe Rea said before the game: "We've worked all year to get here and we're going to enjoy the experience. But Jim likes to win and he'll enjoy it more if we win. Same game plan; keep it clean." The Swedish coach said their plan was to play better than in their round robin loss.

When Sweden fell behind early, I expected to see them attempt some corner guards, but by the time they switched gears in the 4th end, it was too late. Most teams. the Swedes included, consider it far easier to play hits than draws. Jalle told me over lunch that he reckoned to hit at least 8 of 10 takeouts, but maybe only get a draw into the 8 foot half the time. Canada too have had spells where they struggled with draw weight, but not when it mattered, in the championship's final three games.

The further Sweden fell behind, the more difficult were the shots they faced, and the less able to make them. Teams shook hands after 7, in time to watch the final end of the bronze medal game between USA and Germany.

With the score tied at 4-4 and Germany with the hammer, USA sat one touching the button and guarded by 6 stones clustered around the centre line. With his last rock, German skip Jens Jager ran back a wide German stone close to the hogline. It shot off wide, but redirected off a corner guard, and took out the buried shot stone to score a highly improbable 2. German 3rd
Marcus Sieger, who had held the broom and knew the delivery was wide, dropped his head into his hands in disbelief at the result. It's worth a visit to to see it diagrammed.

It was a huge fluke, but Germany had the best record in round robin play, and USA had hit their own circus shot to beat Canada. USA second Jimmy Joseph said afterwards, "We knew we had it. No way could they get at our shot stone." He's young, he'll recover.

Team USA are a team that has some growing to do, and the enthusiasm to do it. It took them a while to believe the swing on this arena ice, as they typically play on surfaces that curl a foot or so, and not the 4 to 6 feet players faced this week.

I felt pleased for Jens Jager. He had been available all week, willing to talk curling and share his experiences. His team was over-matched in the morning 3/4 game against Canada. In the first, facing one with last rock, Jens had a hit for two, but lost his grip on his delivery stick, which followed the rock over the hogline.

The stone was removed by the officials before it reached the house, and both teams felt they had a reasonable claim on relief. Germany argued that the player's hand was not in contact with the stick over the hogline, while Canada felt the stone should have been allowed to reach the house, because it would, in Canada's opinion, have resulted in 2 for Canada. The official explanation for the rock's removal was that the stick touched the stone past the hogline and therefore had to be removed.

I asked the German coach whether the incident would affect his skip's concentration. "Perhaps," he shrugged. But Canada didn't begin to pull away until after the break. The 10-4 scoreline was inflated by a 3 posted in the eighth end even though Germany shook hands with two stones left to throw.

When I spoke to Jens after the semi-final loss he said that he was not disappointed. "Not at all," he said. "I have learned a lot, and we will be back stronger next time." The teams topping the table after the round robin, were both club sides.

Speculation about Team Canada's prospects going into the tournament had centred around whether Jim Armstrong was ready to throw at this level. Long after the medals had been handed out, and Swedish lead
Anette Wilhelm had been awarded the Sportsmanship Trophy, voted by the players for the person who best exemplified the true spirit of curling, Jim Armstrong was still sitting by the podium, posing for photos and reveling in the atmosphere. For someone with such a long and illustrious playing career, this was his first appearance on a world stage and he was savouring every minute.

"What a week," he told me. "If you're coming to the banquet you can buy me a beer. It's been a real roller coaster week, so many ups and downs."

Darryl Neighbour looked dazed. "It's just fantastic. I can't describe it," he said. "We were up and then we were down, then up again. We'd think we had things worked out, then we'd lose again. It's going to take a while to sink in."

Canada did have spells where they did not play well; generally when the rest of the team allowed their skip's loss of form to affect their own play. When he played well, so did they, and tactically they outplayed every opponent except China who ignored Canada's invitations to the wings and played a winning game in the 4 foot.

This looks to be a team that will only get stronger. They know they can throw an 80% game if their skip keeps it simple. Their one doubt is at lead, where Chris Sobkowicz struggled until stepping aside for Sonja Gaudet, who is still working on her ability to throw reliable takeout weight.

This was a great week for Team Canada, and their coaches who shared the blame for the disappointment last year and deserve credit for producing a winning team this year.

O Canada - Go Canada.


Anonymous said...

So what is the difference in Team Canada?

Try Jim Armstrong's leadership.

Well done

Anonymous said...

Armstrong is the difference.....End of story