Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 Year In Review

For the 303rd and final post of 2010 let's have a look back on a few of the more memorable events of the past year.

It began with the anticipation of the Vancouver Paralympics. Could Canada repeat their gold medal success at Torino in 2006, this time on home ice? Though pre-Paralympic tournament success was spread between half a dozen countries, giving at least half the field reason to hope for a gold medal, Canada were heavy favourites led by six-time Brier competitor Jim Armstrong.

So it proved, with Canada advancing comfortably, if not invincibly to a final with Korea, where they coasted to a mid-way 8-1 lead, and then hung on for an 8-7 victory.

After the Paralympics I wrote:

I hope Jim sees his future as advancing the sport outside of the cocoon of national team player.  I'd like to see him get his coaching credentials and become a full-time wheelchair curling ambassador/national coach with a mandate to kick start provincial programs, most of which have stalled at a minimal number of participants. This win gives the CCA another window of opportunity to capitalise on a gold medal, an opening missed after Torino.

That hope may have been dashed when in April news broke that Jim had been arrested in Blaine, Washington, a case that may be concluded when a Federal Judge is asked to accept plea agreements on January 28, 2011. Bob Weeks gave the Armstrong saga his "Weirdest, Saddest Award" at the top of his yearly review.

Lost amidst the Paralympics hoopla was the Canadian National Championship, held at the same time in Kelowna BC. With four BC players competing in Vancouver and one national champion choosing to stay home and cheer her national side, British Columbia still managed to field both teams in the final; the Host team skipped by Gary Cormack, beating Gerry Austgarden's BC provincial champions 6-4.

British Columbia have been national champions since the withdrawal of Team Canada after 2006; and their national team players are eligible to return for the 2011 Championships in Edmonton, Alberta,

This year the CCA spent some of the money that previously supported national team travel, to organise a series of High Performance Player Development and Talent Identification Camps. This was an attempt to answer a long standing criticism from those outside the present National Training Program, that they were being ignored. Every Canadian curler with ambition and initiative will have had the opportunity to connect with National Program representatives this season; a big step forward.

One of the discoveries arising from the CCA's national outreach, is that the quality and even existence of dedicated coaching varies widely across Canada. Some teams, such as Team Smart, perennial Alberta champions, had a qualified coach dedicated to their team. Others may have a coach allocated by their Provincial Associations just before the Nationals. Having said that, BC's success has not been built on established club sides with season long coaching.

The year saw a long overdue lifting of the World Curling Association's ban on powered wheelchairs. There had never been any rational basis for it, and this blog is proud to have been involved in a successful campaign to overturn it.

The WCF's other significant decision this year was to drop the requirement for curlers to use wheelchairs for their daily mobility, in favour of defining eligibility as inability to curl without use of a wheelchair. The exact language is very technical, and a whole infrastructure will have to be established to define its limits, but wheelchair curling, from June of this year, is now defined as a sport played from a wheelchair, rather than one limited to full-time wheelchair users.

Team China impressed all who saw them win a Worlds berth at the 2010 World Wheelchair Curling  Qualifying Tournament. China arrived too late to the international scene to amass enough points to be eligible for Vancouver's Paralympics, and they had the misfortune to be the team displaced by hosts Czech Republic as an automatic entrant at the 2011 Worlds in Prague. But their performance in Finland suggests a serious podium challenge in our sport, just as in Women's and Men's curling.

Sweden entered the Paralympics with their skip, Jalle Jungnell, barely recovered from spine surgery, and they suffered a cruel blow when they lost their vice, and last rock thrower, Glen Ikonen to a failed drug test on the eve of a tie break for a play-off place. Sweden's coach Tomas Nordin rallied them to a bronze medal, beating Team USA who again came up one win short of a medal.

The Swedish team broke up after Vancouver. Lead  Anette Wilhelm retired as did skip Jalle Jungnell, though I understand he will be coaching a Swedish squad at a pre-Worlds tournament in Scotland mid-January.

The Americans had hoped to field an unchanged and increasingly experienced team for next year's Worlds, but have lost Patrick McDonald to shoulder surgery.

Probably the team other than Canada carrying the heaviest weight of expectation going into 2010 was Great Britain. They fielded a very experienced squad, with just one change from the multiple World Championship winning and Torino Silver medallists. As part of their preparation, their coach, Tom Pendreigh, chose to have the team throw from the near rings rather than the near hog line. In theory this would have given the players better angles on straight ice, but his plan was overtaken by a rule change that allowed stones to be placed away from the centre line. Plus, of course, the Vancouver ice was never likely to be straight.

Great Britain (in reality Scotland) failed in Vancouver as they had failed at the previous two Worlds, and Michael McCreadie, who capped a long Paralympic career by being chosen to carry the flag at the opening ceremony in Vancouver, decided to take a year away from the national team. Pendreigh was replaced this month by Tony Zummack, who coached Team Alberta at the past two Canadian Nationals.

Other teams falling on hard times: Germany, who were unable to emulate their 2009 Worlds bronze. They replaced skip Jens J├Ąger with 3rd Marcus Sieger, who will be the first quadriplegic to skip a national side at World Championship level. Norway lost the coach who had taken them to successive World Championships, but replacement Per Christensen was unable to recapture the magic of 2007 and 2008. Thoralf Hognestad is back as coach, and Per returned to his native Denmark and an unsuccessful campaign at the Worlds Qualifying.

The unluckiest team in 2010 had to be the French, who travelled to Finland to compete in the Worlds Qualifying only to fall victim to a national jurisdictional dispute that meant they were not allowed to play.

In Ontario there are five competitive club teams in the south of the province and this year four teams will compete to represent Northern Ontario. Bruce Cameron's Ottawa rink defeated Kenora's Wayne Ficek for 2010's John McCrae Trophy for bragging rights in Ontario.

Manitoba, underachievers at the Nationals, split up, with Chris Sobkowicz and 3rd Dennis Thiessen parting ways. If nothing else it will make for a more competitive Manitoba playdown. [UPDATE Jan 8: Sobkowicz will again skip Team Manitoba with Thiessen on his team.]

Saskatchewan did not add to their provincial team pool in 2010. Mike Fitzgerald prevailed again in Nova Scotia, and Team Smart will be reinforced by the return of Bruno Yizek at the Alberta Provincials.

Quebec's players had a contentious parting from coach Al Whittier, since repaired, but now curl out of the Magog CC, under coach Germain Tremblay. In November they won Ontario's over-subscribed Cathy Kerr Spiel, which boasted the largest ever field of wheelchair curlers. This is becoming the tournament to attend, and hopefully organisers will be able to combine the event with the US Open to make a trip east worthwhile for Western teams.

While the competition calendar is getting more crowded, 2010 did not see a significant growth of total numbers, or many new faces. Of the ten teams at the 2010 Nationals, only 8 players (excluding alternates) were rookies.

There were some interesting inaugural events. Australia opened its first dedicated curling ice to wheelchair users in Melbourne, and hopes to soon be competing at the Worlds Qualifying. Cape Cod CC held its first wheelchair curling summer spiel. Wheelchair curling in the USA has been centred in Utica with the significant support of SITRIN staff and it is good to see the sport expanding to other locations.

The year ended on a sad note with the passing of Scotland's Frank Duffy. Though the circumstances surrounding his death may be controversial, there's no denying he was a pioneer, and a very accomplished player with multiple national and international trophies to his name.

Speaking personally I take some satisfaction from the lifting of the power chair ban. Decisions like these are never the result of a single person or event, but the website and blog provided a forum for change. Despite this year's rebuff, I'll continue to campaign for a win-to-play Team Canada representation.

It was a disappointment not to have the opportunity to cover the Paralympics in at least the detail that we covered the 2009 Worlds. Curling authorities still do not, in my opinion, appreciate the value of publicity. What little live coverage Paralympic curling achieved was hobbled by commentators situated outside the arena and watching less than optimal video.

Part of the problem is that no one's career is affected by participation numbers. The WCF collects national associations, but whether a country has 16 or 1600 participants seems to matter little. Similarly, in Canada the sport is run by people who pay most attention when medals are on the line. However sympathetic and well-intentioned, they do not have a mandate to grow the sport and their funding does not rely on increasing participation.

Though it is clear that single issue organizations like Own The Podium will concentrate their funds on those already performing at a high level, it could be hoped that Sport Canada might take a wider view, and see wheelchair curling as enabling wheelchair users to participate in a winter recreation - at whatever level of skill.

I still think that there's a strong case for starting over.

Finally I would like to thank the many people who have supported the blog and website with an occasional donation, and more frequent supportive emails. Fortunately they far outnumber the tiny group who this year have devoted their energy to increasingly frantic and abusive anonymous personal attacks for what they see as under-appreciation of Jim Armstrong.

Honestly guys, that's why comments are moderated, so don't waste your time telling me to stand up and be a man. I'm the one who uses a wheelchair, after all.

A very Happy New Year to you all. You can add your own 2010 highlights in the comments.


Bruce Cameron said...

Eric, thanks for yet another year of your dedication and support of wheelchair curling. You can take heart in the fact that the majority of the "subscribers" to know u have "stood up as a man" and have applied common sense and logic when moderating anonymous comments that unnecessarily hurl cruel personal attacks as opposed to being lured into the "the west coast cult mentality". Remember there are many, many people who read but only a few who post comments and yet even fewer who believe enough in what they say to put their names to the comments. We ALL must remember that this is not a regional sport centred around anyone individual(s) but a Canada wide sport involving all wheelchair curlers regardless of their experience or skill level.

Goose said...

Eric, first Happy New Year.....yes i agree with stand more than some people who walk.
Best of luck in the new year to you, your famiky and all the wheelchair curlers

Anonymous said...

Quite a year. Let's hope the Sport can maintain the momentum of 2010

Anonymous said...

The highlight of 2010 came on Global TV tonight, when Chris Daw confirmed that the ONLY reason he was not skipping at the Paralympics has nothing to do with any factor, other than his new love, and his new baby, which was not even conceived at the time of his "resignation" from the program.

Come on, Chris, better to have left well enough alone.