Friday, February 18, 2011

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it's off to Prague we go

Play at the 2011 World Wheelchair Curling Championships begins next Tuesday, February 22, at the Curling Hall Roztyly, in Prague.

Hosts Czech Republic, and the top seven teams from the 2009 Worlds led by defending champions Canada, will be joined by qualifiers China and Russia in a ten team round robin with a page playoff and final a week later on March 1st.

Canada will be heavy favourites having won both Worlds in 2009 and Paralympics in 2010, albeit on home ice. They field their Paralympic team with Alberta's Bruno Yizek at alternate replacing Manitoba's Chris Sobkowicz from an otherwise all British Columbia 2009 World gold medal team.

Team Canada 2011
Jim Armstrong,
Darryl Neighbour, Ina Forrest, Sonja Gaudet and Bruno Yizek

Canada made only a couple of competitive appearances this season; a split squad played each other in the final of the 2010 Richmond International, and the 2011 team went unbeaten in an international spiel in Scotland in January.

The one cloud might be how recent legal distractions may have interrupted skip Jim Armstrong's mental preparation, and indeed may have been a distraction to what has been a very close-knit group. But this is a team that has worked together for over two years now, like each other and have good team dynamics, overseen by sports psychologist Dr. Laura Farres who with Coach Joe Rea and Team Leader Wendy Morgan will be with the team in Prague.

In the past Canada has not always got off to a fast start, and in Prague they have a tough opening three games against China, USA and Korea just three days after arriving in Europe.

Team Korea 2011
Taeyeong Jeong, Giteak Kuon, Haenam Yang, Young-a Jung, Oejeong Kang

Korea were the team that had all the international coaches worried when they brought an outstanding hitting game to challenge Norway in the 2008 Worlds final. A disappointing 2009 Worlds was followed by a heroic comeback against Canada in the Paralympic final, when they spotted Canada to an 8-1 half-time lead and fell just one short in an 8-7 loss.

This year's team is completely new and untested against this calibre of opposition. I have been told that Korea sends its club champion to represent their country (can anyone confirm?) which might explain the wholesale change in personnel. It will be a major surprise as well as a testament to the depth of talent in Korea if a rookie squad can compete against the experience of most of the other teams.

Team Sweden 2011
Gert Erlandsson, Glenn Ikonen (skip), Kristina Ulander, Patrik Kallin and Patrik Burman

Paralympic bronze medallists Sweden return with their very experienced skip, Jalle Jungnell, now coaching. His Vancouver third, Glenn Ikonen, who ran afoul of the Paralympic drug testers, has served his 6 month suspension and is now skipping. Patrik Burman moves from 2nd to 3rd and last year's alternate, Patrik Kallin who did so well stepping into the team at the tie-break game, plays 2nd.

Long-time lead Anette Wilhelm has retired, her place taken by Kristina Ulander who was the alternate in 2008.

Sweden faced a lot of adversity last year in Vancouver. Skip Jungnell had barely played since a serious illness. They lost their 3rd, who had taken over last stones. But they could rely on the presence and experience of one of Sweden's most decorated players, Tomas Nordin, to see them through tough times. This year their success may depend on Jalle Jungnell's ability not only to come up with a winning game plan, but to lead from off the ice.

Team USA - 2011
"Goose" Perez, James Pierce, Jimmy Joseph, Jaqui Kapinowski, Penny Greely

One group not lacking in confidence is the ever-positive Team USA. They suffered a blow when they lost the services of Patrick McDonald to shoulder surgery. McDonald, a veteran, brought a steely-eyed seriousness to a group not short of things to say. He is replaced by Penny Greely, but the core of the team remain players who have reached the playoffs every year since 2008.

With skip Augusto Perez maturing and not trying to win the game with every shot, and some solid support from James Pierce, Jimmy Joseph and lead Jacqui Kapinowski, this may be USA's year to improve on their solitary bronze medal.
Team Norway - 2011
Rune Lorentsen, Jostein Stordahl, Tone Edvarsen, Terge Rafdal, Runar Bjørnstad

"I have a good feeling," says Norway's coach Thoralf Hognestad, who had taken his national team to two World titles before handing over to Danish coach Per Christensen for the Paralympics. He is back with Rune Lorentsen at skip and Jostein Stordahl at 3rd, but with a brand new front end. Tone Edvarsen, the first player to take advantage of the WCF rule change that allows power wheelchairs onto the ice, plays 2nd and Terge Rafdal is the lead.

Norway have been proof that results don't rely on good statistics. When they were winning they were never atop the stat charts, though it could be argued that their results in Vancouver in 2009 and 2010 were in line with the overall shooting percentages.

Norway had an impressive run of 17 unbeaten games earlier this season, culminating in a win at the Prague Open. If Rune has his confidence back and Thoralf has them implement his famous "wheelchair curling not regular curling" game plan, they may well make a come back, despite their inexperienced front end.

Team Scotland - 2011
Gregor Ewan, Tom Killin, Aileen Nielsen, Angie Malone, Michael McKenzie

Scotland have made their first major changes since Frank Duffy retired after Torino. Skip Michael McCreadie has taken a year off from the national team while he decides whether he wants to compete internationally again. I think it would be fair to say that while he was an excellent 3rd to Duffy, he never looked comfortable at skip.

That role now passes to Aileen Nielsen who will be the first female to skip a national side at a World event, though she threw 4th stones at the Vancouver Paralympics. She is supported by two veterans, Angie Malone back at lead after serious illness, and Tom Killin who will be a very experienced vice.

The two newcomers are Gregor Ewan, who somewhat rashly told a reporter he was after Aileen's job, and Michael McKenzie, who played under Ewan on the current British Championship team.

Scotland, who compete as Great Britain at the Paralympics, are a puzzle: highly experienced, well funded and trained, yet with little to show for the resources poured into the program since a bronze medal in 2007. On paper they look a strong side, but a 10-17 performance over the past three years indicates something is missing. 

New British national coach Tony Zummack has been unable to take up his position because of paperwork delays in Scotland, so the team will be led by Sheila Swan, who assisted their previous coach Tom Pendreigh. On the plus side she knows the team. On the negative side, the team did not thrive under Pendreigh and his delivery position theories.

It remains to be seen who will make the team and where they will throw from. Those decisions will be made by Swan. Zummack hopes to be with the team in time for the Scottish Championships later in March.

Team Germany 2011
Marcus Sieger (skip) Jens Gäbel, Christiane Steger, Stefan Deuschl, Heike Melchior

Germany ditched their ebullient skip Jens Jäger after the Paralympics where they fell from a 2009 bronze medal to a tied for last 3-6 record in 2010 with virtually the same team.

Marcus Sieger steps up to skip though he will continue to throw 3rd stones.  Jens Gäbel throws last rocks, newcomer Stefan Deuschl plays 2nd while Christiane Steger returns at lead.

Last year Coach Helmar Erlewein said they would treat Canada as just another game, and not treat them differently from other teams. "We have a master plan," he said, "which we can vary if required."  This year he tells me that "because of personnel changes, the team is working on a new tactical concept."

In 2009 Germany had a magical round robin that put them into the 1 vs 2 playoff game. Whether this year's team without Jäger will channel the magic of the last rock of the bronze medal game in 2009, or the disappointment of 2010, will depend on whether their new tactical approach works.
Team China 2011
Wang Haitao, Liu Wei, He Jun, Xu Guangquin, Zhang Qiang

China opened many eyes at the World Qualifying Tournament in Finland by their low to the ice delivery and super heavy hitting. They were the tough luck team in 2009, displaced from automatic qualification this year by the host team. It did, however, give China an opportunity to gain international experience by playing nine games in Finland. 

Their team includes three of the players who soundly beat Canada during round robin play at the 2009 Worlds, and if their tactical approach can come close to their hitting, they will contend for a playoff spot.

Team Russia 2011
Marat Romanov, Andrey Smirnov, Alexander Shevchenko, Svetlana Pakhomova, Oxana Slesarenko

Russia were the last team to qualify for the event, having to beat two 2010 Paralympic teams, Japan and Italy, in the Qualifying playoffs to book their spot in Prague. With the 2014 Paralympics to be held in Sochi, they are the only team competing in Prague who will not need the qualifying points to be amassed over the next three World Championships in order to compete in 2014.

Team Czech Republic - 2011
Radek Pokorný (skip), Martin Tluk, Radek Musílek, Michaela Charvátová, Jana Břinčilová
Finally, the host team Czech Republic are a team on the periphery of international competition. They have competed in the last three Qualifying tournaments prior to 2010 when they did not need to qualify as hosts in 2011.

Their best result was a thrid place finish in 2008 on home ice with the same team that will compete this year. In fact the only changes to the team membership since 2006 has been at lead, currently Michaela Charvátová.

Team Czech Republic, this year skipped by Radek Pokorný, with Martin Tluk at 3rd and Radek Musílek listed at 2nd will do well despite playing on home ice, if they avoid the 2011 Qualifying tournament next November.

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