Wednesday, March 2, 2011

2011 World Championships wrap-up

That fact that it was not unexpected should not diminish the achievement of Team Canada's successful defence of their World Championship in Prague. They are the first wheelchair team to go undefeated at a World level event, and though their first three wins were by single points and rested on the games' final stone breaking their way, they never looked in serious difficulty once they settled in. They also had the most steals (24) and gave up the fewest (7).

Skip Jim Armstrong gave lack of competition time and unfamiliarity with the ice as reasons for their comparatively slow start, but said their title rested on the strength of the front end, lead Sonja Gaudet and second Ina Forrest. "They are the benchmarks for front end play," he noted. "(Third) Darryl Neighbour and I just had to clean up."

This is third successive title Canada has won since Armstrong brought his 40 plus years of competitive and Brier experience to what is only the 7th World Championship. It's impossible to see the CCA penalising the current team for being too successful, and removing their carding funding, in the interests of letting someone else have a go.

There is a sucession question, however. Who would skip in place of Armstrong given that he and his vice Darryl Neighbour and the alternate, Bruno Yizek, are all over 60.

News of Canada's win was circulated by the Canada Press, who included considerable detail of Armstrong's conviction last month in Seattle. “There is a whole other story that in all likelihood will surface once I'm back home and I think it's self-explanatory,” Jim Amstrong (told CP) without elaborating.

“The one thing that I want to be very very clear (about) is that the Canadian Curling Association in particular has been supportive. I explained things to them, as things were happening late last year. They accepted what I had to tell them at the time. And this team and the staff have just been absolutely tremendous.”

I'm sure that's true, but Team Canada, if it means anything, is Canada's team and Jim will want the support of Canadians beyond those involved with the national program if this victory is to benefit the sport overall.

Scotland did their best phoenix impression, rising from the ashes of three years of disappointments to once again challenge in a final. New British wheelchair curling boss Tony Zummack was forced to watch from Alberta via the web, but commented that "everything is right again in the curling world."

Scotland are still throwing draws from the rings, 22% further and thus requiring them to throw 22% harder by Zummack's calculation, though he felt that on Prague's fast swingy ice, the added distance was not a big factor. "They are throwing takeouts from the hogline," he noted, "so their thinking may be that the overall weight adjustment is less." Expect changes next season, regardless.

Whether it was the addition of new energy through Gregor Ewan and Michael McKenzie, or skip Aileen Nielson allowed to call the game as well as throwing last stones, or a desire to impress a new boss, or a feeling that heads would definitely roll with another abject performance; for whatever reason, Scotland is back.

So too are Norway, the only team apart from Canada and Scotland to have won at this level since 2002. Coach Thoralf Hognestad, who had been in charge when Norway won World titles in 2007 and 2008, rebuilt the team this year, adding a rookie front end of Terge Rafdal and Tone Edvarsen to the experience of skip Rune Lorentsen and Jostein Stordahl.

That four of their five defeats this week were at the hands of Canada and Scotland is both a mark of their improvement, and a marker for how much more still needs to be done. Norway, like all of the teams with the possible exception of Scotland, have to start believing they can beat an Armstrong skipped Canada.

Both qualifying teams, Russia and China, did well at this championship. Russia played at this level for the first time since being relegated in 2008 and were the (pleasant) surprise of the tournament, beating Scotland in round robin play, but falling to Norway in the bronze medal game. They have an increasingly experienced squad and as hosts in 2014, an automatic Paralympics place.

China, my wild card pick for this tournament, fell one loss to Russia short of a playoff place, but are a young side with an interesting "unwind" delivery that has their non-delivery hand locked onto the delvery side of their chair, and their face close to the ice as they throw. Not a delivery for gentlemen of 60 plus years, but it shows there is still scope for innovation in our young sport. Their challenge, as Korea's, will be to gain the competitive experience that makes for intelligent decisions on the ice.

Korea sent their national champions (thank you Steve), who beat out the Vancouver silver medallists, to represent their country in Prague. While coaches in control of national team selection may shake their heads, it is encouraging to see a country value development of the sport by offering club teams the incentive of representing their country. Korea, hosts in 2012, also doubled the number of players with international experince.

While the Czech Repblic and Germany will be disappointed to be relegated, neither entered with any great expectation of success. The Czechs were present as hosts, and while they can point to wins over China and bronze medallists Norway, they will struggle to make it back through Qualifying.

Germany's coach suspected a tough week when he told me before they left home that their ambition was to avoid relegation. An interesting subplot to the German story is that Jens J├Ąger, the skip who won bronze at the 2009 Worlds in Vancouver, was dropped from this year's team. He has been travelling internationally with his own team, the Mainhattan Ice Wheelers, and will doubtless be interested in representing his country again, perhaps under a different coach.

Sweden won silver at the Paralympics in Vancouver, but escaped relegation only by winning two tie-breaks. Vancouver skip Jalle Jungnell and lead Anette Wilhelm retired, and Glen Ikonen had to sit out a six month suspension. Though lead Kristina Ulander was the only new addition to this year's squad, the team struggled without Jalle's experience at skip.

Jungnell is the first player to make the transition to coach, and admits the game looks much clearer from above than from the ice. His conclusion at the end of play: the team formed too late in the season to succeed at this level. "We were just unprepared," he admitted, without saying whether he would be around to prepare them in Korea. i suspect, and hope, he will.

Which leaves Team USA as the biggest disappointment of 2011. The three men on this team have played together since 2006, and lead Jacqui Kapinowski joined in 2008 when they won bronze. They made the playoffs in 2009 and 2010 but this year relied on other teams losing on the final day to avoid relegation.

The ice was good, the rocks were good, so what went wrong? USA can point to losing Patrick McDonald after team selection. They also lost by a single point to each of the three medal teams before confidence waned and the losses grew.

USA suffers from the same geographical logistic problems Canada would face if they didn't draw their team and coach from the same province. They have concentrated their efforts on a group playing out of Utica NY but it may be time to widen the player net more often than a once a year open call to a selection camp.

They live to fight another day, however, though someone with ties to the national team suggested that relegation would have put the whole program in jeopardy as a trip to Finland may have overwhelmed an already too small budget.

The top eight teams from this championship will join the top two teams from the Qualifying tournament that begins October 29 in Finland in the next (Korean) round of the chase for points towards qualifying for the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi Russia.

Share your impressions of the Worlds in the Comments.

Full details of the Worlds can be found in earlier posts and on wheelchaircurling.com.

2 comments:

Bruce Cameron said...

Well done Team Canada

Wayne Ficek said...

Excellent job Canada,,, Will be tough to match that performance. Like Jim said when the front end can dominate most teams will be pretty hard to beat. Good JOB