Sunday, March 20, 2011

Who's who at the 2011 Canadian Nationals in Edmonton

Ten teams are competing at the 2011 Canadian Wheelchair Curling Championships, starting tomorrow March 21; first draw 7.30PM.

There will be detailed coverage of all the facts and figures on our website

The path to success at wheelchair curling is not a secret. You need a lead who can put stones in the rings, a second who can hit when necessary, a skip who calls shots that can be made, rather than shots he or she would like to see made, and an open path for your fourth rock thrower's winning draw.

With that in mind here's how I see this Championship shaping up. I've grouped the team into three sections: contenders, hopefuls and long shots. You can tell me how I've got it wrong in the comments.

Contenders: Alberta, BC, Quebec and Ontario

 Team Alberta 2011
 Bruno Yizek, Jack Smart, Anne Hibberd, Bridget Wilson, Martin Purvis
Coach Andy Jones
Alberta are my (narrow) favourites to make the breakthrough to a gold medal that has eluded them in the six plus years they have been playing together. Their best result has so far been a silver medal in 2009 in a game where Jack Smart's last rock throw came within an inch of beating BC, led by Jim Armstrong.

Last year they lost skip Bruno Yizek to Paralympic duty, but Martin Purvis stepped up at 2nd and won all-star honours as did teammates Bridget Wilson and Anne Hibberd. 

Bruno returns as skip this year and will throw last rocks. Player for player Alberta have as strong a team as any in Edmonton. For three years they worked with newly appointed GB coach Tony Zummack, a role that has passed to Andy Jones. Team Alberta have a genuine five person squad, are a very organised and disciplined team, and with a current Team Canada member skipping may just be the team to break BC's stranglehold on the National title.

Team BC 2011
Gary Cormack. Frank LaBounty, Vince Miele, Alison Duddy
Last year Gary Cormack skipped a BC Host Team to the national title, defeating Gerry Austgarden's BC provincial champions in the final. This year the provincial championships were held in Kimberley, a location far from where BC's curlers actually lived.

New teams were formed from the players with the resources to travel, and to the surprise of many observers Gary's blend of two players from each of last year's final teams, beat out the favoured Jim Armstrong rink that included Darryl Neighbour, Chris Daw and Jackie Roy - all with Team Canada squad experience.

Gary Cormack won a Paralympic gold medal in Torino in 2006, Frank LaBounty has played in most of the Nationals and is benefiting from the rule change allowing him to use his power chair. Vince Miele has shown similar longevity and Alison Duddy, a relative newcomer at lead, has last year's silver medal experience to build on.

BC's approach to the Nationals has been almost the opposite to Alberta's in that they have not worked together as a team under their own coach. They do have experience though, not only at playing, but winning. Their strengths will be their experience calling a game that suits their players, and while they may not be as strong individually as some other teams, their past record says that yet again they will be tough to beat.

Team Quebec 2011
Benoit Lessard, Carl Marquis, S├ębastien Boisvert, Johanne Daly, Denis Grenier
coach Germain Tremblay

My wildcard selection for this year's championship is Quebec. This will be their third trip to the Nationals. Last year three male members of the team left Kelowna in a sulk, early and without their coach's permission. That transgression led to the team relocating to a different club and working with a new, but highly experienced, coach.

The strength of what is still a relatively inexperienced team is their track record as established high performance athletes outside of curling. They have added S├ębastien Boisvert, considered a "natural" by coaches I have spoken to, and Germain Tremblay may have had time to instil not only some respect for the conventions of the game, but strategic sense.

If skip Ben Lessard has some early success, he opens against Nova Scotia and Manitoba, that will help his confidence. The team has travelled this season to prepare for the Nationals, and expect to do well, I think with some justification.

 Team Ontario 2011
Chris Rees, Carl Bax, coach Paul Emmett, Alec Denys and Shauna Petrie
coach Paul Emmett

It has taken Ontario skip Chris Rees three years to get back on the national stage after losing the 2008 final to Jim Armstrong's BC. He returns with equally experienced Carl Bax, and a rookie second in Alec Denys, a five time Paralympian at archery. Shauna Petrie rounds out the team who had a tough road to Edmonton, having to beat out five other teams including two previous Ontario champions at their provincials.

Back in 2008 the feeling among opposing coaches was that the way to defeat Ontario was to put lots of granite in the rings and see whether Rees had the physical strength to throw the required hits. I expect this generation of coaches may have  similar notions, though rookie Denys has impressed observers with his hitting. Ontario's prospects may depend on Rees' ability to rely on a draw to win the game.

The hopefuls: Northern Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia
Team Northern Ontario 2011
Wayne Ficek, Mark Wherrett, Chester Draper, Cindy Hoffstrom, Denise Miault
Coach Tom Wherrett 

Northern Ontario were a tie-break away from the playoffs in 2009, but faded to a 3-6 record last year. They bring the same team to Edmonton, knowing that they beat Manitoba twice in pre-championship friendlies.

They are a great team to hang with and I am sure they want to win; though perhaps not with quite the single-minded drive and determination of Wayne Ficek, their skip. This is not a team of established high performance athletes with Paralympic pedigrees, but if they can recapture the consistency that was lacking last year, they have realistic hopes of making the final four.

 Team Manitoba 2011
Chris Sobkowicz, Dennis Thiessen, George Horning, Melissa Lecuyer, Don Kalinsky, coach Rob Lamb

Manitoba have taken bronze from the last three Nationals. This year's team was born out of acrimony, with Dennis Thiessen changing allegiance that resulted in Chris Sobkowicz's rink being declared Manitoba's representative without a provincial championship.

Chris and Dennis have won bronze at the last three Nationals and George Horning is also an experienced curler. Melissa Lecuyer is one of eight rookies at this year's championships. They lost to Northern Ontario this season and while they can count on the experience of their back end, peace and love has never been a hallmark of previous Manitoba teams. If it's possible to want to win too much, this is the team that will suffer.

Team Nova Scotia 2011
Michael Fitzgerald, Laughie Rutt, Trendal Hubley-Bolivar, Debbie Earle
Coach – Glendon McClare

Nova Scotia can beat anyone on their day, but have not so far shown the consistency to string enough wins together to challenge for the podium. Skip Mike Fitzgerald is a shotmaker who has in the past been called on to make too many game saving shots.

This is the same team that gave last year's winners their only loss. They also beat this year's favourites, Alberta, yet later lost to sub-500 teams like Saskatchewan and Quebec. It may be that a nine game round robin stretches this team's stamina.

Long shots: Saskatchewan, Host Team Alberta, Newfoundland-Labrador

Team Saskatchewan  2011
Darwin Bender, Gil Dash, Marie Wright, Terry Hart, Calvin Bird
Coach Lorraine Arguin
Saskatchewan posted a very respectable 4-5 record last year, but this year are without the experienced Del Huber. Darwin Bender steps up as skip and last year's alternate Terry Hart comes in, significantly at lead.

Saskatchewan has not grown participation over the past three years and while this team is enthusiastic, the question is whether they can improve enough to move up the table.

Team Host Alberta
Cliff Nuspl skip, Mike McMullan, Warren Fleury, Shawna Walsh, Coach Cathy Craig

The CCA had hoped to add a tenth provincial team this year, but both New Brunswick and PEI decided they were not yet ready to compete at the national level. Edmonton as hosts took the tenth spot by coming second to Calgary's Team Yizek in their provincial championship.

Cliff Nuspl has been around a long time, and was named alternate on Team Smart with Bruno Yizek on Team Canada duty last year. He skips a squad that has impressed Cathy Craig, the coach. This will, however, be their first experience not only of play at this level, but of nine games in five days.

They will have a home crowd cheering them on, and the advantage of sleeping in their own beds, but I think they will have done well if at the end of the week they get close to a .500 record.

Team Newfoundland/Labrador
Lanie Woodfine, Felix Green, Coach Leslie Anne Walsh, Darlene Jackman
Joanne MacDonald

While most provinces struggle to get female players, Newfoundland/Labrador field a team with just one male. This is the team skipped by Chris Daw in 2009. When he moved west, Joanne MacDonald stepped up. She struggled as a rookie skip in 2010 and with a year's practice will be looking to improve on that 1-8 record.


Bruce Cameron said...

Well Eric a good thing abt living in Canada is that we can respectfully disagree with others opinions and in this case I do not agree entirely with your picks. Alberta yes as they are just too strong, Quebec yes as they have made huge strides this year, change in deliveries and new coach...BC no .....Gary has carried that team last year and so far this year....the bubble will eventually burst and I think it will be this week......Ontario no....Chris can't hit consistently....Carl can be hot but also can be very cold....first year curler at 2nd.....first time at nationals for lead.....Manitoba will be in the mix as they are just too good at third and skip to be overlooked....BUT they must learn to get along with each other and the teams they are playing. So my podium picks are Albeta, Manitoba & Quebec ..... not necessarily in that order. However I have been wrong before and quite possiblily could be wrong on this call but those are my picks....

Chris Rees said...

Wow, thank you so much for those kind words Bruce. Way to support Ontario.