My interest in age studies and curling has sent me into a tailspin this evening. The Tim Horton’s Brier took place this afternoon. Brad Gushue, representing Newfoundland and Labrador and the current Olympic Gold Medalist, age 26, was pitted against Glenn Howard, age 44, and his team from Ontario. Glenn Howard lost the Brier final last year to Jean-Michel Menard from Quebec. Brad Gushue won his gold medal with Russ Howard (incidentally Glenn Howard’s brother) at the helm. Gushue threw fourth stones and Howard called the game.
To win the right to represent Canada at the Olympic Games, your team must win a Brier like competition in which the top teams in Canada (determined by Brier wins and total funds won on the cash spiel circuit) play against one another. Unlike the Brier, composed of teams representing their province to become a Canadian champion, the Olympic curling trials are not constrained by this residency requirement. Hence, Gushue – who won the right to compete in the Olympic Trials due to curling accomplishments in the field years prior – asked Russ Howard (who did not qualify to compete in the Trials) to join his team. Accordingly, Gushue shuffled the positions of his team to make room for Howard. Gushue’s lead became their fifth player, Howard threw second stones but called the game, and Gushue continued to throw fourth stones.
Controversy erupted when Gushue won the Olympic Curling Trials. Was Gushue worthy to represent Canada at the Olympic Games in Torino? Did his team win the Trials because Howard had joined the team? Although Gushue has been deemed a skillful shot thrower, his youth and inexperience is considered a draw back. He makes “bad calls” as a skip the critics say. In a curling game, you often have to pit “risk” (how many points am I going to give up this end if I don’t make my shot) versus “reward” (how important is it at this point in the game to score multiple points). Inexperience – the critics comment – leads skips, like Gushue, to choose risk over reward more often than is necessary. But with Howard at the helm, this problem was considered rectified by the critics. And sure enough, Gushue and Howard brought home the Gold Medal from Torino.
When Gushue won the right to represent Newfoundland at the Brier this year, of course, controversy returned. Gushue was again calling the game, and moreover, he added a new (young) player to his team because Howard was no longer with them. Howard, instead, was competing in his home province of New Brunswick, and incidentally lost. Critics and curling fans watched with baited breath. The pressure was on. Gushue had to prove he earned the Gold. Gushue started shaky; he lost 3 games early on in round robin play but then his team came back to win their next 5 games to earn a spot in the playoffs. As they say, the game was on. In the playoffs, Team Ontario played Team Newfoundland; Gushue won 7-6. As a result, Ontario had to play Manitoba, and conquer Veteran skip, Jeff Stoughton (who interestingly lost to Gushue in the 2006 Olympic Trials final).
Howard scoffed off criticism about Gushue during an interview with CBC during the Ontario-Manitoba semi-final game – and ironically, minutes later, Stoughton lost control of the game coming up short after deciding to pit “risk” versus “reward.” With Howard’s victory, Gushue and Howard were set up for their third match of the week. I watched Gushe and his teammates today and along with my curling colleagues cheered for Gushue. For the first half of the game, Gushue had control. After the fifth end break the tides turned. Gushue’s second flashed a take-out – and then almost in an effort to prove the critics wrong (or right) – Gushue called a gutsy shot – and missed. Howard was up 3 points after the 8th end. A game that was within reach for both teams, in a matter of seconds, was out of reach for Newfoundland. Sigh! Critics united in victory across the country.
Unlike other sports it has become vary apparent to me that “youth” is not valued in curling. The curling circuit involves a gentleman’s club –and only after being on the circuit for years – and having experienced the ups and downs of wins and losses are you granted entry. Age politics are rampant. What the critics fail to notice for example is that Stoughton, a Veteran skip, lost the semi-final the day before for similar reasons. He pitted “risk” versus “reward” and came up short but this blip in his repertoire is downplayed. Moreover, Gushue is not the only “risk” playing team. Martin and his team from Alberta are also “known” for taking risks and often end up on the wrong side of the inch. But when risk taking fails up short for a young team lapse in strategy is hailed.
When the Brier tankard was presented to Team Ontario today, Gushue wore the voices of his critics on his face. And not surprisingly, Glenn Howard was asked to comment on Gushue and his team during the reward ceremony. The camera zoomed in and focused on Gushue. Howard said his team needed to be “patient” in order to win this game against the high caliber play of Gushue and his teammates. Howard praised their “youth” and called them an “unbelievable team” when asked whether or not Gushue had accomplished his aforementioned goal of winning respect this week. Notably, the question was phrased as a declarative statement, “he’s won it” – yet if he has really won it, why the need for all the questions? And if Gushue had won today, would he really have “won” in the sense of earning the respect he so clearly deserves? I expect the grief he feels tonight has nothing to do with failing to bring the tankard to Newfoundland. Instead, he will need to repair the gash inscribed in his pride. If this is the “experience” his critics say he lacks, he has at least “won” something today with this loss.