CALGARY — It’s a question I’ve heard a few times over the years: What sets a great curler apart from a good one?
The answer is a bit complicated. At the most basic level, there are the series of physical mechanics necessary to throw a curling rock and sweep a curling rock.
To be sure, there is no question that there are more and less efficient ways of delivering the stone. And we know that those curlers with the better deliveries — consistency, a minimum of moving parts, stability — tend to be among the best in the sport.
Personally, I’ve always thought David Nedohin’s unbelievably compact delivery, propped up by a crutch and everything tight to his body, is the closest thing curling has to the Ted Williams swing in baseball — the standard by which all others should be measured.
But it’s also true that a pure delivery is a guarantee of nothing. There are all kinds of curlers out there who look wonderful throwing a curling rock — in the C group at the club. And there are also all kinds of curlers out there with hopeless deliveries — Guy Hemmings leaps immediately to mind — who have had all kinds of success despite their throws, not because of them.
For anyone other than a skip, it’s also essential to be able to sweep to concrete and to have that innate ability to know when to sweep and when not to sweep, a task that stopwatches can help, but which ultimately requires a certain natural talent.
There are several other characteristics good curlers share. They all have the ability to throw the high, hard one and bail their teams out of trouble. Some of the best at this over the years have been seconds, Alberta’s Scott Pfeifer and Marc Kennedy leaping immediately to mind.
All of them also have the ability to handle the media pressure, good and bad. Colleen Jones was great at this, as were Randy Ferbey and Nedohin. Jennifer Jones wasn’t great at first, but she has become much better.
The curling greats all have the ability to walk the talk, to back it up on the ice. There is a high level of confidence that is a prerequisite in curling, a necessary precondition to achieving something so unbelievably fickle as getting a huge chunk of granite to stop on a one-foot-square piece of ice 100 feet away. But get too confident and you become cocky, and the curling world is littered with the bodies of curlers who had too much hubris off the ice and not enough talent on it. Hello, Dale Duguid.
So those are the finer details of a great curler. But to end there would be to miss the forest for the trees. And that forest — that place where great curlers grow — is composed of four essential elements.
Here’s each element essential to curling greatness and which curler I think best embodies each one:
Curling is called chess on ice for a reason — it’s all about the ability to think multiple moves in advance and entrap your opponent. You still have to execute those moves, of course, but the purest shooter gets beat by a superior strategist every time.
With the four-rock rule, everyone’s had to get better at strategy in the past decade and the era of lunkhead, hit and peel is long gone. Manitoba’s got a couple of masters of the head game in Jeff Stoughton and Kerry Burtnyk. Alberta’s Ferbey and Kevin Martin are also master tacticians. Across the pond, Norway’s Pal Trulsen could mix it up with the best of them.
But we’re going with Glenn Howard. Howard learned from the best — brother Russ, who was a pioneer of the free-guard zone and in his latter years has made up for a diminishing touch with a superior strategy. But Glenn Howard has learned everything Russ ever knew and then improved on it. No one’s better at lulling an opponent into a three-spot than Glenn Howard and no one, ever, is better at seeing the angles — as he put on display last week with his round-the-clock, angle-raise, cross-house double-takeout walk-off for three against Saskatchewan. Making it was one thing; I was just as impressed that he even saw it.
Mentally, curling is an extraordinarily cerebral game. Physically, it alternately requires the strength and agility to hurl a 42-pound rock 100 feet at a high rate of speed and the impossibly delicate touch necessary to slide it to a perfect stop at that distance.
Put it together and curling requires someone with strong shoulders who can carry themselves with poise. It requires an almost unique personality, capable of both aggression and finesse, many times just moments apart. Burtnyk and Stoughton once again leap to mind. In the women’s game, Cathy Overton-Clapham is one of the best at turning it off and on.
But if you had to pick just one guy, I’m going with reigning world men’s champion Kevin Martin. He is perhaps the epitome of an even-keel player, never too high or too low and better than anyone at keeping himself out of the way and reducing the game to its most basic elements.
You need to want it, really, really want it, to play curling at a high level. Because, let’s face it, the rewards are mostly marginal and the odds of capturing the one big prize — the chance to compete at the Olympics — are extremely slim.
The top money-earner on the tour this year is Ontario’s Glenn Howard, who’s picked up about $130,000, thanks to a truly extraordinary season. But split that cash four ways and you’ll barely cover all the time the heavy-travelling Howard team has spent away from work. And if they fail to parlay all their stellar play the last few years into an Olympics berth at the Trials this December? Well, then all that will be a lot of effort for not much.
That’s why it comes down to raw desire in curling, and no one has more than Alberta’s John Morris. He’s talented, he plays on a great team, but more than anyone, the third for Kevin Martin wants it badly and is willing to sacrifice anything to get it. He wears it on the ice and he wears it off the ice.
The ability to rise to the occasion and keep your head while all others are losing theirs is essential to championship curling.
A last-rock cold draw to the button for a win, played out before a hushed arena of thousands of people and before hundreds of thousands watching on TV is extremely difficult. Martin is great at it, but even he pulled the string when Olympic gold was on the line in 2002. Brad Gushue has also demonstrated the ability, as has Glenn Howard, Russ Howard, Stoughton, Burtnyk, Sandra Schmirler and Elisabeth Gustafson.
But if I had the choice of any player in the last three decades to throw a last rock for my team, I’m picking — stone-cold, with no hesitation — Winnipeg’s Jennifer Jones. I know that’s bound to be a controversial pick, so I went looking for some advice from one of the game’s best analysts.
Unprompted, TSN’s Ray Turnbull made the same pick. "We’ve seen it so many times," Turnbull said. "I’d take her over anybody for that last-rock throw. Martin and Howard also have that ability, of course. But I’d still take Jennifer because she’s just shown that ability over and over and over again."