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Curling, booze simpatico no more

Game is changing, at least for the elite

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If the first step on the road to recovery is acknowledging you have a problem, then what does it say about curling that Team World at this week's Continental Cup have self-imposed a total prohibition on the consumption of alcohol?

And, even more interesting, what does it say about curling in Canada that some elite Canadian curlers reacted this week like maybe they were a little threatened by the idea?

By now you've probably heard the news out of Langley, B.C. -- where curling's version of the Ryder Cup got underway Thursday -- that Team World coach Peja Lindholm is enforcing a rule for the six teams under his watch -- absolutely no alcohol.

"We have informed the teams that, when you're leaving your home country, we won't have any alcohol until the last rock is played," Lindholm told Canadian Press.

"We would like to make a statement here that it's important we make sure we're a professional sport."

That seemed to touch a nerve among some members of Team North America. "I don't get it," bristled former world champion Glenn Howard. "I'm so old school. If you want to have a drink, go have a drink. Come on. We've got to have some fun out here."

This is fascinating on many levels.

First, and maybe this is quibbling, Lindholm seems to set up a straw man here, suggesting that drinking and professional sport don't mix, that the two are somehow mutually exclusive. That's hilarious, of course. If hockey didn't exist, the beer companies would have invented it. And it's not just the fans who are enthusiastic consumers of the product.

Of course Howard set up a straw man of his own, suggesting as he did that taking drinking out of the game was also going to take the fun out of it too. Let's hope, for everyone's sake, that it's not a case of either/or.

It's also interesting that Lindholm, of all people, is playing curling's version of Elliott Ness here, bursting into the bustling saloon and pooping on the party by taking an axe blade to the keg.

Lindholm is one of curling's greats, on and off the ice. And I can report, from some long nights of personal experience, that Lindholm in his playing days would never be confused with Little Miss Temperance.

So what's driving this then? Well, it's a couple things, I think. First, I can report -- again from personal experience -- that the Continental Cup is the singularly most beer-soaked and philandering curling event I've covered in my 14 years around the sport. And that, folks, is a high bar indeed.

It is in the unique nature of the Continental Cup -- the only time outside the Olympics when curling teams become part of a larger team -- that it brings traditional opponents together as teammates in a common cause.

Throw in the fact the event is also co-ed and it's hardly surprising the alcohol soon flows.

So, yeah, the fact is there probably was a bit too much drinking going on at the Continental Cup, particularly since the players are all there at someone else's expense and virtually all of them are receiving some kind of funding from their home nations to develop their curling skills -- not their drinking skills -- at exactly these kinds of international events.

But the larger issue seems to be this -- and it's happening whether the old-schoolers like it or not: In the same way that ash trays are no longer on the ice and obesity -- once commonplace -- is increasingly rare at the elite level, so too is hard drinking becoming a relic of curling's past since it became a full Olympic sport in 1998.

And that's not because Lindholm says so. Rather, it's simply a competitive reality in today's curling that the skips that consistently win at the highest levels -- Kevin Martin, Jeff Stoughton, Jennifer Jones, even Howard himself, at least at major events -- are generally the same ones at curling events who are the first ones to head to bed.

There was a time in curling when you could drink all night and still win in the morning. No longer. These days you can do one -- or you can do the other.

And that really has become a choice of either/or.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 13, 2012 C1

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