December 11, 2013 Sections
Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
NEEPAWA -- It's been known as "the gentleman's game" for as long as anyone can remember.
And make no mistake, it remains a much gentler a sport than most, still played as it is almost entirely without the interference of officials and with the expectation that if anyone is buying a round of drinks afterward, it's the winners not the losers.
But it is also true that there has been a coarseness that has unmistakably begun to creep into curling in recent years -- just like society generally -- and it's become bad enough that curling's governing bodies, including in Manitoba, for the first time this winter have put rules in place that allow on-ice officials to eject offending and offensive curlers from a game.
"I'm going to come off sounding like an old guy," says Curl Manitoba president Resby Coutts, "but I rue the loss of old standards. You've got guys now kicking rocks off into the corner and swearing because the other guy made a good shot. I understand people do things in the heat of the moment, but where's the sportsmanship in that?
"The feeling was that we had to do something."
Now, this issue was resolved decades ago in sports like football, baseball or hockey, where officials have had the power to bounce players for objectionable conduct for as long as anyone can remember.
But in a self-policing sport such as curling -- where the single worst infraction isn't an actual infraction at all, but rather the failure to call one on yourself -- suddenly giving officials the power to potentially alter the entire course of the game by tossing out players is a very big deal indeed.
And so it was no small wonder that it created a furor in curling circles and even made national news last weekend when Chris Schille -- the second on the Brock Virtue team that went on to win the Saskatchewan men's title last Sunday -- was ejected from a B-side qualifying game for using foul language.
Schille and others argued it was all an overreaction to a relatively minor offence, while officials and organizers in Saskatchewan defended the decision, noting Schille had been previously warned about his bad language and all the players in the event were aware they were subject to ejection in such instances.
There haven't been any ejections yet in Manitoba, where the new policy has now been in place for junior men's, junior women's, women's and, this week, men's provincial championships.
But some curlers are concerned it's just a matter of time and worry that Curl Manitoba's new policy is so vaguely worded that it leaves unclear exactly what constitutes objectionable conduct serious enough to merit ejection.
"The guidelines are too ambiguous. I think they really need to spell out what's what," says McEwen. "You'd hate to see a borderline situation where an official steps over the line or doesn't step in. And the way it's written, it's pretty much their personal opinion."
Officials say the new policy is broadly worded precisely so it can capture the widest range of objectionable conduct -- breaking of brooms, kicking of rocks, confrontations with fans or volunteers.
But they say the biggest single thing they're trying to get a handle on is all the swearing that's going on out there.
While it was bad enough when f-sharps were flying around in small arenas -- particularly in championship stops such as Altona, where a "Jesus Christ!" shouted on the ice can deeply offend local sensibilities -- Coutts said something had to be done about the language now that a new 10-year TV deal is in place with Sportsnet to broadcast the Manitoba men's and women's provincial championships nationally.
While the Canadian Curling Association still doesn't empower its officials to eject players, the CCA hasn't been shy over the years about issuing fines running into the thousands of dollars to players who lose control -- of their tongue or otherwise -- on the ice.
CCA events director Warren Hansen says swearing by players wearing television microphones at curling events will generate viewer complaints like, literally, nothing else.
"If someone even says 'Christ!' out there, us and TSN will get a hundred emails within 15 minutes," says Hansen. "Minimum -- a hundred. I'm serious."
Jeff Stoughton, who's been on the receiving end of some of Hansen's fines over the years -- for rock-kicking, not swearing -- said he understands the need to clean up the language.
But asked if he thinks there's an increased coarseness in curling today, Stoughton gave a surprising answer. "I hope so," Stoughton said straight-faced. "I think curling means a lot to guys now with the Olympics and all that. There's nothing wrong with guys getting upset. I've never had an issue with anyone banging a broom or kicking a rock when they missed a shot."
If all the swearing on TV is the biggest concern, McEwen wonders why curling organizers don't put in a simple technical solution for broadcasts.
"I don't know why for TV, they can't put on a five-second delay, to be honest. I mean, they're in our kitchen...," says McEwen.
Plus, McEwen adds, the experience with the curling events the players put on themselves suggests the general public watching on TV at home isn't particularly offended by the occasional curse.
"Everyone has watched the (Grand Slam) events -- there's the odd f-bomb that is dropped. Do we get penalized for it? No. Is it great for all ages? No. Do some of us love hearing it? Probably. It's entertaining -- but it depends on your age group whether you like hearing it.
"I like seeing intensity. It's what I enjoy. I love the McEnroes, or when Tiger's upset -- I don't want to see robots out there. And I'd just hate for the behaviour rules within our sport to get so strict that players are scared to express emotion."
Indeed, McEwen points out some of curling's most memorable moments have been when players acted out emotionally.
"Remember when Johnny Mo (Kevin Martin third John Morris) broke his broom over his knee?," McEwen recalled, referencing an incident at the Brier a few years ago during a game between Manitoba and Alberta. "I loved that. Or when he tore his shirt off (at the 2001 Olympic Trials)? Johnny Mo's got a couple of great moments like that.
"I think that's good for our sport."
The following is the wording of the new Rule 9 Curl Manitoba has put in place this winter for its provincial championships giving on-ice officials for the first time the power to eject players from a game:
"All athletes at any CurlManitoba Championship must show respect for the game of curling. The umpire at all championship events is empowered to eject a player from a game for unsportsmanlike behaviour of any kind including verbal abuse directed at anyone including teammates, opposition, volunteers or all CurlManitoba representatives. There will be no warnings for any infraction unless it is otherwise stated in the CurlManitoba rulebook. An appeal process is outlined by CurlManitoba."
*In cases of ejections, teams must play out the game with just three players.
Curling fans take it for granted that when you tune into a curling broadcast, you will be able to hear virtually everything the players are saying.
It is one of the unique elements of watching curling on television that all the players wear microphones and their conversations are broadcast to a live national audience.
The players get no say in the matter -- they are required as a condition of their participation in Canadian Curling Association events like the worlds, Brier, Scotties and Continental and Canada Cups to wear microphones.
And that leads to some embarassing moments for everyone. During last year's national Scotties, for instance, Alberta skip and eventual Canadian champion Heather Nedohin lamented a bad shot with the clearly audible and utterly ridiculous vulgarity -- "Sh--balls."
Almost immediately, the clip was uploaded on to the the hugely popular American website Deadspin and there remain to this day at least a dozen different versions of the clip floating around the Internet, some with more than 30,000 views and counting.
So I asked Mike McEwen -- a fierce competitor who's been known to wear his emotions on his sleeve -- what it's like to wear a microphone on the ice and whether he's a different person when he does?
"You try to lessen some of the things you might do or say if you weren't on TV," says McEwen, "but I find, if you're in the heat of the moment, it still comes out.
"But you do try to watch your language. And I might not say some things that might be bad about another team, too."
Another team? McEwen explained that boys being boys, curlers are known to make fun of the various deficiencies of other curlers while they're all out on the ice.
"You know what I mean -- you might normally talk about something going on in another game or if someone throws a shot badly," McEwen says with a laugh. "So you limit what some of your conversations are about."
All of which sounds like those microphones might be taking some of the fun out of the game for the players.
"Yeah, you're not yourself," says McEwen. "You for sure know the mike is on."
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2013 C4