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Curling crackdown

Curlers give icy reception to ejections for poor conduct

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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."

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2013 C4

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