February 29th, 2024

Advantage or Disadvantage? Three-player curling team debate revived after Howard win

By Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press on February 5, 2024.

Team Ontario skip Glenn Howard makes a shot as he plays Team Alberta at the Tim Hortons Brier in Lethbridge, Alta., Sunday, March 6, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Team Glenn Howard qualified for the Montana’s Brier by running the table as a three-player squad at the recent Ontario playdowns.

The team’s short-handed success has renewed debate around the sport as to whether it might be better to ice a three-player side instead of a traditional four-player unit.

“It’s hard to say,” said team lead Tim March. “From a sweeping standpoint, it might be a slight disadvantage and I think from a shooting standpoint, it might be a slight advantage.”

With a lingering knee issue forcing Howard to the coach’s bench, Scott Howard stepped in at skip and guided the team to a provincial title. March, David Mathers and the younger Howard were also victorious in December at a bonspiel in Penticton, B.C., after playing as a trio on the final weekend.

Their success comes after Brad Gushue sparked some of the three-player conversation by guiding his short-handed team to a Brier title in 2022. Gushue’s team played as a trio on the final weekend after vice Mark Nichols tested positive for COVID-19.

Four-player sides have been the norm in team curling dating back to the first Brier in 1927. While short-handed play comes with a roll of the dice, it can sometimes get results.

“I think it’s becoming an issue,” said World Curling Hall of Famer Warren Hansen, a former events manager for Curling Canada. “When you have teams that seemingly can play with three players and be very successful, I think it should be an alarm bell.

“It has got to be addressed in some way, shape or form.”

Howard’s team does not normally use an alternate – also called a fifth – but will often use one at a major event like the Brier.

The elder Howard’s knee woes are expected to keep him on the shelf for the nationals next month in Regina. The team has yet to announce whether it will bring in a substitute player.

Curling Canada rules say that a team has to register with a minimum of four players for a national championship but there’s nothing stopping a team from playing with three, an organization spokesperson said via email.

However, it would be a different story at a World Curling Federation event like a world championship.

Under federation rules, a team must start a competition with four players (two for mixed doubles) delivering stones. A team will forfeit each game at the start of the competition until it can start a game with four qualified players, a WCF spokesperson said via email.

In extenuating circumstances, and with approval from a three-person WCF panel, the spokesperson added, a team may be allowed to start a competition with three players. If required, an appeal would be heard by the WCF president or his/her representative.

“I just don’t know if it’s sustainable with three,” March said. “Plus, when you have four, if somebody goes down, you can manage. If it’s three and somebody goes down, you forfeit. So those are the concerns that are going through our heads.”

A Brier or world championship is also about twice as long as a tour bonspiel or Grand Slam event.

“I think I could sweep (for) the whole thing but I have that five or 10 per cent doubt in my head,” March said. “I don’t want to be the reason we get to Game 10 and all of a sudden we fall flat.”

With a three-man team, two players usually throw three rocks apiece instead of just two. That extra stone can help a curler figure out ice paths and improve draw weight.

“I’m kind of against it,” said Canadian Curling Hall of Famer and longtime curling reporter Bob Weeks. “I think it breaks the tradition of the game and the sport.”

A single sweeper also allows a player like March to hover over the stone from either side, similar to mixed doubles.

He admitted he was physically drained after the Ontario championship even though the team wrapped up the title in just five games. Since he usually sweeps from one side of the rock, he was using muscles that aren’t normally worked so hard.

“I was losing my legs,” he said. “That last game in the final, I struggled a bit to get my legs underneath me from a shooting perspective. Just because the muscle groups that I used were totally different. My quads were burned out.”

If Howard’s side decides to add a player, they can use anyone who played in the Ontario playdowns or any free agent who hasn’t competed in another provincial/territorial championship this season, a Curling Canada spokesperson said.

“I still think four is better,” March said. “I think it has to be in the long run.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2024.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on X.

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