April 23rd, 2024

Modern Brier attempts to strike a tricky balance between its roots and changing game

By Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press on March 5, 2024.

Alberta-Sluchinski skip Aaron Sluchinski, back right, watches as Alberta-Koe skip Kevin Koe lines up a shot during the Brier, in Regina, on Friday, March 1, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

REGINA – The Brier is no longer your father’s Brier.

What was a provincial and territorial men’s curling championship embodying Canadian Confederation for most of its almost 100 years is now a hybrid including multiple teams from one province and widely differing ways for teams to get in it.

Former Canadian and world curling champion Nolan Thiessen, Curling Canada’s new chief executive officer, says both the Brier and the Canadian women’s curling championship, the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, must walk a competitive and marketing tightrope.

“The way I always describe it with the Scotties and the Brier, is that is has to serve a few people and masters,” Thiessen said. “It can’t be a hundred per cent marketing and entertainment. It can’t be a hundred per cent high performance.

“We have to find that middle ground. If it tips too far on either side, then we can have issues.”

Wild-card entries that increased from one to three in 2021 are referred to by their province or territory starting in 2024.

Other than the traditional purple heart crests that provincial and territorial champions earn, there is little in Regina to visually differentiate this year’s Alberta provincial champion Aaron Sluchinski from Alberta’s Brendan Bottcher, whose team was one of two gaining early entry based on their ranking last year.

Including Kevin Koe, there are three teams with “AB” on their backs in Regina. Thiessen says the athletes wanted to do away with the wild-card designation.

Bottcher likes it because curling fans in his province can feel they’re cheering for three teams instead of one.

“In the last handful of years, it was always hard to get behind cheering for team wild card, because who is team wild card at the Brier?” Bottcher said.

Curling Canada announced more changes in April 2023 to how those teams enter the men’s and women’s national championships.

The top three men’s teams in the national rankings at the conclusion of this season gain early entry into the 2025 Brier in Kelowna, B.C., along with the 2024 champion.

Rankings are based on points earned from tour events over the course of a season. A high ranking requires an investment of time, travel and money, as well as winning.

Curling Canada’s residency rules require three of four players on a team to live in, or be born in, the province or territory they’re representing to compete in provincial or territorial playdowns.

The defending champion and three “pre-qualified” teams are not subject to those residency rules.

Brad Gushue, who is attempting to win a third straight Brier and sixth of his career, has a lead from Alberta and a second from Ontario.

The Brier’s defending champion and three other teams could ice four players from different parts of the country at future Briers, but they can’t if they miss the pre-qualifying mark and must go the provincial or territorial playdown route.

“The way I look at it right now is you have multiple ways to get into the national championship,” Thiessen said. “You can get in through points, you can get in through playdowns, or you can get in by winning it the year before.

“We’re all Canadians still playing for a Canadian championship aren’t we?”

The Olympic trials every four years, which doesn’t have a provincial/territorial requirement, determines Canada’s representatives at Winter Games.

The annual Brier and Hearts are not only Curling Canada’s annual marketing showpieces. They determine the country’s reps for world championships, where it’s become harder in recent years for Canada to win gold medals, and where Canadians must also finish high enough in the rankings to qualify the country for Olympic Games.

Rising international competitive stakes meant the Brier and Hearts had to let more teams in, Thiessen said. The Brier is now an 18-team tournament.

“We’ve not taking away the provinces’ and territories’ ability to get in. We’re not pulling out residency. We’re not going to say ‘complete freedom,’ or we’re not saying ‘we’re just going to have the trials format.’ That’s not happening,” Thiessen said.

“The provincial and territorial championships matter and they need to matter, but we also need to make sure . . . we have the best teams playing. When you look out here right now, the top seven teams are here. That’s really important.”

If Gushue wants to keep his current team configuration intact and compete in the Brier, he either has to win it again or chase points hard during the season.

Only a handful of other teams at the Brier are willing or able to invest that kind of time and money all winter, and those teams tend to be from Alberta and Manitoba. So is the Brier field fair?

“The simple answer is no. It’s pretty obvious at this stage,” said New Brunswick’s James Grattan, who made his Brier debut in 1997.

Grattan would prefer a tournament like the former Canada Cup decide the country’s international representatives and keep the Brier in its provincial and territorial roots.

“I’m more of a traditionalist than anything else and I appreciated that there were all those provincial colours and everybody earned their way there,” he said. “I always thought there were Canada Cup routes or (Grand) Slam routes for all those big guys, and this championship was special for that reason.”

Thiessen points out Curling Canada’s athletes’ council, which includes Bottcher, and the provincial and territorial associations approved the changes.

“I think the current format, although it’s a bit of a shemozzle of a couple of different things together, I think it accomplishes the goal,” Bottcher said. “It keeps the Brier relevant.”

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

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