Mixed doubles an Olympic afterthought for Canada’s elite curlers

Canada may be a dominant country in curling, but not in a version of the sport making its Olympic debut.

When the International Olympic Committee said less than two years ago that mixed doubles would be in the 2018 Winter Games, Curling Canada went into hurry-up mode.

Canada helped develop mixed doubles by including it in the annual Continental Cup of Curling since 2002. But the game featuring teams of one man and one woman, who chase their own rocks down the ice to sweep them, was seen as a novelty behind the traditional four-person teams.

In nine years of world mixed doubles championships, Canada won a bronze medal in 2009. Hungary has twice won gold and also a silver. This year’s world championship is April 22-29 in Lethbridge, Alta.

So who might wear the Maple Leaf in the Olympic debut of mixed doubles in less than a year in Pyeongchang, South Korea?

Canada’s elite curlers are interested in mixed doubles, but it’s their Olympic back-up plan. If their team doesn’t make it to the Games through December’s Olympic team trials in Ottawa, there’s the doubles trials in January.

“Everyone is going to try to be with their regular four-person team and it’s just more of a Plan B if things don’t go right,” said Ryan Fry, the third on the reigning men’s Olympic champion team skipped by Brad Jacobs.

“But that’s going to be something way back in your mind. The person who’s going to be looking forward to it is the people who are out of the trials. That’s the furthest thing I want to think about.

“I can speak for everyone that’s in this league that no one is really looking at it until the qualification process for the regular curling is over with.”

Emma Miskew, third for Canadian women’s champion Rachel Homan, echoes Fry’s sentiment.

“If we aren’t successful at the trials, you kind of have a second chance for the Olympics,” she said. “It’s not on the forefront of my mind by any means.”

Mixed doubles games are eight ends instead of 10 with each team delivering five stones.

The big wrinkle is a stone belonging to each team is positioned before the end — one a centre guard and the other on the back edge of the button — with both eligible to count towards scoring.

So strategy is different from the traditional team game.

Curling Canada appointed former Canadian and world champion Jeff Stoughton the manager of the mixed doubles program in the summer of 2015.

“We felt the mixed doubles was pushed into the Olympics,” Stoughton said. “I think the WCF (World Curling Federation) was surprised they got it this time around.

“When you get it, you’re not going to say ‘no, we’re not ready.’ They said ‘we’re going.’ No offence to Curling Canada, we weren’t in a position to be ready to go.

“It was basically, ‘well, it’s an opportunity to get a medal. Let’s get our top players to play. Let’s get our top mixed doubles teams to keep playing and try and qualify for the Olympics.”’

The possibility a Canadian could compete in both team curling and mixed doubles in Pyeongchang was discussed, and discarded.

The team round-robin starts the day after the mixed doubles gold-medal game. It would impact a team’s preparation to have one member competing in mixed doubles.

“We made a decision that we didn’t want this type of conflict,” Stoughton said.

A host city has yet to be named for Canada’s 18-team mixed doubles trials Jan. 2-7, 2018.

The duos of Homan and John Morris, Miskew and Tyrel Griffith, and Marliese Kasner and Dustin Kalthoff have already secured berths.

The winner of the Brantford Mixed Doubles Classic on March 26 gets in followed by the top three teams at the Canadian championship April 5-9 in Saskatoon. A fall qualifying tournament will produce an eighth team.

The remaining 10 teams will come from Curling Canada’s mixed doubles ranking (CMDR). Jennifer Jones and husband Brent Laing, as well as Mike McEwen and wife Dawn, are among the teams currently ranked in the top 10.

To be eligible for the CMDR, teams must compete in three mixed doubles events sanctioned by Curling Canada between Sept. 1, 2015 and Oct. 31, 2017.

Jocelyn Peterman and Brett Gallant, and Laura Crocker and Geoff Walker, won gold and silver respectively at the 2016 Canadian championship.

But bronze medallists Kasner and Kalthoff represented Canada at the world championships and finished fifth.

Gallant and Walker play second and lead for Brad Gushue. The mixed doubles world championship conflicted with the World Curling Tour’s Players’ Championship.

So they turned down the mixed doubles worlds to play in the Grand Slam event, which Gushue won.

“When we decided to play last year, we knew our No. 1 commitment was still with our four-person team regardless if we won the Canadian championships or not,” Peterman said.

Stoughton acknowledges Canada’s doubles team in Pyeongchang might not have the same number of game reps as the Europeans and Asians, but he believes shotmaking can overcome that.

“If I take a 70 per cent male curler who has played mixed doubles and knows the game inside and out and put him against an 85 per cent male curler who hasn’t played that much mixed doubles, the 85 per cent guy is still going to make more shots,” Stoughton said.

“It’s still who can make more shots.”

— Canadian Press reporter Gregory Strong contributed to this story.

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