Northern Ontario deserves its own berth in Brier

It’s seemingly an annual debate at this time of year when the Tim Hortons Brier rolls around.
The question is whether or not to do away with Northern Ontario’s spot in the annual national men’s curling showdown, and in it’s place have the defending champ return to the event as Team Canada, just like at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts for the women.
While the Scotties has had the defending champion return to their title since the 1986 edition of the event, the drive for a Team Canada at the men’s national championship only recently has started to pick up steam thanks, in large part, to 2008 and 2009 champion Kevin Martin being unable to defend his crown as a result of attending the Winter Olympics in Vancouver last year.
The positive of a Team Canada at the Brier is quite easy to see from marketing standpoint. In the case of the Scotties, the organizing committee is able to promote for nearly a year that the previous champion will be coming back to defend her crown—and also have the defending champ herself come in to drum up hype for the event, which is exactly what those in charge of the 2012 event in Red Deer, Alta. will be doing with recently-crowned Amber Holland.
As well, with a well-known team already in the field, the general public will recognize that name when it comes to buying tickets, and will be more inclined to head to the arena when the defending champ is taking on the home rink or another big well-known name.
And it’ll also allow a province to have two teams in a national championship, and essentially could give a new rink a chance to experience playing in a national championship.
There are, of course, negatives about a defending champ coming back. The traditionalists will say that the champ “hasn’t earned it” by getting an automatic return invite back, instead of having to go through the playdown process like everyone else.
Plus, if a Team Canada ends up repeating over and over again, a lot of curling fans will begin to plead and clamour for a new winner, which often proved to be the case during the reigns of Colleen Jones and Jennifer Jones (though in Jennifer’s case, that may have had a bit to do with entire Cathy Overton-Clapham situation).
With more and more of the bigger name male curlers expressing their support for a Team Canada entry at the Brier, it would seem the odd team out of the 12-rink event would be Northern Ontario, which has led the NDP to launch a “Northern Ontario Rocks the Brier (est. 1926)” campaign last week to prevent that from happening.
If Northern Ontario is eliminated from the Brier, that would bring an end to a tradition that has lasted since the event got underway 84 years ago, and no doubt would be a tough pill to swallow for many curlers in the region, including those here in Fort Frances and Rainy River District.
There is something to be said to keeping the status quo at the Brier, especially since the format has worked for nearly a century now.
And with last year’s third-place showing for Brad Jacobs (Sault Ste. Marie) being the best for Northern Ontario in a number of years, it would seem the region is on a upswing on the national stage.
However, a merged Ontario men’s scene definitely would strength the province during the playdowns, especially since Glenn Howard was murdering teams by scores of 11-2 and 9-2 in three or four ends at the Ontario Tankard last month.
If you include Brad Jacobs’ team from Sault Ste. Marie, along with the Mike Assad and Joe Scharf foursomes from Thunder Bay, into that mix, however, it would make the final playdowns to get into the Brier a lot more interesting—and certainly more competitive on paper.
This already has been proved to work out quite well on the women’s scene, as Thunder Bay’s Krista McCarville and Sudbury’s Tracy Horgan are set to battle it out with Ottawa’s Rachel Homan for the next few years.
But according to a recent column in the Globe and Mail and an opinion segment on TSN by well-known curling writer Bob Weeks, it sounds like both Team Canada and Northern Ontario would be involved at the Brier in the future, but with a bit of a twist to the proceedings.
According to Warren Hansen, director of events for the Canadian Curling Association, a proposed idea, which is being implemented at the national senior and mixed championships starting next year, would see 14 teams vying for a spot in the 12-team Brier field thanks to the addition of Team Canada, the splitting up of the Yukon/Northwest Territories berth, and Northern Ontario staying in the fold.
Under this proposal, the bottom two finishers from the previous year would be involved in a relegation challenge just prior to start of the event, which would keep the Brier lineup at 12 teams.
Personally, I think this is one of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever heard.
While relegation systems work very well in a sport like soccer (in fact, many people prefer the race to see who will stay up in the English Premier League as opposed to actually wins the title), it doesn’t lend itself well to a sport such as curling.
Let’s say, for example, a surprise team from Newfoundland upsets Brad Gushue in the provincial finals one year and gets into the Brier, but ends up finishing in the bottom two spots at the Brier itself and gets relegated.
Do you really think that the CCA would have the wherewithal to tell Gushue that even if he wins the Newfoundland berth the following season that he wouldn’t be assured of a spot in the Brier?
And along those lines, what if a Team Canada rink massively implodes one year and gets relegated?
Also, with 14 teams now in the men’s national loop vying for 12 spots, you’re going to have two regions on the outside looking in every year. If you’re a province not assured of a berth in the Brier, what would be the point of even going into the playdowns.
And if your region doesn’t make it to the Brier for a number of years, it could lead to far-reaching ramifications for curling in the region.
Mind you, my opinions on this idea could end up looking a bit different once I actually see it come to pass, but for now consider me not interested.
So what should happen in regards to Northern Ontario? Personally, I’m a traditionalist at heart, so I would like to see Northern Ontario stay in the Brier for a long time to come.
It’s worked fine for 84 years at this point, and why go about messing with a good thing.
However, I have come around on the Team Canada concept at the Scotties for next year only as it means Amber Holland and her nonsensical interview stylings will be back on the national scene once again.
• • •
Moving away from curling entirely, congratulations to Fort Frances native and former Rainy River Voyageurs’ goalie Melissa Calder, who was named to the NCHA’s All-Academic Team for the second-straight season.
Calder, in her senior year for the Marian Sabres, is majoring in psychology at the Fond du Lac, Wis. school.

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