Scott Russell - Sunday Feb. 9, 2014 21:53

Great expectations for Canadian curling

Counting on curling gold is a dangerous game

Jennifer Jones 4
Jennifer Jones
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There are the medals that a country hopes to win, and the ones it expects to win … even counts on to win.

Curling falls into the latter category for most Canadians.

While hockey is the national obsession and figure skating is a national passion, curling is the national pastime which fits us like a glove. Whenever we gather in a curling rink, it somehow feels like we’re in our own house.

The man who makes the frozen sheets at the Ice Cube Curling Center here in Sochi is a Canadian, because he knows how to do it better than anyone else in the world.

The same is true of the broadcast crew that will provide the pictures and sound of the “Roaring Game” to millions around the globe. They are Canadians, mostly from the prairie West, who are completely comfortable with the sport and its many intricacies.

In recent times Canadian fans of hockey have taken great pains to claim it as “Our Game”, whereas those who love curling quietly assume it will always be so when it comes to dominating the ice between hack and house.

But while Canada has won two gold and two silver medals in men’s play at the Olympics since curling returned to the program in 1998, the women’s story of success has not been as emphatic.

Only the legendary Sandra Schmirler of Saskatchewan was champion at the Nagano Games in Japan. In Salt Lake City, Kelley Law took her B.C. rink to bronze. In Torino, Shannon Kleibrink also won bronze with her Alberta foursome while Cheryl Bernard of Calgary came within a whisker of gold and had to settle for silver at the Vancouver Games in 2010.

In Sochi, the Canadian men, led by Brad Jacobs of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. are heavily favoured to win the gold medal, and the expectations facing them are enormous. The same can be said of Jennifer Jones and her crew from Winnipeg. They are the last Canadian women to win the world championships, but that was back in 2008.

“Anytime we send the Canadian favourite there’s the expectation that they will come home with the gold medal,” said 1998 Olympic gold medallist Joan McCusker. “This is our best team but this is the strongest international field in women’s curling ever.”

Indeed, Jones and her foursome will be hard pressed because reigning world champ Eve Muirhead of Great Britain stands in her way, as do former world champions Mirjam Ott of Switzerland and the Chinese team led by Wang Bingyu.

Canada has been generous with curling and its players have become missionaries of the sport, helping to grow its popularity around the world. The price to pay has been an increasingly competitive field when it comes to the Olympic summit.

But there can be no excuses for not contending for gold.

“In the world of global networking there is no difference whether you are at home or away, the pressure is very much there,” McCusker figured.

“Jennifer Jones could lose fair and square to a world champion from another country … to a very good team. That’s the reality of it.”

And that’s the bottom line in curling on the Olympic stage. While Canada is expected to triumph and deliver gold medals which are counted on back at home, they undertake the journey knowing full well that the field of play is almost level.

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