Calm down people! Directional sweeping’s days are numbered.
Before you start reading, please understand that these opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my employers. I’m a curling pro at the Toronto Cricket, Skating, and Curling Club, and also do periodic work for Curling Canada… who definitely don’t officially endorse any of this.
As this season wraps up, it’s safe to say that it will go down in curling history as the one with the brush head debate, #broomgate, directional sweeping, and to some people: the one where the new sweeping technique ruined curling.
Granted, it was a change in equipment and technique and as a result, strategy was adjusted (remember during the Worlds when Benny said they could “carve it” better than the other guys because they still had fresh heads?). It was a change, an evolution, and yes, a part of the game that needed attention from the governing bodies. What it wasn’t, however, was the goddamn apocalypse that everybody on the internet seemed to think it was.
With all due respect to Mr. McMillan, this is not cheating. Players were playing within the rules both at Canadian events and World Events (the rules are different), and yet there was an uproar about how they were ruining the sport. Yes, the game was different, and I applaud the players for getting the best results they could within the framework that existed that week. For Ben Hebert to know that the other team’s brushes were flat was a critical detail at that point in the game, and gave them a competitive advantage. Not traditional curling, but not cheating by any means. Nobody is ruining the game. They’re changing it… even temporarily.
But of course, everybody hates change. Change ruins things.
I was young, but I remember a time before the free guard zone, or Russ Howard’s Moncton Rule. I remember old men swinging corn brooms and rink rats. I remember 10 pound wooden-handle Brownie brushes, and carpet covered heads. I’ve seen Brier videos of guys smoking mid-slide. I’ve read about a time before hoglines, or even indoor ice. Change happens and, as it turns out, the sport is somehow surviving. So, take a deep breath, climb down off your soapbox, and put away your pitchfork.
If you don’t like it, and most people don’t… who do you want to blame?
Nobody cared about any of this until September when Brad Gushue started with this one sweeper business (using Hardline IcePads) Other teams quickly jumped on board, and a few weeks later at the Stu Sells Toronto event, a super aggressive Balance Plus product was used “to prove a point” about how aggressive heads can ruin the ice. The rules changed, and heads changed, and the techniques remained. Then the players discovered that hair was equally (more?) effective. Then they banned hair. It’s those sneaky players who kept trying to get the best results with the equipment they were allowed… how dare them?!
You can’t blame an athlete for trying to gain an advantage (WITHIN THE RULES) when national titles, Olympic berths, and hundreds of thousands of dollars are at stake. So who can you blame?
The Governing Bodies?
Even last week during the worlds, Twitter and Facebook comments were enflamed with suggestions that “they” need to change the rules. Of course there were very few suggestions about who “they” were or how the rule should change.
First of all… it is a very slippery slope when a governing body decides to change a rule mid-season. Between the WCF and Curling Canada, the brushing rules were changed at LEAST four times. First “directional fabric” and inserts were banned (WCF and CC). Then hair brooms were banned (WCF and CC). Hair was allowed only if you were a skip (CC). The number of brushes in play was restricted at the Scotties and Brier (CC), but it wasn’t until after the Junior Worlds that the WCF got on board for the Women’s and Men’s worlds.
So it’s safe to say “they” changed the rules many times, trying to keep up with the changing technique. One WCF official told me in February they were just trying to get through the year without any more major controversy. The “Brushing Summit” was in the works long before it was announced, and yes, you should expect more rule changes… but not without proper research, consultation, and discussion first.
They can’t just change all the rules fundamental to the game, because as stated above, national, world, and Olympic championships are on the line here, and those are big business. Especially that last one. Do you think the any Olympic committees would like it if you forced their teams to change equipment, but other countries got to keep theirs? Changes had to be subtle so as to not pick on any particular team or brand.
So why didn’t they just ban anything they felt was too “scratchy?” Because they feared legal action from…
Imagine if the NBA suddenly said, that players wearing Nike shoes had an unfair advantage and that nobody could wear them anymore. How fast would a major lawsuit be on their hands?
While no curling manufacturer has the money that Nike does, all governing bodies were walking on eggshells trying to make sure that they didn’t offend any one company too specifically (namely Hardline) for that reason. When all the products have been in use for years (except for the Balance Plus blackhead, which was only used in one bonspiel), the associations needed to find a way to ban/limit them without being too specific to one brand.
Meanwhile, all the suppliers were trying to do was make a more effective brush, which they did. Shotmaking has never been better. Fractions of an inch have never been easier to hit. Precision has been dialed up to 11 thanks to these tools and techniques.
And yet… everybody thinks they’re ruining the game.
So what’s going to happen?
With this weekend’s Grand Slam comes another innovation in brushing rules. After limiting the number of heads used in competition to 2, this week’s experiment involves keeping brushes on a specific side of the sheet… no more trading the sharp brush to the curly side. We’ll see how it goes.
What we’re going to see further on, is a gathering of WCF, Curling Canada, players, manufacturers, and scientists who can come together and figure out how to agree on what sweeping should do, what it shouldn’t do, which heads/fabric are going to allow that, and which rules need to be adjusted to bring an end to this whole fiasco.
There will be studies. There will be rule changes, perhaps to govern both equipment and technique. We’re going to end up with a scientific answer of how “scratchy” a head can be, and the manufacturers will have to comply. Less scratchy means less carving, and potentially an end to directional sweeping as we know it.
In the meantime, everybody chill out, and enjoy the last couple events of a brief era…