The Great Olympic Pre-Trail Swindle (or How Glen Howard and Charlie Thomas Got The Shaft)

One of the great things about this blog is just when I think, for the briefest of moments, that I’ll have nothing to write about, a topic just falls into my laptop-if you’ll pardon the pun.

Case in point: there I was minding my own business, trying-in vain I might add-to balance the divorced single dad budget while wondering: what I should write about for the next blog? when out of the sky, like the proverbial gift from the Gods, drops the Olympic Pre-trials.

Warning: The remainder of this entry contains very little in the way of my usual sarcastic and witty commentary. The truth is I’m really disgusted by what happened in PEI and completely confounded by it. So apologies, dear reader, if you were looking forward to some chuckles. This time around I really don’t have it in me.

Why is it even necessary to have a Pre-Trials event?

The short, and logical, answer to the question is; it’s not necessary at all.

The Pre-Trials is a last chance event for two Men’s and Women’s teams to qualify for the Olympic Curling Trials. The other teams have already qualified, mainly on accomplishments won in the previous season or being in the top ranking on the CTRS.

So when you consider that one of the ways we establish the other teams is by using the CTRS, the question then begs; Why not just use the CTRS to decide those last two spots as well? After all, isn’t that what the CTRS is supposed to do? Having another, week-long event just to decide the last two entrants for the Trials seems-to the average, intelligent human being-a colossal waste of time, money and resources.

In fact, if I was one of those teams who would be in trials if just the CTRS was used, I’d be pretty pissed to find out I now have to go play teams ranked well below me and with fewer accomplishments than my squad.

Remember, the CTRS grandfathers points over more than one curling season. The theory being to show consistent performance over a long period of time. So even if you disagree-as I do-with the way events are valued and also grandfathered, the teams on the CTRS have got to their ranking with multiple season accomplishments. Which, once again, makes it all the more baffling why the CCA feels the need to bother with a Pre-Trials competition.

Until you realize, that is, what a cash cow the Olympic Trials have become.

The Trials have become so big they rival the Brier and STOH for TV numbers and spectators. They crush any Slam event as well. Being held only once every 4 years makes it unique and special to begin with, and if they can build extra hype with the Pre-Trials (I mean, can’t you just hear the announcer in your head? It’s the Last Chance for the Olympic DREAM for these athletes folks!), it translates into more people watching the real Trials on the tube and more butts in those arena seats. Which also ultimately translates into the CCA being able to rake in more revenue.

So it all comes down to the moolah dear reader. Once again, greed is king. Because I’ll let you in on a big secret: we actually don’t even need to hold an Olympic Trials either.

Was that a huge, audience gasp of astonishment I just heard? We’ll come back to this when I wrap things up at the end. First, though, here’s how Howard and Thomas got the royal rip in PEI.

Initially, the Pre-Trials was a straightforward, 8 team, Triple-knockout event with a Page Playoff for two spots. And the first two were pretty much just that. Whether you agree or not with the need for the event, at least they were run in a format that made sense.

Then came this season.

To start with, the decision was made to increase the field size to 14 teams of each gender. Now, if you have any experience with writing draws (as I do), then you know that a 14 team TKO is doable-but it would make more sense to have a balanced and equal draw by going to 16 teams.

Except the CCA had no intention of using the TKO format, the preferred choice of the athletes, and instead decided to go with a two-pool Round-robin followed by the most convoluted and ridiculous playoff format I have ever seen-in any sport.

I get the justification for the RR. It was somewhat of a preview for what we’re probably going to get stuck with in future national events. But tossing out the Page Playoff for this barf of a system made no sense at all. And this is where Glenn Howard and Charlie Thomas got ripped off.

A Page Playoff system rewards teams for excellent preliminary round play. In short, it qualifies four teams and gives the top two teams an extra life in the playoff round (as opposed to the old Single-knockout format).

Teams 1 & 2 playoff with the winner advancing to the final (or in the case of the Pre-Trials they’d get the first berth to the Trials) the loser of the game drops down to the Semi-final (or in this case Trials berth qualifying game #2) and waits to play the winner of the 3 vs. 4 game. So Teams 1 & 2 get rewarded with 2 lives while 3 & 4 have only one-but can still win the event.

Over the years I’ve grown to like the Page format for a number of reasons: it makes the Preliminary round more crucial with the reward of 2 playoff lives versus only one and the 1 vs. 2 game gives the leaders a chance to stumble, so to speak, but not be eliminated with one bad game after an events worth of exceptional play.

It also means that Teams 3 & 4 in order to win, must win 3 straight games with no losses. Not an easy feat, but doable. And if they pull that off, it usually (but not always) gives them an accumulated games won total equal or better than the teams that finished top two in the preliminary round. In this way, the Page system ends up balancing records in the fairest way possible.

Truthfully, the only really fair way to decide a winner in a RR style event is the team with the best record (or a playoff in the event of a tie). Unfortunately, we live in the age of TV sports and they don’t want a hoo-hum, nothing-on-the-line, already-decided-days-ago-RR-results-based champion. Not too many frozen chicken wings get sold that way. So instead we have the drama of a winner take all final game to pull in the viewers and advertising dollars.

And you know what? I’m okay with that because it has helped the sport-as long as we use the fairest playoff format possible out of respect for the athletes. And the Page, IMO, is still the best case scenario in that sense.

So WTF happened in PEI?

I don’t know who, or the justification, but somebody decided that running a simple Page Playoff just wasn’t good enough. Instead, the choice was made to select 6 teams and have:

  1. the top 4 play a SKO for the first berth and then have the 3 losing teams drop into:
  2. a second round SKO (with teams 5 & 6) for the 2nd spot.

So teams 1-4 got two playoff lives while 5 & 6 got one. It’s not an overly tough system to figure out and you might say; ‘So what’s the big deal?’ Until you look at what happened after the preliminary round. Because the one big issue that can arise with multi pool RR events is tie breakers. And this one was a big, fucking mess.

There were two pools of 7 teams, each playing 6 games. Now the rule of thumb in RR is the fewer games you play, the more chances of tied records at the end. In our case, Glen Howard and Charlie Thomas won their pools hands down with 6-0 and 5-1 records respectively. 6 teams were then tied at 3-3 for the last 4 playoff berths.

Now stop for one second and insert a Page Playoff system into this scenario. Howard and Thomas, by virtue of excellent preliminary round play, would square off for Trials berth #1 in the 1 vs. 2 game and the loser waits while the remaining 6 play tiebreaker games to reach 3 & 4. So no matter what, Howard and Thomas are rewarded with two chances to advance to the Trials. Two chances, I might add, that they earned in the preliminary round by beating everyone else.

This would have been simple, efficient and fair. If it had been used.

Not so in this case, however.

With 6 teams tied at 3-3 how, you ask, did John Morris and Brendan Botcher advance to play in the first berth playoff group against Howard and Thomas? Was there a bunch of tie-breaker games? or were won-loss records against their pool opponents used?

Neither. They used a frickin’ Turkey Shoot competition. That’s right, the results of the Team Draw Off were used to send two teams with 3 losses apiece up against two teams who’d far outperformed them. And, since it’s history, we all know what happened.

Both Thomas and Howard had their stumble and lost to Morris and Botcher. Morris then beat Botcher to grab berth #1. In the 2nd round Thomas got eliminated while Howard won two games to reach the final against Botcher (who dropped straight to the final after his loss to Morris). So you have Howard at 8-1 vs. Botcher at 4-4 playing for the last spot to the Trials. Howard lost on last rock.

Two teams with superior records (in Howard’s case a far superior one) get eliminated in an event which is supposed to send the two best teams. As it was, a team with 5-3 (Morris) and another at 5-4 (Botcher) are in the trials while Howard (8-2) sits on the sidelines.

Remember what I said earlier about how a Page system can, to a certain extent, balance out win/loss records? Had a Page been used here a team at 3-3 would have to accumulate as many, or more, wins than Howard or Thomas to win the second Trials Berth. ie; They would need either a 6-3 or 7-3 record. Thus equaling, or surpassing, their opponent in the total games won department. Not to mention accomplishing the feat in a pretty grueling fashion.

The short strokes are that Howard and Thomas got the shaft because a Page Playoff wasn’t used. While Morris and Botcher, with poorer performances, benefitted from a flawed playoff system. I mean no disrespect to either of those teams. After all, I am glad to see a couple of BC guys in the Trials. But Morris and Botcher had no business playing for the first spot. That right was earned by two other teams. At best Morris and Botcher should have met in the 3 vs 4 game for the chance to play in the 2nd Berth Qualifier against either Howard or Thomas.

Yet, I can hear a whole bunch of you climbing on your soap boxes and spouting the old, tired, worn out cliché:

‘So what? it was the same for everyone and they knew the format going in. They shouldn’t have lost’

I have an answer for anyone spouting that line. Blaming the athletes just so you can be lazy and ignore a poorly conceived and executed system is the oldest, lamest trick in the book.

Tell me, what choice did Howard and Thomas have? Do you think they should have told the CCA ‘Screw you, we ain’t playing in this farce’? What say were the players given in the selection of this format? I know there are some seriously dumb tour players out there, but not enough of them to give this system the big thumbs up.

But this isn’t the first time Old Glenn has been on the receiving end where the Olympic Trials are concerned. In fact, he got shafted in the very first one 30 years ago. And I was there, in the thick of things, to witness it firsthand as a competitor.

In 1987 we lost the Brier final to Russ Howard. By virtue of finishing 2nd, we qualified for the Olympic Trials for the 88 Calgary Games. The Brier and the Trials remain my fondest memories of the sport. For a 26 year old they were the culmination of dreams which took hold as a junior curler-after I learned how to slide without falling over that is.

Yet, if you know anything about the history of the 87 Trials, then you know full well it was a very controversial event. From the day it was announced Curling would be a demonstration sport, arguments railed as to who and how the two teams representing Canada would be chosen.

The whole mess would make a great book, because truth truly was stranger than fiction. There was the Newfie shunning, Quebec getting a pity entry, the Olympic Try-outs (4 handpicked teams put together by the CCA) and the big enchilada; The Dream Team vs. Warren Hansen aka: The Great Weight Debate Snot Fight. Each of those-and more-are worthy of at least a chapter or two on their own.

But underlying it all was one thing, made crystal clear in a quote to the media from my skip, Bernie Sparkes, when asked about playing in the event. To sum it up, Bernie simply and eloquently said that as much an honor as it was to be there, we were all playing for the spot Russ Howard had already won.

Which now brings us back, full circle, to the comment I made many paragraphs ago that we don’t need to hold an Olympic Trials.

You see, it was Bernie’s opinion (shared, I might add, by myself and almost everyone else there at the time) that if you won the Brier/STOH the year prior to the Winter Olympics, then you had also won the right to be Team Canada at the Games. It’s a belief I still hold today.

And that’s how Glen Howard (and the rest of their team at the time) got Shaft #1.

Think about this people. If you are good enough to survive the entire lengthy, exhausting competition and emerge victorious at the Brier/STOH is there really a need to have another National Championship? Are we not just repeating ourselves? If you are good enough to wear the Maple Leaf at the World Championships and then get an auto berth and return to the Brier/STOH as Team Canada, then why are you suddenly not acceptable to represent your country and sport at the Winter Olympics?

Because when you come down to it, the Winter Olympics are just another world championship. Build them up as much as you want but you aren’t fooling me. The only thing special about them is they’re only held once every 4 years.

It is, as the late Leonard Nimoy would say; ‘Not logical, Captain’

Of course, then we wouldn’t have the huge cash cow and all those wings would just sit in the grocery stores getting freezer burn. But at least Glen Howard wouldn’t have got the Olympic shaft twice in 30 years.

Tough one Glen and Charlie. You guys deserved better.

 

 

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