Road To The Olympic Games

Curling skips have to watch what they say on TV

The decision to place microphones on curlers during televised games has been a major boon for the sport, but the drawback of the technology that has made televised curling so popular today is that it also forces players keep their emotions — and more colourful words — in check.
With Randy Ferbey and other curlers outfitted with microphones, fans have the chance to hear exactly what they're thinking. ((Nathan Denette/Canadian Press))

Saskatchewan's Pat Simmons came out of the hack on Monday morning at the Brier, double clutched, and set off the hog line violation light in the handle of his stone.

Thanks to microphones that he and every other skip have worn for more than 20 years, we heard exactly what came out of his mouth: "No way!"

But you couldn't help think he wanted to say something a little tastier than that, especially since it cost him a chance at the big four pointer, and instead gave Brad Gushue of Newfoundland and Labrador an easy three and the eventual victory.

Randy Ferbey knows exactly how Simmons feels.

"I'm sure he was thinking [of saying something] a lot deeper than that," the four-time world champion and half-dozen Brier winner was saying over the phone from Sherwood Park, Alta., where he was using a hair dryer to unfreeze his pipes.

"I'm sure he wanted to say more in that moment, after the game, during the game, last night, whatever," Ferbey said, chuckling.

Simmons can't say those nasty things on air, however. None of the players can.

Lead to the loo

Everyone seems to have a good story about skips forgetting the mike is on, but we’ll take one from Mike Harris as a fine example.

The CBC colour commentator was working the 2002 world women’s championships in North Dakota with Joan McCusker and the late Don Wittman when eventual champion Scotland was supposed to start an end. Only, the lead was missing.

"Everybody was looking for the lead when we heard a toilet flush, loud and clear," says Harris, laughing at the memory. "She came walking out on to the ice surface, and we were laughing our heads off and Don said, "Well, at least we know where the lead was now.’"

Harris also points out something the highly sensitive earphones used by the broadcast crew can pick up that can’t be heard by the viewers — personal gas.

Skips might want to think about that before they tuck into a bean burrito and diet cola on the dinner break.

And that's the drawback with the very technology that has made televised curling so popular today — it also forces the players to suck it in and keep those emotions that athletes in other sports are allowed to spew all over the place, tightly under control.

"You get used to it, the more often you wear [the mike]," says Mike Harris, the former Canadian Olympian and now CBC curling colour commentator.

"There has been a time when I've turned it off once in a while, but the players at [the Brier] level, it's amazing how calm they get to be. For the most part, they know that losing it emotionally is detrimental to their game."

Therefore, they don't worry about the mike. 

Real frustration comes, Harris says, more from a rock picking up a hair, or a hog line violation (see: Simmons, Pat). Or back when officials called the hog line instead of the modern technology.

That really got people riled.

Manitoba's Kerry Burtnyk, himself twice a Brier winner, says not being able to blow off a little steam at the right time can be a factor out there, no doubt.

"And it certainly can affect certain skips in certain ways [because] some are more emotional out there … but the ones who have done it for a while, [wearing the mike] probably doesn't bother them."

He also points out curlers have been more than accommodating over the years with the mikes when other athletes — golfers, for example — have fought hard against it.

Joan's legacy

The idea to mike curlers came out of the fertile mind of late CBC curling producer Joan Mead, who believed letting the viewers understand the strategy of the game would create a whole new generation of fans.

She was right.

But it took a while to get the curlers to buy in, and a couple even disputed it with the CBC and the curling association. Ferbey, however, loved it right from the start.

"I thought it was kind of cool, actually, it was kind of neat," he says. "We were probably a little more giggly than normal at first."

Everyone had to learn to keep the F-bomb bay doors closed. Right away.

You still get a missle or two, however.

"During the broadcast you hear of lot of f-bombs," Harris says, laughing. "More than you might think. Once a telecast wouldn't be a stretch."

Curling isn't on a delay, so it can be a dangerous thing, but what the commentators pick up on their headphones at rink side is usually a lot sharper than what the audience at home is hearing, so many of the comments are missed.

Who's on the line?

Team coaches and fifth men, who sit down at ice level during games, were cut off from listening to the broadcasts a few years back, but that was more because they were picking up ideas and suggestions from the colour commentators who had a better view of the ice, rather than listening in on the opposition, Harris says.

To be useful to an opposing team, a chat between a skip and his vice would have to be picked up off the television broadcast and relayed using some kind of Bill Belichick-inspired NFL hand signals from the audience back to the playing surface.

Nobody recalls seeing anything like that.

There are times you might like a little privacy, however, and there are ways.

Kevin Martin and John Morris ripped their mics off earlier this season during a Canada Cup of Curling broadcast so they could chat at the fifth end break. The curling association didn't like that at all and threatened a fine (and curlers cannot afford fines), so that won't happen again.

Harris has turned his off. Ferbey has used something even simpler than that.

"When I've been frustrated, I'll be standing [next to my vice] and he'll cover my mic for me," he says. "I'm sure other players out there do that."

And putting up with the mics has been worth it.

"Oh, absolutely," Ferbey says. "It's brought curling into everyone's living rooms. You get to know [the team's] thought processes.

"It's taken [popularity] up 10-fold. I don't think the game would be nearly as popular without it."

Burtnyk agrees.

"[Miking] is probably the single best thing about curling on television," he says. "It's probably the only sport where people at home get a chance to listen to why an athlete is using a certain strategy or why he's going to do this shot or any other shot."

Even if an occasional stray mistake sneaks out.

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