6 takeaways from the 2017-18 curling season
Looking back at a big (Olympic) year
There are no more draws to the button, double takeouts or extra ends — the curling season is officially over.
The great granite game came to a halt after the Champions Cup event — the season finale for the Grand Slam tour. Brad Gushue and Rachel Homan won the men's and women's titles, respectively.
It was a big year for curling, which is usually the case when the Olympics roll around. The Winter Games catapult the sport into the spotlight and expose it to people who wouldn't normally watch rocks slide up and down pebbled sheets of ice. Add them to the game's already loyal following, and curling is enjoying a good deal of popularity right now. The game seems to be growing.
Here are some of the things we saw and lessons we learned during a memorable 2017-18 season.
Trials and error
Every Canadian curling team had spent the last four years preparing for the Olympic trials in Ottawa at the beginning of December. Over the years, wearing the maple leaf at the Games has become the focus for the top pros across the country, and the pressure at the trials reflects that. It's as intense as it gets.
Kevin Koe and Rachel Homan thrived in that environment and earned the right to represent Canada on the sport's biggest stage by playing their best at the right time and capitalizing on their opponents' mistakes. Unfortunately, surviving the trials didn't seem to help them much at the Olympics (more on that later).
Before this season, much of the talk surrounding the quirky new discipline was negative. Traditionalists scoffed at the modified rules and other gimmicky differences. Then the mixed doubles Olympic trials came along and minds started to change. Dream teams were formed as big-name curlers who lost out in the team trials fought to keep their Olympic hopes alive.
Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris had only practised together for about a half hour before the trials, but they went on to win that event and then win Olympic gold, learning on the fly how to communicate in stressful moments.
Curling fans were winners, too, as many couldn't get enough of the fast-paced, riveting mixed doubles games.
Olympic ups and downs
It's been more than two months, and many are still wondering — what happened to Homan and Koe at the Olympics?
Before this year, no Canadian curling team had failed to capture a medal at the Olympics since the sport was reintroduced to the program in 1998. Then it happened twice in Pyeongchang.
Some say the rest of the world is catching up to Canada. Others close to the sport say that's been the case for years and it hadn't mattered much before — Homan and Koe just had a bad week at the Olympics.
As disappointing as those results were, it's not like the Olympics were a total bust for Canadian curlers. Lawes and Morris captured the first-ever gold medal in mixed doubles by putting on a masterful display of shot-making and highlighting the importance of teamwork.
The Paralympics also brought joy to Canadians with the inspiring performance of the country's wheelchair curling team, which lost a heartbreaking semifinal to China only to come back the next day and win bronze. Marie Wright, a paraplegic mother of four who wouldn't stop smiling, won over opponents and fans alike with her positive attitude.
Canada's weaker showing at the Olympics opened the door for other countries to succeed. Curling took host nation South Korea by storm as Team Kim (aka "the Garlic Girls") became national heroes by making it all the way to the gold-medal game before losing to Sweden.
The American men's team skipped by John Shuster won its country's first-ever gold medal in curling — some called it a "Miracle on Ice" after the team rallied from nearly missing the playoffs — while Japan's women and Switzerland's men won bronze for their countries.
As podium spots appear to be increasingly up for grabs, it's no accident that curling is becoming more popular outside of Canada.
Brad Gushue and Jennifer Jones enjoyed another strong season. Both skips won multiple Slam events, Jones captured her sixth Scotties and second world title, and Gushue repeated as Brier champion before taking silver at worlds.
But neither won the Olympic berth for Canada. And while all the winning outside of that was great, they might give up a few of those victories, maybe all of them, to have worn the maple leaf at the Games. A lot of Canadian curling fans might feel the same way.
That has some in the curling community looking closely at Canada's Olympic qualifying process. It will be interesting to see during the off-season and into next year whether Curling Canada considers making changes.
Working full time
Perhaps what became most evident this season is how evolved the sport of curling has become. It's nearly a year-round endeavour now, hurting teams who want to play in the odd event while those who can secure enough sponsorship to play a ton of events flourish. Curlers are living the life of big-time pro athletes now (minus the massive paycheques).
Analytics are making their way into the sport too, as they already have in most other sports. Call it "Moneyball meets curling" and the teams who are embracing it may be gaining an edge.
The best example of this is Sweden's women's team. A year and a half out from the Olympics, Anna Hasselborg's rink was ranked 22nd in the world and wanted to find a way to get good, fast. They turned to the numbers and went on to win gold at the Olympics. Sure, they still had to execute great curling shots, but they've talked a lot about how using statistical analysis has helped them.
Finally, the shuffling of players after this year's Olympic trials to create powerhouse foursomes for the run-up to the 2022 Games tells you everything you need to know about how curling has evolved. The modern game is about forming a team you believe can make a serious run at the next trials, securing sponsorships and getting down to work on and off the ice.
The days of corn brooms, beer bellies and cigarettes are long gone. Curling may still be associated with those old stereotypes, but take one look across the sheets today and it's apparent that this sport is now for the fit and the focused. It's a full-time career.