Kevin Koe at forefront of change as curlers set sights on 2022 Olympics
Canadian Olympian swaps out half his rink in effort to reload for long journey
CHATHAM, Ont. — It wasn't all that long ago in the curling world that sticking together as a team (usually comprised of four players from the same province, city, club) was the norm.
There's no getting around the fact that the four-year Olympic cycle heavily influences how teams approach the sport — and sometimes forces them to make difficult decisions.
This is abundantly apparent this week in Chatham, Ont., as many of the top curling teams in the world have gathered for the first Grand Slam event of the season.
The list of teams who made changes is long: Reid Carruthers. John Epping. Glenn Howard. Steve Laycock. Matt Dunstone. Jason Gunnlaugson. You get the point.
In a lot of ways this is the beginning of the long journey to the 2022 Olympics.
You almost need a program guide to help navigate the new foursomes — but four years from now many of the newly formed teams will be household fixtures in living rooms across Canada.
That's the point. Reload now so that teams can find that magic touch when it matters most.
Watch Devin Heroux preview the curling season with the 11-year-old creator of the Lazy Handle Show:
Take for instance the journey of Kevin Koe. Four years ago, he made the somewhat contentious decision to leave his team of Pat Simmons, Carter Rycroft and Nolan Thiessen. At that time, many questioned Koe's decision, especially because they had just won the Brier and had been given the free ticket to the event the following year as Team Canada.
Still, the skip felt he needed to make some changes four years away from the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang.
"I had won the Brier and told my team basically two days later I was quitting and moving on," Koe told CBC Sports. "Those are never easy decisions. Especially because they were my friends. If they were people I didn't like it would have been easier."
Staying on top ain't easy
Koe would join forces with Marc Kennedy, Brent Laing and Ben Hebert for the 2015 season to begin the pursuit of their Olympic dreams. Kennedy and Hebert won Olympic gold with Kevin Martin and John Morris during the 2010 Olympics, so Koe felt he had found the perfect recipe for success.
"You have to make some tough decisions sometimes," he said. "They're not easy but you hope they work out in the end."
Quickly, the new Koe foursome became a force to be reckoned with. They won multiple Grand Slam events, capturing the 2016 Brier and world championship and asserted themselves as one of the top teams in the world.
For Hebert, he says it was a blend of curling prowess that allowed them to succeed.
"Chemistry and skill and talent and work ethic, age, experience," he said. "Everyone has to have the same goal. We all wanted the same thing."
The somewhat risky and controversial move by Koe paid off. In December 2017 his team won the Olympic trials in Ottawa and earned the right to represent Canada at the Olympics.
However, the team was unable to make it onto the Pyeongchang podium after a disappointing fourth-place finish.
"Curling teams don't stay together forever. Especially if you want to stay at the top level. I don't know what the reason for that is but it just doesn't happen," Koe said.
And so Koe's done it again.
During the off-season he and Hebert teamed up with B.J. Neufeld and Colton Flasch — reloading for another Olympic push.
Gushue rink sticking together
While Koe continues to make changes, Brad Gushue and company are sticking together.
"There aren't too many teams that blow it all up and become the best team in the world right away," Gushue said. "It takes some years. And there have been some teams that have had long, good runs."
Gushue says his team of Mark Nichols, Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker were bitterly disappointed not to make it to the Olympics and took some time away from the game to refocus on the next four year cycle.
"Sometimes teams become stale. So that's going to be a challenge for us this year in this cycle. Our relationship as a team is so good I don't know if we'll get there, but it's something we'll be cognizant of," Gushue said candidly.
"It's certainly going to be a concern for us."
Finding chemistry, staying motivated, getting sponsorship, traveling and winning enough money to keep playing the sport they love — this is the new reality of curling. And making it to the Olympics.