Cana­dian teams un­der con­stant pres­sure, Cathal Kelly writes

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - SPORTS | REPORT ON BUSINESS - CATHAL KELLY

To prop­erly put the pres­sure placed on Cana­dian curlers into per­spec­tive, you can’t ask them. You’re better off putting it to the world’s sec­ond-ranked team.

The Swe­den men’s rink might be the sex­i­est group in world curl­ing, lit­er­ally and metaphor­i­cally.

Hard hit­ters who look like a Vik­ing rock band.

Their lead singer, Nik­las Edin, gets a lit­tle wide-eyed when he thinks of the hot nights and wild times on the road in Regina or North Bay.

“When we go over there, it’s a dif­fer­ent kind of life,” Edin said after Wed­nes­day’s opener to the men’s tour­na­ment.

“If we go to restau­rants, peo­ple come up to us and ask for self­ies and au­to­graphs. Be­ing Swedes, that’s un­real.

“We’re not hockey play­ers. It’s, like, what’s hap­pen­ing?”

To hear Edin tell it, curl­ing in Canada is a non-stop Wood­stock. The at­ten­tion is so great, he has to re­turn to Karl­stad to es­cape it.

“That’s our down­time. We can re­lax, take a deep breath. We don’t have any peo­ple com­ing up ask­ing for any­thing,” Edin said. “Then we go back to Canada, and it’s that jet­set life again.”

Yes, “jet­set life.” That’s what Edin said. In ref­er­ence to curl­ing.

Given all that, how much pres­sure do you imag­ine comes with wear­ing the maple leaf?

“Huge,” Edin said, stretch­ing his arms out as if to mea­sure a fish. “Hu­u­u­u­uge.”

While men’s hockey gets the glory, their curl­ing coun­ter­parts in­stead get the strain. The last time the Cana­dian men’s team failed to win Olympic gold, Jean Chré­tien was prime min­is­ter.

This time around, the ban­ner is be­ing car­ried by a sort of cream of Cana­dian curl­ing – a su­per­group as­sem­bled for one blowout tour through Asia.

Their leader, Kevin Koe, aban­doned his long-time crew – at the time, the Cana­dian se­nior na­tional squad – in 2014 to piece to­gether his cur­rent out­fit. In the in­su­lar world of elite curl­ing, that makes Koe both the John and the Yoko.

“It was a big risk for him,” team third and 2010 gold medal­ist Marc Kennedy said. “He knew he was go­ing to take a lot of heat for it.”

Though ev­i­dently suc­cess­ful, it has not ex­actly been smooth.

“I don’t think we’ll ever be the most con­sis­tent team out there,” Koe said. “It’d be a lit­tle nicer.”

All four men are cool cus­tomers. Other rinks came bounc­ing off the ice blink­ing at all the cam­eras. Many of them may go years be­tween in­ter­views.

Canada beat a cal­low Ital­ian team 5-3 on Wed­nes­day. Af­ter­ward, the Ital­ians did not seem to un­der­stand that jour­nal­ists would ex­pect to speak to them. An Ital­ian flack had to phys­i­cally drag one of them back into the mixed zone. He did not look best pleased.

By con­trast, Canada sashayed in ready for the daily chat. Credit to them – they have their “no big deal” talk­ing points down.

“I don’t feel for us that it’s gold or bust. They might feel that way in Canada,” Kennedy said. “To be hon­est, we would be happy with a medal.”

“Pres­sure? It’s def­i­nitely there,” Koe said. “It’s no dif­fer­ent at the worlds. Maybe a few more eyes on it.”

Yeah, sure. A bronze would be just fine, thanks. Play­ing in front of a few thou­sand peo­ple in the Swiss boon­docks is just like be­ing watched by hun­dreds of mil­lions world­wide.

If you be­lieve that, I’ll tell you an­other one.

The pres­sure is such that the Cana­dian team does not have a curl­ing coach, pre­cisely. They’re all scarred cam­paign­ers. They don’t need ad­vice on their sweep­ing tech­nique. Their coach, John Dunn – a man who’s been with Koe for a decade – is a sports psy­chol­o­gist who func­tions as a quasi-team ther­a­pist.

“He knows shit-all about curl­ing,” Kennedy said.

As with most sports mo­ti­va­tors, Dunn comes armed with a va­ri­ety of apho­risms meant to fo­cus the ath­letic mind. An ex­am­ple: “You don’t rise to the oc­ca­sion. You fall to the level of your train­ing.” (Which I be­lieve is a re­work­ing of a Den­zel Wash­ing­ton line in Man on Fire.)

So how does this work? Does every­one get in a shar­ing cir­cle and ex­plore their fears or what?

Kennedy, a bright, sinewy Al­ber­tan who once ran a meat store, rocks back on his heels slightly.

“It’s not so much sit around and talk about your feel­ings,” he said. “John comes from a mil­i­tary back­ground.”

The re­sult of that can be seen in Canada’s ap­proach dur­ing com­pe­ti­tion – rig­or­ous and dead-eyed. If the mixed-dou­bles pair­ing was a buddy com­edy, the men’s team is a hard­boiled noir.

Ev­ery ath­lete is ca­pa­ble of the choke – a point un­der stress dur­ing which the con­scious mind as­sumes con­trol of what should be an un­con­scious re­ac­tion.

The sport of curl­ing may pro­vide more chok­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties than any other. The games take for­ever. The bulk of a con­test is spent stand­ing around think­ing about what to do next. Small er­rors snow­ball. That’s when the doubt creeps in, and you start think­ing about what’s ex­pected of you.

“A lot of emo­tions go into two-and-a-half hours of curl­ing,” Kennedy said. You wouldn’t know it to look at him. Out on the sheet, he looks about as hyped up as an un­usu­ally lan­guid iguana.

Ev­ery com­peti­tor here is un­der some sort of duress, but it may not be hy­per­bolic to say that Canada’s curlers are un­der the most of all. You’re not even play­ing and the idea of it gives you the shiv­ers.

How does the Cana­dian team deal with it in pub­lic? By fall­ing back on canned an­swers de­liv­ered with a smile. Un­like every­one else at the curl­ing event, even their me­dia re­la­tions feel trained. Ques­tions that might bait other com­peti­tors are slipped around.

The Cana­di­ans know that for many com­peti­tors here, a win against Canada at any point would make their Olympics an ag­gre­gate suc­cess.

Koe called it “the tar­get on our backs.” Then he shrugged and stared.

In Olympic curl­ing, Canada is the New York Yan­kees. But only if the New York Yan­kees weren’t ever al­lowed to lose.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.