Statistics say that practice shots used to determine last rock are more important than you might think, Ted Wyman writes.
When curlers throw draws to the button at the end of their pre-game practice sessions, it doesn’t look like much.
Most fans wouldn’t even bother to watch and the television cameras certainly don’t show the rocks being thrown.
But make no mistake, these are some of the most important shots in any curling game.
Those last stone draws to the button are measured and the distance is used to determine which team gets hammer in the first end.
The statistics show that teams with that advantage win a lot more often than they lose.
“It’s not life and death, but it means a lot,” says Kevin Koe, the skip of Canada’s men’s team at the Olympic Winter Games.
Koe should know. His team is one of the best in the world and it rarely loses when it has the hammer in the first end.
Koe’s team is 25-2 this season when it starts with the hammer. That means they won 92 per cent of the time when starting with last rock. Sweden’s Niklas Edin is 40-5 when starting with the hammer, a winning percentage of .889.
The numbers provided by the CurlingZone website aren’t as outrageous for all curling teams, but 61 per cent of teams in the men’s game win when they start with the hammer and the numbers is 59.2 per cent in the women’s game. That’s mighty significant.
Conversely, Koe’s team is 15-14 when starting without the hammer and Edin is 16-14. The odds go down considerably.
Those seemingly routine draws to the button are nothing to be trivialized.
“They ’re hugely important,” says American skip John Shuster.
“In 2014 (in Sochi), we only had hammer twice in the nine games we played in the entire event. It makes it tougher. You have to potentially start every game from behind. So we’re definitely going to be focused on our process of throwing that last stone draw. We’ve found a system that we really like and we’ve had pretty good success at getting the hammer in the first end.”
The men’s and women’s curling tournaments begin Wednesday at Gangneung Curling Centre. Koe’s Calgary team, which includes third Marc Kennedy, second Brent Laing and lead Ben Hebert, will open the event against Italy in the morning (7:05 p.m. ET Tuesday).
Koe admits a big part of the team’s preparation has been throwing draws to the button. Though he said he wasn’t even aware of his team’s numbers with the hammer in the first end, he wouldn’t want to leave anything to chance.
“It is a big advantage and I don’t really know why,” he said. “Part of it might be as easy as the better team wins hammer more.
“You have to gamble a little early when you don’t have hammer just to make something happen to try to get hammer back. It’s a hard thing to put a finger on but it is an advantage and that’s why we put a lot of work into it. We practised it leading into this tournament because it is a big deal.”
Shuster said he tries to keep his team from obsessing about the draws to the button. Of course, his team is just 14-10 with the hammer, 15-15 without.
“We try not to live and die by that first draw to the button for hammer,” he said. “I’ve been on teams where you lose a draw to the button for hammer and it starts instantly on this sour note for the game. We try to say, ‘Hey, this used to be determined by a coin-flip and then you started the game and played.’ “
Canada’s women’s team, skipped by Rachel Homan of Ottawa, will open the Olympic tournament Wednesday (6 a.m. ET) against Great Britain.
Homan is 22-4 this season when starting with the hammer, 11-7 without it. Great Britain’s Eve Muirhead is 31-7 with and 14-12 without.
Like the men’s team, don’t be surprised if you see them with their intense game faces on in those pre-game practices.
Those last stone draws aren’t just valuable.
When the stakes are this high, they’re everything.
Ireen Wust of The Netherlands won gold in the women’s 1,500-metre speedskating race on Monday. Wust is the most decorated skater of her generation, with nine Olympic medals, including five gold. She’s retiring after these Games