HAM­MER TIME

Sta­tis­tics say that prac­tice shots used to de­ter­mine last rock are more im­por­tant than you might think, Ted Wy­man writes.

Ottawa Citizen - - WINTER OLYMPICS - Twyman@post­media.com Twit­ter.com/Ted_Wy­man

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.

VADIM GHIRDA/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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

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