What an incredible 2006 Olympic Winter Games... for the sport of curling.
• It was an unprecedented curling love-in between curling and the world and U.S. media from the first rock onward, and it only grew with each passing day. The onslaught of interest and commentary didn’t even waver when the U.S. CurlGirls did, quickly plummeting to the bottom of the standings.
• There was on-ice controversy over playing conditions and off-ice mayhem involving illness and team dynamics... mostly with Team Canada (x2) but on other squads as well.
• The Kiwis debuted, the Japanese made a remarkable mid-week recovery to challenge (as did the equally surprising Russians) and three legends may have finally bowed out with illustrious careers at their backs: Pal Trulsen, Dordi Nordby and Peja Lindholm.
• Ridiculously huge TV ratings swept the world – over 20 per cent of the entire nation of Finland watched their team's men's semi-final victory, and 12 million Japanese watched their team's upset of Canada – steered by the single greatest team of Canadian curling TV experts ever assembled, from three networks: CBC, TSN and Sportsnet. And the return of the track-cam for the semis, bronze games and golden finals was merely the icing on the cake... and on that latter note, a great big SCREW YOU to the Canadian boo-birds who chased it away to begin with.
• Curling had its first streaker. Coupled with the fuss over Playboy and the calendar, it made for a head-shaking week.
• The Swedes proved their vaunted status as number one in women's play, with the Swiss continuing their strong Olympic legacy of medalling every time... including demonstration years. And Canada's women once again recovered from disappointment to grab a spot on the podium, for the second Games in a row.
• Bronze for the U.S. – finally, the desperately sought podium spot – as Pete Fenson may have just saved the sport in the lower 48.
• Finally, the men's gold medal final.
Two incredible stories to tell. The first is of a giant tree of a guy from faraway Finland, who grew up throwing rocks on ice about as good as asphalt. He eventually built a curling club – Finland's first and only – using his own money plus grants from the World Curling Federation, and quit his career job to manage the facility... and throw practice rocks.
Two years ago he was down and out: no more touring and spieling in Canada for a month on end, as his funding had run out. Split from his longtime third and buried deep in the miserable B-pool of the European Championships. His team won the B-pool round-robin, then a semi and final, and then lost a World challenge game to Russia... but it was a best two-out-of three, and he won the next two games to scrape into the 2005 Worlds.
At those Worlds he appeared – with just one set of team jackets, re-used from earlier competitions – down and out again, early in the week, but reeled off a whack of consecutive wins to finish in that heinous six-way tie for first at 8-3. That got his team in to the Olympic Winter Games, where they started the week at 2-2... before rolling yet again to a stunning finish at the top of the table, and beating Great Britain in the semi for a guaranteed Olympic medal... now gleaming silver in the cold Finnish night.
Said Markku Uusipavalniemi after the semi:
This result will improve our marketing strategy. It will generate more enthusiasm for our supporters.
Gee... do ya think?
Now for Team Canada.
Down and out with a missed shot to win the Canadian Juniors quite a few years ago, a young and very green Brad Gushue (photo) was comforted in the hallway by some guy named Russ Howard, merely a Hall of Fame Brier skip who had lost out in no less than three Olympic Trials events (including 1987 in Calgary). TCN remembers well the gesture Russ and his brother Glenn made in 1997... while spiriting out of the hotel in the early morning after Mike Harris' improbable Trials win, the Howards slipped a note under Harris' door, congratulating his team on their win and wishing them the very best in Japan. The Howards, you see, had defeated Harris in back-to-back Ontario championship finals in 1992 and '93.
Redemption for Gushue with world junior gold, followed by a spate of Brier appearances and a reputation as a great shooter, possibly the best that Atlantic Canada has ever produced. But a raunchy fall start to the 2005/06 season led to discussions about the team lineup, and fifth man Howard – recruited earlier at the Edmonton Brier on the recommendation of either/or both coach Toby MacDonald and CBC commentator Harris (the story varies) – was pulled into regular duty, a duty made seamless by the selfless act of lead/fifth Mike Adam.
The rest is well-known. Amazing play – a throwback to that unexpected '97 Harris year – in Halifax for the Trials title and then poor play and visible discontent in the first week of Torino 2006. But the gut was checked and the team sprang to life just in time to cement a playoff berth, and then overwhelmed both the USA and Finland in the semi and final.
Gushue on the cell phone just seconds after the game had ended... some U.S. journo will give him flack for that, to be sure, but we know he was calling his mom, who has been battling cancer all season, and who could not be here in Italy to see it all in person. Talking to his mom about his Olympic dream, which has possessed him since his junior days, and how he would soon wear Canada's first-ever men's curling gold around his neck.
Arrivaderci, Italia. We're off for a few days of well-earned rest, and will be back early next week. By then the 25th anniversary Scott will be in full roar – heck, it starts tomorrow – and there will be lots to talk about. As usual.
Thanks for reading.