Team changes shake up new curling season

  • New-look Team Muirhead at the Curling World Cup © WCF / Céline Stucki

In the curling off-season, there is plenty of time for teams to iron out any faults that they have had with a strong few months of training ahead of the start of the next season.

But, that plan isn’t always as straight forward as resting up for a few weeks and returning to the rink to work hard. There are many factors that could potentially disrupt that momentum, with one of the most prevalent in the off-season being new teammates.

Every summer we see replacements in rinks and this year sees a few top sides with new members for the 2018-2019 season. Canada’s Kevin Koe saw his third, Marc Kennedy leave, seeking a break from the sport. Since that announcement in March, second Brent Laing also left to join John Epping’s rink. Now, Koe has recruited BJ Neufeld and Colton Flasch respectively with Neufeld joining Team Koe after a decade playing on Mike McEwen’s rink.

Koe’s team prior to this year had a similar familiarity with last year’s team being uninterrupted for four years. In an interview with Canadian Beef, Koe said that "the curling should take care of itself as long as we can gel together". Ben Hebert, the only other remaining member of last year’s team added, “We think we’re going to be great on paper, but we need to find our groove. It’s probably not going to happen overnight but a few years down the road I think we’re going to be a great team.”

Just south of the border, the two American rinks are facing similar changes. Jamie Sinclair’s teammate for the past two years, Vicky Persinger, joins Cory Christensen’s side, while Sinclair brings in Christensen’s teammate since 2014, Sarah Anderson. Not often you see straight trades.

You also don’t see reigning Olympic champions leaving a team less than a year after winning the gold medal, but that was the case for Tyler George who is taking a hiatus from the sport – and who could blame him? In place of George comes Chris Plys who some may remember as the alternate who replaced Shuster in the 2010 Olympics as skip. The familiar moustache of Matt Hamilton will be present again along with John Landsteiner.

Quite like Kevin Koe’s dilemma over Kennedy leaving his team, Scotland’s Eve Muirhead possessed the same issue. Anna Sloan’s shock departure saw the end of a partnership that goes all the way back to 2011 with Muirhead and second, Vicki Chalmers (nee Adams). In fact, the only position to move since 2011 is lead – which is now held by Lauren Gray, who has been on the team since 2013 as an alternate before filling the role in the rink two years ago. The team have had a consistent group, so with a new alternate in Vicky Wright and a new third in Jennifer Dodds, how are they dealing with the changes?

“We’re excited to start competing as a team!” says Lauren Gray. If the enthusiasm is anything to go by, there should be nothing to worry about: “It is great to have Jen and Vicky in the team, we have been well working together in our pre-season training.”

Although this is a change in personnel, there is some familiarity in this new rink. Both Jennifer and Vicky have played on the same team for four years. In the past two, they have played on Hannah Fleming’s rink and prior to that, on Gray’s own rink. However, their experience with Lauren had nothing to do with their eventual selection.

“Jen and Vicky were brought into the team because of their strong performances last season, and the development in their experience that they gained through competing at the world championships,” says Gray, “The familiarity is just a bonus!”

“The team in gelling really well, we all have the same goals and are working well together to try and achieve that,” says new alternate, Wright.

On that note, Jennifer seems to be relishing having more time on the ice, “I have practiced more on ice during the pre-season and have continued working hard in the gym.”

Finally, the Swiss teams are also changing. Silvana Tirinzoni’s rink sees Manuela Siegrist and Marlene Albrecht leave with the former recovering from knee injuries and the latter taking a lighter workload for the upcoming season. Melanie Barbezat will come in as lead; and Alina Paetz who leaves her own world championship-winning rink to throw fourth as Tirinzoni will skip from third.

On the men’s side, Alina’s older brother Claudio, leaves Peter De Cruz’s side, replaced by Sven Michel who also left his own rink too. De Cruz is confident in the latest addition to the team, “He is a very complete player – he can do anything on a curling sheet, he says, “He can help us be decisive in important moments.”

However, there are some challenges that Swiss teams can face when they make changes. As a multi-lingual nation, Switzerland is home to French, Italian and German speakers and it can sometimes be difficult to communicate because of this. German-speaking Michel joins a French-speaking rink.

“The language barrier is something we are working on, but we are used to dealing with these kind of difficulties,” says De Cruz, “The more time we spend with him, the better.”

“He’s been playing on the tour for more than 10 years, so I believe he finds it easy to adapt.”

Michel began speaking to Team De Cruz in April after the season ended, but wasn’t expecting to be offered a place on the team, “I was quite surprised that they asked me and I wasn’t prepared for that so I took a bit of time before making my decision,” he says, “In the end, I am very happy with my decision.”

Knowing that communication is key, De Cruz believes that the best way of fitting in is just ‘talk talk talk’, “We answer his questions, explain how we function as a team and individuals and have some fun.”

It can be sad to see a teammate go, but the optimism that comes with a new season is enough to spur these new teams on. Some may struggle to adapt at first, while some will gel as if they’ve been playing together for years. Whatever the outcome, this year is crucial to the new curlers and even more important to the team as a whole.