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After athletes voice concerns, Grand Slam of Curling organizers change course

The Grand Slam of Curling has changed course after some of the sport's top players shared concerns about recent format changes on the five-event circuit.
The Grand Slam of Curling has changed course after some of the sport's top players shared concerns about recent format changes on the five-event circuit. Curlers sweep a rock during in Brandon, Man., on March 5, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

The Grand Slam of Curling has changed course after some of the sport's top players shared concerns about recent format changes on the five-event circuit.

Tiebreaker games — a key issue for the curlers — will return to the schedule starting with the upcoming World Financial Group Masters in Saskatoon, a Sportsnet spokesman confirmed via email.

"The majority of the players will be quite happy with that," Team Homan second Emma Miskew said Tuesday. "It happened so quickly too. It's great, the fact that we were able to work together on that."

Curlers had recently voiced their disapproval — both publicly and privately- — about changes to event formats, tiebreakers and pre-game setups that were unilaterally imposed this season. The Grand Slam series is owned and operated by Sportsnet.

Organizers had tried a new system of using last stone draw totals to eliminate teams that were tied after the preliminary round. But several prominent Slam competitors voiced their disapproval of the so-called shootout setup. 

A group of players met with event organizers the week after the National, which concluded on Nov. 12. Sources involved in the process, who requested anonymity given the ongoing nature of the discussions, said those talks went well. 

The tiebreaker change was confirmed when the Dec. 12-17 Masters draw was posted online. Tiebreaker games could also be played at the Jan. 16-21 Co-op Canadian Open in Red Deer, Alta.

"After discussion with the players and careful consideration, we have decided to reintroduce tiebreakers to the World Financial Group Masters and Co-op Canadian Open," said Sportsnet spokesman Jason Jackson. "We believe it’s important to experiment with formats in order to run highly competitive and entertaining events. 

"We will continue to evolve and strive to do what’s best for the players, host communities, broadcast, and fans based on our ongoing conversations. There will be no changes to the Princess Auto Players’ Championship."

The preliminary round setup used at the National will remain in place at the Masters. Each 16-team draw will be split into four pools with teams playing rinks in another group. 

The top eight teams will advance to the weekend playoffs. If tiebreaker games are necessary, they'll be played on the Saturday morning ahead of the quarterfinals and semifinals later in the day. 

It wasn't immediately clear if tiebreaker games would be televised. Sportsnet did not list a tiebreaker draw on its broadcast schedule. 

The pool format is expected to be changed at the Canadian Open with teams playing games within their own group along with one crossover game. 

At the National, some teams were eliminated at 2-2 due to cumulative shootout numbers — pre-game draws to the button to determine which team gets hammer — rather than traditional tiebreakers. 

Kevin Koe's team was eliminated by a whisker due to shootout numbers. Brad Gushue's rink, also 2-2, had its streak of 27 straight Grand Slam playoff appearances come to an end.

Some players took to social media to publicly voice their disapproval of the setup. Members of the fledgling Curling Players' Association also signed a letter to Sportsnet in an attempt to make some changes. 

A player survey that outlined athlete preferences was also provided to the network, said Miskew, who's part of the association's leadership group.

"I think this is a really great step in the right direction for how I hope curling can be with all the organizations," Miskew told The Canadian Press from Ottawa. "I think that often the players in the past haven't really had that opportunity to get change done so quickly. 

"So the fact that the Slams actually went through with the change that the players were suggesting that quickly is actually amazing. Hopefully those discussions can continue and this opens the door to really high-level communication among all parties."

The world championships and Olympic Games also use last stone draw numbers to break ties, but those events use longer round-robin sessions.

It wasn't clear why the Grand Slam series started using LSD numbers to break ties. Sportsnet did not respond to interview requests with event organizers. 

At most events, tiebreaker draws can create promotional and logistical issues for broadcasters and on-site event crews. The Slam season concludes with the April 9-14 Princess Auto Players' Championship in Toronto. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2023. 

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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press