Thinking Time: A new rule gets a look at the Canada Cup of Curling

Around 20 years ago, former Canadian women’s curling champion Patti Wuthrich (back then, she was Patti Vande) was trying to get her head around a problem. As technical director for the Manitoba Curling Association, Wuthrich had been asked by MCA executive Jerry Brown to analyze the relatively new timing system that had been implemented for national and provincial championship events. Keep in mind that the timing system’s first (and in many ways ONLY) priority was to make 10-end curling games fit into a TV-friendly window of time. TSN and CBC were, understandably, reluctant to show games that dragged on for more than three and a half hours because it cut into other scheduled programming, and also cost them money because they’d have buy extra transmitting time on the satellites – not to mention the fact that a viewer’s attention span is finite, and the sound of channels changing as teams discussed strategy became deafening. But Brown and Wuthrich both saw inherent flaws — mainly, that teams were penalized for playing draw shots over takeouts for the simple reason that draws take longer than takeouts. So Wuthrich, with input from Brown, came up with a different way to time curling games. She believed the only fair thing to do was to run the clocks while the teams were discussing shots, and turn them off when the rocks were in motion, so that draws and takeouts would, quite rightly, be equal in the big picture.

Steve Gould, Jonathan Mead, Jeff Stoughton and Reid Carruthers take some time to think about their next shot at the 2011 Tim Hortons Brier (Photo Michael Burns)

The system was tested at some Manitoba championships, and Wuthrich made a presentation to the Canadian Curling Association. Ultimately, though, it never gained widespread acceptance because it was considered to be hard for volunteer timers to handle, as well as the fact that the existing system did what it was supposed to do: keep curling games inside a three-hour TV window. So the idea was shelved and gathered dust until recently, when the Asham World Curling Tour decided to adopt the thinking-time system for its major events, a move that drew near unanimous praise from the players. And now, the CCA is ready to take another long look at the system. For the first time, it will be used at a CCA championship: the Capital One Canada Cup of Curling, running from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4 at the RecPlex in Cranbrook, B.C., will serve as a test event. “It’s a great idea,” says Olympic gold-medalist Marc Kennedy of Edmonton, who throws second rocks for Team Kevin Martin. “They’ve been using it at the Slams for a couple of years, and it’s fantastic because it penalizes the teams that take too much time to make a decision, but it doesn’t penalize you for throwing draws and being aggressive, or being down a bunch of points and having to rush. It should have been adopted a long time ago.” The advantages of the system are seemingly obvious, as Kennedy pointed out. There’s nothing more frustrating than watching teams take forever to plan out a shot. With this system, they do it at their peril. As well, teams can feel free to play aggressively from the outset of a game; too often (and sorry to point this out, but it’s absolutely true) in women’s games, teams play wide-open early ends to bank time on the clock for later in the game. With thinking time, there’s no advantage to doing so. You bank time by being smart and having a thought-out strategy — in essence, you save time by having a game plan. The MCA adopted thinking time for its provincial championship events this season, the first member association to do so. The CCA can’t move as quickly (rule changes simply can’t happen overnight for a national association), but decided to take the first step in the process this season. “I think what turned our minds on it was last season, talking with Jeff Stoughton at the Tim Hortons Brier,” says Danny Lamoureux, the CCA’s director of championship services and curling club development. Stoughton discussed a scenario in which the team without the hammer plays eight draws, at roughly 30 seconds apiece, into the rings, while the team with last rock peels out the end with eight straight hits at 10 seconds apiece – perhaps not a realistic scenario, but it’s certainly been known to happen as teams try to bank time for the later ends. All of a sudden, there’s nearly a three-minute difference on the clock, which is punitive – especially if there was no discussion of strategy in the end. “You know what? That makes total sense,” Lamoureux recalls thinking at the time. “One team is at a disadvantage right from the get-go because they don’t have last rock. So I talked to Gerry (Peckham, the CCA’s high performance director) about it, and we looked at each other and said, ‘Well, that’s the best argument for thinking time I’ve ever heard.’ ” But that’s not the only argument. TV, once again, plays a role. While curling continues to draw good numbers, there’s always a desire to narrow the broadcast window. It’s a big reason why the World Curling Federation considered  moving to eight-end games last year: to make curling more saleable to networks outside of Canada. The CCA considers 10-end games sacrosanct, so shortening the number of ends isn’t an option. But tinkering with the timing system to accomplish the same goal (keep the games moving along, but also entertaining from start to finish) certainly is. So, the CCA decided to give it a go, and re-trained the officials who’ll be working in Cranbrook to use the thinking-time system. Here’s how it will work, according to the competitor’s guide that each Canada Cup team receives (and, ahem, rarely reads!): — The game time allotted to each team to complete a 10-end game shall be 41 minutes. The game time allotted to each team to complete each extra end shall be 4 minutes. — Each team may call two (2) 90 second time-outs per game (includes travelling time). Each team may call one (1) 90 second time-out during each extra end. — Both teams are off clock to start the game. — Team A delivers first stone in the first end. The delivering team is allowed a maximum of 1 minute to deliver the first stone of an end. If the delivering team has not delivered its first stone within one minute, their clock will start. — Team B’s game clock will begin when: (a)    all stones have come to rest in play or have crossed the back line, and (b)    the sweepers and player who has just delivered have moved to the extreme side of the sheet, and (c)    the delivering team has relinquished control of the house. — Team B’s game clock will continue to run until Team B’s delivered stone crosses the near tee-line, at which time Team B’s game clock will stop and no clock will run until points (a) (b) and (c) above are met. Then Team A’s clock will begin. — No clocks are running when a stone is in motion after the near tee-line. — At the conclusion of each end, both game time clocks shall be stopped for a period of time as determined by the rules of the competition or the Chief Umpire. The appropriate game time clock shall be started when points (a) (b) and (c) above are met following the delivery of the first stone of the subsequent end. — As per CCA rules, a team may continue play after their opponent’s game clock has expired in an attempt to tie or win the game within their allotted game time.

Kevin Koe and team plan their next shot at the 2010 World Men's Curling Championship (Photo Michael Burns)

In addition to the thinking time rules, it’s also notable that the CCA has backtracked on the timeout issue, reverting to allowing teams to stop the clock twice a game in order to speak with coaches, eliminating the unseemly (but at times awfully funny) sight of coaches sprinting from their seats to the other end of the ice to speak with their players. And while that, too, is good news for the players, it’s the looming change to thinking time that they’ll be most pleased about. “Oh, for sure, it’s a way better system and I’m surprised it’s taken them this long to bring it in,” said 2010 Tim Hortons Brier and world men’s champion Kevin Koe of Calgary. “It just makes total sense. You don’t get penalized for being down in a game, right? And if you’re getting short on time, you can play pretty quick and make some time up. With the system now, if you’re short on time, you’re kind of screwed. Draw shots take a lot longer, and that makes it tough to come back in games.”

Shannon Kleibrink and Amy Nixon discuss strategy between shots at the 2009 Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings (Photo Michael Burns)

“I think that’s the way it’s going and I’m happy to hear about it,” added Winnipeg skip Mike McEwen. “It seems a little bit easier to manage your time; you can speed up your play without affecting your strategy one way or another. You don’t really have to change your playing, as opposed to how much time you spend between shots, prepping or whatever.” There have been no games lost at the national level because teams ran out of time, but it’s certainly happened twice in Alberta men’s championships over the years, and there’s no question that clock mismanagement has led to some notable losses — including Alberta’s Shannon Kleibrink being under the clock gun late in the 10th end against Nova Scotia’s Heather Smith-Dacey in a crucial round-robin game at the 2011 Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Charlottetown last February and having to rush her last shots and the accompanying strategy sessions. The same thing happened to Newfoundland and Labrador’s Heather Strong while playing Team Canada’s Jennifer Jones at the 2008 Scotties in Regina; Strong ended up losing as a result, and a win would have knocked Jones out of contention. Instead, Jones rattled off a massive winning streak en route to a national title. “The biggest problem with thinking time is that in situations where it’s a really tight, exciting game, it really puts the gun on teams,” says Kleibrink’s vice-skip Amy Nixon. “I’m not sure it’s the best way of going about things for the spectators. But it’s a bit better for teams that play a lot of draws.” But, quite frankly, that’s the biggest selling point of thinking time. Draws are fun to watch. They lead to exciting shots. Open takeouts? Not so much. Once the Canada Cup is done, feedback (expect it to be almost entirely positive) will be gathered and, eventually, presented to the CCA membership at the annual general meeting in June. “We know the players like it, and in all likelihood, we’ll propose it as a rule change and put it up for discussion,” says Lamoureux. From the office of Minerva Tree Farms — the landscaping company she operates with her husband Hans (yes, THAT Hans Wuthrich) — in Gimli, Man., Patti Wuthrich is happy to hear that her idea is finally taking root. “It’s gratifying,” she says. “It took a while, but I’m glad to hear people are coming around.” You might say, it took some time.