Brier, Olympic, and world champion Kevin Martin is confident curling can return – at both the pro and club levels – to a somewhat normal state next fall amid the COVID-19 global pandemic.
"Curling, luckily, is one of the sports that I think can play, like golf, pretty much normal because you don’t have to get within six feet,” Martin told TSN.ca while promoting his new curling podcast, Inside Curling on Wednesday. “You don't have to touch anything that anybody else touches to play the game of curling."
Like the rest of the sporting world, curling was brought to a screeching halt last month due to the novel coronavirus. Just days after Brad Gushue won this third Tim Hortons Brier in four years, it was announced that the women’s world curling championship was cancelled. That was followed by the men’s worlds, the rest of the Grand Slam schedule and the Canadian mixed doubles championship getting the axe.
There are still no clear signs on whether the NHL and NBA can finish their seasons or when the MLB might resume. However, golf courses in certain provinces have already opened with the PGA Tour set to return in mid-June.
Martin thinks curling could come back for the start of the 2020-21 season as well. Just with a few caveats.
"I think one rule they have to put in is only one sweeper for this year,” Martin explained. “The second sweeper can go along for the ride and help judge but has to stay outside of six feet. That's easy.
"Eighty to 85 per cent of the effectiveness of sweeping is the guy closest to the rock. So, you're really not losing very much by not having the second sweeper. For a year, to just sweep with one is not a big deal. It's not going to affect the game of curling at all."
Martin notes some aspects of club and pro curling would likely have to be altered as well, including sanitization of rocks in between games, no locker room access, no handshakes and, unfortunately, no post-game drinks either.
"In curling, as long as you throw your two rocks, you don't touch any other rock,” said the skip, otherwise known as K-Mart.
When professional curling returns to the pebbled ice, the next question will be whether fans are allowed in the stands.
As of now, it appears large gatherings of any kind are not going to happen anytime soon. However, once officials start to loosen restrictions, Martin believes curling could get some fans in the stands for televised events. They just won’t be filled to the rafters.
Martin suggests, when it’s safe to do so, events like the Scotties, Brier and the Grand Slams could sell a smaller percentage of tickets, with fans only allowed to attend certain draws during the week.
"You can sell 3,000 tickets, but maybe my particular ticket, when I go out and buy it for my wife and I, we only get to go to draws one, four, five, nine and 12. Maybe we only get to go to five of the 15 draws," said the four-time Brier champ. “So, you sell the 3,000 tickets, but there’s never more than 1,000 people in the building at one time. That way everybody can stay at least two seats apart.”
Still, Martin wonders if enough people will be allowed in the buildings to make major events financially stable.
"I'm not very worried at all about the sport of curling being able to be played at the club level,” said Martin. “But I am worried about the amount of crowd being allowed at Brier, Scotties, Slams, worlds, all of that. I think that's a worry as to what the percentage [of people in the stands] is. Is there enough people allowed in the building to be able to pay the bills at the end of an event?"
The first Grand Slam event is scheduled for October while the Scotties and Brier will take place in February and March of next year, respectively.
Like most curling people, Martin was shocked when he heard about some of the surprising shakeups following the early end to this season.
Sure, curling roster moves happen in abundance after every Olympic cycle and even following year one of the quadrennial. But with less than two years away from the next Olympic trials (November 2021 in Saskatoon), it was expected the top contenders had their teams locked in and ready to go.
That was not the case this spring.
"Shocking is what it is. This didn't happen up until this year. It's never happened before. It's really hard to imagine," said Martin.
Kevin Koe dropped second Colton Flasch for two-time Olympic gold medalist – and Martin’s former teammate – John Morris just a year after winning the Brier, while Rachel Homan let go talented lead Lisa Weagle for Sarah Wilkes after losing consecutive Scotties finals.
Matt Dunstone added former skip Kirk Muyres to play second, and Chelsea Carey’s squad, which won the Canadian championship in 2019, disbanded, leaving the skipper without a team.
Martin, who competed in three Winter Games, winning gold in 2010, says standing atop the podium at the Olympics is every curler’s dream – whether they play in Canada or anywhere else in the world. With that goal comes the need to put together the absolute best foursome available.
“You're just trying to somehow get the best team together you can to compete worldwide for four years and somehow try and get to those Olympic Games," he said.
Here’s Martin’s take on a couple of major shakeups this off-season.
On Team Koe: "My eyes almost popped out because who's the sweeper? You've got Ben Hebert, who I love like crazy, but he's getting old for sweeping and Johnny Mo, he's never been the sweeper. B.J. [Neufeld] is not a sweeper and Koe for sure is not a sweeper. Colton is really good player and strong as an ox, but if you offer Johnny Mo, you can't bring in a better curler. My goodness. He's won everything all over the place. It was an interesting dynamic to bring in John. That was very interesting to me. From a shooting percentage point of view, it's hard to argue bringing in John Morris, but from a sweeping side of things, which is really important in the game, I think they've weakened their team a little bit. Colton Flasch is a monster."
On Team Homan: "Sarah Wilkes is an incredible athlete. She has an incredible gun from third base. They'll probably gain on sweeping. Sarah is really strong, but Lisa, oh my goodness what a shooter. She's one of the best of all time. You'd vote her in the top three or four, ever. So that was shocking."
After winning four Briers, one world title, one Olympic gold medal, 18 Grand Slams and being named the greatest Canadian male curler of all-time, Martin has plenty of stories to tell about the Roaring Game.
And Martin is ready to tell some of those tales with his new Apple podcast, dubbed Inside Curling.
Martin, 53, is teaming up with Warren Hansen, who won the 1974 Canadian championship with Hec Gervais before serving as Curling Canada’s director of event operations from 1986 to 2015, and radio personality “Jungle” Jim Jerome to give all the insider goods from the world of curling.
"That's why I think it's different than most curling podcasts,” said Martin. “There aren't two other people that would have this kind of background into the sport."
Hansen, 77, is also credited for developing mixed doubles, which made its Olympic debut in 2018, as well as events like the Continental Cup and Canada Cup.
The dynamic between Martin and Hansen is an interesting one. The pair were business rivals back in the late 90s and early 2000s when Martin was attempting to get the Grand Slam tour on its feet as Hansen worked on the other side for the Canadian Curling Association, the governing body of the Brier and Scotties.
"We've had chats forever. Way before the fight, during the fight and then after the fight,” joked Martin. “We've become really good friends, but the stories that can be told about all these different things is incredible."
The first three episodes are already out, with new episodes coming out each Thursday.