After spending his first summer in Canada as the country’s high performance curling director, David Murdoch immediately came to appreciate the big and bright nature of this nation.
“I’ve seen more blue skies here in one week than I’ve seen in a whole year in Scotland,” Murdoch said from his new home in Alberta.
“Blue skies ahead” could be the motto for Curling Canada after an off-season of big changes, all designed to return Canadian teams to the top of international podiums after several years of disappointing finishes.
The revamping all began with the hiring of Murdoch, a two-time world champion and Olympian, as High Performance Director, last February.
The 45-year-old from Lockerbie, Scotland dove head-first into the job, with the aim of returning Canada to international glory and doing it quickly.
“We’ve got a goal here that’s to be on the podium at every single international event that we enter,” Murdoch said.
“Whether that’s mixed doubles, or juniors, or whatever, Canada wants to be the top. Not only do we want medals, we want them to be gold medals.”
There was a time when Canadian gold medals at the Olympics and world championships were almost a given. Canada has the most curlers in the world, our country cares about the sport more than others, and our athletes compete against one another, at the highest level, continually on the Grand Slam circuit.
I’m hoping that they are some really clear improvements,
Curling Canada high performance director David Murdoch
That showed through with Olympic gold (Sandra Schmirler) and silver (Mike Harris) medals in curling in 1998, silver (Kevin Martin) and bronze (Kelley Law) in 2002, gold (Brad Gushue) and bronze (Shannon Kleibrink) in 2006, gold (Kevin Martin) and silver (Cheryl Bernard) in 2010, gold (Jennifer Jones) and gold (Brad Jacobs) in 2014 and gold (John Morris, Kaitlyn Lawes) in mixed doubles in 2018.
But the world has caught up and surpassed Canada in recent years. The country managed just one bronze medal (Gushue) in men’s curling and was shut out in women’s and mixed doubles at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing — and has not won world championship gold since Jennifer Jones took the women’s title in 2018.
In an effort to get Canada back on top, Murdoch has been criss-crossing this vast country to meet with top level curlers and coaches and conduct technical review camps that emulate some of the training being done by top international teams like Scotland’s Bruce Mouat, Sweden’s Niklas Edin, and Switzerland’s four-time reigning world champion Silvana Tirinzoni.
“I think it’s a must, I really do,” Murdoch said. “That’s one of the reasons why some of the international teams are making the jumps that we’re seeing.
“It’s not that we’ve fallen really far behind, it’s just that we’ve got a huge country here, we’ve got a lot of curlers, and how can we bring ourselves together, more often, with some really detailed training camps that will just benefit their entire season? There’s definitely been a stress on that.”
Murdoch put on camps in Winnipeg, Leduc, Alta., and Edmonton, with national team coaches Viktor Kjell, Jeff Stoughton, Scott Pfeifer, Renee Sonnenberg and Elaine Dagg-Jackson on hand, and some big-name teams took part, including those skipped by Winnipeg’s Jennifer Jones and Matt Dunstone, Edmonton’s Brendan Bottcher, and Vancouver’s Clancy Grandy.
The teams were brought in to throw rocks, with a variety of video analysis equipment and coaches available to them. The idea was to run through a good technical framework that teams can engage and work with throughout their season.
“I’m hoping that they are some really clear improvements,” Murdoch said. “I think what we’re seeing now, around the world, is the amount of emphasis that’s being put into training. Curling has become professional, and that part is something that we want to encourage with our athletes. We want to provide the correct resources and the coaching and the tools for them to tap in.
“When you start to look around the world at what we’re seeing, there’s a real consistency in the technical delivery of a lot of the teams. We’ve got some amazing athletes in this country and anything we can do to make even a 1% gain on, could be the difference between winning and losing.”
As Murdoch worked through the summer, the winds of change were blowing throughout Curling Canada.
Chief Executive Officer Katherine Henderson left to take the same position with Hockey Canada and a search is underway for her replacement, Montana’s BBQ and Bar signed on to replace Tim Hortons as title sponsor for the Brier (Canadian men’s championship), and significant changes were made to the qualifying process for the Brier, Scotties and even the Olympic trials.
The 2023-24 season is already up and running, with a few cash events here and there, and Curling Canada’s campaign kicks off with the PointsBet Invitational (single knockout tournament) in Oakville, Ont., starting next Friday.
Many teams will have gruelling world tour and Grand Slam schedules through Christmas and into the New Year, and then the big championships get underway, with the Scotties Tournament of Hearts slated for Calgary (Feb. 16-24), the Montana’s Brier for Regina (March 1-10) and the BKT Tire women’s world championship for Sydney, N.S., (March 16-24).
The Brier and Scotties will once again feature 18 teams, including 14 member associations, the defending champions (Brad Gushue and Kerri Einarson) and three top teams from the Canadian Team Ranking System.
Two men’s teams (Dunstone, Bottcher) and two women’s teams (Jones, Rachel Homan) have already been named to the Brier and Scotties fields, based on their 2022-23 CTRS points, and one more team will earn a spot in each event, based on the 2023-24 CTRS standings.
“I think it’s a great change for everybody involved in the playdown system,” Dunstone said. “Your provincials are more valuable, across the board, now, because you don’t have two teams that are already going to be in the national championship playing off in a final and beating a bunch of teams that need to win to get there.
“It’s a really positive change.”
In the past, wild card teams were named to the Brier and Scotties based on CTRS points, but only if they played in their provincial championships and lost. This change takes those top teams out of the provincials and allows up-and-coming foursomes to have a chance to play their way into the national championships.
Curling Canada has also changed the Olympic trials process for both the four-player and mixed doubles disciplines. Most significantly, the mixed doubles trials will now be held 14 months ahead of the Olympics (the next Winter Games are in Milan in 2026) and the winners will have more than a year to prepare as Team Canada.
Also, for the first time, athletes who qualify for the Olympics in mixed doubles can also try to qualify in four-player curling and there’s a possibility of one or two players competing in both disciplines in Milan and going forward.
It’s been a great fit so far, having David. I think he’s going to be a very valuable asset to Canadian curling.
Canadian curler Matt Dunstone
There’s also a minor tweak planned for the four-player Olympic trials (dates and location not yet determined), as there will be eight men’s and eight women’s teams this time, instead of nine, and there will be a best-of-three final to determine the Olympic representatives.
Murdoch believes the changes, especially on the mixed doubles side, will have a profound effect.
“When we look at the mixed doubles discipline in its entirety, it feels a little bit secondary and what we’re trying to say is ‘This isn’t secondary whatsoever, this is a priority,’” Murdoch said.
“At the end of the day, this is an Olympic medal and I think by having it a year before, especially that discipline, it gives us a lot more time to go into a lot more detail, a lot more heavy training, and create a schedule that could be balanced with an athlete that’s also playing four-person.”
If there was one thing being made clear by curlers in recent years, it was that Curling Canada needed to start taking a new direction in terms of high performance. When Gerry Peckham, who served admirably in the role for many years, announced his retirement, the opportunity arose to make a real statement, with a fresh face and a different kind of critical thinking.
The hiring of a non-Canadian, Murdoch, for the role, was a shock to some, but one that was welcomed by most curlers. It’s no coincidence that Great Britain won gold (Eve Muirhead) and silver (Mouat) medals at the 2022 Olympics, with Murdoch playing a large role in that country’s curling development program.
“I find the way (Murdoch) delivers information and his coaching technique to be very attractive for us as athletes,” Dunstone said. “Just the way he communicates everything, it’s been a great fit so far, having David. I think he’s going to be a very valuable asset to Canadian curling.”
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Murdoch’s job is just beginning and will surely continue to be a storyline throughout this season, into next, and right through to the Olympics in Milan.
“You’ve got to have a vision for where you want to go and you’ve got to have a high engagement with our athletes,” Murdoch said. “‘What is happening out there? What do they see? What suggestions have they got?’
“There are some great ideas. Not everything can be fulfilled, because there’s a lot that goes on in the background, but that’s the type of culture of our program that we want to have. Engaging with our athletes, a lot of communication, a lot of expertise, and we’re working together. That’s something I’ve discussed with all the teams and there’s certainly a good mutual trust, starting there and continuing to develop as time goes on.”
2023-24 CURLING SEASON
—Scotsman David Murdoch hired as Curling Canada high performance director, with promise of taking Canada back to the top of international podiums.
—Katherine Henderson leaves post as CEO of Curling Canada for same role with Hockey Canada. Search underway for her replacement, with Danny Lamoureux acting as interim CEO.
—Montana’s BBQ and Bar announced as title sponsor for Brier after months-long search, replacing Tim Hortons.
—Brier and Scotties qualifying changed to allow two more men’s teams and two more women’s teams to be pre-qualified. The 2024 events will each have three pre-qualified teams, including defending champions Brad Gushue and Kerri Einarson along with 2022-23 CTRS leaders Matt Dunstone, Brendan Bottcher, Jennifer Jones and Rachel Homan.
—Mixed doubles Olympic trials moved ahead to 14 months prior to 2026 Winter Games in Milan. These were previously held about five weeks ahead of the Olympic Games.
—Players who qualify for Olympics in mixed doubles can also try to qualify for four-player Olympics. This was not allowed in the past.
—The four-player Olympic trials in 2025 will feature eight men’s and eight women’s teams and will feature a best-of-three final instead of a one-game showdown.
Sept. 27-Oct. 1 — PointsBet Invitational, Oakville, Ont.
Oct. 17-22 — Grand Slam HearingLife Tour Challenge, Niagara Falls, Ont.
Nov. 7-12 — Grand Slam BOOST National, Pictou, N.S.
Dec. 12-17 — Grand Slam WFG Masters, Saskatoon
Jan. 16-21 — Grand Slam Co-op Canadian Open, Red Deer, Alta.
Feb. 16-25 — Scotties Tournament of Hearts, Calgary
March 1-10 — Montana’s Brier, Regina
March 16-24 — BKT Tires World women’s championship, Sydney, N.S.
March 17-22 — Canadian mixed doubles championship, Fredericton, N.B.
March 30-April 7 — World men’s championship, Schaffhausen, Switzerland
April 9-14 — Princess Auto Players Championship, Toronto