ST. JOHN'S -- It has been a hard, at times, ugly fight for the people involved in curling's controversial Grand Slam, but on those rare occasions when confidence wavers there has always been one man to turn to for inspiration. "If there's one person I relate it all to, it's Kerry Burtnyk," World Curling Players Association president Paul Boutillier said yesterday at the Grand Slam's Players Championship.
"I look at a guy like him who has had health problems and who knows he's getting close to being out of curling and you understand the reasons why he was doing this."
The "this" Boutillier speaks of is the infamous Brier Boycott staged by members of the WCPA in order to promote the Grand Slam.
Burtnyk, a Winnipegger who has Canadian and world curling titles to his credit, and many other top skips signed exclusivity agreements with the Grand Slam and skipped the Brier qualifying process for two years.
It was a sacrifice that some people said was about money -- the Grand Slam offers $450,000 in prizes annually -- or self-promotion, but Boutillier believes Burtnyk proves that's not the case.
"It wasn't about money," Boutillier, a former NHL player and Winnipeg Jets defenceman said. "He wants to win the Brier and the world championship again and why would he sacrifice that unless he really believed in what he was doing. Whenever I wondered whether we should be doing this or not, I looked at Kerry and saw that he stuck out two years to make these changes and he did it for the next group of curlers coming along."
Burtnyk has been given a clean bill of health this year but in recent years has dealt with recurring cancer on his scalp. He's also 45 years old and knows there aren't many years left for him to contend for things like national and world titles. But Burtnyk believed the Grand Slam, and the actions of the curlers, were necessary to give the sport the future it deserves.
"By and large, our whole group was doing this not because we could do something to make it better for us, but because we could do something that could make the game go in a direction where we think it can grow and benefit everybody," Burtnyk said yesterday.
The Grand Slam curlers believe they have already made the game better by forcing a few changes in the way the Canadian Curling Association operates and at the same time creating the big-money series, which extends the curling season and offers younger players a chance to compete consistently against top teams. By creating more opportunities for curlers, the Grand Slammers hope it will bring more and more young people into the game.
The WCPA, which co-owns the World Curling Tour along with sports management giant IMG, essentially kissed and made up with the CCA prior to this season. Skips like Burtnyk, Jeff Stoughton, Dave Boehmer, Kevin Martin and Glenn Howard returned to their provincial playdowns and some normalcy returned to the curling scene without all the feuding.
But that doesn't mean the Grand Slam is going away any time soon.
"We had to go with a little bit of a clash to get our foot in the door, but now we are just doing our own thing and we're very contented," said WCT executive director Chad McMullan.
With title sponsors PharmAssist and M&M Meats signed on for next year, there will definitely be at least one more season of Grand Slams and almost certainly more after that, McMullan said. The WCT has a three-year agreement to stage the Players Championship at Mile One Stadium and Rogers Sportsnet continues to draw decent ratings for Grand Slam broadcasts.
"The future looks great I think," McMullan said.