Burtnyk's vision is a Slam-dunk

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 7:33 AM ET

It was at the bar of a curling club in Gander, Nfld., about five years ago, and one of the game's all-time greats was sharing a couple of cold ones with one of the sport's up-and-comers.

The subject was bubbling with controversy, too: Winnipeg's Kerry Burtnyk, a two-time Brier winner and former world champ, was explaining the concept of a curling Grand Slam to then 22-year-old John Morris of Ontario.

At the time, the idea of a series of big-time cash 'spiels that would conflict with provincial playdowns was about as renegade as it got, particularly when it included a boycott of the Brier. In fact, it was sacrilegious.

But Burtnyk wasn't just some blowhard. He was someone Morris respected.

So the youngster listened.

"He was very passionate," Morris recalled yesterday. "That was a bit of an eye-opener."

Burtnyk's pitch wasn't quite enough to convince Morris to join the renegade league back then. The kid played it safe, instead, and wound up reaching the Brier final later that year.

Fast forward to the present and this week's Grand Slam event here, the Canadian Open, and Morris has a whole new appreciation for what Burtnyk and the other Slam founders were talking about.

"I never really realized the implications of everything," Morris said, after cruising to a 9-3 win over Pete Fenson of the U.S. in his first game. "It's huge for the game. I have guys like him to thank because it was guys like him that made it possible for us. They've paved the way for a lot of players."

Yes, five years after its stormy incarnation, the Grand Slam is an idea that's here to stay.

And with the Slam and the Brier actually co-existing now, thanks in large part to the fence-mending work of World Curling Tour president Paul Boutilier, everybody seems happy, relatively speaking.

Players are curling for bigger purses than ever, as each Slam event offers at least $100,000 in prize money.

They're watched on TV more than ever, too -- just check out the 313,000 viewer rating for the Randy Ferbey-Kevin Martin tilt here a year ago.

Fans obviously love it -- the Slam record of 47,000 tickets sold here in '05 was broken by the Players Championship in St. John's last spring -- because they can watch the best teams go head-to-head far more often than they used to.

And curling now has a cash season that runs from mid-September until April, at least for the elite teams.

Kind of makes you wonder what all the fuss was about five years ago, doesn't it?

I mean, seriously, how could anyone argue that the current setup hasn't been good for the game?

Yet, the stuffed shirts at the Canadian Curling Association originally acted like someone was trying to take away their first-borns when the idea sprung up.

Granted, the players didn't always handle themselves with aplomb in those early days. Issues like Brier funding and sponsorship cresting had them spoiling for a fight, and the CCA was more than willing to give it to them.

Had both sides acted in the game's best interests, though, they could have spared us all a lot of trouble.

The Slam's greatest accomplishment?

According to Martin, one of the founders: to get people to change the way they think about the sport.

"To get events played for money to be acceptable," Martin said. "And that took some time. Now, it's totally acceptable."

Unfortunately, Burtnyk isn't even around to enjoy the benefits, having retired last year.

You won't hear him crowing, "I told you so," either.

"I don't think vindication is the right word," Burtnyk said. "It was about us wanting to make the game better for the people coming behind us."

Consider it done.


Videos

Photos