Curling is a sport rife with gossip and rumour. This can be true of any sport, but the Roaring Game is no slouch when compared to this aspect of any other sport.
Take Mike McEwen's foursome from Winnipeg, who have just returned from Scotland and yet another World Curling Tour victory. The season winnings these guys have racked up now totals nearly $118,000 -- a remarkable sum. Heavyweight squads skipped by Glenn Howard ($54,950) and Kevin Martin ($76,000) are far behind, and even the second-ranked Kevin Koe ($84,650) more than doubled his season haul with that huge, $43,900 win at the TSN Curling Skins Game last Sunday.
The only stain on the current McEwen resume is a poor performance at the Capital One Canada Cup in Cranbrook, B.C. While the Martinites were securing the first men's berth into the 2013 Canadian Olympic trials, McEwen's gang started off 0-2 and missed the playoffs with an eventual 2-4 win/loss record.
Scuttlebutt says, however, that this particular struggle was actually predicted in advance by some of their peers "¶ and it all has to do with the rock handles used in that particular competition.
Like legendary skips Jeff Stoughton and Kerry Burtnyk, most of Team McEwen are tuck sliders -- they deliver the stone while sliding on the ball of the foot, with the body coiled low behind the stone and with the sliding leg's knee bent sharply out to the side. Standardized "flat foot" sliders -- almost every≠one in the sport, really -- cringe at the sight, and automatically feel an imaginary pain in their knee. The tuckers merely smile, and some go so far as to insist that their style is actually easier on the joints than that of the flatties.
You only find tuckers in Manitoba, by the way, and it's mostly a guy thing. It's also not really taught by anyone, anywhere, which adds to its mystique.
But the McEwens have particularly interesting tuck deliveries that require more time in the slide -- a few extra milliseconds -- before they're ready to release the stone. And here lies their possible problem with electronic curling stones.
McEwen's opponents were watching them practice on site just before the start of the Canada Cup, and the lights on McEwen stones were flashing bright red.
That's what happens when the stone is not cleanly released before it crosses the hogline; a sensor in the rock handle that is synched to the in-ice line goes off and tiny lights on the stone blink red, as opposed to green for a "clean" throw.
The result is a hefty penalty: The immediate removal of that stone from play, even before it makes it down the ice to the house.
No events on the World Curling Tour use these expensive techo-handles, including the Grand Slams, where McEwen has captured three major titles in the past 13 months. Neither do provincial championships use them -- and McEwen has reached the last two Manitoba finals, losing both. No curling clubs or facilities use them: They're too expensive to justify what is, for 90% of all curlers, a recreational sport.
Only sanctioned Canadian and European/world championships invest in the technology, meaning that prior to Cranbrook, Team ≠McEwen had limited experience throwing the robo-stones.
And the sensors clearly didn't like the ≠McEwen method of chucking 44-pound granite bricks. According to the rumour mill, the squad was hurriedly forced to adjust their mechanics to ensure their throws were legal, and that -- if you believe the whispers -- was a major reason for the team's struggles in Cranbrook.
If true, this would mean that Team McEwen are regularly flirting with -- and occasionally or even often breaking -- the hogline rule.
Relax -- that in itself won't bring condemnation. There is no chance the ≠McEwens -- nor any others in top-level curling -- are aiming to intentionally cross that (hog)line. It was the era before technology, in fact, that proved the hogline rule should be taken with a rather large grain of salt.
On-ice officials would sit at ice level, eyeing the hogline on every delivery, and make naked-eye judgments "¶ which often were wrong. The stone would get kicked off the sheet, the players would react in apoplectic fashion, and the spectators would boo loud and long.
So no booing those ≠McEwens, please. After all, it's only a rumour "¶
Kevin Koe hauled his team's huge Skins Game winner's cheque home from Toronto to Alberta -- as his carry-on luggage. "I gave it to (teammate) Nolan Thiessen for the hard part, to get it through (Toronto) airport security," Koe laughed. "Then I carried it onto the plane. It took a while to find a place to stash it." Koe was met with curious stares throughout; as perhaps befitting of the big city, there wasn't a single clued-in curling fan to be seen throughout his journey ... The Dominion is the new sponsor of the Skins Game and the format is changing: Online fan votes will determine the competing athletes. Check out my next video presentation on ≠ www.torontosun.com for more on this eye-popper ... Provincial playdowns have revealed upsets galore: Randy Ferbey was eliminated in Alberta, and Ontario names like Sherry Middaugh and John Epping will need last-ditch Challenge Round wins to qualify ... The Continental (think Ryder) Cup of Curling starts on Thursday in Langley, B.C. and wraps up on Sunday, featuring World vs. North America stars doing battle on TSN.