Canadians rocked by minnows Curling

Canadian curlers, long seen as formidable foes worldwide, took a hit to their reputation yesterday as both the men's and women's Olympic teams suffered shocking upsets.

The upstart Italian men, spurred on by boisterous fans, won 7-6 in an extra end.

In women's play, Japan got only its second win of the tournament, held at the new Palaghiaccio in Pinerolo, with a 5-2 victory.

Both teams are 4-3 and fighting to stay in the top four for a playoff spot.

"We used to come over here and just show up and win," said men's coach Jim Waite of St. Thomas, who is at his third Olympics. "They come to Canada and they play in our tournaments and our 'spiels and they learn from us. Every country has their best team here."

Canadian third Amy Nixon was clearly upset with her team's performance and the curl of the ice.

"I'm frustrated right now and I'll admit it. This is a team that we should beat," she said.

Nixon said the ice was playing straight and that affected the outcome. "It's not curling at all. There's only one spot on the ice that's curling."

She said because of the ice conditions, the Canadian rink couldn't put up many guards. "Corner guards were almost useless."

Men's skip Brad Gushue of St. John's, Nfld., also complained about the ice.

"I don't think this is up to the calibre of the event," he said.

But Waite said the ice was fine yesterday. "There's nothing wrong with it."

Gushue was down 5-1 at the halfway mark and Waite said he told the curlers to be patient.

The guys then started making their shots, creeping up to force the extra end against Italy (4-3).

Canadian second Russ Howard, whose accuracy rate was only 38 per cent after three ends but ended up at 80 per cent, said his team made a nice comeback.

"We played really well the last half of the game, but it was slightly too late. It took us a little while to catch onto the crowd, maybe."

Waite, who turned 65 Friday (Howard turns 50 today), said the Canadians are still favoured for gold. "Canada has much more depth than all of the rest of the countries."

Japanese skip Ayumi Onodera said her team's strategy was to be aggressive with Canada.

"The whole team's feelings were changed because the coach told us to 'stop wondering.' "

Canadian skip Shannon Kleibrink tried to draw for a single point in the fourth, but she was heavy on her shot and the Japanese stole one. That was all they needed to seal one of the biggest wins in Japanese curling history.

"It was unbelievable for me to win against Canada at the Olympic Games," Onodera said.

Canadian lead Christine Keshen was ill and was replaced by alternate Sandra Jenkins, who curled the best in the foursome yesterday at 81 per cent.

Kleibrink said her team knows that Canadians expect an Olympic medal, but they're not worrying about that.

"We have our own expectations and that's enough pressure. We want to be there at the end of the week, that's for sure."

Kleibrink plays Italy (1-6) today and Denmark (2-4) tomorrow while Gushue meets New Zealand (0-6) today and the U.S. (5-2) tomorrow.