One of basketball’s prevailing properties has been its ability to adapt. At moments in its history when the game began to grow stale, from the shot clock to the three-point line and even illegal zone defense, rules changed to incentivize scoring as well as provide an opportunity to win through different talents, rather than just size and attrition.
Curling saw the same growing pains, namely in the 1980s, when players became incredibly accurate with takeout shots, cutting into high scores as well as its own watchability. By the 1992 Olympics, the free guard zone was implemented as a direct result of player intervention, specifically gold medalist and current TSN commentator Russ Howard. This change stipulates that the first four delivered rocks of an end cannot remove opposition guards (stones in front of the house).
The FGZ is a success and almost guarantees that a perfectly executed end by a team can give them an ability to score at least two points, but the tide is starting to go back to the good hitters, as 25 years of experience are now able to neutralize it. Teams have become adept at long runbacks and especially “ticking” away free guards toward (but not into) the sidelines, once again threatening games to become a monotonous march of blank ends and 3-2 results.
High-profile grand slams have experimented with some adaptations, most prominently expanding the FGZ to five rocks. In some cases they have banned tick shots altogether, which seems a little excessive. These tweaks have definitely resulted in more rocks in play, but perhaps too many.
Last weekend’s Everest Curling Challenge in Fredericton, New Brunswick had the draw of an All-Star event because it featured eight top-ranked Canadian teams (four per gender) separated and drafted into mixed teams to play for a winner-take-all $200,000 Canadian. The big story was not that the team of Brad Gushue, Cathy Overton-Clapham, E.J. Harnden, and Lisa Weagle won the payout, nor how those players will carry on the experience into this season and their respective goals of representing Canada for the 2018 Olympics. The main takeaway from the Everest was a big rule change that just may be the next adaptation: the two-point shot.
A short primer on curling scoring, for the unfamiliar: After the completion of an end, only one team can score, and it’s whoever is closest to the center while touching the scoring area. The number of points scored is equal to the number of rocks closer to the center than your opponent. A common question is if the different colors represent different point values, but they are just concentric circles making it easier for determinations. But this rule may change all that. At the Everest, if a rock completely covered the pinhole in the center, it was worth two points. The pinhole, which can be found at the intersection of the two black lines within the smallest white circle known as the button, is not a new concept, but it was never a scoring mechanism.
The early returns on the two-point shot indicate that elite teams really had to figure out how to use it and defend against it, thinking twice about not just playing for “the force,” e.g. forcing the opponent to one stone, since now that stone could be worth two. The Everest featured situations where the call was to go for the pinhole, which created some exciting pressure on the sweepers to guide the last stone into a microscopic location. Some of them were even successful, and in one time it meant the game. The lone competitive quarterfinal was John Epping’s team against Val Sweeting. Epping won 6-4, although Sweeting had an open two-point shot in the final end to tie the game, but her stone just drifted too far. Again, these were teams playing together for the first time, but in an event where that’s not Sweeting’s first game of the weekend, that shot might have been made better.
We’ll need more data on the two-pointer before discussing if it should become a standard rule, but its debut showed a ton of promise. It’ll encourage skips to not just be impeccable hitters (as most are) but to work on being deadly accurate to the pinhole, much like basketball teams did with the three-point line. Curling is one step closer to finding its Steph Curry.
Matt Sussman is a sort-of-competitive curler from Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter at @suss2hyphens.