Is mixed doubles curling's future or will it be forever 'second fiddle?'
FREDERICTON, N.B. — It was as if overnight the somewhat new, quirky, action-packed discipline of mixed-doubles curling was thrust into the spotlight.
It had existed for years in the background, played at Continental Cups and in clubs across the country. There were national championships, too. Nobody really took it all that seriously. To that end, Canada has never won the event's world championship.
Then it was added to the 2018 Olympic program and everything changed.
Until that point, most curlers in the country were lukewarm about it. Fans felt similarly, with many disregarding the new discipline and its gimmicky ways.
But now an Olympic medal was on the line.
Jeff Stoughton, who won three Briers and two world championships, was appointed Curling Canada's mixed-doubles program manager. He was tasked with raising the level of mixed-doubles curling in a hurry and finding the perfect pair to lead Canada at the Games.
"No doubt the Olympics put a huge spotlight on the sport," Stoughton said. "Three years ago I looked and there were 19 events in Europe and two in Canada and the United States."
Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris won the right to represent Canada in Pyeongchang, and after winning the gold medal the pair became the faces of the game in Canada, raising the game's profile in the process.
"The exposure was massive," said Stoughton. "It's promising and I think it's just going to keep getting bigger and bigger."
The Olympics are one thing, but what's happening to mixed doubles when it's not in that big bonspiel spotlight?
"We're not there yet. It's still going to be a second fiddle to the traditional game," Stoughton said.
Stoughton thinks the sport is gaining traction, but there is still work to be done when it comes to creating more events and more opportunities.
"There are more tour events now in Canada than there were. Nine events at least," he said.
Stoughton said that some provincial curling associations have taken the lead on building the game in their part of the country. Saskatchewan created a circuit this season with four events on the calendar.
Alberta and Manitoba had more than 30 teams competing at their provincial playdowns, all trying to earn a spot at this year's nationals in Fredericton.
"Ontario has regional events now just to get to provincial playdowns," Stoughton said. "There are just so many teams trying to get out of that province and it only means great things moving forward."
Stoughton added that clubs are starting to profile the mixed-doubles discipline in a meaningful way. For many, the sport's attraction is that putting together a team of two is easier than the traditional four.
In order for a team to compete at mixed-doubles nationals, they either have to win their provincial playdowns or earn enough points throughout the season. Teams must play a minimum of two events to qualify for nationals.
With the traditional game becoming more professional, some curlers are left with tough scheduling decisions to meet the requirements.
Last year's national champion duo of Laura Walker and Kirk Muyres both play on four-person teams. At the beginning of the season the two got together to talk about what events they could play to meet the mixed-doubles minimum.
"It is tough," Muyres said. "I think we both made some concessions with our men's and women's teams this year because of it and to get those two events in."
Walker thinks if there's anything that gets in the way of the growth of the game it will be the schedule.
"I think Kirk and I feel the same way that if there was that same level of opportunity in mixed doubles this might be all we play," Walker said.
There is chatter that that mixed doubles might be added to the Slam Tour, which could entice more of the league's best players to take part in the discipline.
"I think it's on an upward trend and headed in the right direction," Walker said. "It will take time to get on the same level as the women's and men's game in terms of exposure and money involved."
Muyres said there is still a divide between traditional curlers who pick up mixed doubles on the side and those who specialize in it.
"Right now we're able to do it, but but I think in the next five or six years it's not going to be as easy to juggle both," he said. "I honestly believe at some point it's going to be an either-or thing."