By CATHAL KELLY
Thursday, February 15, 2018
GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA -- To properly put the pressure placed on Canadian curlers into perspective, you can't ask them. You're better off putting it to the world's second-ranked team.
The Sweden men's rink might be the sexiest group in world curling, literally and metaphorically.
Hard hitters who look like a Viking rock band.
Their lead singer, Niklas Edin, gets a little wide-eyed when he thinks of the hot nights and wild times on the road in Regina or North Bay.
"When we go over there, it's a different kind of life," Edin said after Wednesday's opener to the men's tournament.
"If we go to restaurants, people come up to us and ask for selfies and autographs. Being Swedes, that's unreal.
"We're not hockey players. It's, like, what's happening?" To hear Edin tell it, curling in Canada is a non-stop Woodstock. The attention is so great, he has to return to Karlstad to escape it.
"That's our downtime. We can relax, take a deep breath. We don't have any people coming up asking for anything," Edin said. "Then we go back to Canada, and it's that jetset life again."
Yes, "jetset life." That's what Edin said. In reference to curling.
Given all that, how much pressure do you imagine comes with wearing the maple leaf?
"Huge," Edin said, stretching his arms out as if to measure a fish. "Huuuuuge."
While men's hockey gets the glory, their curling counterparts instead get the strain. The last time the Canadian men's team failed to win Olympic gold, Jean Chrétien was prime minister.
This time around, the banner is being carried by a sort of cream of Canadian curling - a supergroup assembled for one blowout tour through Asia.
Their leader, Kevin Koe, abandoned his long-time crew - at the time, the Canadian senior national squad - in 2014 to piece together his current outfit. In the insular world of elite curling, that makes Koe both the John and the Yoko.
"It was a big risk for him," team third and 2010 gold medalist Marc Kennedy said. "He knew he was going to take a lot of heat for it."
Though evidently successful, it has not exactly been smooth.
"I don't think we'll ever be the most consistent team out there," Koe said. "It'd be a little nicer."
All four men are cool customers. Other rinks came bouncing off the ice blinking at all the cameras. Many of them may go years between interviews.
Canada beat a callow Italian team 5-3 on Wednesday. Afterward, the Italians did not seem to understand that journalists would expect to speak to them.
An Italian flack had to physically drag one of them back into the mixed zone. He did not look best pleased.
By contrast, Canada sashayed in ready for the daily chat. Credit to them - they have their "no big deal" talking points down.
"I don't feel for us that it's gold or bust. They might feel that way in Canada," Kennedy said.
"To be honest, we would be happy with a medal."
"Pressure? It's definitely there," Koe said. "It's no different at the worlds. Maybe a few more eyes on it."
Yeah, sure. A bronze would be just fine, thanks. Playing in front of a few thousand people in the Swiss boondocks is just like being watched by hundreds of millions worldwide.
If you believe that, I'll tell you another one.
The pressure is such that the Canadian team does not have a curling coach, precisely. They're all scarred campaigners. They don't need advice on their sweeping technique. Their coach, John Dunn - a man who's been with Koe for a decade - is a sports psychologist who functions as a quasi-team therapist.
"He knows shit-all about curling," Kennedy said.
As with most sports motivators, Dunn comes armed with a variety of aphorisms meant to focus the athletic mind. An example: "You don't rise to the occasion. You fall to the level of your training." (Which I believe is a reworking of a Denzel Washington line in Man on Fire.)
So how does this work? Does everyone get in a sharing circle and explore their fears or what?
Kennedy, a bright, sinewy Albertan who once ran a meat store, rocks back on his heels slightly.
"It's not so much sit around and talk about your feelings," he said. "John comes from a military background."
The result of that can be seen in Canada's approach during competition - rigorous and dead-eyed. If the mixed-doubles pairing was a buddy comedy, the men's team is a hardboiled noir.
Every athlete is capable of the choke - a point under stress during which the conscious mind assumes control of what should be an unconscious reaction.
The sport of curling may provide more choking opportunities than any other. The games take forever. The bulk of a contest is spent standing around thinking about what to do next. Small errors snowball. That's when the doubt creeps in, and you start thinking about what's expected of you.
"A lot of emotions go into two-and-a-half hours of curling," Kennedy said. You wouldn't know it to look at him. Out on the sheet, he looks about as hyped up as an unusually languid iguana.
Every competitor here is under some sort of duress, but it may not be hyperbolic to say that Canada's curlers are under the most of all. You're not even playing and the idea of it gives you the shivers.
How does the Canadian team deal with it in public? By falling back on canned answers delivered with a smile. Unlike everyone else at the curling event, even their media relations feel trained. Questions that might bait other competitors are slipped around.
The Canadians know that for many competitors here, a win against Canada at any point would make their Olympics an aggregate success.
Koe called it "the target on our backs." Then he shrugged and stared.
In Olympic curling, Canada is the New York Yankees. But only if the New York Yankees weren't ever allowed to lose.