For the four teams involved, it’s one of the most important weeks of the year, a potentially lucrative two-game set that could double their season’s earnings. The TSN Skins Game may be a made-for-TV event that uses unconventional rules in a wild setting at Casino Rama near Orillia, Ont., but it also offers the biggest payday in curling for the winner.
With so much on the line, you’d think the combatants would be deep in preparation on the ice and in the gym. Not Kevin Martin. Where was he in the days leading up to the Skins?
Yes, rather than get too involved in thinking about how to hold off Glenn Howard, Jeff Stoughton and Kevin Koe, the man known as the Old Bear was dealing with Mickey, Daffy and Goofy on a family vacation to the Southern California theme park.
But make no mistake, when his holiday ended and his broom was back in hand, it was once again all business for Martin. While he still gets great pleasure from sliding rocks at ice houses, the game for him is a business. His team is his company and Martin is the boss.
“It’s the skip’s job to be the CEO,” said Martin, 45. “The sport would be easier if teams had a manager or an owner to do those things, but that’s not the case.”
Since he appeared on the scene at the 1991 Brier, an event he won, Martin has lived to curl, but also curled to live. He has operated a corporation of four players, asking much of his teammates as if they were his prized employees. He’s urged them to adopt a demanding practice schedule, to train in the gym relentlessly and to all sing from the same strategic songbook. It’s led him to become arguably the game’s most successful player.
“It’s like any successful corporation,” said rival Wayne Middaugh, admiring Martin’s work. “If the CEO is making good moves and making you money, you’re going to follow him. Kevin’s done that.”
Operating like this, his teammates feel, has separated him from the other top players and allowed him to continue to be successful 20 years after that maiden Brier win.
“It’s a business to him, for sure,” second Marc Kennedy said. “It’s run like a company and there are expectations on all of us. And that’s a good thing. It makes it work.”
“Kevin runs the team like a business,” third John Morris added. “He’s still an athlete but he’s also like the manager and owner, I guess you could say.”
There is a fine balance between running the team and being dictatorial. Martin still seeks input from his teammates as well as long-time coach Jules Owchar, but in the end, he makes the final decisions.
It was Martin who blew up his silver-medal team from the 2002 Olympics after it failed to perform at the 2005 Olympic trials. It appeared harsh in the buddy-buddy world of curling, but for Martin, it was a business decision. His goal was the top step of the Olympic podium and he knew that team wasn’t good enough.
In came Morris, Kennedy and lead Ben Hebert, who were told matter-of-factly by Martin that their goal was gold in 2010. Buy in or don’t bother showing up. It worked and now the team has a new goal of another gold in Sochi in 2014. The team reached step one last month when it earned first spot in the 2013 trials by winning the Canada Cup.
“You can only have one philosophy, one vision, one boss,” said Martin, who, when he’s not curling, runs Kevin’s Rocks and Racquets, a sporting goods store in Edmonton. “I’m sure there are some guys I played with in the past who aren’t too happy with some of the choices I’ve made. But if you don’t follow that, you end up with all sorts of problems. So you set things up at the start of the year so everyone knows their job and works together.”
That translates onto the ice as well. Kennedy said when the team struggles, it’s often because that singular vision gets lost.
“We get in trouble when there’s too much input for Kevin, when we’re not on the same wavelength,” Kennedy said. “It’s not that he doesn’t value our opinions, but with his experience, why would you want to question what he says? He trumps what I’m thinking.”
The team’s success on the ice has translated into sponsorship opportunities. The squad has a collection of backers that includes Uncle Ben’s, Pedigree Dog Food and H&R Block. Martin treats this part of the business as precisely as his rock throwing.
For many events, the four players will arrive a day early and either make the media rounds or put on a clinic for juniors, all with the aim of promoting their sponsors. It’s something that differentiates them from other teams.
“That [sponsor]support is huge,” Morris said. “It means we don’t have to work full-time and that means we can train more. I know for me that made a huge difference when we were going for the Olympics.”
Martin has maintained his level of play while all around him the game gradually gets younger. He knows his window of opportunity is closing and the run for Sochi will likely be his last hurrah. But until that road comes to an end, he will continue to be curling’s top CEO.
Special to The Globe and Mail