Mathematically it might not have been a “must win” – but it sure was psychologically.
“It’s a huge game,” said CBC curling analyst Mike Harris as he watched the Canadian men’s curling team warm up for what should have been a relatively meaningless round-robin match against Denmark.
That it was not was because the Brad Jacobs rink from Sault Ste Marie has had, well, a rocky week of rock-throwing in Sochi.
In a Thursday match with Denmark, with both teams holding relatively weak 2-2 records, Jacobs took until the final rock of the day to claim a 7-6 victory in 10 ends and move back to a winning record of 3-2 in the round-robin preliminaries of Olympic men’s curling.
Canada had an early lead, lost it, then moved ahead again only to have the Danes tie the match up with two counters in the ninth end.
In the 10th, however, all went Canada’s way. Denmark third Johnny Frederiksen threw a rock that failed to reach the hog line. Canadian skip Ryan Fry cleared two guards away, giving the Danes no chance to steal a stone and Denmark skip Rasmus Stjerne threw his final rock too hard, failing to stay in the house.
All Canadian skip Jacobs had to do was draw his final rock to the house to claim victory.
“It’s another win,” said second E.J. Harnden, “and that’s all that matters. We had a few misses here and there but overall I think it was a good game, a good game to build off.
“It’s a win, that’s two in a row [Canada beat Russia 7-4 Wednesday evening] and has us back on the winning side of things. Gets us back with some confidence going.”
Harnden’s brother, Ryan, who threw first, had little confidence going for himself this day. One of his rocks was off and tended to slide “lightning fast” on him.
“I didn’t play that well,” he said. “E.J. played well…just a frustrating game for me. I felt like I threw pretty well, but it just wasn’t there.”
“He struggled a little bit,” Jacobs said of his lead. “It was just a matter of figuring out his rocks.”
The Jacobs rink has high expectations on it. They went through the trials undefeated to get here and Canada is the two-time defending Olympic champion in men’s curling. They arrived in Sochi the heavy favourites to repeat.
Had they lost to the Danes, Canada would have carried three losses and be well back of the leaders, including a surprisingly strong showing by China, who won their first four matches and, as of Thursday, were the only undefeated team in the tournament.
Canada’s rivals for the gold medal had been expected to be reigning world champion Sweden and Norway. The powerful Swedish team defeated Norway 5-4 Thursday and Canada meets Norway Friday.
Curiously, while Jacobs arrived the favourite, the Jennifer Jones rink was expected to have a difficult time of it in the women’s side. Jones, however, is unbeaten, having dispatched Denmark and Switzerland by identical 8-5 scores to improve to 5-0.
“We are just trying to stay focussed on the process,” said Jill Officer, who curls second on the women’s team. “We are just going out there each game and trying to be better and be a little bit sharper.”
Sharpness is also what Jacobs is looking for in his rink. He maintains his team welcomes adversity and, but for the unblemished record in the trials, is well-used to battling back.
“I think it’s a great thing for us,” he said. “We’re more used to adversity than sailing through things, that’s for sure. We’ve always been like that. We’ve always been the team that’s taken the long route to getting to another event or to win an event.
“So it’s familiar territory for us. There’s nothing wrong with a good grind in a week of curling. We like it.”
“We’re all throwing the rock really well,” added third Ryan Fry, “with the odd hiccup here and there.”
When the Canadian team’s record was 1-2 they “regrouped,” talking a lot among themselves and with their coaches about what they could do to combat the crowd noise at Ice Cube, which they concede was getting to them, and looking at video to remind themselves of how cool and determined they had been during the trials.
“We discovered what we needed to do in order to be better at this event,” said Jacobs. “And that was to bring a lot more energy to each and every shot and every game.
“It’s just hard to do in that building with it being so loud. It can almost bring you down – and we need to not let that happen and just play our own game.”
“As much as you train and as much as people have talked to you about what the Olympics have in store for you,” added Fry, “it’s a different tournament all together.
“There are nerves and there’s anxiety and doubt and you’ve got to wash all of those things out of your head to be able to perform at your best.”