"Good curling," says Brad Jacobs, the 29-year-old skip of Canada's Olympic gold medal winning curling team before each game. "Good curling" is a customary greeting in the sport, part of the traditional good luck handshake at the beginning of each game. In the case of Jacobs and his foursome from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, it's also likely the most polite thing they will say on the ice.
Jacobs and his foursome are young and brash. They are dragging curling into the 21st century-and trying to become the first curling team you would actually buy a ticket to watch.
Curling, after all, has long been associated with boredom. The game takes patience both to watch and to play. Unlike most other sports, where even a complete ignoramus can quickly intuit the general goal of "put an object into a net," curling-an ice-bound hybrid of bocce and shuffleboard-requires, at bare minimum, a two-minute explanation of how to score. Then there is strategy, about which thousands of pages have been written. All in all, curling is a bizarre game that combines quiet focus, physical precision, and then, suddenly, a great deal of screaming.
Screaming is what Jacobs found himself doing when he won at last year's Canadian Olympic Trials, widely known as the toughest curling tournament on Earth. In the case of nearly every other country, Olympic curling representatives are hand-selected by their country's sport federation to compete. They have a year or more to prepare. The Canadian team is named in December, just over a month before they have to leave for the Games, and only after they have defeated all of their peers.
"We won the Brier [Canadian Men's Championship] and the Olympic Trials in a 10-month span. It puts a target on your back real quick," said Jacobs about reaching the sport's pinnacle. "We wanted it, but even we didn't expect it."
The curling world didn't expect it either. When Jacobs made the final shot to defeat 2010 Olympic Gold Medalist and arguably curling's best-ever shot-maker, Kevin Martin, to secure his spot in the Olympic Trials final, he looked at the politely clapping crowd and snarled "COME ON," thrusting his arms in the air, willing the crowd to its feet.
Such iconic moments in curling are a rarity. There have been great shots, sure, but the rise of Jacobs and his team could be a signal that curling is ready to become something that makes casual fans say 'Damn, I want to try that.'
As recently as the late 1990s, curlers were often walking stereotypes: heavy drinkers who partied as much as they curled. You can watch old curling clips from the 1960s with players smoking cigarettes as they're throwing-at the world championships. The saying amongst curlers used to go that winning a tournament didn't mean as much if you didn't also win the bar as well.
Then curling debuted as a medal sport in the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, and everything changed. Purses increased. International sport federations sunk millions into the game. Teams began to work out harder, drink a lot less. Through all of that, though, there was still a sense you needed to be quiet to win curling games.
Team Jacobs has busted through the sense of decorum in the tradition of Happy Gilmore: celebrating made shots and big wins, and not being afraid to show frustration when they miss. They have divided curling fans on a generational line. But younger fans are the future, and they are flocking to Team Jacobs like no curling team that has come before them. When it comes to raw emotion on the ice, the team looks a lot like the blueprint for 21st century curling.
"If you're doing things right, I believe that some people will love you, and some will hate you," said Team Jacobs' second, E.J. Harnden. "But we don't care, as long as they are watching."
"This is who we are," echoed Jacobs. "The people that like us understand why we celebrate, why we cheer, why we get excited. We love this game. The passion is real, the emotion is real. Bottling it up would feel fake to us. Do some people not like it? Sure. But this game is about the youth, and serving the youth. They love it. It's allowed in other sports, so why not curling?"
The team signed an off-season deal with BioSteel, a supplement company that counts numerous NFL, NBA, and NHL players as clients. Needless to say, this is the first ever such deal in curling. The team has made its fitness regiment part of its reputation, featuring workouts online. Two players posed shirtless for a calendar. One former player was suspended for steroids.
Jacobs, the skip, looks a bit like an army general. Ryan Fry, the third, looks like he started working out before his body even had muscles. Brothers E.J. and Ryan Harnden-the "front end" as they're called in curling circles-sweep each rock with the urgency of a bomb tech trying to stop a detonation. In short, they look and act like athletes. Even still, it isn't enough. Said Jacobs, "If we don't work even harder, we will be passed."
"I believe that Team Jacobs have taken the best out of every curling team in the last decade and made it their own," said Paul Webster, the Canadian Curling Association's head coach. "They work incredibly hard, they're the fittest team on the ice, and they're probably the first curling team to use emotion the way they have, to make them better players."
Jacobs puts it a bit more bluntly.
"The physical aspect of curling has come forward in such a way that I believe, if you are a competitive curler with dreams of winning things, and you're not hitting the gym, you might as well just scratch that dream."
It feels like the right time for a team like this. The game is no longer seen as a mere Canadian curio. (Even one of the most-read books on curling, Open House, by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Scott Russell, is subtitled "Canada and the Magic of Curling.") At the 2014 Olympics, curling was the most tweeted-about sport for 12 of the 16 days the Games were being held. The men's final was the second highest-rated Olympic programming block in Canada and the United States, behind only the men's ice hockey final. Other countries are paying attention, too.
"Olympic medals bring countries to the dance," stated Webster. "Countries saw an opportunity where you have a new Olympic sport that really only one country was dominating. That makes it an easy choice for countries to put money into it. Not even a decade ago, you knew Canada was walking through at least 3 or 4 of their games at the Worlds, at the Olympics. Now, every game is tough. Curling isn't an easy victory for Canada anymore, and teams like Brad's are going to have to be the ones that push the envelope for our country."
The lack of money in curling makes it a semi-professional sport at best, and so most curlers in Canada hold day jobs. The sport federations in Canada can't afford to put up the money it takes to pay their curlers full-time like the federatoions in China, Japan, Korea, Russia, and Sweden can. They don't need to, either, as Canada has yet to show it can't win this way, winning 3 out of the last 4 Olympic golds and making the podium at every single Games in both men's and women's curling since 1998. For the curlers, it becomes about pride.
"I think, at times, we celebrate the wins even more because we know how hard we had to work to get them," said Harnden. "I work eight hours a day at my real job, and five-plus hours a day at curling. If I'm not celebrating my wins, what am I doing?"
Having celebrated wins at both the Canadian championship and the Olympics, you would think the incentive has dissipated for Team Jacobs, but that is not the case.
"We want to be the best team ever. Period," said Jacobs. We want people to look at our team and say we were the best players at each of our positions ever, and that we worked together better than any team ever."