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Curling has changed, say veteran players, after burned rock singes Canada’s fortunes

Canada's skip Rachel Homan looks on during a women's curling match against Denmark at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Friday, Feb. 16, 2018. .
Canada's skip Rachel Homan looks on during a women's curling match against Denmark at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Friday, Feb. 16, 2018. . THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Natacha Pisarenko

EDMONTON – Two of the key players in a legendary curling controversy during the 1972 world men’s championship say the removal of a burned rock by Canada’s skip in a game against Denmark shows how much the game has changed over the years.

The drama unfolded in the fifth end of an already tense game at the Olympics Friday when a Danish player touched a stone as it came to rest in the house – called a burned rock.

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Canada’s skip Rachel Homan chose to remove the stone, which is one of three options offered to the opposing team. She could have also chose to ignore the foul or re-arrange the stones to a position where they would have ended up.

Homan’s move drew controversy because the touch didn’t really have an impact on where the rock came to rest. There were suggestions her decision was unsportsmanlike.

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Orest Meleschuk, who was the skip of Team Canada in the 1972 world men’s curling championship, hasn’t seen the play but he suggested a burned rock should only be removed if it dramatically alters the outcome.

“If there’s no change in the line of the rock and/or the speed of the rock, then you just let it run,” he said. “If there was a significant change of direction and/or weight, then of course you have to remove it. It all depends on the degree.”

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Meleschuk said he’s had similar situations in games, including what’s become known as the “Great Kicked Rock Caper.”

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During the world championships in 1972, Meleschuk threw his final rock in an attempt to score two points and tie the game. But before they could look at its final resting spot, the opposing team’s skip, Bob Labonte of the United States, kicked the rock in a premature celebration of a win.

“Before we even had a chance to look to see who was shot rock, the kid jumps back on the rink and kicks it,” Meleschuk told The Canadian Press from his home in Selkirk, Man.

Labonte didn’t admit to hitting the rock so they measured and Canada won the measurement, forcing an extra end and ultimately leading to a victory for the Canadian team.

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It was a controversy that lives on in curling history. Many in the U.S. still believe Labonte’s team should have won the game.

“I don’t know,” Labonte said Friday in an interview from North Dakota. “Nobody will ever know.”

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In Homan’s game, Canada ended up losing 9-8 to Denmark and drew criticism for the burned rock from commentators and Denmark’s skip Madeleine Dupont.

“It’s quite unusual. If it had been burned out there in the middle of the sheet, any team would have done that. But right there in the house, the rock had just about stopped. That never happens,” Dupont told CBC Sports. “I was thinking ‘I’m pretty sure karma will hit you at some point.”‘

The criticism didn’t seem to phase Homan, who noted it’s the opposing team’s right to remove a burned rock.

Labonte said Homan might have acted too quickly.

“She should have left it at least until they talked about it,” he said.

Both he and Meleschuk noted that Homan’s decision didn’t work out too well in the end.

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“She ended up losing. Well, sometimes those things happen. It comes back to bite you,” said Meleschuk.

“The thing is, it’s not a gentleman’s – or a woman’s, as we can say now – game anymore so the whole thinking has changed entirely.”

Labonte jokingly added that the game has changed in many ways over the years, noting how in 1972, Meleschuk made his fateful shot with a cigarette hanging from his mouth.

“Somebody once said, when Orest came out and he had ash hanging there, what if that had fallen on the rock? Would that have been a burned rock? I said, ‘Yes, literally, but I don’t think they would have done anything.”‘