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(published in SWEEP! Magazine - April 2009)

Jim Armstrong plays Whack-A-Mole as Canada win gold

The smiles were a long time coming, but when it was finally time to sing, the tune was O Canada. The Maple Leaf rose centre flag for the first time at a World Wheelchair Curling Championship and Team Canada skip Jim Armstrong had shown in the playoffs that you don't play for 50 years through six Briers without knowing how to coax your opponents into playing your game.

It didn't look so rosy at the beginning of the week. After an opening win against Scotland, thrashing with their delivery zone, Canada were outplayed by a disciplined China team who ignored the temptation to chase rocks floated into the 12 foot.

A defeat by Italy and a win against Switzerland, the tournamentís least experienced team, saw Canada at 2-2 and showing the stress of high expectations unmet. Jim Armstrong was struggling and chins were low. "I think it affected Darryl because we play together all the time and he never sees me miss," Armstrong joked, but this was not a group of peers, and as the leader went, so did his team.

Next up were USA, with a skip fueled on emotion. With one rock to play and two Canadian shot stones buried so deep coach Joe Rea felt it would take two to dislodge them, "Goose" Perez called his team together and described a hit through a narrow port.

"Do you trust me to make it?" he asked. They did, and seconds later USA sat two for the win. The Americans rushed together for a group hug, It was the second most memorable shot of the week, but the team's reaction was the week's highlight for one on-ice officials. "Seeing that shot, seeing that joy, I nearly lost it," she said.

With Canada at 2-3 something had to change and it was Chris Sobkowicz, perhaps playing out of position throwing first stones, who fell on his sword, making way for Sonja Gaudet to resume her career at lead. There was an immediate change on the ice. The smiles returned and wins over Korea, Sweden and Germany had Canada assured of at least a tie-break coming into the final draw against Norway.

The two-time defending had hardly played prior to the Worlds as building delays cost them their local ice-time. They had to win to avoid re-qualification for 2011 and when Norway have to win, they find a way. Fortunately for Canada, China also lost, allowing Canada (5-4) to slip into the playoffs in fourth place behind Germany, Sweden and USA.

Canada retreated to Richmond for a heart-to-heart team meeting and a practice, and it was a different team that came out to play USA in the Page playoff game. "Relentless," was programme director Gerry Peckham's admiring assessment of Canada's defeat of a spirited USA side who kept pace through the first four ends, but wilted after the break. Germany in the semi and Sweden in the final offered less resistance as each were sucked into Armstrong ' Whack-A-Mole; a game they didnít have the skipping skills to win.

Would Canada have won without Armstrong's skills at skip? Doubtful when you realise their very average shooting was bolstered by his management of fresh out the box rocks, his ice-reading, and the fact that no-one was asked to make a shot that wasnít there. Armstrong himself went through twelve games always having a clear path for his last rock.

Where will this team be next year as they attempt to defend their Paralympic gold medal? It's hard to imagine that with another year's practice this team wonít be shooting closer to 60%.

Wheelchair curling at the world level is a very amateur affair outside Canada and possibly Scotland. Itís taken seriously of course, but without the resources available here. Korea, so impressive last year, are a headstrong club side over-committed to the hit. China are young and enthusiastic, but play together only four weeks a year. They have arrived too late to build enough Paralympic qualification points for 2010. Switzerland, the weakest of the 2009 teams as they attempt to rebuild their program. qualify on the strength of a second place finish in 2007.

The two sides with the best round robin records, Germany and Sweden, are perhaps not co-incidentally both club sides with intelligent skips who will learn from their defeats. If nothing more they will know they have to play in the four foot. USA would benefit from practicing on ice that curled more than a foot. Their 3/4 game against Germany was one of the week's best and had the most exciting last rock shot of the week. You can watch it on video HERE.

While the play was entertaining, the crowds were pitifully small and most of the 49 athletes managed to hide themselves away from any interactions off the ice. What press coverage there was tended to concentrate on how Armstrong was adapting to a new sport. They might as easily asked if he was a ringer, but fortunately for Jim and for the Canadian program, this story had a happy ending.

Eric Eales - Kelowna, March 2009



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