The long-simmering Canadian curling residency issue has been raised to the front burner once again after a quadrennial that saw Canada largely come up short at major international four-player team events.
A fresh wrinkle came this week with Team Brad Gushue’s announcement that E.J. Harnden would join the St. John’s-based rink at second to replace Brett Gallant after his departure to join the Alberta-based Team Brendan Bottcher.
Harnden’s addition created a residency issue for the world’s top-ranked team since he’s based in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. In order to satisfy current residency rules, Gushue said that lead Geoff Walker would become a resident of Newfoundland and Labrador.
“It’s extra work and it’s an extra challenge,” Gushue said on a video conference call. “I think going forward that’s something that needs to be addressed from a countrywide standpoint [to] allow Canada to make sure that we’re developing the best teams.”
Under the current structure, teams are allowed one “free agent” from outside their province or territory. A birthright status option was added in 2019 to allow athletes to represent the province or territory where they were born if they live outside of those borders.
Gushue and third Mark Nichols live in the St. John’s area while Walker is based in Edmonton.
Specifics on Walker’s residency plans for Newfoundland and Labrador weren’t discussed during a 15-minute availability Wednesday afternoon. He was the lone team member not on the call.
Exemptions to residency rules may be made in exceptional circumstances, per Curling Canada rules, which state “an individual must spend the majority of their non-compete time in the province/territory in which they are claiming to be a bona fide resident.”
When asked about Walker’s case, a Curling Canada spokesman said residency is handled through member associations since some provinces/territories use different rules. The Newfoundland and Labrador Curling Association, in an email reply Thursday, said it planned to follow the national federation’s residency guidelines.
“Obviously Team Gushue has dealt with the residency rules for a number of years and understand what is required to be compliant,” Curling Canada high-performance director Gerry Peckham said in an email. “I have no doubt they have a well thought-out solution in mind.”
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In a text message, Gushue told The Canadian Press that Walker would need to rent an apartment in the province, have a health card, driver’s licence and (curling) club membership.
That would satisfy residency rules provided he spends most of his non-compete time in Newfoundland and Labrador.
In recent weeks, several elite Canadian curling teams made lineup changes for the 2022-23 season and four-year cycle leading to the 2026 Milan Olympics.
However, unlike other countries where top domestic players can team up without restrictions, Canadian teams must consider where players live in order to qualify for provincial/territorial championships and potentially wear those colours at national playdowns.
‘Muddy and murky for a long time’
Curling Canada is keen to keep that traditional setup in place for its showcase Canadian championships — the Tim Hortons Brier and Scotties Tournament of Hearts — while supporting member associations who have helped develop the athletes.
Colin Hodgson, who played lead for Team Mike McEwen this past season, doesn’t think there’s animosity between players and teams but feels uncertainty about residency rules likely impacted discussions and roster construction for newly formed teams.
“This has just been muddy and murky for a long time,” he said Thursday. “It has nothing to do with the teams. I think it has to do with the policy of how we are implementing [the rules] and vetting it because it just needs to be fair for everyone.”
The residency rule setup was raised in a wide-ranging interview in late March with Curling Canada chief executive officer Katherine Henderson. She said she wanted to have a “bit more of a conversation” with her group on the subject.
“We acknowledge curling is changing and the world is getting significantly better and they are doing it without the restrictions of residency,” she said. “So we get that. We also know that we have a depth of curling that nobody in the world can touch.”
Canadian teams occupy seven of the top-10 spots in the world men’s curling ranking list. Four Canadian rinks are in the top 10 on the women’s list.
Despite that, Canada hasn’t won four-player team gold at the Olympics since 2014 or at a world championship since 2018.
“Our teams in Canada I don’t believe should be developed around just one event — which right now is the Brier [for the men] — to make sure you meet those residency rules,” Gushue said. “If you’re going to develop around one event it should probably be the Olympic Games, which means it should be almost free rein.”
If Curling Canada were to again tinker with residency rules, Henderson said that member associations would have to be consulted.
“I really need to understand how much of an effect any change in residency would have on their ability to generate funds from events because all of us are not-for-profit,” she said.
Gushue’s team capped its memorable season last weekend with a title at the Champions Cup. The squad took bronze at the Beijing Olympics, won a Brier title and earned silver at the world championship.
The team won’t have to participate in provincial playdowns next season since it will be Team Canada at the 2023 Brier after winning the national title last March.