Time was, Canadians got mad that the Winnipeg Jets had too many Russians.
Now a trio of Canadian curlers from the Winnipeg area are angling to curl for Russia in the 2014 Sochi Olympics -- and not only is no one stopping them, they're encouraging them. What in the name of Alan Eagleson giving Muscovites a one-finger salute at the Luzhniki Ice Palace is going on? Twenty-five-year-old skip Jason Gunnlaugson (right in photo) and teammates Tyler Forrest and Justin Richter see playing for Russia as a way to kick-start their careers.
Team Gunnlaugson will be sponsored by the Russian federation and will be joined by a pair of Russian curlers to form a team that will attempt to be competitive at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Last season his team, based in Beausejour, qualified for the (Canadian) Olympic Trials but struggled at the competition and finished eighth.
Gunnlaugson and his teammates will need to become Russian citizens to compete for that country at the Olympics. Russian citizens are required to spend 60 days a year in the country to retain their passport.
Go ahead and have your pun, although "hired Gunn" is already taken. Someone already went ahead and edited Gunnlaugson's Wikipedia page, changing his birthplace from Winnipeg to Siberia. (How did no one think of "the Russia house?") This is what can happen in a sport that is in a gray area between being a pastime and being professional, and where the depth varies.
It is also in keeping with Russia's practice of recruiting foreign athletes. It's commonplace in basketball; remember WNBA guard Becky Hammon taking out citizenship prior to the Beijing Olympics?
They also happen to be located in Manitoba, which along with Alberta offer arguably the two most competitive provincial championships and thus the hardest route to the Tim Hortons Brier, the Canadian championship, and from there, the world championship. It's like when the NCAA Tournament in basketball only took conference champions. The same is true for the Olympics, which are only held once every four years.
Being a young curler there is like being a Triple-A ballplayer who is blocked at his position by an established veteran on the major-league club.
It is no coincidence that Edmonton-based skip Kevin Koe, who recently became the first skip in 38 years to win the world championship on his first attempt, pulled off the feat in an Olympic year. With Alberta rival Kevin Martin (left in photo) focused on the Vancouver Games (where he won gold), Koe made good on his opportunity.
As such, people in the game are by and large telling Gunnlaugson, Forrest and Richter and their coach, Patty Wuthrich, to become Russian rock stars. As past world champion Jeff Stoughton put it:
"It's a chance to see the world and curl at the highest level without any financial burden. For these guys, they live and breathe curling and they've been losing money to do it. I think Jason (Gunnlaugson) tries to support his curling life by playing online poker. This is a great opportunity. We'll have to wait and see how it works out, but I wish them the best."
They would be far from the first Canadians to spread the gospel of the roaring game to another country. Many coaches, icemakers and technical officials are now working for other national curling federations, to the extent some are worried Canada's built-in advantage (having 70% or so of the world's curlers) might be eroded. Shane Ray, who heads Curl Manitoba, even termed it a "wake-up call that we need to look at how we fund and provide for our athletes ... Some of our best athletes and coaches are going elsewhere because they can get paid to do what they love and are good at."
Simply put, it's the way of the world. You have to like that people are wishing Gunnlaugson well. You also have to like Ray's zinger: "I hope I have the opportunity to go to the 2014 Olympics and cheer them on as they win a silver medal after having lost to Canada."
(Big ups to Keith Borkowsky for the discovery.)
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Sports Canada. You may contact him at neatesager[at]yahoo[dot]ca.
- Jason Gunnlaugson