Skip’s demotion is highly unusual
VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Deciding to relieve the skip of his duties smacks of desperation. That’s why you don’t see it very often in our sport.
But that’s exactly what the American men’s team opted to do on Friday when John Shuster not only stepped down as skip but was sent to the sidelines. Apparently it was head coach Phill Drobnick and the American coaching staff who made the call to bench Shuster following Team USA’s fourth straight loss. The Americans installed 22-year-old alternate Chris Plys, who has spent most of his time in Vancouver on Twitter and not on the ice, into the skip’s role for Friday’s game with France. Plys skipped the game and threw third rocks.
“We needed to do something,” Drobnick said. “From here on out, we’re taking it game by game. We’ll meet tonight again and decide what lineup we are going to put out there.”
With the exception of putting an alternate player in the game when a win is out of reach (simply to give the fifth player some ice time) or when a player is sick, this type of move really isn’t part of the curling culture. There’s something to be said about team dynamics, and this decision essentially implies that Shuster, the American captain, was letting his team down.
Shuster was gracious with the decision. “Obviously any athlete at this level wants to be in there and helping his team. At the same time, when the decision was made, I said, ‘All right, I’m going to come back here and support my teammates and do everything I can to help my team win the game,’ ” he said.
There’s no doubt the Americans have struggled, losing three games by giving up steals in extra ends. In other words, they had those games in their grasp and dropped the broom. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
That said, I really don’t understand the move. What happened to winning as a team and losing as a team? Maybe it’s the skip talking, but there’s nothing worse than feeling responsible for a loss, let alone having to bare the public humiliation of being benched at the Olympics. I understand if the players on the ice sit down and decide as a team that a change is required. But it is almost unheard of in our sport to see that change dictated by the coaching staff in the middle of a competition.
Some folks will suggest that the move paid off as Team USA stole a point in the final end to defeat France 4-3. Maybe it was the hammer that was the problem for the Americans in their three extra-end losses, or maybe it was the team’s good luck charm Vernon Davis (tight end for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and honorary captain), who came out to support the team. Or maybe it was the fact that they played a struggling Team France that, for the record, lost 12-5 to Canada the day before.
Sure, Team USA won its game, but not by much. Plys shot only 66 percent and the close match came down to the last end. Either way, I can’t help but feel for Shuster, who watched his team’s first victory from the sidelines.
The American men and women have played nine games at the 2010 Olympics and have just two wins.
I’m the first to admit that I chose the U.S. women’s team as my dark horse for the Olympics. I competed at the same tournament with Debbie McCormick last month and her team looked confident, focused and ready for competition. I really thought they’d make a run at the playoffs, but they just don’t seem to be able to finish. They basically handed their first round-robin match to Japan and have been struggling ever since. It’s amazing to see how one bad game can set the tone for the week. Stranger things have happened in curling, but it’s unlikely that you’ll see Team USA right the ship in time to get back into podium contention.