Just a few days after The Players' Championship capped the 2012-13 curling season, the sport has been rocked with some big, unexpected news.
John Morris is leaving Team Kevin Martin, a story broken by Sportsnet's Mike Johnston, and then confirmed by Morris in a Canadian Curling Association media release.
Morris, who is said to be unavailable to the media until this coming Friday, made this statement in the CCA's release:
“Unfortunately we have had a challenging past few seasons and have not lived up to our expectations of being the best curling team in the world. As much as we’ve all tried very hard to find a way to fight back and get better, in the end it was obvious that we needed a change. Myself and Kevin were no longer thriving in our back-end role like we did in our 2010 Olympic gold-medal run. I have always been a very driven and intense athlete and right now, in this situation, I feel my passion and love for the game of curling is not where it needs to be. As a result, it is with a very heavy heart that I will be stepping down as my role of third on Team Martin.”
That Morris was leaving the Alberta team is not a surprise. Rumours of that have abounded for well over a year now.
It's the timing of the move that is the shocker. Martin, Morris and teammates Marc Kennedy and Ben Hebert have secured a spot in next December's Olympic Trials and a shot at repeating the Olympic glories they shared together in winning a gold medal at the 2010 games in Vancouver. It was widely held that after next season was finished, the four would split.
So the question is: After having so much success together over the seven seasons they've curled together, why make a change now?
Could be that recent performances by the crew have led to a mutual decision to part ways. Subpar (by their standards certainly) performances by the team at last week's Players' Championship (losing to John Epping in a tie-breaker) as well as this year's Brier (they missed the playoffs entirely) could suggest a change of pace is needed.
What seems to be the most likely of explanations is that the marriage between Morris and Martin had disintegrated to the point that one of them had to leave the team. It appears that Kennedy and Hebert had to make a choice between the longtime skip and the longtime vice and either made that choice by informing Morris they were staying with Martin, or stepped away from the decision entirely, leaving Morris and Martin to decide who was leaving.
"Probably John wanted to get rid of Kevin and Kevin wanted to get rid of John," agreed Sportsnet analyst Mike Harris. "That'd be my guess."
Martin's comments in the CCA release would point to the latter.
“It is never an easy thing to have a team member decide to leave your team. John Morris was an integral part of what made Team Martin the best team in curling for many years and Olympic gold medallists (in 2010). But change is unfortunately inevitable. We want to take this opportunity to wish John the very best in the future. Team Martin will be back in the fall ready to continue our run towards the Sochi Olympics.”
Now that this has come to pass, the question of 'what's next?' for both Morris and the Martin rink are the pressing ones.
As for Morris, he may already have seen this possibility as far as a few weeks back and been plotting a soft place to land. It will not be surprising if he makes an announcement within the next two weeks, possibly as early as this Friday.
As for the Martin crew, replacements for Morris have already been bandied about by insiders and fans alike.
"I can give you three names that come to mind for me," offered Harris. "Blake MacDonald, Richard Hart and Dave Nedohin."
Nedohin is not a good bet. Last week I posted this story about him during the Players' Championship, where he clearly states that he won't be playing before the Olympic Trials are over. As for Hart, reached by email and asked about the possibility of coming out of retirement, he replied:
"I really don't see how it could work for me. The game has changed so much now, to be successful you need to put everything else on hold while you train and compete. That does not fit my lifestyle."
Which means that, perhaps, MacDonald might expect a call sometime soon. He'd fit well as a vice on Martin's team, at least when it comes to curling pedigree and success, having viced for Kevin Koe during a Brier and World Championship season in 2010. He stepped away from the game shortly thereafter, but returned this past season, making an appearance with Jamie King in the Alberta championships.
The first of three curling shoes has dropped. Two more to come in the near future, as men who've won Olympic Gold, a world championship and two Briers call it quits.