Friday, April 25, 2014

Stones of Destiny!

It is 1972 and we are deep into the final of the World Championship in Garmish-Partenkirchen.  Orest Meleschuk knows that he has to hit and stick within the eight-foot on tricky, heavy ice to score two and take the game into an extra end.  His opponents were team USA, skipped by Bob LaBonte.  Their round-robin records were Canada 7-0 and USA 4-3.  Never was there such a mismatch, yet here we were – it all depended on the big fellow’s last stone.

Cigarette dangling from his lips, he threw his fateful stone; the sweepers give it an early bang with their corn brooms, but the stone suddenly sits back and they are called off quickly; contact is made, but the shooter rolls slowly out towards the eight-foot; and further out; and further out - helped on its way by some furious sweeping from the American third, Frank Aasand.  Finally, it comes to rest, close to lying second, but was it?

Slowly, Dave Romano, the Canadian third moves to look at his skip’s stone.  In his heart of hearts, he must have been worried, but he takes a long hard look despite his opposite number’s celebrations.  Skip LaBonte, taking his cue from Aasand’s leaps of joy, started his own macabre victor’s dance.  The camera cuts to the American front end, who are running down the ice in celebration just as LaBonte begins his tumble.  Don Chevrier pauses mid-sentence as the Americans continue their celebrations, because the unthinkable has happened; LaBonte has slipped and kicked the Canadian stone before Romano has had a chance to either concede or call for a measure.

There is confusion in the commentary box.  With the benefit of hindsight, of course, there should have been none.  The stone had not been measured and Canada had not conceded the game.  Eventually the stones are cleared and the extra end is played.  Meleshuk plays a nice come around a centre guard, though he sits at the back of the one foot.  LaBonte’s attempted draw to face it – predictably in the circumstances – was high, wide and not so very handsome.  The Canadians go home as undefeated World Champions.  The USA, who in their own minds were World Champions for about 7 seconds were left to lick their wounds and think about what might have been.

In the great scheme of things, it wasn’t so much a stone of destiny as a salutary lesson to all curlers everywhere.  Neither team made it back to the World Championships but what, at first, was destined to be a footnote in the history of our great sport began to develop wings and gradually, people began to talk about the “curse of LaBonte”.  It is a fact that Canada did not win a World Curling Championship for the rest of that decade.  Given their dominance in world curling hitherto, it was astonishing!

Then we go the Olympic semi-finals in Japan in 1998.  The GBR ladies are up against Sandra Schmirler who, until this point in the competition had really dominated.  The semi-final was against GBR, skipped by Kirsty Hay, with the Loudon sisters and Jackie Lockhart; no mugs and, truth to tell, they really made the Canadians work hard for their victory, so much so that with Schmirler’s last stone in the extra end, she was facing two GBR stones – albeit with the full eight foot to draw to.  As it crossed the hogline, it’s fair to say that, to use a lovely old Scottish phrase, “it was fully there”!  There was backing, but the line was high and let’s just say that Edith Loudon got her brush to it and had a good sweep, before it stopped – agonisingly beating the GBR stone by inches.  From the semi-final to the bronze medal play-off game – and that is surely the worst one of all to lose; sadly, that is exactly what happened for GBR against the Swedes.

Fast forward a few more years to the Olympic Games in Pinerolo; exactly the same stage in the competition, though this time the GBR men – David Murdoch, Ewan Macdonald, Warwick Smith and Euan Byers are tied at 3-3 coming into the tenth end of a tight, nervy tussle against Markku Uusilpaavalniemi’s Finnish champions.  The Finns hold the crucial last stone.  GBR is lying at 9.00 fully in the four foot and corner frozen against a Finnish stone.  David, with his last stone, plays the perfect shot to about 6.30 at the front of the four foot covering the one foot and forcing Markku to the cold out-turn draw to the button.  The GBR boys must have felt quietly confident.  U15 had to bite the button, whilst coming tight to the guard just laid by Murdoch.  But there was nothing they could do except watch as the stone came perfectly to rest on the button with barely a sweep by the front end.

Heartache twice!

But then you have Rhona Martin’s stone of destiny; enough said!  A month later, Jackie Lockhart’s nerveless hit on a straight piece of ice against Colleen Jones’ Canadian team to win the World Championship.  David Murdoch’s “stone of retribution” – the raised double take out against his pals, Thomas Ulsrud’s Norwegian team in the Sochi Olympics.

You win some; you lose some.

But spare a thought for Labonte and his mates; that’s a lifetime of heartache right there.

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