SI Vault
Eric Whitehead
April 04, 1966
An optimistic Fargo, N. Dak. dentist with some positive thoughts about positive thinking proclaimed his U.S. rink unbeatable in the world curling championship at Vancouver. Then, sad to say, play began
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April 04, 1966

Downfall Of A Stone-thrower

An optimistic Fargo, N. Dak. dentist with some positive thoughts about positive thinking proclaimed his U.S. rink unbeatable in the world curling championship at Vancouver. Then, sad to say, play began

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Against Canada on Wednesday night, as their leather-tongued brooms flashed and popped in front of the rocks, Dr. Joe's boys made a good fight of it for nine of the game's 12 ends. But then the Canadians, curling well on soft, grabby ice, counted three in the 10th end, two in the 12th, and wrapped it up at 13-10.

By this time a certain peculiarity of the U.S. rink's makeup had elicited some comment. It concerned Dr. Zbacnik, who, although skip of the rink, curled in the No. 3 spot instead of the usual No. 4. The No. 4 in curling is much like the cleanup hitter in baseball. He is the rink tactician, he plots the strategy and he calls all the shots for his teammates. To give him time to assess each situation and to keep him fresh for the final two pressure rocks, he does not take part in the strength-sapping chore of sweeping. His is also the name by which the rink is known, and he thus is the recipient of most of its publicity.

Never before in major international competition has a skip been his rink's No. 3 curler. By attempting this, the doctor was bucking the facts of high-pressure play, and the strain on his No. 4 man, Roberts, became more and more noticeable as the tournament progressed. Also, to the Canadian onlookers, Dr. Zbacnik seemed to be botching up his job of skipping, much to the distress of his own rink, which was giving evidence of questioning his tactics. When asked why he was not curling in the crucial No. 4 spot, the doctor offered an unassailable answer: " Roberts is my fourth because he is our best man under pressure."

Nor did the loss to Canada cause his confidence to waver. "It doesn't worry me one bit," he said. "If we'd made just a couple of key rocks we would have run away with it. I'm glad they won tonight, because there is no way they can beat us in tomorrow's final. The Canadians are just not in our class. This game tonight meant nothing. It was just for kicks. You will see that our tactics will be completely different when it matters."

As things turned out, Dr. Joe was right about the U.S. game against Canada being meaningless. The U.S., Scotland, Canada and Sweden earned their way into the semifinals through their total round-robin scores. The semifinal pairings called for the U.S. to play Scotland and for Canada to face Sweden. This was the same Scottish rink that Dr. Joe had said did not belong on the ice with his own, and now he learned a maxim of sport: positive thinking or no, you let sleeping underdogs lie. The Scottish skip, Chuck Hay, was asked if Dr. Joe's remarks had upset his rink. "Not at all," said Hay. "We find it delightful."

Once play was under way, even the Joe-baiting Forum throng restrained its heckling, for Zbacnik, passionately exhorting his errant rocks to stay on target, began to blow shot after shot. Skip Hay, who was concerned about 200 acres of wheat and barley he had planted shortly before flying off to Vancouver, made things worse with a tantalizing display of draw-and-guard tactics. Meanwhile the now desperate doctor himself made the unforgiveable total of six disastrous complete misses—which is like fanning six times with the bases loaded, only more so.

But for brilliant recovery shots by the fourth, Roberts, the final score would have been much worse than the 14-7 U.S. defeat that showed on the scoreboard.

While Zbacnik went along to the dressing room his teammates fumed in a corner of the arena. Roberts was in a black mood. "You can't win with just three curlers on the rink," he said. "You can see what a big mouth gets you. Not even Cassius Clay can get away with stuff like that. It embarrassed us terribly. And it hurt our play. It put totally unnecessary pressure on us."

Then he grinned halfheartedly. "Well, there's always next year. I like it out here. I think I'll get a job on the Coast, around Seattle."

Does this mean then that Dr. Joe's rink, the one he was sure would dominate world curling for the next 10 to 15 years, is about to break up?

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Joseph Zbacnik 1 0 0
United States 8021 0 232
Canada 703 0 5
Bruce Roberts 19 0 0
Scotland 142 0 0