Curlers sweep a rock during in Brandon, Man., on March 5, 2019. The fields are slowly filling up for the upcoming national curling championships, providing a beacon of sporting light in a dreary season for competitive players.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Curling bubble plans provide hope for some teams, while others left disappointed

Curling bubble plans provide hope for some teams, while others left disappointed

The fields are slowly filling up for the national curling championships, events that have provided a beacon of light in what has been a dreary competitive season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Positivity for some curlers has come with frustration for others as everyone involved — from athletes to member associations to the national federation — tries to navigate the various hurdles along the way.

It’s up to the 14 provincial and territorial associations around the country to decide on representation for the Feb. 20-28 Scotties Tournament of Hearts and March 6-14 Tim Hortons Brier.

Some are planning traditional playdowns to determine entries. Others cancelled their championships and used last year’s results. A few associations used out-of-the-box ideas to make picks.

Six-time Scotties champion Colleen Jones was left on the outside looking in after the Nova Scotia Curling Association made its decision this week.

“I understand the pickle that all of the associations were in,” Jones said. “But now that most of them have not successfully been able to pull off a provincial championship, it’s hard to put — what’s the word, credibility or something — into the actual Scotties and Brier, other than it’s a revenue-generating and television event.

“It’s more like The Hunger Games now where everybody walks in and plays in this bubble and we’ll see who the winner of this is.”

Curling tradition has been eschewed in this one-of-a-kind campaign. The usual seasonal flow of bonspiels and qualifiers has been completely upended.

In a domestic structure that prides itself on allowing any curling team a chance to rise to the sport’s greatest heights each year, the changes have been a blow for many rinks.

“It’s what drives the game in a way, everything that happens at the provincial level,” Jones said. “It’s one of the few sports that gives you that ability to still hold on to the dream.”

The Scotties and Brier will be held in a so-called bubble at Calgary’s Markin MacPhail Centre. Six events will be held there in all running through late April.

Jones feels for the hundreds of curlers who didn’t get a chance to compete this season and applauds those who are doing their best to salvage some kind of a campaign.

But with so many returning teams at nationals, she said it feels like a “Take 2” on last year.

“That in itself is just odd because it goes against the spirit and tradition of what the Brier and the Scotties is all about,” she said. “So in this attempt to hold an event, I think for many curlers across the country that wanted to play (down) and believe in that aspect of the sport, for that not to have transpired for (them), seems like now we’re just trying too hard to make an event.

“We’re going to call it the Scotties and Brier even though it just smells like last Friday’s dinner. It really feels like leftovers now.”

In Nova Scotia, Jones reached the final of the 2020 championship but lost to Mary-Anne Arsenault, who moved to B.C. last year.

Arsenault’s previous team, now skipped by Christina Black, was ruled out as a possible provincial rep this year because it has two returning members rather than the required three. There was player interest in a one-off reunification but the association didn’t allow it.

“I understand they need to pick a team somehow,” Black said. “Everyone is in a weird and difficult situation.”

Unlike Manitoba and Northern Ontario, who used provincial finalists as their fallback for representation, Nova Scotia decided to prioritize this season’s limited results instead.

As a result, money list leader Jill Brothers was invited to take the women’s spot. Her team is expected to announce its decision by Wednesday.

Nova Scotia’s reigning men’s champions will return but skip Jamie Murphy is not making the trip. There’s no word yet on his replacement.

Despite myriad challenges due to the pandemic, several provinces and territories are still clinging to plans to hold championships over the coming weeks.

In the east, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador have scheduled playdowns for the end of the month.

In the territories, skips Lori Eddy and Peter Mackey will represent Nunavut and Dustin Mikkelsen has been acclaimed for the Yukon men’s spot. A two-team women’s playdown starts Friday.

The Northwest Territories championships are also set for month’s end. Veteran skip Jamie Koe withdrew Tuesday, citing concerns about potential sanctions and suspensions in the event a team had to pull out after qualifying.

Ontario, Northern Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia, meanwhile, all cancelled their playdowns and declared representatives based on last year’s provincials.

They include John Epping and Rachel Homan (Ontario), Brad Jacobs and Krysta Burns (Northern Ontario), Jason Gunnlaugson and Jennifer Jones (Manitoba) and Corryn Brown and Steve Laycock (British Columbia).

Team Canada entries are Brad Gushue (Brier) and Kerri Einarson (Scotties).

In Alberta, the championships were cancelled but a decision hasn’t been made on team representatives. Laura Walker and Brendan Bottcher are reigning champions but Kevin Koe didn’t participate last year since he had an automatic Brier entry as Team Canada.

Quebec’s entries could be named by the end of the week. The provincial association sent top-three lists to Curling Canada and a specialized committee will make a decision.

“I feel sorry for all of the teams that are close to winning provincial championships and have put the time and effort in and to have that now just taken away – as we make up the rules as we go along — seems sad,” Jones said.

In Saskatchewan, women’s playdowns are set for Jan. 28-31 and the men’s competition goes Feb. 4-7. In the event of a cancellation, an interesting decision awaits as reigning women’s champ Robyn Silvernagle only has two returning players.

The Scotties and Brier formats have yet to be finalized. Play-in games have been cancelled but wild-card teams could be added and the usual 16-team field size could be adjusted.

“Every curler out there, they’re all smart people, they understand it’s a pandemic and they understand the limitations,” Jones said.

“But the fact that the Canadian (championships) get to go on in this bubble under these rules of who got to go, will probably feel a little bit (like) a dagger to the heart to a lot of people.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2021.

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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press