After a long wait, some clarity finally arrived on the curling scene this week with word that a Calgary “bubble” will be used to salvage several top events this season.
Sportsnet said Thursday it planned to hold two Grand Slams in the hub, bringing the total number of competitions at the Markin MacPhail Centre to six after Curling Canada’s initial announcement Tuesday.
The news was generally well-received by those eager to see the Roaring Game’s return on a larger scale. However, optimism has been rather tempered by rising COVID-19 case numbers in Alberta.
“I think everyone is probably (experiencing) a whole range of emotions: happy, relieved, apprehensive,” Sportsnet curling commentator Mike Harris said from Toronto. “Everything is still kind of up in the air.”
Dates, event specifics and tournament formats are among the details yet to be released.
The Scotties Tournament of Hearts will likely kick things off in February. It’s expected the Tim Hortons Brier, Canadian mixed doubles playdowns and world men’s championship would follow.
The two Slams that remained on the calendar — the Players’ Championship and Champions Cup — could go from mid-April to early May.
There are still hurdles to clear before rocks are thrown at the Canada Olympic Park venue. The national federation and Sportsnet both made that clear in their respective news releases this week.
The Curling Canada announcement headline said it “aims” to hold a series of events in the hub city. Sportsnet said it’s “setting its sights” on hosting the two Slams in a bubble.
In other words, the plan is not exactly a lock. Alberta Health has given provisional approval for the concept and health protocols, but consultations continue with the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Protocols won’t be finalized until shortly before the beginning of competition, Curling Canada said. The federation will look to follow models used by the NHL and the NBA earlier this year.
Hockey bubbles were successful in Edmonton and Toronto and the basketball hub worked near Orlando.
“We’re all excited but the apprehension is still there with what’s going on with COVID,” Harris said. “So I think COVID is still the boss right now but I’m happy to see that curling is really trying to do (it).”
Alberta has emerged as a go-to province for sporting bubbles.
The world junior hockey championship is set for an Edmonton hub this month and WinSport, which operates COP, is pursuing international freestyle ski and snowboard hubs for January and March.
But looming large is the worsening COVID-19 situation in parts of the country and particularly in Alberta. It remains quite possible that the plug is pulled on curling plans if things go farther downhill this winter.
Other challenges remain too.
For qualification, provincial and territorial championships are a moving target due to myriad issues. Elite teams have been limited to sporadic schedules. Rinks with new lineups have had few in-game reps.
Depending on results and entry plans, the Calgary stay could also be a long sojourn for some players.
“To get your head around seven to 10 weeks away from your family, it’s a challenge for sure,” said skip Brad Gushue of St. John’s, N.L., the reigning Brier champion.
Many championship traditions are out the window this time around. Classic provincial matchups might not happen. Vacancies in the field could be filled with higher-ranked teams as wild-card entries.
The unique Scotties and Brier setups could also have real upset potential given the rust factor and unusual circumstances.
“It certainly will be a little bit more of an open field when it comes to those Canadian championships and even our Slams as well,” said Harris, who won Olympic silver in 1998. “It’s a challenge for the players but there’s a lot of teams who’ve been on the ice quite a bit already.”
World championships with Olympic ramifications also loom large.
Television networks — TSN/RDS airs Season of Champions events and Sportsnet broadcasts the Slams — will be pleased to provide live domestic content, a rarity of late. Sponsors will no doubt be happy too.
A once-in-a-lifetime curling plan has moved closer to fruition. For curlers, fans and the sport’s powerbrokers, it’s a most welcome development.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2020.
With files from Canadian Press reporter Donna Spencer in Calgary. Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.
Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press