Curlers ready for a Scotties like no other — all in the face of the unknown

In the backdrop of empty seats, cardboard cutouts of fans sprinkled across some of them, and restricted movement unlike anything ever seen at a women’s national championship, the 2021 Scotties Tournament of Hearts is set to begin Friday night in Calgary — in the midst of pandemic.

And while the journey to get to this point has been anything but smooth, 18 of the top women’s teams from across the country have finally made it to the curling bubble and are sitting in hotel rooms ready to take the pebbled ice for the national championship.

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This is anything but an ordinary Scotties, with curlers having taken extraordinary measures to find ice time, stay in shape and prepare for the event. Some were even sliding on backyard rinks and ponds and whatever they could find to remind them what it feels like. 

Staying mentally sharp for the next nine days of competition is going to be as much a part of the story as the curling playing out across the four sheets. 

Curling Canada is adamant the bubble setting will be “strictly enforced,” and curlers will not be seeing much light of day as they travel from hotel, to vehicle, to arena and back.

Most teams idle and handpicked

For months, the majority of curlers have been sitting around, locked away like the rest of Canada, without being able to practise properly — and in an overwhelming amount of cases, most teams didn’t even play in a provincial or territorial tournament at all. The majority of teams were handpicked to represent their area of the country. 

They’re going from idle time to a national championship overnight and the player’s health and safety, as well as being in championship form, will certainly be something to watch as the event drags on. 

Getting off to a solid start at the Scotties has always been paramount to success, but perhaps this year those first few games will be that much more important because nobody really knows what to expect after so much time away. 

And as if the situation wasn’t dramatic enough, Curling Canada has changed the playoff format this year, taking away the Page Playoff system, which saw four teams advance to the weekend. Now just the top-three teams from the preliminary and championship advance to the playoffs, with the best record going straight to the final game and the second- and third-place teams battling to also reach the final. 

From left to right: Team Canada skip Einarson, third, Val Sweeting, second, Shannon Birchard and lead, Briane Meilleur, pictured posing with the Scotties trophy in 2020, are looking to repeat as national champions. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Margin of error never slimmer

The margin of error at a Scotties has never been slimmer, all in the face of a dizzying amount of unknowns.

This year’s event marks 40 years of the women’s national championship being named the Scotties and it’s a stacked field. Defending champion Kerri Einarson’s team from Manitoba will take the ice as Team Canada having won the title against Rachel Homan in Moose Jaw, Sask., last year. 

Skips who have won the past 13 editions of the Scotties will all be in the bubble in Calgary. There is undoubtedly a richness of history and legacy to this event, and the throwback retro uniforms the teams will wear is a tip of the cap to all the great moments from the past. 

There is no shortage of storylines.

Will Jennifer Jones be able to capture a historic seventh Scotties title, allowing her to surpass Colleen Jones for most championships ever as a skip?

Can Homan regain her winning form, having lost the past two Scotties finals in extra ends? 

Then there’s Chelsea Carey, who didn’t think she’d be playing this year after her team disbanded during the off-season — only to get the call from Team Tracy Fleury to take the place of Fleury herself, who is staying home with her daughter due to health concerns. 

There are five Manitoba teams with the addition of two extra wild-card spots, including MacKenzie Zacharias’ world junior champion team. How will some of the younger teams handle the bright lights of the big bonspiel?

What about upsets? There could be plenty. And one of those dark horse teams could very well be Suzanne Birt’s Prince Edward Island foursome who are always in the mix — and have been on the ice for much of the winter. 

There are familiar faces. There are new faces. And there’s not a lot of time to figure things out. A couple of early losses will spell disaster for teams — and so it’ll be fascinating to see if the veterans can lean on their experience or if it’ll be the younger teams that don’t really have a lot to go on who rise to the top early. 

A seventh Scotties victory in 2021 would give all-time great Jones the most women’s national titles ever. (Geoff Robins/Canadian Press)

Tournament format

The teams in Calgary are separated into two pools of nine, and have been seeded based on their final standing in the 2019-20 Canadian Team Ranking System.

They will play a full round robin within their respective pools, and then the top four teams in each pool will move on to the championship pool starting Friday, Feb. 26. They will then play four more games against the teams from the other pool with their preliminary pool records carried forward.

From there, the top three teams will make the playoffs — the first-place team after the championship round will go straight to the gold-medal game, while the second and third-place teams will meet in the semifinal.

Team Manitoba’s Chelsea Carey is a two-time Scotties champion, including in 2016 and 2019. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Winning teams earns Olympic trials berth

The winning team earns a spot at the Olympic trials in November and also will play as Team Canada at the Scotties next year in Thunder Bay. 

It also takes home $100,000.

Normally the winning team would also represent Canada at the women’s world championship — but the World Curling Federation had to cancel the event that was slated for mid-March in Switzerland. At this point there’s no word on whether the event will be in a different location this winter or spring or if they plan to move it to next fall. 

It will be a crucial event when it does take place with Canada needing a top-six finish to qualify for the 2022 Winter Olympics. 

There is a lot at stake, but with Scotties curling is officially back.

The teams

Pool A 

  • No. 1. Team Canada, Kerri Einarson (Val Sweeting, Shannon Birchard, Briane Meilleur, Krysten Karwacki, Heather Nedohin; Gimli).
  • No. 4. Ontario, Rachel Homan (Emma Miskew, Sarah Wilkes, Joanne Courtney, Danielle Inglis, Randy Ferbey; Ottawa).
  • No. 5. Alberta, Laura Walker (Kate Cameron, Taylor McDonald, Rachel Brown, Dana Ferguson, Shannon Pynn; Edmonton).
  • No. 8. Wild Card No. 2, Mackenzie Zacharias (Karlee Burgess, Emily Zacharias, Lauren Lenentine, Rachel Erickson, Sheldon Zacharias; Altona, Man.).
  • No. 9. Wild Card No. 3, Beth Peterson (Jenna Loder, Katherine Doerksen, Brittany Tran, Cathy Overton-Clapham; Winnipeg).
  • No. 12. Northwest Territories, Kerry Galusha (Jo-Ann Rizzo, Margot Flemming, Shona Barbour, Jim Waite; Yellowknife).
  • No. 13. Nova Scotia, Jill Brothers (Erin Carmody, Jennifer Brine, Emma Logan, Kim Kelly, Daryell Nowlan; Halifax).
  • No. 16. Northern Ontario, Krysta Burns (Megan Smith, Sara Guy, Amanda Gates, Kira Brunton, Rodney Guy; Sudbury).
  • No. 17. Yukon, Laura Eby (Lorna Spenner, Tamar Vandenberghe, Laura Williamson, Darlene Gammel, Scott Williamson; Whitehorse).

Pool B

  • No. 2. Wild Card No. 1, Tracy Fleury (NOTE: Fleury will not be participating; Chelsea Carey to skip; Selena Njegovan, Liz Fyfe, Kristin MacCuish, Clancy Grandy, Sherry Middaugh; East St. Paul, Man.).
  • No. 3. Manitoba, Jennifer Jones (Kaitlyn Lawes, Jocelyn Peterman, Lisa Weagle, Raunora Westcott, Viktor Kjell; Winnipeg).
  • No. 6. British Columbia, Corryn Brown (Erin Pincott, Dezaray Hawes, Samantha Fisher, Stephanie Jackson-Baier, Allison MacInnes; Kamloops).
  • No. 7. Prince Edward Island, Suzanne Birt (Marie Christianson, Meaghan Hughes, Michelle McQuaid, Kathy O’Rourke, Mitch O’Shea; Montague).
  • No. 10. Saskatchewan, Sherry Anderson (Nancy Martin, Chaelynn Kitz, Breanne Knapp, Amber Holland, Shane Kitz; Saskatoon).
  • No. 11. Quebec, Laurie St-Georges (Hailey Armstrong, Emily Riley, Cynthia St-Georges, Florence Boivin, Michel St-Georges; Laval).
  • No. 14. New Brunswick, Melissa Adams (Jaclyn Tingley, Nicole Bishop, Kendra Lister, Monique Massé; Fredericton).
  • No. 15. Nunavut, Lori Eddy (Sadie Pinksen, Alison Griffin, Kaitlin MacDonald, Donalda Mattie; Iqaluit).
  • No. 18. Newfoundland/Labrador, Sarah Hill (Beth Hamilton, Lauren Barron, Adrienne Mercer, Brooke Godsland; St. John’s).

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