LLOYDMINSTER, Sask. – With a name like the Masters, it shouldn’t be a surprise when two of the top teams in the world come out on top.
Reigning world champions Team Gushue continued their high-octane run through the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling picking up their second title in as many events this season and posting a 7-0 record again to boot. Team Jones, the 2014 Olympic gold medallists, also breezed through undefeated on the women’s side.
Gushue and Jones cashed in $30,000 each with their victories. Jones also earned a berth into the Humpty’s Champions Cup while Gushue already qualified for the season-ending event with his Tour Challenge Tier 1 victory last month in Regina.
There were plenty of chills, thrills and treats throughout the pre-Halloween event, here are our takeaways:
1st End: Gushue on a whole other level right now
Brad Gushue of St. John’s, N.L., is seemingly unbeatable in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling right now.
Gushue completed his second straight undefeated tournament run with an 8-4 victory over Sweden’s Team Edin in Sunday’s final.
While the Goldberg-esque 14-0 winning streak to start 2017-18 is impressive, it’s the back-to-back titles that are far more important.
Team Gushue — which also includes third Mark Nichols, second Brett Gallant and lead Geoff Walker — had some scary moments during the round-robin and luck was shining on their side to avoid taking the L. Down by four after three ends against American squad Team Shuster, Gushue rebounded with a three-spot followed by steals of two and one to take control. One-point wins over Scotland’s Team Smith and Winnipeg’s Team McEwen were probably also a little too close for comfort. It speaks volumes to their depth of talent though from lead to skip when they’re able to come back and close out games.
It wasn’t until the playoffs when they were firing on all cylinders and it’s still a frightening thought we haven’t seen them at their best yet. Gushue still doesn’t have practice ice back home and the team is essentially playing in order to stay fresh.
The Masters was Team Gushue’s fourth title on the World Curling Tour having also captured the Swiss Cup Basel and Stu Sells Toronto Tankard. The crew’s only misstep was missing the playoffs at the Shorty Jenkins Classic in September, however, that was due to Gushue having to head home early during the event with the other three carrying on without him or a spare.
It was also Gushue’s ninth career Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling title and second at the Masters. His first at the event came in 2014 and was the first Slam with Nichols returning from his short stint playing in Winnipeg with Jeff Stoughton. Back then Gushue was in a bit of a title drought with just one Grand Slam to his name and although at the time all the talk surrounded Mike McEwen’s amazing shot to score four, looking back it was the championship that opened the floodgates.
Also worth noting while it’s the ninth title for Gushue, it’s actually the 10th for Nichols, who also earned the 2013 National with Stoughton. As long as the two remain together, Nichols will always be one-up on his longtime friend.
2nd End: Jones jumps ahead of women’s field
Winnipeg’s Jennifer Jones is already one of the most decorated curlers in history and added yet another trophy to her haul.
Team Jones outlasted fellow Manitobans Team Einarson of East St. Paul 6-5 in Sunday’s final.
Jones captured her eighth Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling women’s championship – and first at the Masters — to add more cushion to her record lead over skips Rachel Homan (six) and Eve Muirhead (four).
The Jones gang also includes third Kaitlyn Lawes, second Jill Officer and lead Dawn McEwen.
Both Jones and Einarson entered the finals undefeated, but Jones was just a bit sharper and capitalized on Einarson’s errors with a big three-ender in the fifth end that shifted the momentum. Einarson still took the match to the distance forcing Jones, already up a couple, to hit and stick against three on her last rock.
Team Jones, who went 4-0 through the round-robin, needed an extra end to escape with a 5-4 win over American Team Sinclair in the quarterfinals but it was safe to say their semifinal match against Sweden’s Team Hasselborg wasn’t heading into overtime. Jones scored a touchdown on the opening drive (i.e. seven points in the first end) and was on cruise control from there dismantling the No. 1 ranked team in the world 10-4.
Jones now takes the lead as the front-runner heading into the Olympic Trials as Tour Challenge Tier 1 winners Team Sweeting from Edmonton stumbled with a 1-3 round-robin record and missed the playoffs.
3rd End: Einarson, Gunnlaugson back where they belong
Welcome back to the top tier, Team Einarson and Team Gunnlaugson.
It was a successful return for the Tour Challenge Tier 2 champions with Kerri Einarson reaching the women’s final and Jason Gunnlaugson going to the men’s quarterfinals.
It looked like Einarson would have a rough return in a round-robin pool against Sweeting, Homan, Team Scheidegger and Team Englot, but they were unfazed with the tough task ahead and made it through on top at 4-0. Einarson’s red-hot roll continued with playoff wins over Switzerland’s Team Tirinzoni and Scotland’s Team Muirhead, who both already have their tickets punched to the 2018 Winter Olympics, before falling to Jones. If they weren’t already most people’s top pick to make it out of the Olympic pre-trials they sure are now.
Meanwhile, Gunnlaugson has really come into his own as a skip with his current squad being a very cool and calm customer as they too are on fire heading into the pre-trials. Strangely, it was Gunnlaugson’s famous lightning-quick runbacks that let him down at the wrong times with the team bowing out in the quarterfinals to Team Koe.
4th End: Sick shot of the week
Team Edin may not have retained the Masters title but third Oskar Eriksson earned our award for the best shot of the tournament during the semifinals against Team McEwen.
Up one with the hammer in the eighth end, Eriksson threw a rocket runback double to open things up. Eriksson sent one McEwen stone back to connect with two others and just nudge his own team’s rock on the way out as it stuck around for shot.
That tidied up the house and allowed Edin to add another point to win 4-2.
Sidebar: Yes, Eriksson is wearing a Vegas Golden Knights hat. Eriksson said he got it in January, presumably when he was in Las Vegas for the Continental Cup. You can’t accuse him of jumping on the bandwagon here since he’s been a fan prior to Day 1 (although feel free to call him a hipster hockey fan for liking a team before they were cool).
5th End: Troubling times for Homan? Not quite
Ottawa’s Team Homan went 1-3 and missed the playoffs for the second consecutive Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling event. Considering that happened just once during their first 21 tournaments, it is quite uncharacteristic for them to slump back-to-back times and cause some concern with the Olympic Trials approaching.
It’s not the time to flick the panic switch yet, the key word being yet, as we’re still more than a month away from the trials. Think back to January when they missed the playoffs at the Meridian Canadian Open; one month later they were Scotties Tournament of Hearts champions and later world gold medallists. They’ve also been solid outside of the Slams with two World Curling Tour titles. Ice conditions gave them fits during both the Tour Challenge and the Masters, which obviously varies from event to event.
The Boost National will be the true test of what’s to come as even though Team Homan isn’t trying to peak at this moment, they’ll still want to put in a strong showing before the Olympic Trials.
6th End: McEwen makes up for lost time
Team McEwen missed out on the season-opening Tour Challenge with B.J. and Denni Neufeld attending a wedding and they were quickly playing catch-up to get back into the picture.
They got off to a fast start with skip Mike McEwen shooting 100 percent in an 8-0 shutout rout over Team Shuster.
“It’s felt like ages since we’ve got to play in a Slam,” McEwen said with a smile after the game. “It hasn’t been that long but we wanted to come out with a lot of intensity and a lot of focus. That felt really, really good for an opening game of a Grand Slam, to be that precise. It almost felt perfect.”
They fell behind the eight-ball with one-point losses to Gushue and Team Ulsrud and quickly entered must-win mode to stave off elimination. McEwen rebounded with a one-point win of his own over Team Smith and got revenge on Ulsrud 8-2 in a tiebreaker to qualify for the playoffs.
The two-time Masters winner McEwen doubled up on Team Jacobs of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., 6-3 in the quarterfinals before the train came to a halt in the semis versus against Edin.
7th End: Alternates all over
It was extra crowded behind the scoreboards with several teams bringing along their alternates to this event. Among those were Tom Sallows (Team Gushue), Scott Pfeifer (Team Koe), Susan O’Connor (Team Scheidegger), Glen Muirhead (Team Smith), Peter Steski (Team Jacobs), Kim Tuck (Team Middaugh) and Alison Kreviazuk (Team Flaxey).
In Tuck and Kreviazuk’s cases, it was out of necessity coming off of the bench with Team Middaugh second Lee Merklinger missing the event and skip Allison Flaxey arriving later in the week. For others they were scouting rocks, filling water bottles and folding jackets as fifths tend to do.
Being that the event was relatively nearby on the Alberta/Saskatchewan border was a plus for the Lethbridge-based Scheidegger squad.
“It’s a really, really good opportunity to even get pre-game practise with the fifth and play,” skip Casey Scheidegger said during the event. “It’s an awesome opportunity to practise that. We wanted Sue to come and we were lucky this event was in Alberta and she’s able to drive here.”
O’Connor, who played third for Cheryl Bernard, is the latest member of the 2010 Winter Olympic silver medallist crew to join Scheidegger alongside lead Kristie Moore (Team Bernard’s alternate) and coach Carolyn McRorie (Team Bernard’s second).
“We’re slowly stealing all of Team Bernard’s Olympic team,” Scheidegger said with a laugh. “Maybe Cheryl will come aboard somehow too. It’s a good fit for our team.”
Hey, anything teams can do to prepare ahead of the Olympic Trials, more power to them.
8th End: Ulsrud making a (fashion) statement
Team Ulsrud’s return to the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling also meant another fresh set of slacks for the Norwegian foursome.
Check out the pants they sported during the Masters.
Meanwhile, Team Sweeting lead Rachel Brown and second Dana Ferguson were feeling the Halloween spirit during their prime time round-robin match Thursday against Team Homan.
All photography by Anil Mungal.
Extra End: See you soon in the Soo
The Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling returns to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., in exactly two weeks for the Boost National. Expect teams to be announced, oh about, later today actually.
The third event and second major of the season runs Nov. 14-19 at the Essar Centre. Tickets are available at essarcentre.ca or by calling 1-866-775-9422.