Eight Ends: Team Homan still looking to improve as season intensifies

Rachel Homan scored two in the 8th end to force extras and stole one in the 9th to secure her 15th grand slam title at the Co-op Canadian Open.

Eight Ends is your source for insight and analysis from the Grand Slam of Curling circuit. We’re not Olympic bobsledders either.

FIRST END: Rachel Homan and her Ottawa-based team have been having a dominant season that’s reminiscent of, well, Team Homan. This is a skip who has now won a record-extending 15 Grand Slam of Curling women’s titles, so nothing’s new for her team.

Still, even by Homan’s standards, it’s been an outstanding season. Homan has competed in seven events, reached six finals and captured five titles. Her team’s overall win-loss record is 38-5 — 20-5 in Grand Slams and 18-0 outside of the series.

Homan captured the Co-op Canadian Open women’s title following a 5-4 victory over Silvana Tirinzoni during Sunday’s final in Red Deer, Alta.

Homan’s next event is the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, her team pre-qualified based on last season’s points, and second Emma Miskew believes they still have some areas they need to tighten up heading into the national women’s championship less than a month away. After all, they needed to steal in an extra end to win the Co-op Canadian Open final — forcing Team Tirinzoni’s Alina Pätz into a difficult draw that rolled deep — and even their loss during pool play was the result of Homan giving up a steal to Eun-Jung Kim’s team in the eighth end.

“We’re not perfect and I think that’s what you want,” Miskew said. “I don’t think you want to be perfect all season because it’s impossible just to stay in, so we know what we need to keep working on and we’re excited to keep the season going.”

SECOND END: Bruce Mouat and his Scottish squad had struggled in the Grand Slams this season, missing the playoffs twice and getting knocked out in the quarterfinals once (i.e. they still didn’t win a playoff game). That’s despite having a strong 2023-24 campaign elsewhere, winning three tour titles plus the European championship.

If you extend their Slam slump into the tail end of last season, they had missed the playoffs in four of the previous five tournaments. Sure, they could be excused here and there as the Princess Auto Players’ Championship took place right after they had won the world championship, so they were understandably exhausted, and they played as three during the Champions Cup as Bobby Lammie was injured. They played short-handed again during last month’s WFG Masters with third Grant Hardie on the mend.

Team Mouat returned to the top form in the series, winning a sixth Grand Slam title with a 6-5 victory over Brendan Bottcher’s Calgary-based club in the Co-op Canadian Open men’s final. Mouat also finished the event with an unblemished 6-0 record.

“As much as winning the tour events are amazing, everyone knows there are a lot more eyeballs on the Slams,” Hardie said. “It’s the top 16 teams and brilliant ice conditions. It means everything to be able to win it and … hopefully, we can keep going and competing in a few more rather than missing playoffs like we did last year.”

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THIRD END: Mouat was already in the record books as the youngest men’s skip to win a Grand Slam title when he captured the 2017 National at age 23. Mouat, who is now 29 years old, added another feat with his Co-op Canadian Open title victory as he became just the sixth men’s skip to complete a career Grand Slam.

The four original majors in the series hold extra prestige given their history, having been around since the inception of the series plus they award larger prize purses. Kevin Martin, Wayne Middaugh, Glenn Howard, Jeff Stoughton and Brad Gushue are the other five career Grand Slam men’s winners and that’s quite an impressive and exclusive list for Mouat to add his name to.

“It’s a pretty cool club to be a part of,” Mouat said. “Some amazing athletes out there, some guys that I watched growing up and inspired me to take part in curling. I was glad that I was able to get into that club as well.”

Attention now turns to who could be next to join the group and for that, we’ll have to jump over to the women’s division. Anna Hasselborg is the only member of the career Grand Slam club on the women’s side, but Homan is only missing the Princess Auto Players’ Championship from her hardware collection. It’ll be a key storyline to follow when that event rolls along.

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FOURTH END: A funny moment occurred early in the week when Mouat was asked what it means to have Hardie back in the lineup.

With Hardie hovering nearby in the hallway, Mouat deadpanned: “I’d rather he wasn’t here, to be fair.”

All kidding aside (and after Hardie scurried away) Mouat said it was nice to have him return following minor surgery last month and praised his play. Hardie finished second among all thirds, averaging 90 per cent, through the tournament.

The rule of thirds also extends to Team Homan as Tracy Fleury finished first among all women’s players at the position with a 90 per cent average as well.

“She’s always a difference-maker, so no change there,” Homan said after the semifinals where Fleury shot 96 per cent. “She’s playing great and just battling out there.”

Hardie and Fleury might not have had their best games in the finals, but their teams aren’t reaching the finals in the first place without them.

FIFTH END: Welcome to the Slams, Danny Casper and Selena Sturmay. Both skips were playing in their first top-tier tournament in the series and scored their first wins during pool play Thursday: Casper upset Kevin Koe 9-8 and Sturmay defeated Jolene Campbell 6-1. Casper qualified for entry into the event after winning the HearingLife Tour Challenge Tier 2 title in October while Sturmay received a late invitation after Stefania Constantini withdrew days before the start due to medical reasons.

It’s rare for a team to drop out of a Grand Slam after the field has been finalized and the schedule has been set. Eun-Jung Kim withdrew from the 2022 Players’ Championship when a couple of members of her team tested positive for COVID-19, however, that event also used triple knockout brackets, so re-seeding the teams wasn’t as problematic. The Co-op Canadian Open featured round-robin play, which would have required a complete overhaul of the match schedule after fans had already purchased single-draw tickets to see specific matchups.

Given how tight the timing was, it’s understandable that organizers opted to invite the top-ranked team from within the province. Even then, the Grand Slam of Curling reserves the right to invite a sponsor’s exemption — typically a local team. Although it wasn’t implemented this time, the series could have also used that as a reason to invite Sturmay.

SIXTH END: Blank ends have been a part of curling for a long time and they’re not going away either even with rule modifications over the years to increase scoring. I don’t know what the solution is but I do know what it’s not and that’s taking away the hammer. It sounds simple but all that will do is reverse the situation: the team without the hammer will do everything in its power to keep the house empty.

Not all blank ends are the same either and sometimes teams have to pull off exciting shots to escape from danger as we saw from Ross Whyte not once but twice this week.

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The second time was a bit of a fluke though as it wasn’t the shot he called. Still, are you not entertained?

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SEVENTH END: Speaking of Whyte, his team’s surge this season — plus the emergence of compatriot James Craik’s club — has certainly made next month’s Scottish curling championship more intriguing. Scotland selects its reps to the world championships and even though Mouat is the reigning men’s gold medallist and ranked No. 2 in the world, there’s no guarantee he’ll get to go to defend the title. It’s possible Whyte (No. 5) or Craik (No. 11) could get the call should they win the national championship.

The Co-op Canadian Open was pretty much a preview as all three qualified for the playoffs and Mouat had to beat both Craik in the quarterfinals and Whyte in the semis to reach the championship game.

“Of course, you hear all the noise and stuff there,” Hardie said. “There’s no doubt Team Whyte and Team Craik are getting a lot better. It’s good competition for us. They’re going to keep pushing us all and I’m sure we will be pushing them on as well.

“The Scottish championships in two weeks should be really interesting and again we’re going to have to play at a similar level to win that.”

EIGHTH END: Joël Retornaz’s remarkable run of consecutive Grand Slam titles came to an end during the Co-op Canadian Open quarterfinals when his Italian club was eliminated in the quarterfinals with a 5-4 loss to Whyte. Coincidentally, Retornaz defeated Whyte in last month’s WFG Masters to stretch the streak to a record-tying three championship victories in a single season.

First, hats off to Retornaz as winning three Grand Slams in a row in a single season is quite an accomplishment and only a handful of other teams have been able to achieve. Another mind-blowing number: Retornaz had fewer losses over the previous three Grand Slams combined (two) than he had this week alone (three).

The Grand Slam of Curling season isn’t over yet and Retornaz has one more opportunity to become the first to win four (non-consecutive) titles in a single season in the series. That leads us to …

EXTRA END: The Grand Slam of Curling is now on a break with its fifth and final event of the season, the Princess Auto Players’ Championship, taking place April 9-14 at Toronto’s Mattamy Athletic Centre. Only the top 12 in the world in the men’s and women’s divisions receive invitations to the prestigious major tournament, so you’ll want to keep an eye on the rankings until the qualification cutoff date of March 11.

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