GSOC's Boost National serves as first 'major' test for new teams

Skip Kaitlyn Lawes (centre) prepares to throw a rock during practice Monday for the Boost National at Memorial Gardens in North Bay, Ont. (Anil Mungal)

NORTH BAY, Ont. — New team, who dis? There are a lot of familiar faces in new places playing in the Boost National, the first major tournament of the Pinty's Grand Slam of Curling season, which starts Tuesday at Memorial Gardens.

Featuring the top-ranked teams in the men's and women's divisions, the Boost National also serves as the first major test for those who retooled their rosters over the off-season as they now prepare for the 2026 Winter Olympic Games.

For some, it's not only adjusting to new teammates but also to new roles. Kaitlyn Lawes, who played third for Jennifer Jones for 12 seasons, winning Olympic gold and six Grand Slam titles, has now returned to her skip roots and is calling the shots with the all-new Team Lawes.

Even just seeing the Team Lawes scoreboard sign for the first time following Monday's pre-tournament practice brought a huge smile to the face of the 33-year-old from Winnipeg.

"We are so excited to play in our first Slam together," said Lawes, who won back-to-back Canadian junior titles as a skip in 2008 and 2009. "I actually can’t believe we’re here. We have a couple of events under our belts already. We’re just excited to get started."

After the members of Team Jones announced they were parting ways, Lawes retained second Jocelyn Peterman and linked up with third Selena Njegovan and lead Kristin MacCuish, both formerly of Team Fleury.

A "flurry" of team changes is exactly what we saw in both the women's and men's divisions.

Brendan Bottcher was among those who cleaned house, and the three-time Grand Slam men's champion acquired some marquee talent in third Marc Kennedy (Team Jacobs), second Brett Gallant (Team Gushue) and lead Ben Hebert (Team Koe). All three of his new teammates have been to the Olympics and on the podium to boot. Kennedy and Hebert claimed gold together at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games while Kennedy also collected bronze alongside Gallant earlier this year in Beijing.

The Olympics is where Bottcher would like to see himself in four years, but it is a long and bumpy road and the 30-year-old from Edmonton acknowledged: "There are a lot of dominoes between here and there."

"There’s going to be highs and lows and I just want to focus on working hard," Bottcher said. "I think I’m with a great group of guys. I know everyone is going to work hard and then you’ve got to let the chips fall where they lay out on the ice."

While Lawes may face a steep learning curve readjusting to skipping, even Bottcher admitted he's had to work on some things he hasn't in a while.

"I think we're all in the same boat having been with pretty established teams for a handful of years," Bottcher said, referring to himself and his veteran teammates. "Just getting back to some of the communication, some of the smaller strategy things but even things as simple as, ‘What does a normal hit look like to you versus me?’

"Kind of back to square one but we’ve put in a ton of time and our coach Paul [Webster] has helped us a pile. I think that’s really set us up for success here." 

Both Team Bottcher and Team Lawes have found early success this season. Team Lawes started their year overseas finishing runners-up in the Oslo Cup before returning home to win the Mother Club Fall Classic in Winnipeg.

"Getting the chance to go over to Norway and do some travelling together was one of the best ways we could start the season," said Lawes, who was also a semifinalist at the new PointsBet Invitational in Fredericton, N.B. "It was fun just to get to know each other, hang out and see how we travel together.

"Honestly, I’m having so much fun and I have a lot of confidence in my teammates and vice versa. We’re really enjoying it so far."

Bottcher won his first event, going undefeated 6-0 through the Okotoks Classic in Okotoks, Alta., and reached the semifinals in the PointsBet Invitational.

"That new event that came into the calendar this year, the PointsBet Invitational, was awesome. I think that’s a great direction for our sport to go in," Bottcher said, adding, "It feels like we’ve been a team for a long time. Hopefully, we can expand on that and have a really good week here."

There will be growing pains along the way for sure as they're still getting to know one another with Lawes looking at the Boost National as a learning experience.

"With us being a new team and year one, we just want to try and enjoy each other’s company, learn what kind of team we are and so far it’s been going well," Lawes said. "We’re having a ton of fun on and off the ice. We just want to see how we match up against the top teams and play with no pressure."

Bottcher's team has embraced a "growth mindset" to start the year as they're aiming to build towards a great second half of the season.

"It’s obviously nice to have some success early," he said, "but as much as we can set up for a good second half of the season, I think that’s what we’re after."

NOTES: The Boost National is the first of six events on the 2022-23 Pinty's Grand Slam of Curling tour featuring 16 of the top men's teams and 16 of the top women's teams from around the world. ... A $300,000 prize purse, split equally between the men's and women's divisions, is on the line. The winning teams receive $35,000 plus berths into the season-ending Kioti Tractor Champions Cup. ... Points are also up for grabs in the chase for the Pinty's Cup, which is awarded to the season champions based on their results in the series. ... Broadcast coverage begins Thursday on Sportsnet, Sportsnet NOW (Canada) and Yare (international).

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