Alberta skip Laura Walker is not only charting unfamiliar territory by curling in a bubble during the Scotties Tournament of Hearts — she’s also navigating motherhood for the first time as well.
This year’s Canadian women’s curling championship, which started this past Friday and runs through to Sunday, is the first of six major tournaments taking place in a closed hub city concept at Calgary’s Markin MacPhail Centre in WinSport’s Canada Olympic Park.
Walker, who is originally from Scarborough, Ont., and now lives in Edmonton, gave birth to her first child, Liam, in September. Now, “Mommy’s No.1 fan” has taken up residence with her in the bubble for the duration of the Scotties Tournament of Hearts. Walker's husband, Geoff, who plays lead for reigning Brier champion Brad Gushue, is also there for support.
“It’s a lot mentally, as a new mom, to try to balance what I need as an athlete and what my son needs from me as a mom,” Walker said. “That’s just been a little bit different adjusting to, especially being stuck with him in a hotel room, but I think we’re getting there.”
Strict precautions are in effect to make sure the bubble is locked and secure. Curlers are tested frequently and are only allowed into the rink for their games, spending the majority of their time isolated in their hotel rooms. Curling Canada is also not taking any risks whatsoever, even postponing Saturday’s matchup between Canada and the Northwest Territories to Monday morning after N.W.T. third Jo-Ann Rizzo fell ill — although it was later determined to be a case of food poisoning.
Walker believes some of the new measures should be considered for future events.
“We’re so much safer,” Walker said. “There are so many Scotties where people get the flu or they get sick and that will never happen with a lot of the protocols they have in place. I actually think there’s a lot of really good things here.”
Jenna Loder, who throws third for Wild Card 3 skip Beth Peterson, is making her Scotties Tournament of Hearts debut and praised Curling Canada’s efforts to ensure the event is running as smoothly as possible.
“Curling Canada has done a great job to make everyone feel really safe about the atmosphere and what’s going on behind the scenes, keeping everyone well informed about everything, which has been really great,” Loder said. “It’s too bad that we aren’t getting the full Scotties experience as yes it is my dream to always be here but there are so many things outside of just playing on the ice, which is the fan experience, being in the patch or whatever you may call it. Those are what makes the Scotties at the end of the day — but we’re still here, we’re playing a competition with all of the best women’s teams in Canada, which is truly a great experience.”
Where’s your head at?
Out of all athletes who have had to bubble for events, curlers are most likely the best to adapt to the conditions. Their club tour events are played without fans in the stands at ice level -- spectators are present behind glass in the warm lounge area -- and all teams typically stay in the same hotel nearby. If it’s a town in the middle of nowhere or it’s minus-35 outside, they’re not getting out and about and are just shuffling back and forth between the arena and the hotel anyway.
Although the lack of crowd noise may be strange for those who have been to the Scotties before, the newbies are none the wiser.
"That’s what the girls and I were talking about coming into it when we were preparing: It will feel like any other event to us," Loder said. "Even the TV games, it hardly feels like a televised game just because there’s no Jumbotron, there’s nowhere to look at yourself, so it’s very unique, which is different for us and I’m sure it’s a lot different for the teams that have been here before."
The excitement of playing in the Scotties Tournament of Hearts is enough to pump up the rookie Quebec team.
“I think with our energy, we don’t need a crowd,” Quebec skip Laurie St-Georges said. “Honestly, we’re just having so much fun. We’re just enjoying [the Scotties] and we still have a crowd. My dog is out there watching me, my sister and my mom with the [cardboard] cutouts. Just the feeling to play at the Scotties is such a good feeling.”
Quebec second Emily Riley added: “We laugh that this is like how we play in a club game, too. We have just as much energy. We’ve never been to the Scotties so we don’t know what it’s like to not have a crowd. We’re able to boost ourselves up for sure.”
Meanwhile, Manitoba coach Viktor Kjell has taken on the responsibility of providing extra morale for his veteran squad and getting them in the mindset of playing for another national championship. That may have backfired, as he was shushed for clapping when lead Lisa Weagle made one of her patented tick shots.
“We talk a lot about past experiences, what we’ve done and what we’ve done well, just trying to create this atmosphere of energy within the team and amongst ourselves,” Kjell said. “It’s up to the individuals as well to make sure you’re up for the game and we all do it in different ways. I’m just really focused on what we need to do, what work we need to do out there and just small things. If we do a great job, we’ve got to make sure there’s a clap from the coach’s bench or a high five or a broom tap or whatever it is because there have been some amazing shots out there on the ice -- not just from our team but from other teams -- and it’s like just dead silent. You want to go bananas because it’s a great shot. It’s just to get into that mindset a little bit.”
Loder’s Scotties dream now reality
Considering Loder dreamed about playing in the Scotties Tournament of Hearts since she was in juniors, it’s fitting some of her former junior teammates are also in this competition.
Loder won the Canadian junior women’s championship in 2008, playing alongside Kaitlyn Lawes and Liz Fyfe, and captured gold again the following year with Lawes and Breanne Knapp. Lawes throws third for Manitoba, Fyfe plays second for Wild Card 1 and Knapp is the lead for Saskatchewan.
“We always knew at a young age that we had something special,” Loder said. “I was fortunate enough to play a lot of my junior years with Kaitlyn and she’s proven to be such a great athlete. It’s nice to see Breanne, formerly Meakin, out on the ice. Unfortunately, we can’t play against any of them [in the preliminary pool], which would have been fun. I haven’t seen a lot of them to be honest because as you know we’re kind of confined to our space, which is too bad but it’s really nice to see familiar faces and people that strive to be the best at the sport.”
Loder added Lawes sent her a good luck message at the start of the week. Lawes, who won the Scotties in 2015 and is making her eighth appearance, is proud to watch her former teammates on the big stage, too.
“It’s really special to be able to see how far we’ve come in a short time out of juniors and I’m so excited that they get this opportunity to be here,” Lawes said. “They’re very talented curlers and they have been for a very long time, so I’m very proud of them and I’ll definitely be following along with how they’re doing this week.”
Loder’s Scotties debut was a surprise considering how unpredictable the year played out due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the cancellation of most events. Curling Canada expanded the Scotties Tournament of Hearts field to 18 teams, awarding two additional Wild Card spots to the highest-ranked teams on the Canadian Team Ranking System that had not already qualified. Team Peterson, ranked 12th on the women's list, snagged the third and final Wild Card invitation.
“We did pack up our season and think it was over,” Loder said. “We were still kind of training and speaking with our mental coach, which was great. Once I heard wind of the 18 teams, I had an inclination that our team could have an invite based on the teams that were formed this season, and our team was staying intact with the three out of four rule that Curling Canada has always gone by, so that was kind of interesting. … As a younger team, never been to the Scotties before, it was a very exciting invite for us and an absolute yes.”
Bison Bison had had had had had Bison Bison Bison shi shi shi
Those who have their fingers on the pulse of the curling beat know the balance of power in the Canadian women’s division slants toward Manitoba, but it’s still shocking to see a whopping five teams from one province competing in the Scotties.
Winnipeg’s Jennifer Jones is skipping Manitoba, the real Team Manitoba that is, and aiming for a record seventh Scotties title. Kerri Einarson of Gimli, Man., captains the defending champions Team Canada. Then there are the three Wild Card teams of Tracy Fleury (East St. Paul, Man.), Mackenzie Zacharias (Altona, Man.) and Peterson (Winnipeg).
“I think it just goes to show the strength of the field in Manitoba every year,” Loder said. “There are a lot of great women’s teams coming out of there, so it was a good year for this opportunity for Manitoba to showcase our teams, which was nice.”
Although Fleury herself couldn’t make it to the bubble, her team found a suitable substitute in two-time Scotties champion Chelsea Carey, who is originally from Winnipeg and now lives in Calgary.
“It’s back to my roots, my first Scotties [in 2014] was as Manitoba, so I’ve come full circle now,” said Carey, who has worn either Alberta or Team Canada colours during her past four appearances. “It’s a great feeling. I’m grateful to these girls for letting me have it. It’s been a blast. I mean, I love both provinces, any province you get to wear at the Scotties is awesome, but Manitoba and Alberta are sort of both my homes now, so it feels really cool to wear the bison again.”
Carey’s dad, Dan, and Fyfe’s father, the late great Vic Peters, were teammates and won the Brier in 1992. Fyfe said it’s neat that she now gets the opportunity to curl with her childhood friend.
“It’s something that we didn’t expect, obviously, to be happening in the near future but it was a cool opportunity that came up,” Fyfe said. “There are just so many similarities now between what our dads did. It’s a pretty cool connection that we might not have had the chance otherwise.”
Trooper’s here for a good time
Weagle is used to having an entourage of family, friends and fans in the stands chanting “LI-SA WEA-GLE” followed by several claps. With only cardboard cutouts allowed in the stands, Weagle is counting on her corgi, Trooper, for support.
“I’m so used to seeing and hearing my family and friends in the stands at the Scotties and I’m missing that this year,” Weagle said. “I got a cutout made of Trooper and it makes me smile when I see him. It seems like such a silly thing but it makes me happy seeing his face when I’m on the ice.”
That’s not the only difference for Weagle this year. The Ottawa native, who played in seven Scotties and won three gold medals playing lead for Ontario’s Rachel Homan, was let go from the team after last season but quickly got the call from Jones to join her squad as an alternate. Dawn McEwen opted out of the bubble, as she’s expecting her second child, allowing Weagle to return to throwing lead stones in the national championship.
Although the roster move was made almost a year ago and Weagle played in a couple of Ontario tour events with the team in the fall, for most fans this is their first time watching her in action with her new Manitoba squad.
“Even when we’re together we feel like Lisa’s been on the team forever because that’s how it feels,” Kjell said. “On the curling ice, yeah we’ve only played a few games but everything she’s done, she’s fitting in very, very well and I’m just super thrilled that she’s on our team.”