Scotties Tournament of Hearts preview: Could Einarson repeat as champion?

Team Manitoba skip Kerri Einarson. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

Happy bubble games and may the odds be ever in your favour.

The Scotties Tournament of Hearts begins Friday night, kicking off the “curling bubble” hub schedule at the Markin MacPhail Centre inside WinSport’s Canada Olympic Park in Calgary. It’ll also be the largest and quite possibly toughest Canadian women's curling championship we’ve ever seen with an expanded field featuring 18 teams from coast to coast.

We’ve got a job to do, here are some burning questions and storylines to follow through the week.

Is it safe?

The COVID-19 pandemic is serious business not to be taken lightly. Curling Canada is doing everything in its power to make sure it’s airtight in Calgary, all precautionary measures are followed and everything is safe and secure.

Everyone entering the bubble was required to quarantine beforehand and there will be frequent on-site testing. Curlers are pretty much restricted to one of two places: either on the ice for their games or in their hotel room. All meals are even brought to their room. Markin MacPhail Centre is an Olympic-sized rink that will provide more space between the sheets for everyone and its close proximity to multiple hotels and familiarity as a host of major curling events in the past made it an ideal hub venue. There are severe penalties for anyone caught breaking protocol and trust me, no one’s going to risk it.

How different is the event going to be?

The Scotties Tournament of Hearts will be played without fans in the stands ensuring an unusual atmosphere without the cheers, cowbells and occasional moose call. It'll be tough for those who count on the electric energy and feed off the noise, but it could benefit the less experienced curlers as it may mean not having stage fright or big-event jitters. Curling is also a social event but with players essentially isolated when they're off the ice, it’ll take extra mental toughness to grind through as the week progresses—especially if they're not seeing results.

The pandemic wiped out most of the tour season and it’s expected more than a few teams will be heading into the bubble rusty. Expect some speed wobbles to start, although some curlers did get creative taking the game back to its roots sliding on frozen ponds. Still, teams look to peak at this time of the year rather than try to find their sea legs.

What's the format and what's at stake?

The 18 teams are divided into two pools for round-robin play with the top four in each group advancing to the championship pool. The teams moving on carry over their records and play four more games against teams from the opposite pool. Unlike in past years where four teams from the championship pool qualify for the page playoffs, this time only three teams advance to the final day. The top team receives a bye straight to the gold-medal game while No. 2 and No. 3 duke it out in a semifinal. That leaves little-to-no margin for mistakes and any early gaffes could be costly.

Although the world championship was cancelled, there’s still a lot on the line as the winning team receives $100,000 plus a spot in the upcoming Olympic trials (if they haven’t already qualified) and a return trip to next year’s Scotties Tournament of Hearts.

Could Einarson repeat as champion?

Rachel Homan is the most recent skip to win back-to-back Scotties Tournament of Hearts titles in 2013 and 2014. Although Kerri Einarson and her team from Gimli, Man., have played a grand total of one game together this season—and they shook hands early—the reigning champions stand a good chance to successfully defend the title. Since we last left our heroines, the other top contenders made lineup changes during the off-season or tweaked their rosters heading into the bubble whereas Einarson’s team has remained intact. They’ll be looking to simply pick up where they left off.

Could this be the first year a Wild Card team wins it?

The inclusion of Team Wild Card is still a relatively new concept only introduced in 2018. This year the field was expanded to allow three Wild Cards, adding the highest teams on the 2019-20 Canadian Team Ranking System who did not already qualify and had retained at least three of their four players.

All three teams happen to be from Manitoba skipped by Tracy Fleury (No. 2 on the CTRS), Mackenzie Zacharias (No. 11) and Beth Peterson (No. 12). Counting defending champion Einarson and Jennifer Jones skipping the actual Team Manitoba, that’s five (!) teams from the curling capital of Canada. Hey, if you want to be the very best (like no one ever was), you have to beat the best.

The Wild Card designation is a bit of a misnomer, however, looking at their CTRS rankings, all three are highly skilled teams and should contend. In Fleury’s case, only Einarson ranks higher.

Fleury will miss the Scotties Tournament of Hearts as she opted out of the bubble to take care of her infant daughter Nina, who is experiencing health issues. Enter skip Chelsea Carey, a two-time Scotties Tournament of Hearts champion, and call it a big coincidence but both wins came with first-year teams. Obviously, Carey had a full tour season under her belt with those squads before tackling the Scotties, but hey, given that no one else has really competed this season, the playing field is level. Third Selena Njegovan, second Liz Fyfe and lead Kristin MacCuish are proven winners as a trio having won a Grand Slam title with Fleury and another major during their tenure with Einarson plus multiple appearances in finals. Whatever you call them -- Wild Card 1, Manitoba Grey, Team Fleury or Team Carey -- they're a favourite to win.

Zacharias and Peterson are making their Scotties Tournament of Hearts debut. Team Zacharias are the reigning world junior champions and may not lose too many games simply because they have nothing to lose. Third Karlee Burgess and lead Lauren Lenentine previously played with skip Kaitlyn Jones and reached the 2018 Masters quarterfinals as a sponsor’s exemption with upset wins over the likes of Einarson and Homan. Peterson’s team has been on the verge of cracking the elite ranks—they competed in the Tour Challenge Tier 2 event last season and lost to eventual champions Team Min-Ji Kim in the semis—and this could be their chance to shine on a big stage.

Are there any familiar faces in new places?

For a lot of fans, this will be their first look at some of the revamped rosters following some shuffling after last year’s Scotties Tournament of Hearts.

The dominoes started with Ontario’s Homan parting ways with longtime lead Lisa Weagle. Joanne Courtney slid over from second to lead to accommodate the arrival of Sarah Wilkes from Team Carey. Wilkes, who grew up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, has known Homan since juniors and captured the 2017 Humpty’s Champions Cup with the Ottawa-based club as a super spare. The more intriguing adjustment to watch for is how Courtney will handle playing lead after establishing herself as one of the best seconds in the game. Homan is also seven months pregnant, which is why the team brought skip Danielle Inglis as insurance at fifth instead of perennial alternate Cheryl Kreviazuk. There are certainly a lot of questions surrounding Team Ontario but who are you to doubt Homan?

Weagle didn’t remain a UFA for long, landing with Manitoba’s Jones as an import alternate. It was fantastic foresight for Jones as longtime lead Dawn McEwen (expecting her second child in April) opted out of the bubble and being able to pick up someone of Weagle’s calibre is like getting a wonder weapon out of the mystery box. Weagle is one of the best in the business as the tick shot—a lead’s forte at nudging aside guards without removing them from play to avoid violating the five-rock rule—is often called “The Weagle.”

Jones is aiming for a record seventh Scotties Tournament of Hearts title as she’s currently tied with former teammate Jill Officer and legendary skip Colleen Jones at six. Some already consider Jones the G.O.A.T. of women’s curling with two world titles, nine Grand Slams and an Olympic gold medal (plus more accolades I'm surely forgetting) and certainly a seventh Scotties would only help stake that claim.

Team Alberta’s Laura Walker also had to make adjustments with lead Nadine Scotland expecting a baby and declining the bubble invite. Walker, who like former teammate Wilkes is originally from Scarborough, added Rachel Brown and Dana Ferguson from Kelsey Rocque’s squad at lead and alternate, respectively. Ferguson and Brown are a package deal and you can’t manufacture the chemistry the two front-end players have on and off the ice winning three Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling titles with Val Sweeting plus the 2019 Scotties with Carey.

With only three teams advancing to the playoffs, there isn’t much room for error and these teams will look to flatten any growing pains before they sprout.

Who could play the role of the spoiler?

There’s definitely potential for some early upsets considering the contenders are heading into the event underprepared. Team P.E.I., skipped by Suzanne Birt, has actually played this season even as recently as a few weeks ago when the crew won provincial playdowns. Team British Columbia, skipped by Corryn Brown, has also been able to play a brief tour season and won the Sunset Ranch Kelowna Double Cash tournament in November.

Both Birt and Brown made it to the final eight championship pool last year, finishing with identical 5-6 records, making them safer picks if you’re choosing teams that could play spoilers.

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