Eight Ends: Curling stories to watch in 2016

Brad Gushue at the 2015 Meridian Canadian Open in Yorkton, Sask. (Anil Mungal)

The calendar has flipped over to 2016 and we’re past the halfway mark on the curling season.

There are plenty of great events on the horizon and many intriguing story lines to keep an eye on already.

Here’s a rundown of the top stories to watch out for in 2016:

1st End: Who will take Manitoba Scotties?

Winnipeg’s Jennifer Jones holds the auto-berth to the Scotties Tournament of Hearts as the reigning champion, allowing a new contender to emerge from Manitoba.

Kerri Einarson of Winnipeg looks to represent the province after finishing runner-up at the Manitoba Scotties the previous two seasons. With Jones out of the mix — and 2014 Manitoba winner Chelsea Carey now playing in Alberta — Einarson appears to be the favourite especially with a promising tour season that has seen her team win the Pinty’s GSOC Tour Challenge Tier 2 and reach the semifinals at the Masters.

Kristy McDonald won the 2014 provincial title playing third for Team Carey and has also had a strong season on tour skipping her own rink. The Winnipeg-based team qualified for the playoffs at three Pinty’s GSOC events, also highlighted with a semifinal finish at the Masters.

The 2016 Manitoba Scotties Tournament of Hearts runs Jan. 20-24 in Beausejour, Man.

2nd End: Can Sweeting hold off Carey and Rocque to win third straight Alberta title?

Edmonton’s Val Sweeting aims to represent Alberta for a third consecutive season, but she’ll have some top-notch competition from Carey and Kelsey Rocque.

Carey, who finished runner-up to Sweeting at the Alberta Scotties a year ago, is now playing with the former members of Heather Nedohin’s team — Amy Nixon, Jocelyn Peterman and Laine Peters — after the two-time Canadian champion decided to step back from competitive curling last year. The Calgary-based squad are fresh off a run to the semis at the Meridian Canadian Open including a win over reigning world champion Alina Paetz in the quarter-finals.

Carey’s former crew of Laura Crocker, Taylor McDonald and Jen Gates added Kelsey Rocque at skip and the back-to-back world junior champion has been sensational in her rookie season helping the Edmonton-based team qualify for the playoffs at two Pinty’s GSOC events and win the Red Deer Curling Classic.

The Alberta Scotties Tournament of Hearts runs Jan. 20-24 in Calgary.

3rd End: Will Epping earn Ontario Tankard?

John Epping is on fire heading into provincial playdowns. The Toronto native scored semifinal finishes at the National and Canada Cup event before breaking through and winning the Meridian Canadian Open to capture his third career Pinty’s GSOC title and first with Mat Camm, Patrick Janssen and Tim March.

Epping, who also claimed the U.S. Open of Curling title Monday, now looks poised to represent Ontario at the Tim Hortons Brier for the first time in his career. Back in the picture at the provincial tournament will be Glenn Howard of Penetanguishene, Ont. The 15-time Ontario champion failed to qualify for the event a year ago but has earned a spot this year by winning at regionals this past weekend.

Meanwhile, defending champ Mark Kean, of Stoney Creek, Ont., has an all-new team with him this season and hasn’t secured a berth yet to the Tankard. Kean has one more chance with the two remaining spots up for grabs in the Challenge Round.

The Recharge with Milk Men’s Tankard runs Feb. 1-7 at the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre in Brantford, Ont.

4th End: Is this McEwen’s year to win Manitoba?

Winnipeg’s Mike McEwen has been one of the top skips on tour, so it’s been a bit of an anomaly that he hasn’t represented Manitoba at the Tim Hortons Brier yet. His team has stepped up their game over the past two seasons, with three Pinty’s GSOC titles in five finals appearances, and 2016 could finally be their year.

Standing in the way is defending champion Reid Carruthers, who captured the Manitoba title in his first year returning to the skip position. Carruthers, Braeden Moskowy, Derek Samagalski and Colin Hodgson have grown in their sophomore season together and will offer a fierce challenge as they look to repeat.

The Viterra Championship runs Feb. 10-14 at the Selkirk Recreation Complex in Selkirk, Man.

5th End: Can Jones defend the Scotties title?

With apologies to former NHL player Ryan Smyth, Jennifer Jones could easily adopt the “Captain Canada” nickname as the reigning Olympic and Scotties champion. As previously mentioned, Jones holds the Team Canada auto-berth to the Scotties Tournament of Hearts and now awaits the competition.

Should Rachel Homan claim Ontario, the two-time Scotties winner would be the odds-on favourite as she aims to continue her outstanding season. The Ottawa-based team of Homan, Emma Miskew, Joanne Courtney and Lisa Weagle have already won seven titles including three of the Pinty’s GSOC majors.

The Scotties Tournament of Hearts runs Feb. 20-28 in Grande Prairie, Alta. The winner of the Scotties will represent Canada at the world women’s curling championship taking place March 19-27 in Swift Current, Sask.

6th End: Can Gushue capture the Brier?

Pat Simmons and his Team Canada crew are the only ones who have a locked up a spot to the Tim Hortons Brier, however, it’ll be interesting to see if they can go for the three-peat. Besides, Simmons flipped his brush Jose Bautista-style after winning the title last year, who doesn’t want to see how he can top that?

Other story lines will emerge including one surrounding Brad Gushue, who has been the top skip on tour this season racking up six titles including the National. Should Gushue take the Newfoundland and Labrador Tankard — something he’s done 12 times in the past 13 years (he was kinda busy winning Olympic gold in 2006) — then his quest for his first career Brier title continues.

Winning the 2016 Brier would be extra special for Gushue as he would be able to return to the event next year on home ice in St. John’s as Team Canada, allowing another N.L. team to compete for the province and give the home crowd one more rink to cheer for.

The Tim Hortons Brier runs March 5-13 at TD Place in Ottawa. The winner of the Brier will represent Canada at the world men’s curling championship taking place April 2-10 in Basel, Switzerland.

7th End: “March Madness” reigns at Elite 10

The Pinty’s GSOC season resumes with the Elite 10 running March 17-20 at the Q Centre at West Shore Parks & Recreation in Victoria, B.C.

The Elite 10 features the top 10 men’s teams on tour with a unique match-play format. Teams compete to win the most ends per game by either scoring two or more points (with hammer) or stealing at least one point (without hammer). Points are not awarded in the event a team blanks the end or manage to only get a single and unlike a skins game there are no carryovers (i.e. the following end isn’t worth more).

Team McEwen were crowned the inaugural champions when the Elite 10 made its debut in Fort McMurray, Alta., a year ago while Niklas Edin made some noise with his ridiculous runbacks that powered his team into the final. Edin was heating up at the right moment as he went on to capture the world championship just a couple weeks after the event.

Full event passes are now available, click here for details to purchase your pass today. Can’t make it to Victoria? Sportsnet will have you covered, click here for the TV schedule.

8th End: Could Homan complete Grand Slam at Players’ Championship?

The crown jewel event of the Pinty’s GSOC series, the Players’ Championship, is set to shine in Toronto again, running April 12-17 at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre.

The Players’ Championship will also determine the overall season champions for the Rogers Grand Slam Cup. While it’s a tight race on the men’s side, Rachel Homan could clinch the women’s bonus early if her team wins just two games at the Players’ Championship, a nice extra for an already amazing season.

Team Homan could also make history if they’re able to win the Players’ Championship by becoming the first crew to capture all four majors in a single season.

Full event passes are now available, click here for details to purchase your pass today.

Extra End: Clash of the Champions

The curling year doesn’t end with the Players’ Championship anymore. Wrapping up the season will be the Champions Cup, the second of two all-new Pinty’s GSOC events of 2015-16.

Teams must win a high-profile event in order to make the cut. Kevin Koe, Mike McEwen, Brad Gushue, John Epping, Niklas Edin and Soo-Hyuk Kim have earned berths on the men’s side while Silvana Tirinzoni, Rachel Homan, Anna Sidorova and Satsuki Fujisawa have qualified for the women’s division with more spots up for grabs (click here for a full list of qualifying events).

The Champions Cup runs April 26 to May 1 at the Sherwood Park Arena Sports Centre in Sherwood Park, Alta. Full event passes are now available, click here for details to purchase your pass today.

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