Eight Ends: First impressions of the 2019-20 curling season

Marc Kennedy of Team Koe shoots a stone during the 2018 Meridian Canadian Open in Camrose, Alta. (Anil Mungal)

Eight Ends is your weekly source for news, notes, insight, and analysis from around the curling world.

It’s finally the fall season, the 2019-20 curling tour is in full swing and all of your favourite teams have hit the ice at least once. Here are some first impressions based on the opening weeks of the season.

1st End: Marc Kennedy filled as the super spare for Brad Jacobs’ squad at the Canada Cup last season and has seemingly picked up where he left off now as the full-time third. The new-look crew from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., who lost just once en route to the Canada Cup title, were flying through the Shorty Jenkins Classic as well. They had only one defeat there too, except this time it was in the final to John Epping’s team.

One thing to keep in mind is Kennedy’s health once we hit the grind of the season. Kennedy stepped back from competitive curling with a nagging hip injury and since getting the call to join Team Jacobs in April, he’s used the time to prepare mentally and physically for the long haul.

“It’s going to take a little bit of adjusting getting back into a busy schedule and playing this much,” Kennedy said during the Shorty Jenkins Classic. “I’ve just got to stay healthy and making sure I’m doing what I need to do to get my hip ready for every game. My warmups are a little longer than they used to be, but part of me feels like I’ve never left and I’m certainly excited to be here this weekend.”

2nd End: Speaking of Team Epping, they now have former Team Jacobs third Ryan Fry in the mix. Epping has already won two titles through two events taking the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard and Shorty Jenkins Classic to move up to No. 2 on the World Curling Tour’s Order of Merit with Kevin Koe’s No. 1 club within striking distance. Fry needed a change of scenery for a fresh start and playing alongside his longtime friend Epping has so far proven to be the best fit.

It’ll be interesting to see not only how they’ll react once they face a bit of adversity but also how the rest of the lineup develops into their new roles. Mat Camm moved from third to second and Brent Laing from second to lead in order to accommodate Fry’s arrival. The hard-throwing Camm could emerge as a formidable second ala Team Gushue’s Brett Gallant, who coincidentally was also a standout skip in junior before transitioning to third in men’s play and then shifting over to second. That’s not a bad career path to emulate.

3rd End: Manitoba is always known as one of the toughest — if not the toughest — province to play out of. No surprise, this season isn’t going to be any different. Three Manitoba women’s teams currently occupy spots among the top 10 rankings: Kerri Einarson (No. 3), Jennifer Jones (No. 5) and Tracy Fleury (No. 7). Einarson went undefeated at 8-0 through the Booster Juice Shoot-Out, Jones also posted a perfect record at 7-0 to win the Shorty Jenkins Classic while Fleury finished runner-up at that event.

In all fairness to the competition, we’ll likely see one of these three teams win provincial playdowns to represent Manitoba at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts with the other two duking it out for the wild-card spot.

The Pinty's Grand Slam of Curling campaign kicks off with the Masters, Oct. 22-27, in North Bay, Ont. See 15 of the top men's teams and 15 of the top women's teams from around the world all in one house.

4th End: Skip Rachel Homan gave birth to son Ryatt in June and hasn’t missed a game nor a beat. Homan played up to Homan-esque levels during the Shorty Jenkins Classic — just down the road in Cornwall, Ont., from the team’s home base of Ottawa. If not for Fleury making a spectacular final shot during the semifinals, we may be talking about a different champion even.

Second Joanne Courtney, who gave birth to son Alexander in July, is expected to rejoin the team this weekend in Saskatoon if only for a handful of games to ease back into the lineup. Things will pick up fast once Team Homan is back in business.

5th End: Last season was a true rebuilding year for Team Carruthers, now known as Team McEwen, as they experimented with practically every possible back-end configuration between Mike McEwen and Reid Carruthers. They settled towards the end of last season with McEwen at the helm and throwing last rocks. It appears to be the setup they’re going forward with now that the team bears his name.

This season didn’t start out that way with McEwen missing the first couple events recovering from off-season knee surgery, but the seven-time Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling title winner returned this past weekend at the Mother Club Fall Curling Classic. A quarterfinal finish might not be something to write home about, but that’s what we’re doing here because it’s their best result of the season so far. Baby steps.

6th End: If you’re looking for a dark horse in the men’s division, how about Braden Calvert’s team. They have three semifinal finishes in three events including the Shorty Jenkins Classic with wins over the likes of Kevin Koe, Thomas Ulsrud, Glenn Howard and Ross Paterson. Their only losses of the week were to the Brads: Gushue and Jacobs.

With another year together until their belts, Calvert should be able to challenge in Manitoba, especially if McEwen and/or Jason Gunnlaugson show any signs of struggling.

7th End: Welcome back to the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling, Kelsey Rocque. Team Rocque started the season No. 24 on the World Curling Tour rankings and in three busy weeks of back-to-back-to-back events, all playoff appearances, they vaulted to 16th as one of the biggest movers on the list. That still would normally leave them right on the doorstep on the outside looking in for the Masters, the first GSOC event of the year, but thanks to Anna Sidorova declining, Rocque received the final invitation.

Expect to see Laura Walker’s new team gain ground in the standings, too. They’re currently 32nd, the same spot where they began the 2019-20 campaign, but with a trophy now in their case, winning the Mother Club Fall Curling Classic, they should start chipping away at the deficit in the standings to get back into the GSOC.

8th End: Brendan Bottcher had a sensational 2018-19 winning three consecutive Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling titles and finishing runner-up at the Brier. Altogether they played in seven championship games during the season. I wouldn’t put too much stock in their missed playoff run at the Shorty Jenkins Classic as second Brad Thiessen returned home to Edmonton early due to an emergency and the team had to finish out the tournament short-handed as a trio. That’s tough sledding no matter who you are.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.