The Ontario curling championships are now underway in Elmira with the winning women’s and men’s teams earning the right to represent the province at the national Scotties Tournament of Hearts and Tim Hortons Brier, respectively.
Round-robin play runs through the week at Woolwich Memorial Centre with the women’s final set for Saturday night and the men’s final scheduled Sunday afternoon.
Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling MC Pete Steski joined us for Eight Ends to share his thoughts on the contenders of the competition.
1st End: The Homan Games
Team Rachel Homan is in a league of their own right now and not just in Ontario. The Ottawa-based club is ranked No. 1 on both the World Curling Tour’s Order of Merit and year-to-date standings entering provincial playdowns on a record-breaking roll winning three consecutive Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling women’s events (matching their own feat from 2015).
Homan also snapped a tie with Jennifer Jones to take sole possession of first place on the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling all-time women’s championship list after capturing her 10th title in the series two weeks ago at the Meridian Canadian Open.
Considering the next closest Ontario team on the WCT rankings is Toronto’s Team Jacqueline Harrison at No. 21 and it’s clear this is Homan’s event to win or lose. Steski even went as far as to suggest Homan shouldn’t even have to play down at all.
“I think if we’re trying to send our best team, we should just send Rachel,” he said. “She plays the most, she wins the most, she’s the best team in the world right now winning three Slams in a row. You look at how other countries do it, they send their best team. I know it’s not popular in Canada to do that but I think they’ve earned the right. You could still play this provincial but if someone beats her in a one-game final you should still send Rachel (to the Scotties) because we’re sending our best team.”
Before we declare Homan the provincial champion already, let’s not forget what happened in 2016. Homan was flying high from another trio of consecutive Grand Slam wins and went 8-1 through pool play to top the table in provincials only to lose the final to Jenn Hanna, who was the No. 4 seed qualifying for the playoffs at 6-3.
“That’s why I think it’s unfortunate that it comes down to a one-game playoff when she is so much better than everyone else because there are teams here that are capable of beating her in the final if they have a good day and she has a bad day or she has a pick,” Steski said.
“This is a situation when Rachel may run the table and go 7-0 and the next-best team could be 4-3 but then they beat her in the final and go to the Scotties,” he added. “That makes no sense to me.”
Things have changed in the past three years, however, as the women’s provincial championship is held on arena ice this time instead of in a curling club and the five-rock rule has been implemented across the board this season. Both are huge advantages for Homan suiting her team’s aggressive style of play.
“Rachel is very hard to beat on arena ice and club ice really opens it up to anybody,” Steski said. “The argument that the conditions are the same for everybody doesn’t hold true. There are certain shots you can make on arena ice that you can’t on club ice, so you’re limiting Rachel’s skill set.”
Something that also didn’t exist in 2016: Team Homan will have the wildcard game at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts to fall back on for a second chance to qualify should they falter.
2nd End: Who can cool red-hot Team Homan?
Speaking of Harrison, she has scored some key wins over Homan in the past plus her new teammates — third Clancy Grandy, second Lynn Kreviazuk and lead Morgan Court — toppled Homan in the 2016 Masters final to win their first Grand Slam when they played with Alli Flaxey. Steski labelled Harrison as the “biggest threat” to Homan in the event.
Meanwhile, Team Julie Tippin of Woodstock dialled it back this season after their skip had a baby during the off-season, but they’ve won multiple tour titles in the past and competed in the last Canadian Olympic curling trials. Team Tippin qualified for provincials early out of the CurlON women’s cashspiel in Midland six weeks ago, however, they’ve been idle since.
“Their biggest disadvantage is going to be rust,” Steski said. “They haven’t played a game that matters since [mid-December]. … The fact they haven’t played as much and haven’t played at all in the last six weeks isn’t helpful but from a talent standpoint you’d definitely put them in the top four teams.”
3rd End: Don’t doubt defending champ Duncan
Let’s not forget who the reigning champion is and that’s Toronto’s Team Hollie Duncan. With Homan away last year while preparing for the Winter Olympics, Duncan was the surprise winner after entering provincial playdowns through the last-chance challenge round and sliding through the C Event of the triple knockout to qualify for the playoffs.
Team Duncan also put on a strong showing at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts reaching the final eight championship pool and they’ve even improved on tour this season with a runner-up result at the Shorty Jenkins Classic plus a semifinal finish at the Tour Challenge Tier 2.
“I would say the most underrated team might be Duncan, the defending champion,” Steski said, “because people may have forgotten about the fact that they won last year and they made it to the [championship] round at the Scotties, so they did well.”
4th End: Youth will be served?
If you’re looking for teams to fly under the radar, look towards young skips Chelsea Brandwood and Jestyn Murphy.
Brandwood won the Ontario junior championship in 2015 and finished runner-up to Alberta’s Kelsey Rocque at junior nationals. Although it’s her first women’s provincials, her team holds a 25-10 win-loss tour record with a title victory in Whitby.
“What I like about them is that’s a great record, they’re 25-10, and they’re young,” Steski said. “They’re used to playing in a provincial championship every year because they would when they were in junior and they’re used to competing and winning. I think if a young team is going to break through, I would take Brandwood.”
Steski believes they’ll be fearless, speaking from his own experience as a former Ontario junior champion having to take on legends of the game like Wayne Middaugh and Russ Howard during his early years on the men’s circuit.
“When I was that age, I thought I could beat everybody,” he said.
Jestyn’s team is a mix of youth and experience with her mother, Janet Murphy, at third plus Stephanie Matheson at second, who both previously played with Harrison. Team Murphy sports a 30-14 win-loss record with a tour win at the Listowel Women’s Classic and a runner-up finish at the KW Fall Classic.
“Both those young teams are capable of making the playoffs, they’re going to have to get off to good starts because their schedules are pretty front-end loaded,” Steski said with Brandwood facing Homan right off the bat. “They’re going to have to come out of there 2-1.”
5th End: Epping vs. Howard
Two clear title contenders have emerged on the men’s side and no surprise it’s the two teams that faced off in last year’s final: defending champions Team John Epping of Toronto and runners-up Team Glenn Howard of Penetanguishene.
Here’s the tale of the tape this season:
|7th||Order of Merit rank||8th|
|– Canadian Beef Masters
– Shorty Jenkins Classic
|Title wins||– Stu Sells 1824 Halifax Classic
– Nissan Curling Classic
|3 Wins||Head-to-Head*||1 Win|
We’ve put an asterisk beside the head-to-head record since it should be even at 1-1 as Epping earned two of his victories over Howard at the Princess Auto Elite 10 under match play rules.
Their overall records are nearly identical but what separates the two is how they’ve achieved them with Howard running at a more consistent stride while Epping’s high risk, high reward style paid off with greater riches but also missed opportunities. After the Canadian Beef Masters win in late October, Epping did not qualify for the playoffs in four consecutive events.
It would have been five straight if not for a dramatic turnaround at the Meridian Canadian Open. Epping went from falling into the C Event of the triple knockout and in danger of another early exit to winning four consecutive games en route to the final. Instead of heading into provincials mired in a slump, Epping is riding a huge momentum boost.
“I think when Epping is at their very best, they’ve got another gear but for Howard, this is also his favourite bonspiel to win. He’s won it 17 times,” Steski said. “It’s too close to call. Howard’s level of consistency could bear out but if Epping has his best week then they’re probably the best team.”
6th End: The rule of thirds
The key then will be the battle at third between Team Epping’s Mat Camm and Team Howard’s Scott Howard.
“The wildcard in this whole event will be Scotty Howard versus Mat Camm. Former teammates, they played with each other in juniors and lost the final to [Saskatchewan’s Braeden Moskowy],” Steski said. “I would say whoever has the better game when they play each other will win because Scotty Howard has been phenomenal this season. I think he has been the most surprising player in the Grand Slams this year.”
7th End: McDonald, Thomas in contention
Team Scott McDonald of Kingston has been a surprise success story on tour this season winning in Gatineau, Que., and finishing runner-up at the Tour Challenge Tier 2. They’ve risen into the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling elite ranks although they still have to show they’re capable of catching Epping and Howard.
The all-new Team Charley Thomas of Toronto has built up the experience points on tour this season competing in 50 games with a 31-19 record. Thomas lost to Kevin Koe in the 2016 Alberta final, third Adam Casey has been to the Brier six times representing three different provinces and second Patrick Janssen won the Ontario Tankard last year with Epping.
McDonald gets the edge here having beaten Thomas in the Gatineau final.
8th End: Best of the rest
Team Mark Bice of Sarnia is Steski’s No. 5 pick as their 21-6 record shows when they have played they’ve done really well while Toronto’s Greg Balsdon, who won the 2014 Ontario Tankard with Bice, slots next as the wildcard.
“I think he has as much talent as anyone not named Epping or Howard and he’s won before but at the end of the day, he’s played 17 games this year,” Steski said. “You don’t know what you’re going to get out of Greg but he has a very high ceiling if he gets going early.”
Pete’s extreme dark horse pick is Team Colin Dow and not only because his brother John Steski, who won the Ontario Tankard in 2003, plays lead for the Ottawa-based squad.
“Colin has made the 3-4 game and lost to Wayne Middaugh the last time they were there (in 2015),” Steski said. “They’ve got a brutal schedule at the start. If they can go 2-2 to start they have a chance to make the playoffs but they also could be out of this thing by Tuesday. My brother would be the first to tell you that.”