Eight Ends: Koe, Homan hold the edge heading into Canada Cup

Kevin Koe makes a circus shot but it's not quite enough to score two after a measurement as his team is eliminated 7-6 by Peter de Cruz in the GSOC Tour Challenge men's quarterfinals.

Curling fans will have their hands full this week with not one but two high-profile tournaments.

The Canada Cup starts Wednesday in Estevan, Sask., featuring seven of the nation’s top men’s teams and — thanks to a virtual tie in the points standings — eight teams in the women’s division. Winners of the Canada Cup earn spots in the 2021 Olympic pre-trials (aka the Road to the Roar) plus opportunities to represent Canada at a future Curling World Cup event.

Speaking of the Curling World Cup, that series also picks up again Wednesday in Omaha, Neb., with eight countries each competing in men’s, women’s and mixed doubles play. Team Kevin Koe, Team Rachel Homan and Laura Walker/Kirk Muyres swept the first leg for Canada back in September in China but a new slate of squads will wear the Maple Leaf this week.

Here’s a rundown in Eight Ends of what you need to know for both tournaments plus the next Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling event on the horizon.

1st End: Super spare for Team Jacobs

When this reporter last spoke with Marc Kennedy, following his final full-time game with Team Kevin Koe in late April, he joked about returning one day as a sub saying he’d be the “male Cathy O” referencing Cathy Overton-Clapham’s stellar run as a super spare winning Grand Slams with Team Val Sweeting and Team Eve Muirhead.

Well, here we are eight months later and sure enough, Kennedy got the call to fill in at third for Brad Jacobs’ crew at the Canada Cup. Kennedy takes over for Ryan Fry, who is on a hiatus after a controversial incident in Red Deer where the team he was sparing with was kicked out of the event.

There’s no questioning Kennedy’s credentials as he’s won just about everything in the sport from Olympics and world championships to Grand Slams. The only worry is whether he’s fully recovered from the nagging injuries that were partially responsible for his decision to step back from the sport. It also not only depends on how banged up Kennedy is and any rust needed to work off but also how he gels with Jacobs. Thrown into the fire in a competition like the Canada Cup and there’s little room for any margin of error.

2nd End: McEwen takes the reins

As first reported by the Winnipeg Sun’s Ted Wyman, it’ll be Team Reid Carruthers in name only during the Canada Cup with Mike McEwen calling the shots this week.

McEwen is a former skip himself winning seven Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling titles and brought his former squad within one win of representing Canada at the Winter Olympics falling to Team Kevin Koe in the trials final.

Carruthers switched to throwing third while still calling the game this season to bring in his longtime pal McEwen at fourth stones. They’ve had some measure of success early with a runner-up result at the Princess Auto Elite 10 followed by a title win the following weekend at the Stu Sells Toronto Tankard but they’ve also missed the playoffs four times including a slump of three events in a row.

The switch makes sense as Carruthers handled sweeping duties while playing front-end during his stint with Jeff Stoughton, so it’s a more familiar role for him than for McEwen.

Some might see this test run as hitting the panic switch early but not quite. This season is a rebuilding year so it’s the perfect chance to mix things up and experiment. Maybe it’ll work but there’s little risk if it doesn’t. If they were heading into the actual Olympic Trials and making this change then, now that would be a desperation manoeuvre.

3rd End: Canada Cup men’s division rundown

Consistency is key and Kevin Koe & co. have been pretty consistent qualifying for the playoffs in all of their events to top the World Curling Tour’s year-to-date standings with a Curling World Cup win and two runner-up finishes. Second Colton Flasch was ill during the Tour Challenge and yet they still managed to fight their way into the quarterfinals where Koe pulled off a ridiculous shot that came up just short of buying them a spot in the semis (see the video at the top).

Brad Gushue and his crew have settled into familiar territory near the top and won the Princess Auto Elite 10 right out of the gate. Some bad habits have led to questionable losses here and there but they’re also proven winners.

Should Team John Epping stumble at all and if Team Carruthers and Team Jacobs take too much time handling their adjustments, it could be Team Brendan Bottcher’s chance to capitalize. They’ve qualified in six events this season with a win at the Canad Inns Men’s Classic. The only knock against them is they haven’t won an event of this calibre yet but having finished second at the Tim Hortons Brier last season and also runner-up at the Tour Challenge just last month, they’re closer than they’ve ever been.

4th End: Canada Cup women’s division rundown

We have to give the edge here to Team Rachel Homan as they’re coming in hot from an undefeated championship run at the Tour Challenge plus a runner-up finish two weeks prior to that at the Canadian Beef Masters. Early December seems to be when they reach high gear as the Canadian Olympic Team won the Canada Cup in 2015 and were runners-up in 2014 and 2016.

It’s also hard not to pick Team Kerri Einarson based on their impressive start to the season with four World Curling Tour titles including the Autumn Gold Curling Classic in Calgary, which was once labelled a Grand Slam and based on the quality of competition still is in a way.

You can never rule out Team Jennifer Jones, who were victorious at the last Canada Cup in 2016, even though they haven’t won an event (yet) this season.

Those are the three favourites but with eight teams it’s possible we’ll see a tiebreaker unfold and in a single-elimination scenario it’s anyone’s game. Team Darcy Robertson hold two WCT title wins this season (Colonial Square Ladies Classic and Goldline Icebreaker at the Granite) and qualified for the playoffs at the past two Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling events making them a good candidate to squeeze into the picture.

5th End: Curling World Cup men’s division

Scotland’s Team Bruce Mouat topped Sweden’s Team Niklas Edin for the European Championships gold medal recently and could be on another collision course in the final here.

Team Jason Gunnlaugson represents Canada facing Mouat, the home side Team John Shuster of the United States and China’s Team Qiang Zou in pool play and only one of the four can advance out of the group and into the final. Team Gunnlaugson could be in tough as they’ve struggled this season with a 2-10 win-loss record in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling and one of those wins was in a draw-to-the-button shootout at the Princess Auto Elite 10.

6th End: Curling World Cup women’s division

Sweden’s Team Anna Hasselborg have the targets on their backs and it’s looking like the reigning Olympic gold medallists event to lose as they’re playing at a whole other level. They’ve competed in five events this season with a runner-up result at the first Curling World Cup followed by four consecutive title wins.

Team Tracy Fleury will play for Canada and fresh from a spirited run to final at Tour Challenge where they were undefeated until falling to Homan.

Canada is grouped with Russia’s Team Alina Kovaleva (winners of two events this season), Pacific-Asia champions Team Min Ji Kim of South Korea and the home squad Team Jamie Sinclair of the United States. It’s not quite a “group of death” and Fleury should be considered the slight favourite against all three. Team Sinclair could offer a challenge, however, they’ve been out of sorts this season and have slipped from ninth to 16th on the World Curling Tour’s Order of Merit.

7th End: Curling World Cup mixed doubles division

Canada’s best chance at repeating its Curling World Cup success may come in the mixed doubles portion with Olympic gold medallist John Morris wearing the Maple Leaf.

Morris, who partnered with Kaitlyn Lawes in Pyeongchang, will have a new teammate in Omaha as Lawes is at the Canada Cup with Team Jones. Enter Kalynn Park, who was a relatively early mixed doubles adopter (before it was cool and in the Olympics) winning the national championship in 2015 and finishing runner-up in 2014 with Charley Thomas. We saw how well Morris adjusted to a new teammate in Lawes during the Olympics and could see similar results.

Pyeongchang silver medallists Jenny Perret and Martin Rios of Switzerland and bronze medallists Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten of Norway also add some Olympic flavour to the event.

Canada is grouped with Switzerland, Sweden (Malin Wendel/Fabian Wingfors) and South Korea (Hyeri Jang/Chiwon Choi).

8th End: One week to GSOC

The Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling returns next week with its fourth event and second major of the season, the Boost National, in Conception Bay South, N.L.

Fifteen of the top men’s teams and 15 of the top women’s teams from around the globe will hit the ice at Conception Bay South Arena. Newfoundland’s own Team Brad Gushue kick things off in next Tuesday’s opening draw against Team Yannick Schwaller. Click here to see the full draw schedule of matches.

Full-event passes are all sold out, however, standing room single draw tickets are available at mileonecentre.com or by calling 709-576-7657.

Can’t make it to Conception Bay South? Broadcast coverage begins Dec. 13 on Sportsnet, Sportsnet NOW (Canada) and Yare (international).

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