Eight Ends: Mixed doubles curling delights in Olympic debut

Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris continued their assault of the field in mixed curling doubles, taking home gold.

Scramble the eggs because Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris are bringing home the bacon.

The Canadian duo captured Olympic gold in mixed doubles curling at the Pyeongchang Winter Games with a commanding 10-3 victory over Switzerland in Tuesday’s final.

Lawes and Morris are now two-time Olympic gold medallists and exceeded expectations in the discipline’s Winter Games debut.

They sustained just one loss in South Korea and shook it off early in their first game against Norway. It was smooth sailing from there once they righted the ship never giving up more than four points in any game afterwards. Even that lone loss was avenged in the semifinals doubling up on Norway 8-4.

The game against reigning world mixed doubles champions Jenny Perret and Martin Rios for the gold was evenly matched for the first couple ends before Lawes broke out with a shot to score four points in the third and take a 6-2 lead. That put the Swiss in desperation mode early and they called their power play. A bold move but it didn’t pay off as they settled for a single and Canada continued to pile on the points from there.

Saying Lawes and Morris practised just once prior to the trials is misleading — they also played together at the Continental Cup for what it’s worth — as both were simultaneously competing with their respective four-player and mixed doubles teams on tour with Pyeongchang in mind either way.

Morris qualified for the mixed doubles trials with Rachel Homan, who already punched her Pyeongchang ticket with her women’s team. Lawes paired up with Marc Kennedy and then Ryan Fry in mixed doubles before joining Morris for the Canadian trials. The tight turnaround didn’t faze them as they’re both elite players at the top of their game with Olympic experience and quickly established better chemistry than the periodic table.

Kudos also to the architect of Canada’s mixed doubles program, Jeff Stoughton, who took on the task in 2015 when the discipline was announced as an Olympic event. In just three short years Stoughton has helmed a gold-medal winning program.

1st End: Mixed doubles is here to stay

It’s probably safe to say most curling fans were only exposed to mixed doubles previously via the Continental Cup, which might not be the best platform to showcase the true potential of the discipline. The Continental Cup is a more relaxed atmosphere and teams are assembled hastily, whereas the Olympics is a completely different beast with the best-of-the-best established teams.

The rules are also something to get a hang of and the best advice is to forget everything you already know about curling except for the throwing rocks at houses part. The game is mostly played straight down the middle of the sheet plus there are pre-positioned rocks and a power play option.

Still, it’s an interesting alternative and opens up the door for growth worldwide. Last season saw 39 teams compete at the world mixed doubles curling championship ranging from Australia to Wales. Canada claiming Olympic gold should increase the popularity here as well.

With so many other options in sports, entertainment and sports entertainment, a faster, dynamic game is appealing. Mixed doubles games are just over a hour while the 10-end games can drag on for almost three (not counting an extra end). It’s also way easier to form a two-player team than it is to assemble a group of four.

More exposure for curling can only help the sport expand and it’s not taking anything away from the four-player team version. There wasn’t even any overlap in the Olympic schedule and mixed doubles also benefited from being out of the chute early before the opening ceremony even started with games coinciding with prime time in Eastern Time zone when you’d draw attention from curious observers.

Just look at the celebrities who have caught the curling fever including NFL defensive end J.J. Watt, talk show host James Corden and the one and only Mr. T.

I pity the fool who doesn’t like mixed doubles.

2nd End: Olympic men’s curling tournament preview

With mixed doubles done, it’s now time for the four-player team game. Let’s start off by taking a look at the men’s division.

Koo-dog is the top dog. Canada’s Team Kevin Koe should be considered the favourite heading into the Winter Games. They’ve excelled at the four-rock, 10-end style of curling winning the 2015 Canada Cup, 2016 Brier and world championships, 2017 Brier silver medal and the Roar of the Rings to qualify for the Olympics against arguably the toughest field ever.

Sweden’s Niklas Edin stands as Koe’s biggest threat for gold. The two-time world champion and Sochi bronze medallist won three Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling titles in 2016-17 plus the Bonus Cup as the overall champion in the series.

Team Edin took things up a notch when Rasmus Wrana joined the squad straight out of juniors last season replacing the injured Kristian Lindstroem and providing strong sweeping and shot-making at second. Edin was also a vocal critic of the brush/sweeping controversy and believes the regulations introduced in 2016 helped level the playing field.

Norway’s Thomas Ulsrud should always grab your attention as a contender and for those funny pants. Chang-Min Kim of South Korea has had a stellar tour season and his team is hungry to secure a medal on home ice. Switzerland’s Peter de Cruz and American John Shuster should also stay in the medal race to the end.

3rd End: Olympic women’s curling tournament preview

Could Canada sweep gold at the Winter Olympics? It’s entirely possible as Canada’s Rachel Homan is in the driver’s seat here. Her team went undefeated through the world championship last year in China. Homan faces a familiar lineup in South Korea with five of the other nine teams returning from the worlds.

Great Britain (Scotland), Sweden and Switzerland are the biggest names to challenge Canada. Eve Muirhead, already competing in her third Winter Olympics at age 27, took home the bronze medal last time for Great Britain and looks to move a couple steps up the podium.

Sweden’s Anna Hasselborg charged up to No. 1 on the World Curling Tour’s Order of Merit earlier this season. Hasselborg still has to win a “big one” to really cement herself as a top player in the game and what better place than at the Winter Olympics?

Silvana Tirinzoni has had quite the competition in Switzerland with compatriots Alina Paetz and Binia Feltscher going to the worlds and winning gold. Tirinzoni has been a top skip on tour and should shine.

4th End: Brier field (just about) set

Sunday marked the conclusion of men’s provincial playdowns with four more teams locking up their places in the Tim Hortons Brier, March 3-11 in Regina.

Brad Jacobs skipped his Sault Ste. Marie squad to its fourth consecutive Travelers Northern Ontario men’s curling championship and eighth in nine years.

Don’t let the near-decade of dominance in the final fool you as Jacobs faced a tough fight losing back-to-back round-robin games to Tanner Horgan and Dylan Johnston. Horgan topped the round-robin table at 7-0, started Sunday’s final with the hammer and was up 5-2 after seven ends. Jacobs rallied late scoring two in the eighth and stealing points in the ninth and the 10th to win 6-5.

The 20-year-old Horgan, who recently earned his second silver medal at the Canadian juniors, will join Team Jacobs as their alternate at the Brier and it should be a valuable learning experience for the rising star.

Montreal’s Michael Fournier claimed the WFG Quebec Tankard defeating Jean-Michel Menard 7-5. Fournier also scored a deuce in the eighth following consecutive steals ala Jacobs. Menard, who captured the Brier during the 2006 Olympic year, had won the Quebec title in the previous five seasons.

Yellowknife’s Jamie Koe will make his 12th Brier appearance after winning the Northwest Territories men’s championship. Koe, the younger brother of Team Canada skip Kevin Koe, posted a perfect 5-0 record in the tournament and downed Stephen Moss 9-3 in the final.

Oromocto’s James Grattan earned the Papa Johns New Brunswick Tankard to also book his 12th trip to the Brier. Grattan beat Terry Odishaw 10-4 in the final.

Team Skip
Canada Brad Gushue
Alberta Brendan Bottcher
B.C. Sean Geall
Manitoba Reid Carruthers
New Brunswick James Grattan
Newfoundland & Labrador Greg Smith
Northern Ontario Brad Jacobs
Northwest Territories Jamie Koe
Nova Scotia Jamie Murphy
Nunavut Dave St. Louis
Ontario John Epping
P.E.I. Eddie MacKenzie
Quebec Michael Fournier
Saskatchewan Steve Laycock
Yukon Thomas Scoffin
Wildcard March 2: Mike McEwen vs. Jason Gunnlaugson

5th End: Wild about the wild-card game

Jason Gunnlaugson must have let out a sigh of relief when Jacobs made it out of Northern Ontario. Jacobs’ victory meant Gunnlaugson’s team, ranked sixth on the Canadian Team Ranking System, was next in line for the second berth in the wild-card game.

Fellow Winnipegger Mike McEwen swiped the first spot as his team topped the CTRS. Team McEwen, minus Mike McEwen, made it all the way to the Manitoba final with their skip hospitalized due to chickenpox. McEwen returned in time for the championship game but lost to Team Reid Carruthers.

Gunnlaugson didn’t get off on the right foot in provincials and was eliminated in the double knockout preliminary stage.

It should be an intriguing matchup as McEwen and Gunnlaugson have only faced once this season during Saskatoon’s College Clean Restoration Classic tour event. Gunnlaugson laid the smackdown scoring a seven-ender in the third end to win 8-1.

6th End: It’s a me, Matt Hamilton

Red hat with a logo, red shirt and moustache? That’s Matt Hamilton, of course.

Oh, you thought we were talking about Super Mario, right? Well, you’re not the only one.

We always knew Hamilton was super although we had no idea he was busy rescuing Princess Peach in the Mushroom Kingdom during his spare time.

It does raise the Super Mario Odyssey question: If Hamilton throws his hat at the rock, will he be able to possess it?

7th End: Splitting up and staying together

The conclusion of an Olympic quadrennial means we’ll be hearing a flurry (pun intended) of teams shuffling for next season. Since there isn’t a specific date when teams can start making changes like in other sports it’s a free-for-all from here on out.

Northern Ontario’s Team Tracy Fleury has broken up with their future in the sport a question mark.

Alberta’s Team Kelsey Rocque and Team Nadine Scotland are moving on and so too is Team Briane Meilleur in Manitoba.

Reigning Tour Challenge Tier 2 champs Team Kerri Einarson of Manitoba are sort of staying together. Einarson is pursuing other options for 2018-19 while third Selena Kaatz, second Liz Fyfe and lead Kristin MacCuish will stick around with a new skip.

Ontario’s Team Julie Tippin has placed a “help wanted” sign for a new back-end player.

Some teams are keeping the course including Northern Ontario’s Team Krista McCarville and Ontario’s Team Hollie Duncan.

8th End: Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling returns after Olympics

Don’t wait another four years for your next curling fix. The Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling has three more tournaments coming up to finish off the 2017-18 season.

The Princess Auto Elite 10 goes down March 15-18 at Winnipeg’s St. James Civic Centre. Ten of the top men’s teams in the world compete in this tournament with match-play rules where each end is worth one point and teams compete to win the most ends in a game.

The 26th running of the Players’ Championship takes place April 10-15 at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto. Formerly known as Maple Leaf Gardens, it’ll be the fourth consecutive season and fifth time in six years the historic venue hosts the pinnacle Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling tournament. Twelve of the top men’s teams and 12 of the top women’s teams from the World Curling Tour’s year-to-date rankings receive invitations.

Last but not least is the Humpty’s Champions Cup, April 24-29, at Calgary’s WinSport Arena. The tournament lives up to its name as 15 men’s teams and 15 women’s teams must capture high-profile championships over the course of the season to earn spots.

Ticket information is available at thegrandslamofcurling.com/tickets.

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