Many rewards at stake at Players’ Championship

Kevin Koe (left) and Rachel Homan have the most to gain monetarily at The Players' Championship. (CP/Jonathan Hayward, AP/Roman Koksarov)

By Gerry Geurts, Special to

The Players’ Championship is the final event of the Grand Slam of Curling season, a wrap-up of another great year with large cash prizes at stake and a couple of shiny trophies to be handed out. But there are many other things up for grabs at the Mattamy Athletic Centre at Maple Leaf Gardens this week.

How teams qualified:

Teams were invited to The Players’ Championship based on this year’s performance, qualifying off the Order of Merit (YTD). The top 15 women’s teams in the world this season all accepted their invites, while 15 of the top 16 men’s squads took their spots in Toronto.

Jean-Michel Menard’s rink was the only team to turn down the tournament, due to work commitments.

The $100,000 Bonus

For Team Homan, there’s a larger prize to be won. While the $25,000 first-place reward would be nice, Homan’s rink is playing for a $100,000 bonus after winning the Rogers Masters of Curling earlier this season in Brantford. Should Homan fail to win the Players’ Championship, there’s a $25,000 bonus prize pool divided between the three teams that performed best between the two events.

Kevin Koe had the opportunity to play for a $1,000,000 bonus after winning the Rogers Masters as well, but needed to win the next two tournaments in the Grand Slam to get the opportunity.

Instead, teams in the men’s competition will play for a $100,000 bonus to be split between the best three teams at this year’s Grand Slam event. Koe currently holds the lead, with Jeff Stoughton two points behind, followed by Mike McEwen who is three points back of Koe. With 25 points on the line to win the Players’ Championship, the bonus is fully up for grabs.

Swiss Olympic qualification

For both Team Tirinzoni and Team Ott, this week is the final qualification event for the Swiss Curling Ranking System (SCRS), and because the two teams have qualified for the international tournament, they’re both eligible to challenge for a spot in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The final standings here could clinch the berth for Ott’s rink, as the teams must be 40 points within each other for a playoff to take place; with a 47.238 point lead, Ott is certainly in the driver’s seat.

Points awarded at the Players’ Championship are the same for the Order of Merit and the SCRS, so with 45 points to be won, the race for an Olympic berth isn’t over.

If Ott’s rink can maintain a 40-plus point lead on Tirinzoni, they will represent Switzerland’s women’s curling team at the Sochi Olympics. Otherwise there will be Trials between Tirinzoni and Ott next fall.

On the men’s side, Sven Michel has clinched the right to be on the Swiss men’s Olympic team, but Switzerland had not yet clinched its spot into Sochi and Michel’s result in Victoria at last week’s World Championship could be the deciding factor. Should they not finish in the top seven over the last two years, they’ll need to play in the Olympic qualifier, which will feature six or seven countries playing for the last two spots into the Olympic tournament.

Canadian Olympic Trials

With Canadian Olympic Trials qualifying wrapping up this week, the teams are starting to filter out for the Trials, with a couple interesting races still in play. Kevin Martin, Glenn Howard and Stoughton have all qualified directly into the Trials, winning earlier berths, while Koe holds this year’s one-year CTRS direct berth and Mike McEwen carries the first two-year spot.

With one bid remaining, Brad Jacobs holds a slim 1.025 point lead over John Epping (282.095 to 281.070) in the two-year points list, with Brad Gushue trailing by 17.685, sitting at 264.140. Jacobs could also catch Koe for the one-year CTRS spot this season, bumping Koe into the 2nd two-year spot that would also eliminate Epping from the Trials.

Epping does have the advantage of dropping smaller point values to count his best eight results, with his smallest total being a five-point value, while Jacobs drops a 15.075 event. This means that to add points in this event, the teams would have to gain more than the event they’re dropping, and for Epping that means he needs to win at least three games and qualify, for a chance to pass Jacobs. The advantage for Epping, however, is that with a smaller event to be dropped, he holds a substantial advantage over Jacobs in this race should both teams reach the playoffs.

Winning the Players’ Championship is worth 45 points, while finishing 2nd is worth 30, 25 points are awarded for reaching the semifinals and 20 points for making it to the quarterfinals.

For Gushue, his team would drop a 10.830, and when added to his 17.685 deficit behind Jacobs, the 33-year-old would need to reach the final, and see Jacobs and Epping not qualify for the playoff stages; OR win the final if Jacobs loses in the semi-finals or Epping loses in the quarterfinals to qualify.

With the 10.075 difference in final events between Epping and Jacobs, and the 1.025 points that Epping trails Jacobs by, essentially means that Jacobs must finish no more than 9.05 points behind Epping in the Players’ Championship. This means that Jacobs must advance to the final if Epping makes the quarterfinals, and win the Players’ Championship if Epping makes the semifinals of the tournament.

Should Epping make it to the final, he would clinch the last Trials berth.

The women’s chase for the Trials in Winnipeg is almost wrapped up, with Jennifer Jones, Heather Nedohin and Stefanie Lawton’s teams having won previous berths, and Rachel Homan (CTRS one-year), Sherry Middaugh (CTRS two-year) both clinching their spots on the points list, while Chelsea Carey holds a 39.825 point lead over Shannon Kleibrink (225.700 to 185.875).

Kleibrink would have to win the Players’ Championship, and Carey’s team would have to win no more than one game, for Kleibrink’s rink to sneak into the final Trials berth. Each round robin win for non-playoff teams is still worth three points in the Players’ Championship.

Pre-Trials Byes

The Olympic pre-Trials are sorted on the men’s side, with two of Epping, Jacobs and Gushue dropping down to play in the Trials qualifying event in Waterloo in November, joining Mark Kean, Rob Fowler, Jim Cotter, Steve Laycock, Jean-Michel Menard, Greg Balsdon, Bryan Cochrane, Joe Frans, Robert Rumfeldt and Jake Higgs in the event.

What these teams are still playing for are points that determine their ranking in the pre-Trials, with the seeding to be decided by this year’s Canadian Team Ranking System (CTRS) list. For teams like Kean, Cotter, and Laycock, there’s a first round bye to compete for, for next fall’s event.

On the Women’s side, the pre-Trials rankings are a bit cloudier. Amber Holland currently holds two spots into the pre-Trials, so there may be some jockeying to do yet there. She qualified with her old team (Kim Schneider, Tammy Schneider and Heather Kalenchuk) from the 2010/11 season by winning the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, and has also earned a spot with this year’s team via qualifying points.

To be eligible, a team must have three of its four players remaining, so the 2011 Scotties champions could reform without Holland to take their spot, while she remains with her current lineup. Cathy Overton-Clapham also holds a roster berth, mainly due to her great season last year, but the team has dissolved and at this point it appears they’re unlikely to accept the position in any form.

This opens the door for teams on the bubble such as Barb Spencer’s and Chantelle Eberle’s to jump into the top 12 that also currently includes Kleibrink, Cheryl Bernard, Laura Crocker, Renee Sonnenberg, Crystal Webster, Valerie Sweeting, Kelly Scott, Tracy Horgan and Cathy Auld. The same race is on for pre-Trials seeding as well, with only Kleibrink guaranteed a bye, and only 16 points separating the next seven teams on this year’s CTRS list.

The Title of Players’ Champion

With all storylines this week, we can’t forget about the most important of all: the best of the best teams gathering here in Toronto at the Players’ Championship, considered by the players to be the toughest title to win in curling.

To play all season long to qualify and then come out on top of the best 15 teams in the world is no small feat. No game is easy at the Players’ Championship, and it requires teams to always be at their best to reach the playoffs and end up prevailing with the trophy.

Last year’s winners were both the #8 seeds (in a eight-team field last season) coming into the event, with John Epping winning the men’s championship and Stefanie Lawton winning the women’s title. Both teams are back to defend their crowns this year.

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