Top names in 18-team field at Canadian mixed doubles curling trials

Brad Gushue delivers a stone. (Anil Mungal)

After coming up painfully short at the Olympic Trials last month in Ottawa, veteran skip Brad Gushue took a couple weeks off to recharge and refocus.

"The first week I didn’t even want to look at a curling rock or talk about curling," he said.

Gushue missed a chance to book an Olympic ticket when his St. John’s team lost in the semifinal at Canadian Tire Centre. However, for the first time, curlers have a second chance to get to the Winter Games now that mixed doubles has been added to the Olympic program.

Gushue resumed regular practice after Christmas and said he’s feeling motivated and ready to team up with Val Sweeting at this week’s Canad Inns Canadian Mixed Doubles Curling Trials.

The 18-team competition begins Tuesday at Stride Place in Portage la Prairie, Man.

"I think it’s a real crapshoot to be honest," Gushue said. "I think there’s probably 12 or 13 teams that have a realistic shot at winning."

The members of Gushue’s four-man team are also in the field. Mark Nichols will play with Jennifer Jones, Brett Gallant is teaming with Jocelyn Peterman, and Geoff Walker is paired with Laura Crocker.

"If one of us is lucky enough to win, the other three guys are going to be super-supportive," Gushue said. "But at this point we all want to beat each other pretty bad. So we’re not going to be giving each other any breaks, that’s for sure."

Jones was originally tabbed to play with husband Brent Laing. A switch had to be made since Canadian curlers cannot compete in both disciplines at the Games and Laing’s four-man team skipped by Kevin Koe beat McEwen in the Trials final.

In addition, four changes were made after Rachel Homan won the women’s team event. The Ottawa skip and her teammates — Emma Miskew, Joanne Courtney and Lisa Weagle — were all slated to play mixed doubles.

Two members of the Jones rink will fill those vacancies. Kaitlyn Lawes will replace Homan and team with John Morris while Jill Officer will play with Reid Carruthers as a replacement for Courtney.

Sherry Just will take Miskew’s spot with Tyrel Griffith and Sherry Middaugh will replace Weagle and play with John Epping.

It’s hard to peg a favourite in the inaugural event, which includes husband and wife pairings, mixed doubles specialists, and even newcomers to the discipline.

Curlers who are used to skipping will find themselves sweeping regularly and some front-end players will have to deal with the heightened pressure of throwing last stones.

Chemistry will have to come on the fly for many teams since many curlers have only played a handful of mixed doubles tournaments — if any at all — coming into the competition.

"I think we’re the biggest wild card in the event," Gushue said. "I think we could really go on a big run or we could go out there and not win a game."

The team Trials results weakened the depth in the mixed doubles field as three of the top four teams in the Canadian rankings were changed.

Jones and Laing were ranked first in the latest list ahead of the Homan/Morris and Peterman/Gallant duos. Courtney and Carruthers, who won silver at the 2017 world mixed doubles championship, were ranked fourth.

Epping and Middaugh, meanwhile, enter the competition without having played a competitive match as a pairing. However, unlike some duos, they don’t live too far apart and have been able to practise together in recent weeks.

"I think it’s wide open," Epping said of the field. "I think anybody can win and I honestly love our chances."

Six draws will be played daily through Thursday. A round-robin format will be used for each of the nine-team pools.

The first- and second-place team in each pool will advance along with the next four teams in the overall standings. Tiebreakers and the opening round of the playoffs begin Friday and the final is scheduled for Sunday.

The Pyeongchang Games are scheduled for Feb. 9-25.

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