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Friday, 23 January 2015

Junior Curling Takes Centre Stage
Future of the Sport Take Aim at Canadian Championship Glory

The Canadian Men's and Women's Junior Curling Championship kick off this weekend in Corner Brook, Newfoundland & Labrador.  The event will run until both champions are crowned next weekend.  The winning teams will not only take the praise of being called Canadian Junior Champions but will also head across the Atlantic to represent Canada at the World Junior Curling Championship in Tallinn, Estonia.

The junior format is much different from every other Canadian championship.  For both men and women, 14 provincial/territorial winners will compete in a two-staged process.  In the first stage, the 14 teams are broken up into two pools of 7 for a round robin format.  Placement and seeding for this round is based on last year's results.  At the conclusion of the round robin, the top 3 in each pool, plus the 2 teams with the next best record will advance to the championship round.  The team records from the round robin carry over into the championship pool.  Once in the championship pool, each team will play the 4 teams from the other round robin pool.  Once all round robin games are played, the top team receives a bye into the final while the second and third place teams will play in the semifinal.

The format is a grueling one on the teams I would imagine.  You are playing a lot of games in a one week time frame, especially if you do make it all the way to the end.  With the recent debate over the pre-qualification tournament for the Scotties and Brier, could this format work at those events as well?  Tough to say but I would imagine television coverage would still play a major decider on that.  But we are not here to discuss possible format changes so let's focus on the junior athletes.  

Predicting the outcome of the junior tournament can sometimes be like shooting fish in an ocean.  With constant team change over due to age restrictions, one team can look completely dominant one year and look mediocre the next.  On the flip side, a team with little to no experience on the national level can have a great week and find themselves wearing the Red Maple Leaf by weeks end. 

MEN

This is a great stepping stone to the national level.  Any of these past junior champion names ring a bell?  Kevin Martin (1985), John Morris (1998, 1999), Brad Gushue (2001), Steve Laycock (2003) and Braeden Moskowy (2011).  All of these men have seen the positive effects of a Junior Championship.  Could one of the teams in this year's field become a future Brier Champ?  Olympic Gold medalist?  Perhaps!

Defending national champion Braden Calvert returns from Manitoba.  Last year's runner-up, Rene Comeau from New Brunswick, also returns looking for revenge.  Other return participants include: Tanner Horgan (Northern Ontario), Joe Wallingham (Yukon) and Matthew Miller (Northwest Territories).  Felix Asselin also returns to represent Quebec after missing last year.  With Calvert's win last year, Manitoba is riding a two year winning streak (Matt Dunstone won in 2013).  Can anyone stop the defending champs?  Interesting to note, Calvert beat Dunstone in the Manitoba final this year.

Calvert has a very winnable group, taking on Ontario (Mac Calwell), Nova Scotia (Matthew Manuel), Quebec (Asselin), BC (Paul Henderson), Newfoundland & Labrador (Greg Smith) and Nunavut (Kane Komaksiutiksak).  I would expect to see Manitoba sitting at the top of the standings undefeated entering the Championship Pool.  Quebec and BC should make it through as well, leaving Ontario, Nova Scotia and perhaps home province favorites Newfoundland & Labrador to fight it out for a wild card spot.

Comeau leads the other group.  He will be challenged more than rival Calvert.  I think the bottom of this pool is more manageable though for Comeau to pick up the necessary 3 wins to get close to a qualifying spot.  All he has to do is beat at least 1 of his other competitors and a championship round berth should be locked up.  Alberta (Karsten Sturmay), Saskatchewan (Jacob Hersikorn) and Northern Ontario (Horgan) should provide for some great match-ups.  Yukon (Wallingham), PEI (Tyler Smith) and NWT (Miller) will try to provide some upsets but with slim chances of advancing.

Once we have our 8 championship round teams, all bets may be off.  While Calvert may have the easier pool in the beginning, once we get to the cross-over he will face stiff competition.  In a 4-game mini round robin format, one slip up in a game could cost you a playoff spot.  We should get to see a championship rematch from last year as well in the championship round.  Possibly a finals preview as well?

Championship Round Qualifiers:  Manitoba, Quebec, BC, Ontario, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, Northern Ontario, Alberta

MEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP:  Manitoba (Calvert) over New Brunswick (Comeau) - Really this is Calvert's championship to lose.  He has his entire team from last year's win back with him.  He fought his way out of the toughest province and beat a previous Canadian Junior Champion (and current CIS Champion) in the final.  Nothing should surprise him and I think the drive to get back to the world championship and make up for last year's 4th place finish in Switzerland will propel him to a repeat.  Only 4 men's skips have pulled the double since this tournament started in 1950 (Gary Thode, SK 1951/52; Bayne Secord 1955/56; John Morris, ON 1998/99; Charley Thomas, AB 2006/07).  Time for Calvert to add his name to this exclusive list.

WOMEN

While I mentioned some of the previous winner's of junior men's championship, the impressive list of champions on the women's side is just as impressive..maybe even more so?  Curling fans will be familiar with these names:  Cathy King (1977, 1978), Amber Holland (1992), Jennifer Jones (1992), Heather Nedohin (nee Godberson, 1996), Stephanie Lawton (nee Miller, 2000), Suzanne Gaudet (2001, 2002), Kaitlyn Lawes (2008, 2009) and Rachel Homan (2010).  These are names we have seen on the tour level, national championship level and international scene for many years.

Similar to the men's field, we also welcome back defending Canadian (and World) Champion Kelsey Roque from Alberta.  The difference from Calvert returning is Roque has a different team than last year.  Roque had a tremendous season last year in winning both titles, it may be a more difficult time this year however.

Roque is not the only familiar face in Corner Brook.  2013 Canadian Junior Champion Corryn Brown returns to represent BC.  She has the same team as she did when she won this title two years ago and should be considered a favorite.  Another formal medalist will be heavy competition with Mary Fay, 2014 bronze medalist, returning to represent Nova Scotia.  Other teams returning from last year's championship include: Sarah Hill (NF), Carina McKay-Saturnino (NWT), Krysta Burns (NOnt), Sadie Pinksen (NU), Veronica Smith (PEI) and Kristen Streifel (SK).  With this many experienced teams on the ice, expect close games.  The butterflies and stress that may have been in some of the teams in the past won't be there this time.  They are familiar with the scene and know what to expect this time around.  This is a very experienced field.

In similar fashion to her counterpart Calvert, Roque finds herself in the less-experienced pool for the opening round robin.  The only team she faces with experience will be Burns and Pinksen, both of whom failed to qualify for the championship round last year.  It would be a huge shock if Roque did not finish, at the worst, 5-1 but I expect her to go 6-0.  Ontario (Chelsea Brandwood), Manitoba (Beth Peterson) and Quebec (Emilia Gagne) join Yukon (Bailey Horte) as the other teams in this pool.  This could be a three team race for 2, maybe 3, spots between Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec.  Can Northern Ontario rely on their experience from last year and knock off one of these three?

The other pool is loaded with talent.  The 3, or 4, teams that come out of this one will be battle tested.  This could be a huge advantage setting them up for a championship run.  BC, NS and SK should be the top 3 teams when the pool play wraps up.  I don't expect any team to go undefeated in the round robin though.  The teams who survive this pool will need to be on top of their game in the championship round as they may enter with 1 or 2 losses already.  As we have seen in the past, 2 losses puts you on the cusp of playoffs with 3 maybe being one too many.  NB, NF and PEI are going to fight it out for that possible last wild card spot into the championship round.  Which wins out: experience (PEI), home town crowd (NF) or rookie adrenaline (NB)?

Championship Round Qualifiers:  Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick

WOMEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP: British Columbia (Brown) over Nova Scotia (Fay) - Tough call here as I can see Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan all having realistic chances at winning.  I think Brown's experience of winning this title in the past, having the same team, and having the drive to win after not making it back last year to defend will propel this team towards a victory.  Fay had the home town crowd on her side last year in her run towards a medal.  I imagine she will have tons of fans in Corner Brook as well, especially if she ends up being the only Maritime province to advance to the championship round.  Fay is only 16 years old remember, she has lots of time to keep excelling on the junior level.  Interesting note, Fay and her team played their 1st World Curling Tour event this year and lost in the championship final to Mary-Anne Arsenault.  This could be the beginning of a junior dynasty for her.  These two will play each other in Draw 3 Saturday evening so they will get familiar with one another early.  That could be a fantastic preview to the match up we see the following Saturday, this time with a berth to Estonia on the line.