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Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The Jaw Will Be Rockin'..And Freezin'...And Slidin'
2015 Scotties Tournament of Hearts is ready to hit the ice

Hello February.  You are a tricky month.  3 years you have 28 days then you throw at us this wild 29th day.  You start with a groundhog leading us to either more cold or...less more cold?  It is Canada after all, winter is always cold!  Valentine's Day...awwww!  For some, myself included, I prefer celebrating Palentine's Day.  Oh yes, lot's going on in the month of February.  But perhaps the biggest event...the most exciting...the most anticipated within the curling community is the Scotties Tournament of Hearts.  The mecca of Canadian women's curling touches down in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan this year.  You don't know where Moose Jaw is you say?  Well, being born and raised in Regina, SK, I can tell you this is just a short, yet slippery in winter, drive outside the Queen City.  This city will embrace the Scotties, hosting for the 1st time.  After watching the "Big Sibling" cities of Regina and Saskatoon host numerous Scotties between the two of them, it is time for the Jaw to shine!

Now before we get into the preview of the field, I would like to take a brief moment to talk about a special part of the Scotties.  Held each Scotties on the opening Sunday, Sandra Schmirler Day comes back to Saskatchewan.  For those not familiar, Sandra Schmirler was one of the most successful and popular female curlers in Saskatchewan...in Canada...in the world.  A three-time Scotties winner, three-time world champion and Olympic Gold Medalist, Schmirler was taken from this world far too early when she succumbed to cancer at the young age of 36.  "Schmirler the Curler" was my favorite female curler growing up.  I watched every Scotties she played in (7 total) and she really epitomized the down to Earth, friendly nature of Saskatchewan while showing a competitive side unmatched in the sport.  With Jan Betker, Joan McCusker and Marcia Gudereit, they were the team of the 90's.  I remember being at the '98 Scotties in Regina, which would unfortunately turn out to be her final Scotties appearance.  The building rocked with support for the team.  I remember going with my grandparents after the game, down to the boards as kids usually do, and just getting a high five from "Schmirler The Curler" and wishing the team luck.  I was so pleased with myself that I had the chance to meet and talk to a World Champion, even if it was just a brief encounter!  I was 17 but was as excited as if I was 7.

On opening Sunday of the Scotties, Sandra Schmirler Day telethon is hosted throughout the draws on TSN.  This year will be no different, with February 15 being telethon day.  All funds donated will go towards the Sandra Schmirler Foundation, helping families with premature and critically ill babies across Canada.  This year, through social media, we are already seeing many of the best women's teams across the country starting to donate and raise funds.  On Monday this week, I saw a great tweet for Team Quebec, Lauren Mann, challenging all other Scotties teams to beat their $200 donation.  She mentioned competing Team Ontario, Julia Hastings, in their tweet.  Sure enough, hours later, Team Ontario responded with "We love a challenge! Especially one for a great cause!" as well as matching the team Quebec donation and issuing a challenge to Team Northern Ontario, Tracey Horgan.  By Tuesday, the challenge was elevated.  Team Manitoba, Jennifer Jones, accepted the Horgan challenge and took it up a notch.  They raised their donation to $400 while challenging rivals on the ice, Team Canada, Rachel Homan.  This is what I love about the sport of curling.  These teams are preparing to battle one another in mere days for a national championship and here they are raising awareness, donating funds and challenging one another to match...all for a great and worthy cause!  My guess is, by Sunday, every team competing will accept and match the challenge.  #TwineTime would like to challenge all the curling fans and teams across the country, women and men, competitive, club or recreation, to take on the challenge of donating any amount on Sandra Schmirler Day!!!  For more information on the Sandra Schmirler Foundation, including Sandra Schmirler Day, please visit the website HERE!!

Onto the competition side (and see if you notice a history theme below)...

Pre-Qualification

The Scotties will kick-off, for the 1st time ever, with a pre-qualification tournament beginning this Thursday.  The 3 teams competing, based on previous results and/or new additions to the field, will be Yukon (Sarah Koltun), Northwest Territories (Kerry Galusha) and Northern Ontario (Tracey Horgan).  This is a bit tough to watch in all honesty.  For two of these teams, they are going to make the long trip to Moose Jaw only to be sent home a few days later.  For one, they will be sent home before the Scotties officially kick-off.  The three teams will play a round robin with the top two teams advancing to the qualification final, to be played during the opening draw of the event on Saturday.  Imagine if all these teams finish 1-1.  Draws to the button would then decide which two advance and who goes home.  A draw to the button will send a team home, possibly.  Imagine that feeling?  I won't get into the specifics on this addition to the competition but perhaps you would like to take a read at Bob Weeks' thoughts HERE.  The interesting point on this, as Weeks points out, is not only will we see the regular competition at the top of the standings, we now will see competition at the bottom.  The teams who struggle during the week still have every game being important, even if the playoffs are out of the picture.  If you finish at the bottom of the standings, the next year you have sent your provincial/territorial representative right into the pre-qualification event.  Nobody wants to finish at the bottom of the standings with this added pressure of knowing what it means for the following year.

From a competitive standpoint, this is going to be a tough one to call.  Interesting to note that all three competing provinces/territories (Nunavut was invited but declined an entry this year, requesting they need more time to fully prepare to compete) will be the first team to represent their home.  Sure YK/NWT has been in past Scotties but always as a combined Territorial representative.  Not this year.  Galusha will be the first full NWT rep, as will Koltun from Yukon.  Northern Ontario has never even been invited, having to compete within Ontario in the past.  Not this year.  Similar to the men, they will have their own representative for the first time as well.  Kerry Galusha's #PolarPower team is the most well-known and is always a fan favorite whenever they compete, this should be no different in Moose Jaw.  This will be Galusha's 12th Scotties appearance.  Fellow Northerner Sarah Koltun returns after her debut last year (finishing 2-9).  And Northern Ontario's Tracey Horgan isn't new to the Scotties scene, having previously represented Ontario in 2012.  I can realistically see all three teams finishing 1-1, all three have been competitive on tour this season and will enter this event wanting to be the first to survive the mini-elimination tournament.  My heart says #PolarPower will prevail, my head says Horgan will make a nice debut for Northern Ontario.  Head over heart here...Horgan will get to play on.  Let's also note, Horgan would not be a surprise team here.  They are currently ranked 10th on the CTRS rankings.  And her reward will be the big teams, such as:

The Favorites

Team Canada (Rachel Homan) - Nobody can doubt Team Canada heading into this event.  Homan is the two-time defending champion.  They haven't found a win on tour yet this season but have finished runner-up in 4 of their past 5 events.  Could not having a provincial playdown be a factor?  Well, they didn't play playdowns last year and that sure didn't stop them.  They looked stronger than ever.  They also did participate in the Continental Cup, helping Team Canada dominate Team Europe.  They will not come to Moose Jaw with any lack of competitive ice time, that's for sure.  The off-season line-up change of adding Joanne Courtney (from Team Sweeting) after the move of Ali Kreviazuk to Sweden seems to be working just fine.  Another change made was the addition of Richard Hart as coach.  Longtime coach Earl Morris is no longer with the team.  I cannot see the coaching change having too large of an impact though.  They are the champs and until you beat the champs, you must respect the champs.  Plus I think the disappointment on the world stage with a bronze two years ago and the silver last year will be a HUGE motivating factor for Homan to hold on to the maple leaf jacket. They are going to be tough to beat!

Team Manitoba (Jennifer Jones) - But if anyone can take on and defeat the defending champs, it's 4-time champion and current Olympic Gold medalist Team Jones.  Jones was not at the Scotties last year, busy representing Canada at the Sochi Winter Olympics.  And we all know how that went!  This team is always consistent on the national scene.  Expect them to be there at the end of the week.  They have the resume.  They have the experience.  They have the drive and determination.  The question is can they get it done?  The last time Jones won a Scotties was 2010, entering a five-year drought for the top team in the world.  Shocking I know!  Worth noting, the last time the Scotties was held in Saskatchewan (Regina, 2008), guess who started their 3-year reign?  Can this be a case of history repeating?

Watch Out For

Team Alberta (Val Sweeting) - Last year's Scotties runners-up are back!  And back with revenge on their mind.  The tumultuous off-season story of Team Sweeting has been well document, losing Courtney to main competitor Team Homan.  Then they pick up perennial New Brunswick power house Andrea Crawford as vice, only to lose her right before the opening slam.  Of course, in Hollywood movie fashion, they pick up spare Cathy Overton-Clapham and win the grand slam.  They announce the addition of Lori Olson-Johns to the team and people wondered how the new team would gel mid-way through the season.  Well that was quickly silenced when they won the Canada Cup of Curling.  People said last year Sweeting was the future of women's curling....little did they know the future was only 1 year away.  This team could knock off the co-favorites.  I noted the history for team Jones playing in Saskatchewan for the Scotties, how about this piece of history for Alberta?  The past two Scotties held in Saskatchewan (Regina, 2008 and 1998) featured Alberta teams in the championship, with Cathy Borst winning in 1998.  Plus, Val Sweeting is a born and raised Saskatchewan girl herself.  She will have fan support, combine with the luck of past history, and this could be a career-defining week for Val and company.

Team Saskatchewan (Stef Lawton) - The question heading into provincial playdowns in Saskatchewan was how Stef Lawton would curl, having missed basically the entire tour season welcoming her new baby.  Well, Lawton seemed right at home on the ice.  Sure they lost to rival Michele Englot in the 1vs1 game but rebounded in the semi-final and knocked off Englot for the green jacket.  Lawton enters being the home province team and will have HUGE fan support behind her.  In Lawton's three previous Scotties appearances, she has always qualified for the playoffs and has lost the 3vs4 game each time.  How is that for consistency?  This will also be the first time she will be wearing the home province jacket.  Given her past history at the Scotties, add in the home province support, I would bet on Lawton being a lock for the playoffs.

Dark Horse

Team Ontario (Julie Hastings) - What a story for Team Ontario!  On paper, this is a rookie team at the Scotties, making their debut in Moose Jaw.  However, take a look at the resume of this team and they are far from rookies.  They have been curling together for 20 years....20 years!!  In a time when teams are jumping from team to team, even province to province, every season due to the added focus of a 4 year Olympic cycle, this team has stayed dedicated to one another the entire time.  They believed in one another and focused on their dream of winning an Ontario championship and competing at the Scotties.  Well here they are...and we should take notice.  They are not going to be fearful of any of their competition, having played most of them on tour throughout the years.  Sure there may be some nerves at first stepping onto the Scotties ice for the first time but the experience factor will take over and this team will come out ready to show the rookie team label is not for them.  Watch out, if the teams above are not careful, Team Ontario could sneak into a tiebreaker or playoff spot.

The Field

Team British Columbia (Patti Knezevic) - Talk in B.C. has always been on the potential of Knezevic.  She has the game to compete with the big teams but just could never get over the hump.  She suffered two losses in B.C. finals, to Kelley Law in 2007 and Kelly Scott in 2013.  Well, the monkey is off her back now!  Technically this will be Knezevic's second Scotties appearance, having appeared as a fifth last year for Kesa Van Osch's team.  She did see game time though when Van Osch went down sick and impressed many with her game play.  How the team responds at their first Scotties is to be seen.  I expect very competitive games from them.

Team Quebec (Lauren Mann) - Quebec will be lead by a young, up and coming team skipped by Lauren Mann.  Many people may be unfamiliar with this team but don't let the rookie label fool you.  This team may just turn some heads.  And it's not like the entire team is new to the Scotties.  Brittany O'Rourke will be making her 3rd consecutive Scotties (competing the last 2 years with Alison Ross).  Her experience will be highly beneficial to this team.  Team Mann has had some success on tour as well, most notably finishing runner-up at Stu Sells Toronto.  Want to know an interesting factoid on how Mann and Team Canada lead Lisa Weagle are linked?  Mann once curled with Jenn Hanna in Ontario.  Mann left the Hanna team and who did Hanna pick up?  Yup, Lisa Weagle.  Just a little tidbit of information for you (Ooops this is the Scotties, not Tim Hortons Brier...bad reference there).

Team Newfoundland & Labrador (Heather Strong) - Welcome back Heather Strong.  Strong will be making her 12th...12th...Scotties appearance this year.  Strong's overall record at the Scotties may not seem as impressive but history could be on her side.  At the 2008 Scotties, Strong had one of her most successful showings.  She finished 7-4, losing in a tie-breaker to fellow 2015 Scotties competitor Jennifer Jones.  I noted the history successes above, should we expect a similar showing from the Rock?  Never underestimate experience.

Team Nova Scotia (Mary-Anne Arsenault) - Anyone familiar with curling knows Mary-Anne Arsenault.  Long-time second for the Colleen Jones power house rink that won 5 Scotties (1999, 2001-2004) and 2 World Championships (2001, 2004).  Arsenault will also be making her 12th...again with the 12...Scotties appearance this year.  Going with the history theme yet again, any guess what year Arsenault made her skipping debut representing Nova Scotia?  You guessed it, Regina in 2008, where she finished 6-5 just missing out on a tie-breaker.  I think if Arsenault can repeat history with a 6-5 record that would be a success this year.  She does have a young team with her but again, history and experience can never be discounted.

Team New Brunswick (Sylvie Robichaud) - The above two skips are entering their 12th Scotties...while New Brunswick skip Sylvie Robichaud will be playing in only her second.  Can anyone guess when she made her Scotties debut?  Well wouldn't you know it...2008 in Regina!  Seriously, I cannot even make this stuff up.  Crazy coincidence right?  This is not an inexperienced team though.  Vice Rebecca Atkinson has played in the past 3 Scotties, as vice for Andrea Crawford.  Second Marie Richard was with Atkinson in Regina when they made their debut.  With Crawford out of the scene in New Brunswick, this was the perfect opportunity for Robichaud to make her move and she capitalized on the opportunity.  She sure made it tight though, needing a deuce in 10 to win the New Brunswick final but she came through and here they are.  2008 was not kind to Robichauld in her debut, where she finished at the bottom of the standings at 1-10.  I am sure she is looking for a better showing this year...while ensuring she doesn't send New Brunswick to relegation for next year.

Team Prince Edward Island (Suzanne Birt) - Has anyone noticed that this will be Birt's 8th Scotties appearance?  8!!  She has been the class of PEI curling since winning back to back Canadian Junior Championships (2001, 2002) and the World Junior Championship in 2001.  Birt is probably most remembered as making one of the biggest debut's the Scotties has ever seen back in 2003.  She finished the round robin 10-1 but unfortunately lost both playoff games...still not bad for a rookie I would say.  She has been unable to come close to duplicating that success since unfortunately with her best result being a 6-5 record in 2007, losing in a tie-breaker to Jennifer Jones.  Ok, so we need a piece of history here again right?  Well, guess who was also in Regina in 2008?  Yup...Suzanne Birt (at the time Gaudet).  I am sure she would like to better her 3-8 record that year mind you.

Projected Final Standings

Team Canada (Homan) 10 - 1
Team Alberta (Sweeting) 9 -2
Team Manitoba (Jones)  9-2
Team Saskatchewan (Lawton) 9 - 2
Team Ontario (Hastings) 8 -3
Team Newfoundland & Labrador (Strong) 5 - 6
Team Northern Ontario (Horgan)  4 - 7
Team British Columbia (Knezevic) 3 - 8
Team Nova Scotia (Arsenault) 3 - 8
Team Quebec (Mann) 3 -8
Team New Brunswick (Robichauld) 2 - 9
Team Prince Edward Island (Birt) 1 - 10

Page Playoffs

1 vs 2:  Team Alberta over Team Canada
3 vs 4:  Team Saskatchewan over Team Manitoba

Semi-final:  Team Canada over Team Saskatchewan

SCOTTIES TOURNAMENT OF HEARTS CHAMPIONSHIP: Team Alberta (Val Sweeting) over Team Canada (Team Homan) - We all want to see the rematch don't we?  With the off-season team jumping to struggling to find a replacement to up's and down's throughout the season, the story lines are just too plenty here.  Plus, in the history of the Scotties, there has never been a championship rematch of the same skips from the previous year.  Time to re-write the history books...and this time I think we see a different result.  Sweeting is on fire this entire season and, with all the drama off the ice she has faced, I think it has only made her stronger, more focused and more determined.  This would be the perfect story book ending.  And I am a sucker for a fairy tale happy ending.  Don't get me wrong, Homan will not go down easy.  She is the two-time defending champ for a reason and doesn't look ready to give up her crown quite yet.  If we do see this dream final, expect one of the best finals in the history of the Scotties.  You will not want to miss this...set the PVR even...this could be a classic you will want to watch again.

So there you have it.  The #TwineTime Scotties preview edition.  As always, please share your thoughts and comments, whether you agree or think I am completely out to lunch.  In the end, we can all agree on two things:

1) We are in for an outstanding week of curling action
2) Challenge your friends, family, curling teammates, whomever to donate to the Sandra Schmirler Foundation on Sandra Schmirler Day (Sunday February 15).  I already challenge each of you who have read this entire blog!  I appreciate your support...now pay it forward towards a great cause.  Need the website info again?  Sure...HERE it is!

Enjoy the action everyone!