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Friday, 13 March 2015

Sekai ga kite iru / 世界が来ている
The World is Coming to Japan
The pinnacle of the 2015 women's curling season is a mere hours away from hitting the ice.  The 2015 Women's World Curling Championships are set to kick off in Sapporo, Japan Saturday morning (or last Friday night for us back in Canuck land).  The twelve teams arriving in Japan have been working for this moment all year, the chance to throw their country colors on their back and compete to be named World Champion!

So how familiar are you with Sapporo?  Before we get into the event itself, I thought I would share a few timbits (yup still have the Brier on the brain) at you to get you familiar with our hosts for the week.  Did you know (DYK):

  • Sapporo was the 1st Asian city to host an Olympic Games, the 1972 Winter Olympics, beating out Banff?
  • In early February, over 2 MILLION tourists fall into the city for the annual Snow Festival, known as Sapporo Yuki-matsuri?  This festival has been around since 1950.
  • The Sapporo Dome hosted 3 matches during the 2002 FIFA World Cup?
  • Sapporo cuisine is known throughout the world?  Miso ramen, jingisukan (BBQ lamb), sea urchin and Haskup (local variety of edible honeysuckle) are among the most popular dishes.

Ok, enough with the background on the city, let's get to the background on the competition on the ice.  The twelve nations qualified for the championship have a variety of different ways to determine their representative.  Some have a national championship (Canada, Switzerland), some see their national curling associations choose who they think will be the best representative (Germany, Sweden) while some have a crazy, almost impossible to understand points system (USA).  Regardless of how they got there, we have our line-up.

Quick note on qualification.  The standard qualification happens: Host Country (Japan), North America (Canada, USA) and 1 designated Asian nation (China, determined from the Pacific-Asia Championship).  Worth noting, the lowest placed team from North America the previous year is, technically, supposed to play a challenge series against teams from the America's zone but, at least in women's play, this is yet to happen.  Enter the Europeans.  Since Europe has many of the top teams in the world, they receive 8 qualification spots.  The top 7 are reserved based on the standings of the most recent European Championship.  The final spot goes to the winner of a challenger round between the 8th place team in the A division (Championship division) and the B division champion.  This year, the challenge saw Norway (B) defeat Estonia (A) in two of three games.  Ok, got all that?

The format for the world championship is very standard and one any sports fan should be familiar with.  All twelve teams compete in a round robin format, playing their 11 fellow competitors.  The top 4 teams (after tiebreakers if needed of course) advance to the page playoff where 1vs2 play (winner advancing to the championship final, loser dropping into the semifinal) and 3vs4 play (winner advancing to semifinal, loser dropping into the bronze medal game).

Let's get to the fun now....THE FIELD!!

The Favorites

Team Canada (J. Jones) - Is anyone expecting this team to come home with a medal other than gold?  I doubt it.  These ladies have been on fire...more on fire than lead Dawn McEwen's hair.  This team enters off last year's dominant run at the 2014 Winter Olympics.  They wiped up their competition in Manitoba playdowns, were challenged at times at the Scotties but still came out looking like the best team in the world.  They are OVERWHELMING favorites.  But let's not get out the carving tools for the trophy yet.  Jennifer Jones does not have the best track record at world championships.  4 times she has put the maple leaf on her back but she has only 1 world championship to her credit (2008, Vernon).  In fact, she has only come away with a medal twice (2008 Gold, 2010 Bronze, Swift Current).  Another interesting fact, notice both those podium finishes happened in Canada.  You aren't in Canada anymore Ms. Jones!   Her previous world appearances were less than successful: 2005 Paisley, Scotland where she was drubbed in the 3vs4 game by Norway's Dordi Norby (12-5) and 2009 Gangneung, South Korea, again losing the 3vs4 game to Sweden's Anette Norberg.  Jones can be defeated and has been.  Can she keep the ship sailing smooth or will the demons of international world championship hosts cities come back to haunt her?  The biggest test for this team will be vice Kaitlyn Lawes.  This will be her first world championship appearance (minus juniors of course).  How will she handle the pressure?  Yes she will have the Olympic experience to draw on but will that be enough to settle the nerves?  Last Canadian to win the World Championship: Jennifer Jones in 2008.  That is a long drought for a nation considered the favorite every year regardless of the team we send.  Did Jones start a curve for Team Canada with her 2008 victory?  It appears that way....so only she can reverse it right?

Watch Our For

Team Scotland (E. Muirhead) - Can you believe this will be Eve's sixth world championship appearance?  6!!  And she is only 24 years old.  She has more appearances than the favorite, Jennifer Jones.  She also has the same amount of world championships under her belt: 1 (2013, Liga Latvia).  Her world championship was only 2 years ago, still very fresh.  Can you also believe she has been in 2 Winter Olympics (2010, 2014)?  Sochi was a huge success with her team picking up the bronze medal.  This team is not to be ignored.  Eve has never entered an event being the favorite but yet always seems to be there at the end of the week.  If any team can take advantage of any slip-up by the favorites, it is Team Scotland!  Interestingly enough, who do they get in the second game?  Team Canada!

Team Sweden (M. Sigfridsson) - Always a bride's maid never a bride.  The perfect way to sum up the curling career of skip Margaretha Sigfridsson.  4 world championship appearances, 4 silver medals.  1 Olympic appearance, 1 silver medal.  Heck, 1 junior world championship, 1 silver medal.  Maybe she is allergic to gold and we don't know it?  You cannot help, as a fan of sport in general, to feel for her though.  To get oh so close so many times and come up short time and time again has to be difficult.  Yet, here she is competing again seeking her first world championship.  I would say this team is the sentimental favorite.  If your home nation cannot win gold, cheer for Team Sweden.  These ladies deserve a good result.  They have put together a good season, sitting #10 in the tour rankings.  Yes, other teams here are ranked above them but when it comes to the experience factor, nobody can rival them (other than Canada).  I would fully expect to see this team on the podium....but which color will it be this time?

Dark Horse

Team Switzerland (A. Patz) - Yes Switzerland is the defending champion by nation.  Yes they have won 2 of the past 3 world championships.  But both of those championship teams are different than the 2015 Swiss Champ.  Switzerland is...no has...become the curling hotbed for women's curling internationally.  They have the results to back it up.  Skip Alina Patz is considered by many to be the 3rd best skip in the country, yet here she is making her first world championship appearance.  This team is having a breakout season, currently ranked #8 in the world.  You may not be familiar with them but you will be.  This team has played all the top teams and has produced some big victories.  Patz herself has learned from the best, Mirjam Ott.  She was an alternate on Ott's world championship team in 2012 and at the 2014 Winter Olympics.  She is also familiar with the world stage on her own, having won gold at the 2011 World Mixed Doubles Curling Championship.  This team could catch a few off guard, especially the favorites, and if they do, watch out.  A little history repeating could happen in a week's time.  While everyone expects the Red and White to fly overhead as champions, it may just be the white cross not the red maple leaf.

The Field

Team Russia (A. Sidorova) - Ok so I may be doing an injustice here listing Sidorova's team under the field category.  They are a threat to win this entire event as well.  Sidorova won bronze at last year's world championship in St. John, a first for Russian women.  She is coming off a Winter Universaide gold medal in Spain (her repeat after claiming gold in 2013 as well).  Similar resume to Eve Muirhead actually.  24 years old, 2 Olympic Games (2010, 2014), 5 previous world championship appearances.  In fact, this will be her 6th straight appearance.  She has dominated Russian curling for the past few years and is the cream of the crop.  The real question is can this team put it all together and win another medal.  They struggled on home ice in Sochi and at times look like world championship contenders but then look like pretenders.  Consistency will be the key to their success.  If Sidorova herself can curl light's out and find the confidence in her style of game calling, we could see Russia return to the podium.

Team China (L. Sijia) - I will admit I do not know much about this team.  Liu was at the world championships last year, finishing with a respectable 6-5 record.  She also used to play with former world champion Wang Bingyu.  Since Wang retired from the sport however, Chinese curling has really dropped off.  It's great to see them return for their second appearance and perhaps experience from last year will help them out.  They should also have some fan support as many from China may travel to Japan to cheer them on.

Team Denmark (L.Nielson) -  Lene will be making her 6th world championship appearance in Japan and 4th as a skip.  She is yet to land with a winner record however.  The game is there to compete but the play calling and strategy sometimes gets away from her.  She represented Denmark at the 2014 Winter Olympics (she was even the flag bearer!) but again came away with a listless 4-5 record.  Playoff threat?  Probably not.  Threat to spoil the records of some of the favorites?  Absolutely!!

Team Finland (S. Puustinen) - Puustinen has single handedly helped get Finland on the women's curling world stage.  For many years Finland sat in the B division in Europe, in limbo every year.  Ok sometimes Finland would win B and qualify for the A division, only to be relegated down the following year.  Puustinen has been on a mission the past few years.  In 2013, the team won the B division and earned promotion.  In 2014, the team had a breakthrough European Championship.  They finished 5-4, a winning record, and their 6th place finish qualified for them for this event.  Are their expectations high?  No, probably not.  But given where Finland was only 2 years ago, this is a great accomplishment.

Team Germany (D. Driendl) - Enter team controversy.  Ok, not with this team itself but with them representing Team Germany.  Driendl is not the current German Champion.  That honour goes to past World Champion Andrea Schopp.  The German Curling Federation decided to not send Schopp to this event, instead selecting Driendl.  This has caused a huge uproar within German curling, and honestly around the curling world.  This event is aimed to be sending the best from each nation and nobody could argue with Schopp being considered the best in German history.  Alas, here we are however.  Was Schopp going to win the event?  No, probably not.  Will Deiendl though?  No.  All the best to them of course but you still feel like this political move leaves a very sour taste in the mouth of the sport.

Team Japan (A. Ogasawara) - The Home Nation!  Regardless of qualifying as hosts, I think this team would have been here regardless who hosted the championship.  What a story for skip Ogasawara.  The 36yo mother of one once retired from the sport following the 2006 Winter Olympics.  She returned in 2011 to make another Olympic run, successfully winning the Olympic Qualification Event and making Sochi.  She has been to 3 Winter Olympics (2002, 2006, 2014).  Ogasawara was also the flag bearer for Japan in 2014.  In a sport where we are starting to see the youth movement take over, it is great to see an athlete still competing consistently and competitively in her late 30's.  Don't undersell their potential here either.  They are currently ranked #19 on the world tour and this is not only their home country but their home city!  They will have HUGE fan support.  Expect a good result from them this week.

Team Norway (K. Skaslien) -  Skaslien returns for her 5th world championship appearance.  Can you believe that?  I would be confident in assuming asking curling fans to name a female Norway curler and people would struggle to name anyone other than the great Dordi Norby.  But here is Skaslien again.  She fought her way out of B Division at the European Championships and upset Estonia (I never thought I would write Norway upset Estonia in curling) in the world challenge round to make it here.  I would not be expecting big results from this team however.  If they can pull off a win or two, I would consider that a success.

Team United States (A. Sormunen) - Another interesting qualification process here.  Team Sormunen qualified based on points earned during USA Curling events.  This team has reached the podium in 5 USA National Championships, with their best result being silver medals in 2010 and 2013.  Are they the best team in the US?  Again, probably not.  But hey, they cannot be blamed for a system that provided them with this opportunity.  They are ranked #23 in the world right now and have had some success on the world tour this year.  This will be their biggest event though and the nerves could wreck havoc on their chances.  They can pull off a few wins but I do not expect to see them near the top of the table by end week.

Page Playoff

1 vs 2: Team Canada (Jones) over Team Sweden (Sigfridsson)
3 vs 4: Team Scotland (Muirhead) over Team Russia (Sidorova)

Semifinal:  Team Sweden (Sigfidsson) over Team Scotland (Muirhead)

Bronze Medal:  Team Scotland (Muirhead) over Team Russia (Sidorova)

WOMEN'S WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL:  Team Sweden (Sigfridsson) over Team Canada (Jones) - Going with a bit of an upset here.  I think this is the final everyone would like to see though.  This will be the 2014 Sochi gold medal rematch.  These are the two best overall teams in the field.  I really think Sweden is due though to get over the bridesmaid hump eventually and this is the perfect opportunity.  Jones will be the favorite and, probably, will only have at most 1 loss entering this final.  However, Sigfridsson is a team that can go shot for shot, player vs player with the Jones foursome.  As much as I want to see Canada finally return to the top of the podium, I think Sweden may just find the luck they need to win that elusive gold!

Agree with me?  Disagree with me?  Feel I am completely crazy or totally think I hit the bullseye?  Either way, feel free to share your thoughts with me.  As I learned at the Brier, any coverage of the sport is positive coverage.  I always am interested in hearing from other fans.

Enjoy Sapporo everyone....and best of luck to all the teams competing!!