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Wednesday, 9 September 2015


#BetweenTheSheets: Teams Looking For Paradise At
Opening Grand Slam
The Tour Challenge offers a new format and new opportunities


The life of professional curler can be quite the whirlwind sometimes.  On the ice competing for a title one moment then sharing an armrest with a sweaty teammate the next.  Just ask the teams who wrapped up the #StuSellsOakville Tankard Monday only to pull a Home Alone moment running through a Toronto airport to catch a flight to their next event in Newfoundland & Labrador.  Ok maybe it wasn’t as dramatic as that but still the time frame between events was under 24 hours for some teams.  And you thought jet lag and time zone changes were hard during a vacation?

Before we dive into a preview of the opening grand slam, let’s take a quick review at the #TwineTime power rankings.  As the season begins to take shape, honourable mention spots will be noted.  These are the teams who are on the verge of cracking the Top 5 and could knock one of the teams above them down a notch.  After the weekend event in Oakville, ON did the power rankings see a shake up?

MEN

1)      Brad Gushue (LW: 3)

2)      Nik Edin (1)

3)      Mike McEwen (2)

4)      Steve Laycock (5)

5)      Brad Jacobs (4)

Hon. Mention: Team Carruthers, Team Cotter, Team Koe

A few points rationalizing the updated rankings:

·         Brad “The Goo” Gushue has started the season on fire, as predicted by #TwineTime might I add.  After a runner-up finish in Korea, his team rolled into Oakville and took no prisoners, going undefeated and claiming the title Monday evening over Team Carruthers.  En route to the title included a QF win over current world champion Team Edin and a SF win over Team Laycock, revenge perhaps for the #Brier2014 bronze medal loss.  When you beat two teams currently in the Top 5 of the power rankings, the top spot is all yours.  Can Gushue hold onto the top this week in front of home province fans in NL though?  #Pressure

·         World champ Edin may have lost the grip on top spot but only by a slim margin.  The QF match up  against Gushue had a futuristic feel to it…perhaps a 2016 World Championship preview?  Edin is still the leader of the pack and will be every week.  Plus, when you make shots like THIS, how can we really drop him down the rankings too far?  Edin can extract some revenge this week though and reclaim the top spot.

·         Don’t read too much into the one spot drop for McEwen and Jacobs, this is only because of their decision to skip Oakville and prepare for The Tour Challenge this week.  Both of these teams will be in Paradise and will be favoured to make a push for the title.  As a result of both of these teams skipping Stu Sells, combined with a SF finish of their own, #TeamOranje and Steve Laycock move up one spot on the list.

WOMEN

1)      Alina Paetz (LW: 1)

2)      Rachel Homan (5)

3)      Eve Muirhead (3)

4)      Val Sweeting (4)

5)      Jennifer Jones (2)

Hon. Mention: Team Tirinzoni, Team Sidorova

·         #TwineTime predictions went 2-for-2 last weekend when Team Homan pulled out the tankard win.  The Homan team looked determined to start the season out on a winning slide and they could not be more pleased with the outcome.  Team Homan never lost a game all weekend and defeated other top teams like Team Sidorova, Team Sweeting, Team Tirinzoni and, ultimately in the final, Team Paetz.  When you go undefeated against a line up like that, yeah you deserve to move up the power rankings.

·         World champ Team Paetz, although suffering the championship final loss, is not to be displaced from the top though.  Paetz also qualified for the playoff round in Oakville through the A side and en route to the final defeated top teams Jones, Sidorova and Sweeting.  The fact this team has a 6-match winning streak against Team Jennifer Jones alone is amazing! 

·         From first view it may appear I am being unfair to Team Jones.  But let’s remember this team did have some struggles in Oakville.  After the A-qualifier loss to Paetz, they ran into another hot team from Switzerland, Team Tirinzoni, in the B and needed to take the long route to the playoffs through the C-side.  Eliminating Steph Lawton was impressive but only led to the QF loss to Sidorova.  Jones seems quite capable of beating up her fellow North American teams but unless she can solve her European counterparts, her power ranking spot could be up for grabs.

One week in and already we see some movement within the Top 5 for both the men’s and women’s power rankings.  Can Gushue and Paetz hold on to the top spot?  Which team right below is ready to take a grasp on the top rung?  Could a team unranked pull a hit and takeout of their own and displace one of the ranked teams?  Only one way to find out….off to Paradise we go!

The 2015 Grand Slam of Curling is about to hit the ice in Paradise, NL.   After the success of past #GSOC events, 2015 brings forward a few changes.  Change will happen right off the bat too with the newly added Tour Challenge.

The Tour Challenge will revive a once used “new format” to traditional curling fans.  The Curling in Paradise will see 60 total teams compete.  Broken down by men’s and women’s draws, there will be a Tier I and Tier II event coinciding on the same ice surface.  This format has only been used once in the past, the 2012 Masters.  So what does a two-tier event look like you ask?  Well Tier I is comprised of the Top 15 men’s and women’s tour according to the World Curling Tour (WCT) rankings.  Tier II will see the next 10 best ranked teams, in addition to 5 men’s and women’s regional teams.  The Tier I teams will be competing for #GSOC points and, hopefully, try to qualify for the other new event to conclude the grand slam circuit: Champions Cup!  The Champions Cup will bring together champions from all major events, both grand slam and Brier, Scotties and World Championships, to one massive winner take all battle on ice.  The full list of qualification events can be found HERE.  This will add an extra level of excitement, and prize money, for teams but, perhaps more importantly, add an extra level of excitement for fans.  Not only are teams competing for a title at each select event but now they are seeking qualification into a massive season ending best of the best championship.  Who doesn’t want that?

Sounds great for Tier I teams but what about the Tier II?  Don’t think they are getting the short end of the stick here.  The Tier II men’s and women’s champions this weekend will earn a spot in the next grand slam event, The Masters.  Win The Masters event and you go from Tier II to Champions Cup participant just like that!

Ok #TwineTime, you say there are 60 teams competing…that is a lot.  Who are the teams to watch?  The teams to watch out for?  And could we actually see a surprise SF or champion in Paradise?  Well my friendly rock head, I am here to answer all those questions and more.  I should add, for a full list of the field competing at Tour Challenge, please visit HERE.     

THE FAVORITES

Tier I

Brad Gushue - Goo is on home territory, is coming off a win in Oakville and is playing the best we may have ever seen him play.  Why shouldn’t he be the favourite?  The extra curling in Korea can only help this team.  While some teams are only in Week 1 mode, Team Gushue is already operating on Week 3.  But don’t get too cocky boys.  Let’s remember last year when Gushue knocked off hometown teams McEwen and Laycock in front of home fans in grand slam finals.  Could karma catch up to him on The Rock?

Alina Paetz – I am torn on finding one favourite here but after the strong result to kick off the season in Oakville, Paetz seems to be starting this season just as she ended last year.  This team is ready to play every week for every game.  Her mastery of conquering Jennifer Jones is more than enough reason to strike some fear into her competitors.  Don’t let the smiling, timid look fool you….this team is ready to go full savage on the ladies tour.  Could they claim their first grand slam title?

Tier II

Jim Cotter – It feels weird to think of Team Cotter in Tier II right?  Only two years ago this team lost the final of the Roar of the Rings and Brier.  Sure John Morris was with the team then but the other three members of this team are the same.  Cotter enters this event fresh off a strong showing in Oakville, qualifying from the A side and losing a heartbreaking extra end SF to Carruthers.  Don’t be surprised to see these boys competing for a Masters title in early November.



Anna Hasselborg – Sweden is well represented in NL and could see a team claim the Tier II championship.  Hasselborg has the pedigree to do quite well against this field.  She is a former world junior champion (2010), has grand slam experience and enters the event off a successful opening season in Oakville.  I don’t think many people would have predicted Hasselborg as a playoff participant last weekend but sure enough a QF appearance was achieved.  Beating teams such as Flaxey, Hastings and Lui should provide confidence going into this week.  Sure a tough QF loss to Tirinzoni is disappointing but plenty to build off of.  Do not underestimate this team this week.


WATCH OUT FOR

Tier I

Mike McEwen – The Manitoba boys hit the ice for the first time this week and you have to think they came to Paradise ready to don the red championship pants.  After winning 8 events on tour last season, and truly dominating the tour in actuality, the big question will be how they follow up last year’s performance.  Can they continue the winning ways?  Have they put behind them the tough Manitoba final loss?  They enter the season ranked #1 on the WCT, can they hold onto it though?

Eve Muirhead – Similar to the McEwen squad, The Tour Challenge will be the first opportunity to see Team Muirhead on the ice.  This team won the Canadian Open and Players’ Championship last season, laying claim to the Rogers Grand Slam Cup as overall points champion.  Eve did have a disappointing finish at the World Championships, losing the bronze medal game to Team Russia (Sidorova).  But Eve is also a fighter and, similar to Team Homan last week, she will be wanting to start the season on the right foot.  The Scottish champs should never be counted out in any event they enter.

Tier II

Tom Brewster – The Aberdeen, Scotland foursome is ready to challenge for a top spot on tour this year.  Brewster spent 2014 as the alternate for Team Murdoch, winning an Olympic silver medal.  In fact, Brewster was actually the skip of the silver medal winning team, as David Murdoch was the addition to the Olympic team.  Murdoch ended up taking over the team and Brewster was left to find a new team to compete with.  Fast forward to Fall 2015 and Brewster has put together a strong team ready to move up the rankings.  Brewster is a two-time World silver medalist (2011, 2012) so he brings tons of experience to the ice.  The Tour Challenge will be the second event of the season for Team Brewster, after a runner-up finish to Team Edin at the Baden Masters in Switzerland.  They are riding some momentum to start the season.

Heather Strong – When on The Rock, you side with a home team.  Heather Strong is the definition of women’s curling in Newfoundland & Labrador.  A 12-time provincial champion, Strong is quite familiar with competing on the big stage with top teams.  The home town crowd is going to rally hard behind her and if the team can feed off that energy they could be a force to reckon with.  Interesting history note here, the last time the #GSOC used a two-tier format, Strong ended up victorious in Tier II to qualify for The Masters.  Why can’t history repeat in front of the home province fans?

THE DARK HORSE

Tier I

Brendon Bottcher – The Edmonton, AB boys were the talk of the 2014 Grand Slam season, nabbing 3 SF appearances.  Not bad for your #GSOC debut.  The dark horse title may seem unfair to this team, and perhaps you are right.  But we have to evaluate full resumes of all teams competing and this team is still entering the event as an underdog.  However, I don’t think they mind the label either.  Nobody foresaw the results from last year and look how that turned out.  I don’t want to underestimate this team…but I also recognize this field is HIGHLY competitive.  Another breakout playoff push is not out of the question.



Tracy Fleury – Team Fleury (nee Horgan) should view the 2015/16 season with high expectations.  After a breakout season last year, confidence should be running high amongst these 4 ladies.  Team Fleury competed at the Scotties, survived the dreaded qualification mini spiel and wound up one game out of a possible tie-breaker spot.  Fleury has also added Crystal Webster to the squad and she will be playing 2nd for the team this week.  Ton of experience at the grand slam level?  No, not really.  Ton of confidence after last season?  You bet.  And sometimes that is all you need to elevate your game, and results, to the next level.  Last week’s opening event in Oakville was a struggle but if they can put that event behind them and focus on this week, they could find themselves competing for a spot at The Masters.


Tier II

Mark Kean – Perhaps a sentimental favourite, Kean enters 2015 with (yet again) a brand new team.  A tumultuous off-season saw Kean lose all 3 members of his Ontario champion squad to different teams.  Left frustrated and looking for players, Kean has reformed a new version of Team Kean and looks poised to overcome summer drama and find success on the ice.  Team Kean kicked off their season last weekend in Oakville with a strong showing, losing a C-qualifier to Edin.  Not a bad way to start a season though as a new team.  They could surprise in Paradise.

Jamie Sinclair – Are you familiar with the name Jamie Sinclair?  You might be…she used to play with Rachel Homan, winning a 2007 Canada Winter Games gold medal.  More recently, representing Carleton University, she won the 2014 CIS championship.  Now Sinclair, a dual American-Canadian citizen, is representing the Red, White and Blue on tour and quickly making a name for herself.  Last week at the Stu Sells was a coming out party it seemed for Team Sinclair.  They struggled in their opening games but found a rhythm once their backs were against the wall on the C-side.  Taking the long road, they fought off Team Fleury, Team Mann and Team Ostlund to reach the C-qualifier game.  Unfortunately their luck would run out against a very strong Team Sweeting.  Nonetheless, the experience from last week coupled with some confidence could prove this team to be quite dangerous.

Ok so there you have it curling fans, a #BetweenTheSheets preview of the opening grand slam of the season, The Tour Challenge.  Time to put the perfect #TwineTime prediction record on the line though.  Let’s get on the ice:

TIER I

Men

Qualifiers: Team McEwen, Team Koe, Team Jacobs, Team Laycock, Team Bottcher, Team Gushue, Team Edin, Team Carruthers

Championship: Team McEwen over Team Gushue – A bit of karma and revenge for the Red Pants. Gushue spoiled the home win for McEwen last year, I think McEwen returns the favour.

Women

Qualifiers: Team Jones, Team Sidorova, Team Paetz, Team Muirhead, Team Homan, Team Sweeting, Team Feltscher, Team Tirinzoni

Championship: Team Muirhead over Team Paetz – The Europeans are no longer coming...they are here.  This could be a World Championship final preview.  Both of these teams are strong and this could go either way if they make it to the final. 

TIER II

Men

Qualifiers: Team Kean, Team Fanset, Team Balsdon, Team Heidt, Team Cotter, Team Brewster, Team Comeau, Team Smith

Championship: Team Cotter over Team Kean – Cotter is coming off a strong opening event where he reached the SF, and maybe should have been in the final.  The new Team Kean also was strong at their first event together.  These are two of the best teams in Tier II and should battle for The Masters spot.

Women

Qualifiers: Team Roth, Team Birt, Team Strong, Team Hasselborg, Team Sinclair, Team Ostlund, Team Eberle, Team Overton-Clapham

Championship: Team Strong over Team Sinclair – Strong won the last time this format was used, why not do it again...this time on home ice.  Sinclair will be a tough out at this event though.

Let’s see how things pan out this week and find out if #TwineTime found Curling in Paradise!  If you are in Paradise, I highly recommend you check out the action live.  If not, check CurlingZone and CurlingGeek for live updates of all the action.