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Wednesday, 28 January 2015

#BellLetsTalk....
A #TwineTime Personal Story

14, 11, 8, 6, 4, 3, 2, 0, 365.  All just random numbers right?  Perhaps to some.  For me, these numbers provide a back story to who I am.  Let me explain:

14 - My favorite Number
11 - My birth month
8 - Number of "best friends" I have lost because of who I am
6 - Number of Times I have been beaten up for just being me
4 - Number of Times a person I considered a friend joined in the fight....against me
3 - Number of Times I have cut myself shaving
2 - Number of Times I did this on purpose
0 - Number of Days I feel confident
365 - Number of Days I wake up and worry today might be the day that breaks me

Today is #BellLetsTalk day...so let's talk.....

Last year, I joined the #BellLetsTalk conversation on twitter.  I had numerous RT's of people telling their honest stories, honest feelings and deepest thoughts.  I hit the little star to FAV a bunch of tweets sharing statistical figures on mental health.  And...most importantly...I opened up to myself.

A year ago I sat in my office space and shared my own personal struggles.  It was the first time I really allowed myself to be vulnerable in front of other people.  Ok, sure it was virtual vulnerability, but it was still vulnerability.  I knew I was opening myself up to scrutiny.  I thought people would take my tweets with a grain of salt or even say to themselves "this guy just wants attention".  But for me, I needed to just let out some of my own personal stories.  Some of my own personal hardships.  Some of my own deepest feelings.

I admitted to myself that I battle depression, daily.  I was honest in saying how vulnerable I feel when I am with groups of people.  I said how I often feel people are constantly making fun of me in their head or behind my back.  I shared my lack of self-esteem and self-worth with the world.

It felt great.  It was scary.  At times it hurt.  I had people reach out and just hit the little star on my tweets, people I sometimes did not even know.  I had people respond and say they had the same feeling.  It was a social media bonding experience to just not feel alone.  When you feel like you are trapped in a cave with no hope for escape, sometimes a small light through the cracks of the rock can be enough to keep you going.  Last year, #BellLetsTalk was a small glimmer of light.

The amount of times I have been bullied in my life is almost too much to count.  Whether it be physical or mental/emotional abuse, I have been a punching bag for many.  From being the poor kid without the newest clothes or coolest toys to physical issues of being too tall or too skinny or having too high of a voice.  I think the words 'gay" and "faggot" have almost become synonymous with my name.  I have taken a few punches to the face and gut while being called these words.  A black eye hear, bruised legs or arms there...they heal.  The emotional effect unfortunately has not.  I remember in elementary school being corned on the playground one recess by two guys calling me every name in the book.  I couldn't do anything.  At least, in my head, that's what I thought.  I didn't cry.  I wanted to.  I thought I would.  But I didn't.  I still don't know how I was able to keep that in.  I took their verbal abuse, I took their pushing, their tripping, the few kicks to my legs and stomach.  Then I saw another guy come over.  I recognized the face.  Finally someone to save me.  He asked what they were doing.  The two guys, after looking at me on the ground, laughed and said teaching this "fag" a lesson.  I thought this guy was coming to my rescue.  I knew him.  He was always nice to me.  He talked to me.  I had a savior.  Boy was I wrong.  I got the opposite response.  Instead of a reached out hand to help me up, I got a quick kick to the stomach.  He laughed and agreed with the other two boys and the three walked away.  Recess bell ended, I walked into the school, went to the bathroom, cleaned myself up, went to class.  Got a quick lecture about being late.  Got asked why my eye was swollen.  I said I ran into a tree playing at recess and went to the bathroom to just see if I was ok.  I had to stay after school for being late for class.  I will never forget the moment.  But what is the one moment that stands out and haunts me to this day?  The "friend" not saving me, not standing up for me.  The "friend" kicking me.  That one kick hurt the worst....and I still feel it.  I know it was years ago and I need to move on.  Oddly enough, I am not mad at him anymore.  I don't know where he is or what he does for a living.  It was the action.  The betrayal.  The feeling I had inside at that moment.  The impact of that kick has dictated the relationships I form to this day.

Last year's #BellLetsTalk helped me open up to my two closest friends.  I shared everything with them.  Those who know me realize very quickly how guarded I am and how trust is a huge issue of mine.  It takes lots of time and patience and building of a friendship/relationship to have me open up.  I know at times that is not fair to those close to me and I am trying to work on it.  But for now, that is who I am.  I sat down at my computer and emailed them both a very, very, very long letter sharing every detail of what has happened to me in my past, how I feel on a daily basis and my insecurities.  Hitting the send button sent a shock wave to my system.  I immediately went to bed.  I had an upset stomach.  I couldn't sleep.  I worried my honesty would be too much for them.  What if they didn't accept me because of all the issues I have?  What if they thought I was too much "drama" or too much of a liability as a friend?  What if they were worried their other friends would judge them for their association with me?  As you can tell, when my mind gets racing down the track of negativity, I go for the checkered flag each time.  I was ready and bracing myself for another swift kick.

Now, to be fair, both of them had known small little details about me.  Both had seen me at points of vulnerability.  Both had seen me break down and cry and admit facts about myself I still have only told the two of them.  Oddly enough, both of them do not even know one another yet share a similar weight on their shoulders...or burden perhaps...of knowing me.  Days went by and finally I started receiving some feedback.  One was a faster response.  The other needed time to just soak everything in.  I knew I needed to be patient and try to accept them for taking the time they needed to grasp everything I shared.  I cannot expect them to understand me without me understanding them.  Both came back with similar responses: support, care, friendship, love.  All things I truly never feel in my life.

It was a shock.  Both of these guys are, what I would consider, the "cool kids" in school.  Everyone loved them.  Guys all want to be friends with them.  Girls think they are greatest.  Everyone has nothing but positive things to say.  I always wonder what they are doing being friends with me?  I am far from being the "cool kid" that's for sure.  I am just me.  Plain, boring, not athletic, not attractive.  I've never been in a serious relationship.  I've never had the guy friends I could call my "bros" and who I could rely on day or night.  These two have everything I don't have, including self-confidence.  Why would they want to deal with some head-case like me?

In the long run, one friendship is still strong while the other unfortunately has fizzled out.  I am sure there are numerous reasons behind the friendship dying off but, in my heart, I will always think it is because of my actions on opening up and being honest.  Maybe I should have just kept all the truths to myself.  Maybe I would still have a best friend again.  I have lost too many close friends because of who I am and it hurts and cuts deep every time.  This one still stings and it has been a year.  It will string for another year I am sure.  I doubt myself.  I blame myself.  I hate myself.  I tell myself these things every day.  What other explanation could there be?  When people no longer want anything to do with you, you right away assume you did something wrong and you are to blame right?  This is a normal reaction I always assume?  A smart person would focus on the positive of the other friend sticking by my side.  Planning regular skype calls to catch up.  Random texts just checking in and seeing how I am doing because he knows of my struggles.  A smart person would focus on the positives.  I,unfortunately, am not that smart person.  I dwell on the negative.  The loss.  The thing I cannot change.  The friend I cannot get back.  This is the negative mentality that I dislike about myself.

I have horrible self-doubt.  I look in mirror and I see a guy who is not attractive.  I see a guy who is not intelligent.  I see a guy who has no self-worth.  I see a guy who offers little to the world.  I also see a guy who knows that if I ever admit to anyone how I feel, the reaction will always be "fishing for compliments" or "guy who wants attention" or "stop being so dramatic".  I'll admit I think that way sometimes as well when I hear a friend say they think they aren't smart or attractive at times.  Yeah right, look at you.  You have everything.  You are smart.  You have a great job.  You have a girlfriend/boyfriend.  You have great friends.  But then I step back and realize maybe they do feel that way.  I know I feel that way.  Even if people tell me the opposite, I right away just think they are saying these things because it is the nice thing to do.  The friendly response but not the truth response.

Over the past year my mental health struggle has been.....well a struggle.  I have been brought to a point of ultimate low over the end of the summer months.  I hated myself.  I felt alone.  I had no hope.  I almost did the unthinkable.  I was ready and willing to end it all.  I had no care.  I was walking to get a coffee one day.  The traffic light was green and a normal person would stand at the corner and wait.  I didn't.  I just continued walking.  Right into traffic.  On a major street in my downtown core.  A bus was coming.  I saw it.  He saw me.  I didn't care.  He did.  He braked...hard.  Stopped right before hitting me.  I looked up at him.  He looked at me, cursed and yelled and made numerous hand signals.  I can't blame him.  He had every right to be upset.  People were looking at me.  I just looked back down and continued walking across the street.  It was only when I returned to my office and sat down that I realized how selfish my actions were.  Sure, I could have ended my own life.  But what about the impact that incident would have on others?  How would that bus driver feel?  What about the people on that bus?  What about those people just walking around outside at that time?  I would assume nobody wants to be a witness to that incident.  It could have created negative effects to innocent people.  That was selfish of me.

I posted a long rant opening up about my true mental health issues.  I opened myself up to criticism.  I had some people stop following me on twitter or social media.  I knew I took a risk but I didn't know what else to do.  I needed to reach out for help.  I knew I couldn't have the conversation  with anyone face to face.  I also felt like nobody would want to listen or care.  So I sent it out to the social media cloud.  I wasn't expecting feedback or answers.  I think I just needed to push myself and put my thoughts out there.  I needed to not only write it down but share it with someone.  Maybe some would read it, maybe some would not.  But I knew it was out there and I needed that.  I had many people reach out and offer support.  An ear to bend.  A reason to meet for coffee or lunch.  I was more surprised by people who had never met me message me directly and share their stories and offer their support.  One guy shared his personal story with me.  He didn't have to do that.  He did it because he recognized the signs and wanted to help.  We started a conversation and he helped me not feel so alone.  Another guy, someone I had met only once in a group setting, messaged me as well and just said he understood how I was feeling, offered up his cell number and said text any time I need someone to talk to.  I took him up on the offer and I still, to this day, randomly text him.  He is always there to just be supportive.  I had one evening where I was feeling really low and reached out to him.  We just talked through text throughout the night about random stuff.  Sports mostly.  He knew he just needed to get me focused on having a conversation with someone.  I knew what he was doing....it was exactly what I needed.  These are just two examples of people who reached out.  I cannot thank either of them enough.

It has not always been good news of course.  Some people were critical of my honest and open response.  Some people questioned my intentions and thought it was just me wanting attention.  In a way, there were right.  But it wasn't attention I was craving.  It was help.  It was support.  I didn't know how else to ask for it.  I was scared to ask directly to my friends.  I was already in the middle of losing one friend, was coming off a bad situation with another...the risk of opening up to any other friends and have a negative reaction would have put me over the edge.  I struggled with the internal battle of keeping it all in or finally feeling brave enough to be honest with myself and others.  Looking back, I am happy I did it.  I may have lost some friends from it but I suppose those who cannot support me are not my real friends.  

#BellLetsTalk should be a time when everyone can be open about who they are and what they feel.  Let's not doubt those who find the strength to be honest.  This day is a two-way street for people.  Those who take the courage to open up and those who take the courage to listen.  Which one will you be?  Can you be both?  I challenge everyone to share something about themselves today with someone.  I challenge everyone to open themselves up to be the listener for someone who really needs it.  I continue to struggle with my own depression and mental health on a daily basis.  Some days are good.  Some days are bad.  Today, I will try to be a person who finds confidence in sharing his thoughts/experiences/feelings with other while showing my support for others and listening to their stories.

Thank you for just taking the brief time out of your day to read this.  Typing this up and pushing myself to sharing has been quite difficult.  I think I have hit the delete button and restarted this blog 3 or 4 times already.  Not this time....I am just going with it.  I am going to share it.  I am going to continue my fight and hope, one day, that small glimmer of light shining on my arm will turn into full rays of sunshine.

So #BellLetsTalk.....together!


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.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Scotties Tissues Will Be On Hand This Week
Women's Provincial Champions to be Crowned

Last week kicked off the Drive to the Scotties with women's provincial champions crowned in Northern Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland & Labrador.  I must give myself a little pat on the back as I correctly predicted all three provincial winners.  As we head into the big weekend of action, where 7 provincial champions will be determined, let's take a quick look at who already has their tickets punched to Moose Jaw, SK:

Yukon - Sarah Koltun
Northwest Territories - Kerry Galusha
Northern Ontario - Tracey Horgan
Quebec - Lauren Mann
Newfoundland & Labrador - Heather Strong
Team Canada - Rachel Homan

Now, as discussed in my blog post last week, originally 4 teams were entered into the pre-qualification event where the sole winner would earn the 12th and final spot in the Scotties Tournament of Hearts.  Unfortunately the territory of Nunavut has withdrawn their spot from the pre-qualification as they feel they still need more time to develop the sport and become competitive.  Special thanks to #PolarPower Kerry Galusha for confirming this with me yesterday.  As a result, three teams will now compete:  Yukon, Northwest Territories and Northern Ontario.

But before we get too excited about Scotties predictions, we still have provincial championships to finalize.  This is going to be a stressful weekend for many of the top teams across the country.  The big dreams of competing on the national stage and vying for a national championship are going to be dashed though for many teams.  Only 1 can come out unscathed and wearing the purple heart. 

Luckily for us curling fans, Sportsnet will be offering coverage of the playoffs in many of the provinces this weekend.  For a detailed look at the coverage and who will be providing play by play, visit HERE.  I would encourage those who live around (or are visiting the nearby area) of Maple Ridge, BC, Lacombe, AB, Assiniboia, SK, Winkler, MB, Penetanguishene, ON, Dartmouth, NS or Summerside, PEI to take in the action live.  Go out and cheer on the teams competing to be your provincial representative.

With all the action going on, so many teams competing, let #TwineTime offer up a province by province preview of who to watch, who should win and who could pull the upsets this weekend.

British Columbia

All eyes will be focused on past BC Champ and World Champion Kelley Scott this weekend.  With a new team in front of her, can she reclaim the BC title and get back to the Scotties?  Does she have another run towards a national championship still in her?  Defending champ Kesa Van Osch would like to prove last year's win wasn't a fluke and show there is a changing of the guard in BC.  Can she handle the pressure of being a defending champion though?  Regular BC provincial competitors Patti Knezevic, Kristy Lewis and Dailene Silverton will also be trying to knock off the two favorites.

8 teams will be competing in Maple Ridge under a triple knockout format.  The A qualifier will play the B qualifier and the two C qualifiers will play against one another in the Page Playoff format.  This will be different from previous years where a round robin format was used.

Playoff Teams:  Team Scott, Team Van Osch, Team Lewis, Team Walk 
BC Champion:  Team Scott over Team Van Osch

Alberta

Of all the provincial championships, I think more focus will be on Lacombe than anywhere else.  The Jiffy Lube Alberta Scotties will have one of the deepest fields in provincial history, of any province.  There are quite possibly 4 or 5 teams with a realistic shot at winning this provincial championship.  In fact, there are 3 or 4 teams from this province that could end up in Moose Jaw and have a realistic shot at winning the Scotties.  This field is very deep and those who make it down to Lacombe are going to be in for a treat.  I was in Lacombe for last year's Men's Boston Pizza Cup and the facility is beautiful, the volunteers are amazing and the people are friendly.  I would highly recommend it.

Defending champ Val Sweeting will be the favorite heading into the event.  They have had one of the best season's on tour this year and come in off a successful Continental Cup and competing in the TSN Skins game.  Past Scotties champ Heather Nedohin will also be a team to watch.  With Amy Nixon as vice this year, we could see more "sugarballs" comments in Moose Jaw.  Wildcard is how newly planted AB resident Chelsea Carey handles her first Alberta provincial championship.  After years of torment, Carey finally won the Manitoba championship last year and ended with a 3rd place finish at the Scotties.  In a shocking move, she left behind her team, picked up and moved to Edmonton to start fresh.  Will that move prove to be a good thing or will Carey suffer deja vu with more provincial disappointment?  Looking for a dark horse in this field?  Look no further than past champ and previous Olympian Shannon Kleibrink.  Kleibrink still has the weapons to be a threat on the provincial level.  She may not be as big a threat on the national scene against the liked of Homan and Jones but she can knock off some of the teams ranked above her this week.

Similar to BC, Alberta uses the triple knockout format with a page playoff to crown their champion.  There will be 12 teams competing in Lacombe with the Top 4 seeds (Sweeting, Nedohin, Carey, Kleibrink) earning opening draw byes.

Playoff Teams: Team Sweeting, Team Nedohin, Team Carey, Team Kaufman
Alberta Champion:  Team Sweeting over Team Nedohin

Saskatchewan

The big story in Assiniboia will be the welcoming back of Stef Lawton.  Lawton has taken most of the season off to welcome a new addition to her family, with vice Sherry Anderson leading the team in her absence.  Stef will be returning to skipping duties this week though.  The Lawton team enters as defending champions and is coming off a 4th place finish at last year's Scotties.  With Moose Jaw hosting this year, they would love to better that result in front of the home province fans.  The question will be if Lawton can get right back into competition mode after the long layoff.  Interesting note, Lawton has won three provincial titles with all three wins coming when the provincial championship is hosted in Saskatoon.  Every time the championship is held elsewhere, Lawton has come up short of the provincial title.  This year's event is in Assiniboia.  Will the curse continue?

Looking to dethrown the defending champ will be previous champ Michelle Englot.  Englot will have some curling royalty on her side this week as well with former Canadian, World and Olympic Champion Russ Howard serving as their team coach (with Russ's daughter Ashley in 2nd position).  Englot has derailed Latwon in the past and they did meet in last year's provincial final.  Anything less would be a surprise.

There could be some dark horse challenges to the top two teams though.  Trish Paulson, Chantelle Eberle and Brett Barber have put together successful seasons on both the World Curling Tour and SK tour and could pose big threats to the favorites.  

Saskatchewan uses a different format for their provincial championship.  The twelve competing teams are divided into two pools of six teams.  The top two teams in each pool advance to the 1vs1 page playoff game while the pool runner-ups advance to the 2vs2 page playoff.  Lawton may be the top seed but she was drawn into the more challenging pool, having to face Paulson, Barber and Mandy Selzer.  If she is not on top of her game early, it could a quick end to the provincial chase. 

Playoff Teams:  Team Lawton, Team Englot, Team Paulson, Team Eberle
Saskatchewan Champion:  Team Lawton over Team Englot   

Manitoba

The race for the buffalo goes through Team Jennifer Jones.  The Olympic champions are back, having missed last year's event because of their Team Canada berth in Sochi, Russia.  They will be HUGE favorites to win this week in Winkler.  They are also coming off a successful Continental Cup and TSN Skins Game appearances.  There has been talk all season about this team struggling on tour and just not looking their best.  Let's remember they are coming off an Olympic Gold Medal year, that cannot be easy.  At the same time, even Team Jones curling 70-80% of their best can best 85-90% of the teams on tour any given day. 

With Carey running to Alberta, can anyone step up and stop the Jones Train now?  Former Carey vice Kristy McDonald is probably the best bet.  McDonald had a successful year on tour with a new team and stepping into the skip position.  She has the big game to compete but sometimes get caught in tough strategic ends, leaving her with difficult low percentage shots to save an end.  If she can stay away from getting caught up in that kind of game play, she should be a threat to Jones.

Past champions Jill Thurston and Janet Harvey return looking to refind the magic of the past.  Last year's runner-up Kerri Einarson also returns and could find herself battling for a playoff spot by the end of the week.

Similar to Saskatchewan format, the 16 teams competing will be divided into two pool of 8 and compete in a round robin format.  The two pool winners advance to the 1vs1 page playoff while the runner-up teams compete in the do or die 2vs2 page playoff.  The draw gods were on Jones' side as she avoided McDonald, Thurston, Harvey and Einarson.  She should have little trouble going undefeated in the round robin.  The other pool, unfortunately, is going to be a cat fight for the top two spots.  I expect some tiebreakers may be needed.

Playoff Spots:  Team Jones, Team McDonald, Team Montford, Team Thurston
Manitoba Championship:  Team Jones over Team McDonald

Ontario

The Ontario Scotties got under way yesterday with their opening round robin draw.  The format in Ontario is a 10-team round robin with the top 4 teams advancing to the page playoff.

Defending champion Alison Flaxey returns hoping to find the magic that brought her a provincial championship last season.  She will be faced with heavy competition though in the form of past champion Sherry Middaugh.  Middaugh stumbled last year at this event.  I think her result had more to do with coming off a disappointing Olympic Trials final loss to Jennifer Jones than being outcurled be her competition.  Middaugh has regained her focus though and will want to get back to the national stage as she eyes her 8th Scotties appearance but first since 2011.

Besides the top two teams, there are a few others to keep an eye on this week.  Julie Hastings is always a threat every year at this event, coming up just short in the provincial final last year to Flaxey.  Megan Balsdon, Clancy Grandy and Rhonda Varnes could also find themselves in a playoff position near the end of the round robin.  Many expected Middaugh to run away with this last year after her showing in the Olympic trials and look what happened.  Could this be another year of expect the unexpected in Ontario?

Playoff Teams:  Team Middaugh, Team Hastings, Team Varnes, Team Flaxey
Ontario Championship:  Team Middaugh over Team Hastings

Nova Scotia

This could be a wide-open event in Darmouth.  Defending champion Heather Smith is not playing.  Last year's runner-up Kelly McIntosh is also not in Darmouth.  So who can we expect to represent the Bluenose province this year?

Well there is one very familiar name returning...Mary-Anne Arsenault.  She is skipping a young team this year who will be able to lean on her experience as a five-time world champion.  Arseanualt suffered a surprising semi-final defeat last year to McIntosh when many expected her to be the co-favorite with Smith.  She is going to be wearing the favorite badge this week and should easily live up to that billing.

Can anyone stand in her way?  Well Sarah Murphy (nee Rhyno) could pose a challenge.  Murphy has been here before and has an experienced vice in previous champion Mary Mattatall.  If you are looking for a true dark horse though, I would look no further than Danielle Parsons.  Parsons has been to back-to-back Scotties as vice for Smith and came away with back to back 3rd place finishes.  Parsons spent the past few seasons curling second on Andrea Kelly's team in New Brunswick but has returned to her home province to skip her own team.  She has been to the past 4 Scotties.  The big question mark on her is how she handles the skip position.  I am very tempted to pick her to knock off the favorite Arsenault this week.

Nova Scotia uses a round robin format with all 8 teams getting to play one another.  The top team earns a bye into the provincial final while the second and third place teams meet in a semi-final game.

Playoff Teams:  Team Arsenault, Team Parsons, Team Murphy
Nova Scotia Championship:  Team Arsenualt over Team Parsons

Prince Edward Island

Our smallest province also has the smallest amount of teams competing.  Only 4 teams are entered in this year's PEI Scotties.  These teams will be quite familiar with one another though as they were all competing at last year's PEI Scotties.  With only four teams competing in a round robin format, every game is important.  The top three teams make the playoffs with the first place team earning a bye to the championship final.  Everyone will want that easier route to Moose Jaw.

Defending champion Kim Dolan returns after playing spoiler last year.  Dolan needed to win her final game to snag just a playoff spot.  She upset Shirley Bradley and undefeated Kathy O'Rourke to win her 13th Scotties berth.  Can she replicate the magic this year?  I am not too confident.

Kathy O'Rourke will return looking to avenge the defeat last year.  She dominated the round robin portion and looked like a lock for the Scotties until she ran into a red hot Dolan in the final.  O'Rourke will be looking for her 7th Scotties purple heart and first trip to the national championship since the infamous 2010 championship loss.

Suzanne Birt would like to just forget 2014 all together.  She entered last year's event being dubber the favorite and the defending champ and she fell flat, missing the playoffs.  Birt is another experienced skip seeking her 8th Heart appearance.  She has the full team back, including 9-time Hearts representative Shelly Bradley at vice.

This is a wide open field with any of the above three teams having a realistic shot at winning.  All have experience.  All have lived up to their expectations.  All have had huge shocking disappointments.  Which team can get on the best role near the end of the week will be the question.

Playoff Teams:  Team Birt, Team O'Rourke, Team Dolan
PEI Championship:  Team Birt over Team O'Rourke

Lets the rocks fly and land where they may over the next week.  Best of luck to all the teams competing.  You have all made this a fun 2014-2015 curling season.  Curlers and fans alike, enjoy the experience at the provincial championship.  The Scotties are coming......


Sunday, 18 January 2015

Path to the Super Bowl is One Win Away
AFC and NFC Championship Weekend 

Last Week:  2 - 2
Overall:  5 - 3

Last week the big news headline was whether we could have the Top 4 teams sweep the divisional round for the first time in 5 years.  Well, it didn't happen.  I didn't think that would happen either.  Fortunately, I was correct in making that call.  Unfortunately, I picked the wrong upset.  The Colts really surprised me with their way of neutralizing Peyton and the Broncos.  And of course, Green Bay and Dallas came down to a controversial call reversal that cost the Cowboys a spot in this weekend's game in Seattle.  Karma came back to haunt them though.  Could karma come back to haunt the Packers this weekend?  Let's get to the picks....

AFC

(4) Indianapolis Colts over (1) New England Patriots - Ok so I must be crazy here right?  The Patriots are HUGE favorites in this game.  They are playing at home, a place the Colts haven't won in since 2006 (4 straight defeats).  Patriots QB Tom Brady is going for his NFL-record 20th playoff win.  The Patriots dominated the Colts earlier this season in a 42-20 victory.  This is only Colts QB Andrew Luck's 6th playoff game.  The odds and stats are one-sided.  However, this feels a bit familiar.  Remember when we saw an undefeated Patriots team advance to the Super Bowl to play a considered weaker opponent in the New York Giants?  How did that turn out?  I feel like this could be a similar outcome.  The Patriots have entered playoff games in the past as huge favorites and have underperformed or succumbed to the heavy expectations.  If Luck can minimize the turn overs and if Hakeem Nicks can pick up some big plays, the Colts offense can get going.  When these teams played earlier in the season, the Patriots were able to run all over the Colts.  Since that loss, the Colts have tightened up their D, giving up only 110 yards per game and going 7-1.  Don't get me wrong, the Patriots have a dominant offense lead by Brady.  If the Colts cannot contain the Pats receivers and are unable to blitz and pressure Brady, this game could be over by halftime.  I think the Colts will come fired up to knock off the AFC's best and pick up the upset.  Time for Andrew Luck to become only the 3rd QB to beat Manning and Brady in the same playoff year. 

NFC

(1) Seattle Seahawks over (2) Green Bay Packers - When the season started, many believed this would be the NFC Championship game.  The defending champions versus the Aaron Rodgers.  The match-up we all wanted.  But in the beginning weeks of the season this looked very unlikely.  The Packers started the season 1-2 and looked anything but a playoff team.  Seattle was 3-3 at one point and looked barely capable of winning their division let alone the NFC title.  But this is what great teams do.  They turn around a struggling beginning to a season and prove why they are the best.  Both of these teams have done that.  The problem here is the Seahawks are just too dominant of a team.  Russel Wilson has 9 TD passes this postseason and only 1 INT.  The Seahawks D looks to be in fine form and will trouble an immobilized Rodgers all day.  How is Rodgers feeling and is he able to move better than last week?  I doubt it.  And while the Cowboys D is ok, the Seahawks D is much much stronger.  Plus, look at recent history.  Amazingly enough, Rodgers has only thrown for 1 TD in 2 games verses the Seahawks D.  The Seahawks have held the Packers to 28 COMBINED points in those 2 games.  Seattle's O-line will support Wilson against the Packers D, giving him enough time to find his receivers and make the big plays.  The Packers hopes will rest more on Eddie Lacy.  If Rodgers is unable to run and scramble, Lacy is going to have to find holes and pick up big yards.  I am not sure that can happen consistently all game.  The Packers need to keep it close at halftime to have a shot.  I expect this game could be over early though.  Remember, the 12tth Man effect will be in full force at CenturyLink Field.  The Seahawks will have a shot to win back-to-back Super Bowls, something that has not been done in over a decade.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi
Australian Open Grand Slam Set To Go

Ah January is almost over.  You know how you can tell?  The opening Grand Slam of the tennis season is about to start in the land down under.  The 2015 Australian Open will begin tomorrow (Monday for those in the Southern Hemisphere of course).  The Aussie Open is one of my favorite Grand Slams of the season.  We usually see some big upsets as many athletes are just beginning their season and have not had lots of play time yet.  We unfortunately also usually see many retirements in matches due to injury or heat fatigue.  In North America, we often refer to the crowd at football events as being the 13th man, the extra motivator or detractor in a game.  Well, in Australia, the temperature and soaring heat index often acts as the "13th Man" over the two weeks of competition.  Who can overcome the play of their opponents and not succumb to the pressures of the sun?  Here is my Men's Preview:

Sidenote: For my preview of the women's action, visit HERE

The Favorites

Novak Djokovic (1 seed/ 1 ranked) - Hard to bet against the number 1 player in the world, especially given his cushy draw this year.  He avoids his biggest threats in Federer and Nadal until the final, if they both even make it that far.  Novak is a 4-time winner in Melbourne and would like nothing more than to erase the QF loss last year.

Roger Federer (2/2) - Even at the age of 33 (considered old in the sport of tennis), how can one not consider RFed a favorite?  He has won this event 4 times.  He has 17 Grand Slam titles.  He is considered by most (myself included) as the GOAT, Greatest of all Time!  RFed hasn't won a grand slam since his 2012 Wimbledon triumph and there was talks over the past few years that he is on the downward swing of his career.  He proved everyone wrong last year though with his Wimbledon runner-up finish, SF appearances at the Aussie Open and US Open and his return to #2 in the world.  Never count out the GOAT!

Watch Out For

Stan Wawrinka (4/4) - Stan the Man.  The Stanimal.  Call him what you want but I think everyone should be calling him the defending champ right now.  Stan played inspirational tennis last year in his run to the title.  Marin Cilic referred to Stan's win as the motivation he needed throughout the season and in his run to winning the US Open last year.  Stan took on the Big 4 and pushed them aside in winning his first grand slam title.  Repeating the task will be a tall order as he will not fly under the radar like last year.  How will he handle all the attention that comes with being the defending champ is to be seen.  He cannot complain about his draw at least.

Milos Raonic (8/8) - Everyone keeps waiting for the Canadian to break through at the grand slam.  He has been dubbed the future of tennis and a future multiple grand slam champion.  He has not exactly lived up to those expectations on the big stage but has still been putting together a nice career at a very young age.  His serve is the best in the game and almost unstoppable.  Expect a ton of tiebreaks in his matches though.  Not always the most exciting to watch but he goes into another gear when he plays a tiebreak.  The grass of Wimbledon is more suited to his big serve game but he has the potential to be dangerous in the sun down under.

Editor's Note:  It is weird to not include Rafael Nadal in this section.  I just feel with his recent injury and lay off from the game, this will not be the event we see him in full 100% form.  He is always a threat yes, but with his draw and lack of playing since coming back, it may be a tough event for him.  But rest assured he will be ready for the French Open!

The Dark Horse

Grigor Dimitrov (10/11) - "Baby Fed" is starting to find his game over the past year.  He has a ton of expectations on him, similar to Raonic.  If he can keep his emotions in check, maybe learn a bit about being stone cold on the court like his girlfriend, Maria Sharapova, he could go a long way in this tournament.  Expect to see him well into the second week and who knows what could happen?

I was going to mention Juan Martin del Potro here as well but unfortunately he just withdrew from the tournament as he continues to overcome his wrist injury.  It is too bad we will not see him as I think all fans of the sport would agree he is great to watch and great to cheer for.  Let's hope this is a minor set-up to his anticipated return to competitive action.

The Picks

4th Round

(1) Novak Djokovic over Dominic Thiem
(8) Milos Raonic over (17) Gael Monfils
(4) Stan Wawrinka over (16) Fabio Fognini
(5) Kei Nishikori over (9) David Ferrer
(7) Tomas Berdych over Bernard Tomic
(14) Kevin Anderson over (3) Rafa Nadal
(10) Grigor Dimitrov over (6) Andy Murray
(2) Roger Federer over (23) Ivo Karlovic

Quarterfinal

(1) Djokovic over (8) Raonic
(5) Nishikori over (4) Wawrinka
(7) Berdych over (14) Anderson
(2) Federer over (10) Dimitrov

Semifinal

(1) Djokovic over (5) Nishikori
(2) Federer over (7) Berdych

MENS CHAMPIONSHIP

(1) Novak Djokovic over (2) Roger Federer in 4 sets - This is the class championship match we all want to see.  We hoped for it at the US Open but it never happened.  Let's hope we get it here.  This would be a great way to start the 2015 Grand Slam season.  This final could easily go either way but I think Novak will be untested more in the early rounds and will have more energy in the tank come the final.

Want a way to add extra excitement to cheering on your favorite players at the Australian Open?  Join the Talk About Tennis Suicide Pool.  I have been participating in this for over 7 years now and it is always fun.  You pick the player you think will win that day, knowing that once you pick him, you can never pick him again.  You battle against yourself, the odds, the other players and, ultimately, the draw itself.  For more information and to sign up, visit HERE
Women Shine in the Down Under Sun
2015 Australian Open Ready for Action

Ready for another WTA season to kick off?  Ready for some more upsets?  Ready for a few more Serena Williams temper tantrums?  Yup, I thought you would say yes!  The opening Grand Slam of 2015 is ready to begin and fans are salivating for some action...and trying to escape the bright blistering heat that will reign over the courts in Melbourne.

This year we have no defending champion as 2014 Aussie Open Champ Li Na announced her retirement last year from professional tennis.  As a fan, I am actually quite upset to not see her return.  Li Na was always a favorite to watch with her array of shots in her back pocket and her fighting spirit.  Plus, who didn't enjoy her press conferences?  But alas, she has set off into the Chinese sun (although rumors swirl she may pull a Clijsters and return some day).

With Li Na sitting on the sidelines, a new champ will be crowned.  But who are the favorites, who should we look at up and coming and can someone successfully play the role of dark horse?  Let's take a look....

Sidenote:  For a preview of the Men's draw, visit my post HERE

The Favorites

Serena Williams (1 seed/1 rank) - The best player in the world is a threat in every event she enters.  She lands in Melbourne fresh off winning another Grand Slam at the US Open last year.  She started her season at the team event Hopman Cup with some uninspiring results though.  She got blitzed her first set on the court only to take a coffee break (on court) and win her opening match.  She followed that up with her self-described "tired" defeat to Genie Bouchard.  She then was outplayed in the final by Aggie Radwanska.  Regardless of those results, Serena always shows up at the Grand Slams.  She lives for these events with the rest of the season really just being for fun.  Never discount her!

Maria Sharapova (2/2) - Many people are picking Maria to pull off another Grand Slam win at this event and why not?  The 27yo has won this event before (albeit way back in 2008) and did see a resurgence in her career last year when she won the French Open.  She is playing with confidence and, lucky for her, being seeded second means she avoids the dreaded Ms. Williams until the final.

Watch Out For

Petra Kvitova (4/4) - The 2014 Wimbledon Champion has also rediscovered her game and confidence.  When Kvitova won Wimbledon in 2011, everyone expected to see her go on a tear on tour.  The opposite occurred and she almost started to become an after thought at majors and a one-hit wonder.  Last year she finally lived up to what everyone has thought for years: Kvitova has the game to win every grand slam event she enters.  Never count her out!

Genie Bouchard (7/7) - Other than actually winning a major last year, no other player could say they had a more successful Grand Slam year than Canada's Bouchard.  A finalist at Wimbledon and SF at the Aussie Open and French Open, Genie let the world (and the tour players) know she has arrived.  Often considered cold and focused on the court, this demeanor works for her (see Sharapova as well).  It will be tough to replicate last year's success as she will no longer be flying under the radar this year.  Players will be familiar with her game so she is going to have to step up.  We know "Genie Army" will be in attendance though to support her with loud chants, stuffed animals and marriage offers.

The Dark Horse

Venus Williams (18/18) - Ok so calling a 7-time Grand Slam champion a dark horse may seem weird but come on, she really defines this category right now.  Is she a threat to win majors and tournaments at the age of 34 and battling injuries and illness?  No.  Is she a player nobody on tour wants to see in their draw? Yes.  Venus has been a comeback player over the past year and everyone on tour knows it.  No she probably won't be playing into the second weekend of a major again but she is quite capable of knocking off a few favorites and pulling a few upsets along the way.

Belinda Bencic (32/34) - The new Swiss Miss!  If you are not familiar with her, you better start.  She is the future of the sport.  Only 17 years old but already with a QF Grand Slam appearance under her belt (US Open 2014).  She made her tour debut in 2012 and is now seeded at Grand Slam events.  She is a former Junior #1 (2013) and has the game to defeat those ranked below her and scare those ranked above her.  This could be her big coming out party.  She was named WTA's 2014 Newcomer of the Year.

Onto the picks...

4th Round

(24) Garbine Muguruza over (1) Serena Williams
(8) Caro Wozniacki over (19) Alize Cornet
(4) Petra Kvitova over (13) Andrea Petkovic
(6) Aggie Radwanska over (18) Venus Williams
(32) Belina Bencic over (22) Karolina Pliskova
(3) Simona Halep over (14) Sara Errani
(7) Genie Bouchard over (9) Angelique Kerber
(2) Maria Sharapova over (21) Shuai Peng

Quarterfinals

(8) Wozniacki over (24) Muguruza
(4) Kvitova over (6) Radwanska
(3) Halep over (32) Bencic
(2) Sharapova over (7) Bouchard

Semifinals

(4) Kvitova over (8) Wozniacki
(2) Sharapova over (3) Halep

WOMEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP

(2) Maria Sharapova over (4) Petra Kvitova in 3 sets - A battle of big serves, big grunts and Grand Slam champions.  This could be a finals match-up people talk about for years.  Both players have the weapons to keep one another off base.  If Sharapova can find her serving game in the early rounds and the confidence in her serve, she will be tough to beat.  If Kvitova can expose her serve and get Maria into a few tight service games and score a few freebie double faults, Kvitova could pick up her 3rd major and 2nd in just 7 months.

I mentioned this in my men's preview but would like to encourage it again here.  If you are a fan of tennis and/or looking to enhance your experience following the Australian Open, I encourage you to sign up and participate in the Aussie Open suicide pool.  Pick a winner each day and remember you can never pick the same player twice.  Can you beat the draw and your opponents?  Try it out and see how you do.  I play in this every year and it adds a new level of excitement to watching the action.  For more info, and to sign up, visit HERE

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Time for a RUN...BACK into Playdowns
Provincial/Territorial Playdowns Under Way

Crunch time has come for some of the best men's Canadian curling teams.  After long road trips, hotel stays, too close for comfort with the boys sometimes, practices, numerous ends played and endless nights of no sleep due to your snoring skip, the season comes down to the next few weeks for many teams across our country.  That's right....the dreaded P word...Playdowns!  

Many provinces/territories have already begun their playdowns with either Northern/Southern playdowns (AB & SK) or all out provincial championships (QC).  So with all the action going on, how does one keep up?  Well, the easiest way is to slide over to www.curlingzone.com to keep up to date with linescores and see how the teams are doing.

But need a quick preview of the action currently going?  That's when you come to #TwineTime curling fans.  Get ready for a heater here....

Sidenote: For a preview of the women's playdowns taking place this weekend, visit HERE

ALBERTA

The AB Boston Pizza Cup field will be finalized after the weekend.  The Northern Playdowns get under way today in Camrose and conclude on Sunday.  The Southern's will kick off Friday in Okotoks.  In both regional playdowns, 16 teams will compete for 3 berths to the AB Boston Pizza Cup.  The format is simple: Triple knockout with an A, B, C side winner advancing.  32 teams, 6 spots, 4 days.  Brier dreams will end this weekend for many teams.  Who are the teams to watch?

Northern Playdowns 

If you are looking for favorites, look no further than Team Jamie King.  This team has lots of experience and should easily advance.  The other big contenders should come from Team Kevin Park and Team James Pahl.  Darkhorse teams of Scott Manners, Shawn Donnelly and Wade White could surprise. 

Picks: Team King, Team Park, Team Pahl

Southern Playdowns

The Southern's really are a two-team favorite with the final spot being up for grabs.  Team Matthew Blandford is back hoping to build on last year's 3rd place finish at the BP Cup.  Team Brock Virtue is also a strong contender.  Skip Virtue returns to Alberta and has joined forced with vice Charley Thomas.  Thomas led his team to a 4th place finish at last year's BP Cup in Lacombe.  These two teams should easily qualify.  As for that final spot...take a guess.  

Picks:  Team Blandford, Team Virtue, Team Bawel

SASKATCHEWAN

Similar to their neighbors to the west, Saskatchewan will fill out the remainder spots for their upcoming provincial championship.  The Northern playdowns take place in Prince Albert while the Southerns will be played in Regina.  Familiar format here with 16 teams in a triple knockout event.  However, differing from Alberta, there are 5 spots in PA and Regina up for grabs with the A winner, two B winners and two C winners advancing.  Odds are a bit better here for these teams.

Northern Playdowns

Curling fans will be very familiar with one name competing in PA: Bruce Korte.  A past SK champ, Bruce has a different line-up behind him but the goal is the same, to reclaim the SK title.  He should be able to qualify.  Another favorite has to be Team Jeff Hartung.  This team has had a successful year on both the World Curling Tour and the SK tour.  I would be very surprised to not see them advance.  The other three spots could be up for grabs with perhaps an upset team coming from nowhere and finding their season continue towards the green jacket march.

Picks:  Team Korte, Team Hartung, Team Heidt, Team Craig, Team Marteniuk

Southern Playdowns

There are some very familiar names playing in Regina this weekend.  Past SK champions Brad Heidt, Joel Jordison and Jamie Schneider are trying to turn back the clock and find success once again.  All three have a good chance to qualify this weekend.  A team to really watch for though would be Heidt...nope not Brad...but rather son Josh.  Don't be surprised if Josh Heidt qualifies on the A side over his pops.  Does father know best or is it time to officially pass the Heidt curling torch over to son Josh?

Picks:  Team J. Heidt, Team B. Heidt, Team Jordison, Team Schneider, Team Gedak

ONTARIO

The final two spots are up for grabs with the Ontario Tankard Challenge Round.  This would normally not yield too much media except for one very high profile team: Team Glenn Howard.  Team Howard infamously failed to qualify out of their region and have their backs up against the wall this weekend.  Even more news worthy, Team Howard was scheduled to be in Banff this weekend for the TSN Skins.  They passed up the opportunity (lucky break for #1 team in the world Mike McEwen as they took their place) and will try to continue their drive to the Brier.  It is really hard to bet against Team Howard...but then again didn't we say that at last year's provincial tankard (loss) and then again in this year's regional qualifying (loss).  This won't be a walk in the park for the favorites either.  A few teams could present some challenges in the form of Team Bowser and Team Rumfeldt.  Bowser's Boys have had an excellent season on the World Curling Tour and should be the main challenge for Howard and attempt to steal one of the coveted berths.  Interesting challenge could come from Wayne Middaugh.  Middaugh will be competing with familiar names Graeme McCarrell and Peter Corner.  One of two things will happen:  Team Howard pulls it together and completely dominates this challenge round or the upset happens (again!) and Team Howard finds their Brier dreams end in January!

Picks:  Team Howard, Team Bowser

QUEBEC

While most provinces are still qualifying for provincial spots, Quebec is firmly in the battle for the Quebec Tankard.  The provincial championship kicked off in Victoria last weekend and concludes with the crowing of the provincial champ on Sunday.  There are 10 teams competing with a round robin format leading to a Page Playoff system on the weekend.

The favorites are very familiar names:  Team Jean-Michel Menard and Team Martin Ferland.  These two should easily find themselves in the 1vs2 page playoff game.  The question is which of the other 8 can land the final 2 playoff berths.  Looking for a dark horse?  Go with Team Steven Munroe.  Munroe has played with many previous Quebec champions but this is his first year at skip and could surprise a few teams.

Playoff Picks:  Team Menard, Team Ferland, Team Munroe, Team Fournier

Champion:  Team Menard over Team Ferland


So there you have it, the beginning stage of the Run for the Brier.  Enjoy the action this weekend and come back next week as I preview more provincial/territorial results.
It's Scotties Season...But No Time to get Soft
Top Ladies Curling Team vie for Provincial Championships

The next few weeks are going to test the best ladies curling teams in the country.  The copious amounts of hours in the gym, the early morning practices, the long hours on the ice in competitions and the family sacrifices will all be worth it for a few select teams come Sunday.  While the men are still qualifying for provincial championship qualification, many of the best women's teams are competing for the big prize: Provincial Championship Glory!

The best way to stay up to date with all the breaking news, scores and draws is to follow along with the action at www.curlingzone.com  But with all the action on the ice, you may need a quick preview of what to look for.  Again, this is where #TwineTime serves as the perfect guard for your game winning stone.

If you are in or around Thunder Bay, ON or Victoriaville, QC or St. John's, NL, I would recommend you head down to the club hosting these events and enjoy the action live.

Settle in hack, take a few deep breaths, soak in the moment and slide out...here comes your preview:

Sidenote: Check out my preview of the men's playdown action HERE

NORTHERN ONTARIO

Welcome to the big show N. Ont!  For the first time in the history of the Scotties (and all the previous version of the event name) a team from Northern Ontario will have its own spot in the championship.  In previous years, teams from N. Ont would qualify to compete in the Ontario Scotties but due to the expansion of teams from up North (we will get to this in more detail below), Northern Ontario will have it's own representative to cheer for, similar to the men.  The men have produced champion teams like Al Hackner and Brad Jacobs, time to see if the women can do the same.

For the inaugural event, I will admit I was a bit disappointed to only see 5 teams compete in the championship.  There have been talks and rumors on adding a N. Ont team to the Scotties for years; however, if you cannot host a strong competitive provincial field, odds are slim on the national side.  But let's not take away from these five teams. 

The early front runner has to be Team Tracey Horgan.  Skip Tracey Horgan has been to three Canadian Junior Championships and was the 2012 Ontario Scotties Champion.  This season the team found some success on tour with some huge results, including beating Team Jennifer Jones in the Dekalb Superspiel final at the end of November.  

The question is can anyone challenge them?  I think the only team who could perhaps pose a challenge would be Team Kendra Lilly.  They are a young team with not a ton of experience on tour but up and coming younger teams can also be the dark horse to win it all (just ask Kelly Scott at last year's BC Scotties). 

N. Ont Champion:  Team Horgan over Team Lilly

QUEBEC

Similar to the men in Quebec, the women will be hitting the ice crowning their Scotties representative.  Regular powerhouse Marie-France Larouche has stepped away from the competitive game to enjoy motherhood but I think many fans wish she would come back.  She has been the only real spark for the people of Quebec to support over the past few years in women's curling.

There are six teams qualified to compete this week.  The teams will play a round robin format with each team playing one another twice.  The top team will receive a bye to the championship final while the 2nd and 3rd place teams will battle in a semi-final.

With Larouche cleaning up the messes of a toddler, the door is open to see which of the six teams in Victoriaville can clean house themselves.  This is a tough one to call in all honesty.  Two-time defending champ Allison Ross is not in the field this year so it is wide open and a perfect opportunity for an up and coming team to make their mark.  When doing some research on the teams, I found it quite clear this should (SHOULD but probably won't) be a two-team race between Team Lauren Mann and Team Kimberly Mastine.  Mastine finished 3rd two year ago and was a runner-up last year.  With arch rival Ross swept away to the sidelines, Mastine has to feel this is her best chance to snag the blue jacket.  Mann, on the other hand, is pulling a page from Ross.  She came over to Quebec after years of disappointment in Ontario.  She has found success with her new team this year as well, including a tour title at the Carleton Heights event in Ottawa and a runner-up finish at the Shorty Jenkins Classic.  They have been the most consistent team from Quebec this year and are the favorites.

Quebec Champion:   Team Mann over Team Mastine

NEWFOUNDLAND and LABRADOR

Ah the rock....and only one team can be as STRONG as a rock while playing on the rock.  Get it?  Of course I am trying to be witty in reference to perennial powerhouse Heather Strong.  Strong has 11 (11!!) provincial titles to her name.  Come on, that is impressive!  Strong is going for title number 12 this week in hometown St. John's.  Hard to really imagine anyone knocking her off.

The field consists of 5 teams playing a round robin format with each team playing one another once.  The top two teams will advance to the winner take all championship final.

So we know how strong Strong is.  Can anyone else really step up and present a challenge?  The only challengers Strong has faced over the years are Shelley Nichols and Stacie Devereaux.  Nichols won't be competing in St. John's but Stacie will.  You may not recognize her right away though as she is now Stacey Curtis.  Strong and Curtis (nee Devereaux) have battled back and forth over the past 4 years for this championship, each picking up two wins.  Curtis is really the only team I can see presenting any challenge to us seeing Strong back at the Scotties.  They seem to alternate with Strong winning even years and Curtis picking up the odds.  This is 2015.  Can the trend continue?

Newfoundland & Labrador Champion:  Team Strong over Team Curtis

YUKON

Similar to Northern Ontario, Yukon will field their own representative in Moose Jaw this year.  And what a representative they will have.  The rookie darling skip of last year's Scotties Sarah Koltun will return.  Koltun's debut last year may seem disappointing as she finished in last place with a 2-9 record but she was quite competitive in her games and not afraid to keep rocks in play.  The problem she faces was perhaps some inexperience as complex ends would get the best of her and leave her with almost impossible circus shots to save an end or give up the big steal.  If she can learn from last year's experience, she could find herself as a dark horse to surprise some of the favorites this year....assuming she makes it out of the first-ever pre-qualifying tournament where she will come face to face with familiar competition.

NORTHWEST TERRITORIES

Back at it again, one of the most popular teams across the country, Moose Jaw will be excited to welcome Team Kerry Galusha.  Absent from last year's event due to losing the NWT/YK final to Koltun, the addition of a NWT team means curling fans will have the opportunity to cheer on their favorite polar sisters every year (presumably right now anyways).  This will be Galusha's 12th appearance at the Scotties.  Similar to Koltun though, to make the field she will have to win the pre-qualifying tournament.  She could be in tough there though facing northern rival Koltun, potential N. Ont rep Horgan and the team representing Nunavut (also a first!).

Alright curling fans, grab your rocks (keep your minds out of the gutter here friends) and get ready to see some outstanding action this weekend.  Best of luck to those competing.  Come back next week as #TwineTime will offer up previews of the remaining provincial/territorial playdowns.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Can The Top 4 Beat The Odds?
#NFLPlayoffs Divisional Round Begins Saturday

Last Week: 3 - 1
Overall:  3 - 1

Ok I made 2 cardinal mistakes last week when I made my wild card round #NFLPlayoff picks:

1)  NEVER take all 4 home teams to win
2)  ALWAYS know a 6 seed should upset a 3 seed on the road

I will admit I did consider picking a 6 over a 3...but in the NFC matchup, not the AFC.  I will also admit I was probably blinded by my love of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Those who know me would quickly know I am a HUGE Steelers fan, have been my entire life.  I went with my heart in picking that match-up I suppose.  To be fair to me though, the Steelers were the favorites entering the game given how they have played recently and many of the finest sports prognostics from ESPN, SI and others picked the Steelers as well.  Oh well...that was last week.  Let's move on as we continue our Road to Arizona.

The divisional round match-ups appear to be very one sided.  The top 4 teams, all playing at home, are heavy favorites to win and advance.  However, we have not seen a home team sweep in the divisional round in 5 years.  Will the divisional round upset streak continue or will the home team sweep curse be broken?

AFC

(1) New England Patriots over (6) Baltimore Ravens - Congrats to the Ravens on eliminating their biggest rival last weekend.  The question always asked is how a team follows up a huge emotional win on the road again the following weekend.  The Patriots have had the extra week off to rest and prepare.  The Ravens played great last weekend.  I expect them to give the Patriots fans a scare in the 1st half but the Patriots will show why they are the AFC favorites when they pull away late in the 4rd quarter.  The Ravens were able to contain Big Ben last weekend but they will not be as successful with Brady.

(2) Denver Broncos over (4) Indianapolis Colts - Manning vs Luck.  What more needs to be said?  This is the late game on Sunday and what a perfect way to end a weekend of playoff action.  The Colts were outplayed when these teams met to kick of the season but that seems like ages ago.  This will be a more even game with neither team pulling away.  Expect to see Manning and Luck go blow for blow with offensive drives.  The difference here will be the Broncos getting to play at home.  Denver is 8-0 this season at home.  The Colts have a chance to pull off the upset if they can get to Manning early and Luck has time to throw for some deep plays.  This could be decided in OT.

NFC

(1) Seattle Seahawks over (4) Carolina Panthers - I have read a few sports journalists actually picking the Panthers to win this game.  I think those picking the Panthers may be just riding a bit of the upset after effect and be caught up in the story of seeing a sub-.500 team continue their march towards the Super Bowl.  But let's get realistic here and quick.  The Seahawks are playing better football than any team in the league.  They are playing at home.  Don't these stats and facts mean anything to you people:  24-2 at home since 2012.  Defending Super Bowl Champions.  The Panthers have played Seattle the past three years and have scored one (1!!!) touchdown COMBINED and those games were home games.  Midnight has arrived Panthers fans and the glass slipper is about to fall off.  Be happy you got this far.

(3) Dallas Cowboys over (2) Green Bay Packers - And here is the upset game!  The game that will continue the streak of ensuring the top 4 seeds to do not all advance to championship weekend.  This is a tough match to pick, very similar to the Broncos-Colts match actually but for different reasons.  Manning vs Luck is going to be a knockout title fight between great quarterbacks.  This game could see Tony "Jekyl and Hyde" Romo vs Aaron "Keep Me Healthy Another Week" Rodgers.  If the Packers O line can protect Rodgers all game, the Pack have a great chance to win this game.  If the Cowboys can do the same with Romo, they have as equal a chance.  The Cowboys D needs to step up in this game and limit the play of Rodgers, which I think they will do.  Can Rodgers take a few sacks and still perform?  I doubt it.  I think the Cowboys end up sneaking out this win, similar to last weekend, and pull off the upset on the road.  Let's just hope we don't see another ref controversy this weekend though!