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Sunday, 10 January 2016

#BetweenTheSheets: The #BattleInBanff Heats Up 
Cold outside, hot inside with three semi-final games on the ice

Semi-final Saturday.  Super Saturday.  Call it what you will, it has been a day of outstanding curling.  With the town of Banff providing a stunning backdrop for curling's premier all-star event, the crowds are able to forget the chilly temperatures outside due to the fun, engaging action heating up the ice for the annual TSN Pinty's All-Star Curling Skins Game.

Val Sweeting and her team are already off to Championship Sunday with their win Friday night.  Members of the Sweeting team checked out the other women's semifinal this afternoon...and maybe with a few post-Christmas, Skins game winning shopping bags in their hands.  Can't blame them...when you win some skins, go celebrate and enjoy the moment.

Today, the remaining six teams had their chance to wow the crowd and pick up some extra cash.  Both men's semifinals were on slate and the remaining women's match.  Who would survive and continue on for the #BattleInBanff skins game title?

The morning got started with return clash from the 2015 Tim Horton's Brier in nearby Calgary: Team Simmons vs. Team Gushue.  Now, I will admit, at the start of this game I was a bit tired.  This is what happens the following morning of great events like this.  When you have energy and excitement the previous evening, you go out and have fun and enjoy the experience.  Well I didn't get too crazy, I did enjoy hanging out with some fellow #TeamMedia people until 1:00 a.m.  Luckily for me, both teams on the ice were wide awake and engaging with fans from the opening moments.  In fact, Team Simmons second Carter Rycroft perhaps brought forward #BroomGate 2.0 when, for the opening rock of the game, Rycroft brought out a mop attached to the end of a drill to act as his brush.  Don't worry traditionalists, he never touched the ice with it and just slid down the ice with Johnny Mo.  It is moments like this, at the start of a game, that set the tone for the rest of the morning.  Fans were laughing....everyone was waking up....and people were ready to have fun!

Both teams were ready to have fun...but both were also wanting to pick up some cash and the win.  The opening ends were a bit more wide open with great shots but back to back carryovers.  We would see our first money grab in end 3 with Gushue making a perfect pick to score his two and pick up the $3,500 skin.  The streak would continue with Goo forcing skip Pat Simmons to draw against 3 in end 4.  Simmons would come up light...increase the bank account for Gushue please another $1,500 and the $5,000 shutout lead.

The other joy of a more laid back relaxed event is the athletes themselves can be more relaxed in between ends and enjoy their surroundings.  After a tough opening 4 ends, even Team Simmons lead Nolan Theissen needed a little break....

Team Simmons are not the two-time defending Brier champs for nothing though.  Rather than get stressed, they remained calm, relaxed and turned on the jets for end 5.  Morris made a pistol angle raise takeout removing a Gushue stone from the button and leaving Simmons sitting his two points for the skin.  Not to be outdone by a fine curling shot, Gushue responded with a beauty draw to grab a piece of the button.  But wait....with fans in the stands starting to grow anxious....Simmons responds with his final stone.  A perfect angle raise double takeout brings the fans alive with cheering.  Put some money in the pockets of Team Canada to a total of $2,000.  Game on!

Gushue would keep his lead picking up the $3,000 skin in end 6 and pour the pressure on going for the win in end 7.  Forced to draw against two in end 7, #SuperSimmons would emerge with a perfect draw to the 8 foot to cause a carryover of $4,500...forcing the drama in end 8 for the win.  With Gushue's first rock, he makes a beauty double takeout to sit 4.  Simmons responds with a nice corner freeze at the back of the 4 foot but left a corner open.  Goo doesn't miss, makes the perfect pick to take the final $11,000 skin and win the game $19,000 to $2,000.

After the big victory, winning skip Brad Gushue took some time to talk with #TwineTime.

(Editor's Note:  All interview's will be published in a special blog post on Monday..stay tuned)

After a short lunch break (highly recommend checking out Park Distillery next time you are in Banff), the second women's semifinal hit the ice.  Olympic Champion and current Scotties Champion Team Jennifer Jones battling the up and coming, Rookie of the Year contending Team Kelsey Rocque.

Many people in the crowd were a bit torn on what to expect from this match.  This was skip Kelsey Rocque's first skins game.  Team JJ has the experience of being here before.  I think the fact the rest of Team Rocque was here last year (curling with Chelsea Carey) helped prepare her for the event.  From the opening end she seemed quite comfortable...in fact you almost forgot she is only 1 year out of juniors.  She was taking it right to Jones showing no signs of intimidation.  After two ends of play, you check the scoreboard and see a team with a $2,000 lead...but not the team many expected.  Team Rocque looked like they were ready to give Jones a battle.

But what makes Jennifer Jones, well, Jennifer Jones?  Her tenacity to keep fighting.  She comes on strong to score the skin for end 3 and forces Rocque into a tough raise double in end 4.  All of sudden, Jones has a $3,000 - $2,000 lead.

The mid-match break after end 4 once again showcased the true uniqueness of this event.  Fans were moving around and chatting with players.  At one point, Kaitlyn Lawes, Jill Officer and Dawn McEwen were seen taking pictures with fans.  Fan engagement and interaction....this is what makes curling great!

The second half of this game was a tale of errors by both teams.  End 5 sees Rocque with a shot at the skin but she hits and rolls out forcing a carryover.  End 6 was Jones turn to make a mistake.  Needing a double runback to force the carryover, Jones misses and Rocque steals the skin and retakes the lead $7,000 - $3,000.  Could Kelsey Rocque truly play the role of spoiler?  Worth noting, after 6 ends of play Rocque was curling 57% while Jones was curling 64%.

End 7 would be pivotal for the young team.  Close calls and near misses were catching up to them.  Team Jones was starting to roll now, knowing their backs were up against the wall.  Rocque was only 1 skin away from pulling the upset and Team Jones was well aware of this fact.  Outplaying the rookie team the entire end, Rocque was forced to play a raise attempt but the raised stone slides too far conceding the 2 points to Jones and the skin without Jennifer needing to throw her final stone.  Jones regains the lead $7,500 - $7,000.

Pressure squarely put back on Rocque's shoulders in the final end.  Needing the 2 points to collect the final skin, both teams played a back and forth end.  With the final stone of the end, Rocque had a shot to draw into the 4 foot for the win but came up short resulting in a carryover.  As we saw last night in the other women's semi-final, this match would also be decided by a draw to the button.

Rocque steps into the hack first and the crowd goes silent....anxious to perhaps witness a huge upset.  Unfortunately the moment might have rattled the young skip as her draw comes up short of the house.  Jones only needs to find the paint to collect the skin and win the match...and she would not disappoint.  Jones draws the pin for the skin and the win!

Final score: JJ $14,000 - KR $7,000.  At the conclusion of this match, I was very fortunate to have a brief chat with both skips.  Again, stay tuned for those comments on Monday.

Our final match of the day would be the epitome of a Saturday Night's Main Event title fight: Team Brad Jacobs vs. Team Mike McEwen.

Team McEwen elected to avoid the #redpants, instead rocking the black pants and special edition event jersey for "The  Dream Factory".  More on these special jersey's from my post-game interview with Mike McEwen later.

Both of these teams have a reputation for being offensive and the skins format suits them just fine.  Team McEwen may not be wearing red tonight but they sure came out on fire.  Making all the big shots and putting the pressure on Jacobs from the beginning.  After stealing the opening two skins, McEwen had a quick $2,000 lead.

An interesting end 3 would prove pivotal in momentum...and it all came down to a measurement.  With Jacobs securing his single point guaranteeing at worst-case a carryover, he elects to throw his final stone through the house and ask for the measurement.  Both McEwen and Jacobs have shots biting the button.  As the measurement stick goes around, Jacobs is awarded his second point and the skin by the slimmest of margins.  Right back in this match now.  Had McEwen stole another skin, who knows how different this game would have played out.  He had all the momentum up to this point.

Sure enough, momentum swing would be completed in end 4 when McEwen is left a tough angle in-off from the boards and just misses the shot stone.  Jacobs now wearing the #stealpants, taking the skin and taking the lead $3,000 - $2,000.

But wait....don't get too comfortable kids.  McEwen had momentum for two ends.  Jacobs has momentum now for two ends.  Time for a change once again.  Jacobs plays almost a perfect end forcing McEwen into a difficult final shot.  With Jacobs lying two and McEwen sitting third, McEwen needs to attempt a skinny double for the skin.  As we have come to expect from Mike McEwen, when there seems to be a difficult shot to make, he steps up to the plate.  a pure beauty of a shot making the double and collecting his skin.  Lead shifts back to McEwen.

As we have seen in every game, there is a unique moment in between ends that just captures the fun environment of the skins.  In this game it would be after end 5.  As Jacobs and McEwen are in the house preparing for the commercial break to end, Jacobs notices the Pinty's girl walking by with a tray full of wings.  He slides over and asks what she is carrying, takes a quick look and grabs a quick snack...in the form of a chicken wing.  McEwen, watching this happen mid-game and laughing, right away notes how smart Jacobs is in taking a boneless wing at least.  It was one of those unique funny moments you don't see at other events...especially in the middle of a game.

Ready for a momentum shift again?  McEwen makes a pistol of a shot with his final stone, a light raise tapback of his own to sit shot behind cover.  Unfortunately for Mike, the rocks in front belong to Jacobs, leaving him a runback pick to take the skin and regain the lead.

At this point in the game I really start to realize and admire the delivery of three of the best throwers in the sport: Mike McEwen, Brad Jacobs and Ryan Fry.  All three have slightly different techniques but all three are very successful.  It was quite amazing to be sitting so close and just watch each of them take off from the hack and throw a stone down the ice.  If you have the opportunity to see any of these men in person curling, go check them out and just trust me, you will admire the delivery as well.  And no....it's not creepy so stop thinking that!

End 7 became a comedy of errors almost.  At one point we had 4 consecutive missed shots.  The drama was intensified both on the ice and in the stands.  There were "oohh's" and "ahh's" and  gasps.  There were broom slams and bite your tongue moments.  Jacobs ends up sitting two and forcing Mike to make the simple draw for the carryover.  Final end, $11,000 on the line and game.  Here we go!

Unfortunately for the crowd, the end was pretty wide open with not a lot of rocks in play.  I suppose unfortunate for Mike McEwen as well.  It is hard to generate a stolen point when there is not much in play.  On the flip side, hard for Jacobs to score his two points.  With McEwen's final stone, he attempts a skinny cross house slash double to force the carryover.  Unfortunately he hits one stone but rolls out, leaving Jacobs the open draw to the paint for the win.  As we saw in the earlier game, Olympic champions do not miss.  As his 2014 Olympic champion compatriot did earlier in the day, Jacobs also find the button with his final draw collecting the $11,000 and the semi-final victory.

Adding up the quarters, loonies and twoonies to a final score of Brad Jacobs $17,000 and Mike McEwen $4,000.

There was another complete #fanboy moment for me at the end of this match.  One, I was able to chat with another Olympic champion Brad Jacobs.  Two, I was able to interview one of my favorite curlers on tour over the past few years Mike McEwen.  Honestly, when this entire event started yesterday I was starstruck and shocked to be here.  After today, I think I am even more in awe.  This was truly a golden day for #TwineTime....interviewing 3...yes 3...Olympic Gold Medal winners.  Honestly, how cool is that for a day? 

They always say you should never meet an idol or mentor or someone you are a fan of because they can never live up to your expectations of them.  I can honestly say, in chatting with so many outstanding curlers this weekend, this is not the case.  Every one of them have been nothing short of polite and kind.  Let's be honest, I have no idea how many (if any) have even heard of this blog.  But when I introduce myself and say I am with the #TwineTime blog, they all were appreciative and talked to me just as they would with any traditional media source.  It was humbling, exciting, nerve-wracking and gratifying.

I promise to post all of the interviews in full, unedited fashion.  Unfortunately I am honestly just too tired to do so right now.  Saturday has been a #SuperSaturday.....but it just all leads up to #ChampionshipSunday!!!!

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