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Friday, 1 January 2016

#BetweenTheSheets: Special Red, White and Blue January
The US Open of Curling rings in 2016

HAPPY NEW YEAR rock heads and stoners!  I hope all of you had a great holiday season with family, friends and loved ones.  We flip over the calendar year and, as most of us try to trim the fat around our stomachs from overindulging, welcome the rolling stones to Blaine, MN for the annual ASHAM US Open of Curling.

As we entered the holiday season, teams were able to hopefully enjoy some time off the ice.  Because of this, there is no #GunnerRunback to review this week.  All teams are looking to the future though as the new calendar year brings crunch time for many.  There are few tour events scheduled for the latter part of the season, instead we will see provincial/territorial playdowns, national championships and the crowing of (possibly) new world champions.  The stress level only goes up from here!

As we discuss looking forward, let's congratulate the two teams who will begin 2016 atop the #TwineTime #PowerRankings:  Team Brad Gushue and Team Rachel Homan!  These two teams have been the dominant teams since the season started.  Both have more victories on tour than any of their competitors.  Both have been consistent.  Both lead the #wct money list.  In fact, Team Homan's money list lead is more than double her closest competitor ($157,254 to $70,438).

The #TwineTime poll asked you, the readers, to vote on which women's team you wanted to see top the #PowerRankings entering 2016.  To no surprise, with an overwhelming 84% of the vote, Team Homan was the runaway choice.  Appears we all agree, Team Homan is the best team in the world right now.

But what about the rest of the #PowerRankings?  Well since there has been no activity on tour since the last rankings, let's call this a little reminder of where we ended 2015 and where we begin 2016:


(1) Brad Gushue (LW: 1)
(2) Kevin Koe (2)
(3) John Epping (5)
(4) Mike McEwen (3)
(5) Reid Carruthers (HM)

Hon. Mention:  Team Edin, Team Jacobs, Team Thomas


(1) Rachel Homan (LW: 1)
(2) Jennifer Jones (4)
(3) Anna Sidorova (2)
(4) Eve Muirhead (5)
(5) Val Sweeting (3)

Hon. Mention:  Team Fleury, Team Paetz, Team Carey

The question now is whether The Goo and #MeanGirls can stay on top for the remainder of the season.  Can Koe, Epping or #redpants challenge for the top?  Will JJ rediscover the magic that has made her a classic champion or will we see a European surge for the crown?  Stay tuned #curling fans, the second half of the 2015/16 season is sure to be an exciting one to follow.

The new calendar year kicks off with one of the best events I think of the season, the Asham US Open of Curling in Blaine, MN.  All season we discuss, watch and follow major events on tour throughout Canada, Europe and Asia.  This week we get to highlight the good ole US of A!  This event is really starting to grow, with many teams around the world becoming more and more excited to register and participate.  In only it's third year of play, the US Open of Curling is starting to feel more like a grand slam event.  Wouldn't that be great for the future of the sport?  A #gsoc event in the US?  Here is the perfect event for it to happen!  Curling athletes and fans alike constantly talk about how to #growthesport and I believe adding to the grand slam of curling schedule with events outside Canada would be a great way to make this happen.

This year also marks a milestone for this event.  2016 will finally have a women's competition added to the mix.  The men have been competing for this championship the past two seasons and, with the growth of the event and increased interest from teams, organizers added a women's championship.  With both men and women now competing, all the more reason to see the US Open of Curling added to the grand slam schedule next season.  Perhaps this is a #RumorGate story in the making though?  Or maybe it is already happening.  Consider the timing.  Last January it was announced 3 more events would be added to the grand slam schedule beginning with the 2016/17 season.  It was also announced an unknown slam is scheduled for January 2017.  Hmmm....more slams being added.  One being added taking place in January.  US Open of Curling takes place in January.  The criteria is the unknown slam has to feature both a men's and women's competition.  This year the US Open of Curling added a men's and women's competition.  Seems pretty clear cut to me, what do you think #curling fans?  I for one would 100% support this....let's hope #TwineTime is correct.

Ok, let's get to the fun stuff...#TourLifePredictions!  As mentioned, we have a men's and women's draw to analyze this season.  And, as also mentioned above, once again we see a great international field on both the men's and women's side of the draws.  For the inaugural women's competition, Blaine will welcome teams from Saskatchewan, Alberta, Wisconsin, Minnesota, PEI, Ontario and China.  The men will welcome teams from Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Minnesota, Ontario, Alberta, Washington, PEI, Switzerland and China.  Sounds like a #gsoc in the making to me!  Also, for those interested, live streaming is available for the duration of this event.  Visit HERE for the schedule and to watch your favorite teams on the ice all weekend.

The ASHAM US Open of Curling

Blaine, MN

2014 Champions:  Team Laycock (men) & Inaugural Event (women)

Format:  20 teams divided into 4 pools with 8 qualifiers (men) and 15 teams divided into 3 pools with 8 qualifiers (women)

The Favorites

Team John Epping - They ended 2015 as the hottest team on tour and will be looking to continue their hot streak in Blaine to kick off 2016.  Team Epping could really be seen as a tale of two seasons wound into one.  Prior to The National in mid-November, this team had a record of miss qualifying in two events, make a QF the next.  Miss qualifying the next two events, make a QF the next.  Miss qualifying the next two events once again.  The lack of consistency, at least successfully, seemed to be haunting them.  Enter The National and everything turned around.  The boys reached their first SF of the season.  The found confidence and momentum and rode that into another SF appearance at their next event, The Canada Cup of Curling.  The following week, breakthrough!  In what was considered one of the best weeks of curling we have seen this season, Team Epping took down the field to claim their first #gsoc title as a team, winning The Canadian Open with John shooting a cool 100% in the final.  If they can continue the hot play of the past few weeks, they could be tough to stop in Blaine.  They may become the achilles heel for the home nation, being drawn into a pool with 3 American teams.  They could help send all 3 home before the playoff round.  They may face a challenge from young Adam Casey and his PEI rink but this would come in their final RR game with a playoff spot likely locked up.  I would expect a perfect 4-0 record entering the playoffs.  Let's just hope the holiday break didn't kill any momentum for them.

Team Chelsea Carey - Team Carey (nee Team Nedohin) had a rough beginning to the 2015/16 season, similar to co-favorite Team Epping above.  The failed to qualify at their opening three events of the season.  They rebounded nicely in October, reaching two finals and SF.  But the month of November brought back more hard times, failing to qualify for both events entered.  On cue though, December saw them reach back-to-back SF, including their most recent event The Canadian Open grand slam.  Is consistency of a new team playing together weighing this team down or have they found their groove now, just in time for playdown season?  This event could be a tell tale sign.  Interesting to note, regular vice Amy Nixon will not be joining the team in Blaine.  Keep Calm and Carey On though, the team will be joined by veteran Sherry Anderson.  If Carey and Anderson can mesh right away, this team could go very far here.  Again, similar to Epping above, they could be the home nation killers drawing 3 American teams in their pool.  Home favorite Jamie Sinclair and PEI champion Suzanne Birt could be challenging but Team Carey should comfortably make the playoffs and be considered a threat to take home the title.

Watch Out For

Team Steve Laycock - The defending champions will want to start 2016 in a similar fashion to how they started 2015....with a championship performance.  #TeamOranje comes to Blaine with a few similarities to last year.  Going into the 2016 event, the team has played in 9 events and have picked up 1 title.  Going into the 2015 event, the team had played 9 events and collected 1 title.  The boys from Sasky did hit a rough patch in mid-November/early December failing to qualify at back-to-back events.  However, they seemed to right the ship playing at home in Yorkton for the Canadian Open and reaching the QF.  Team Laycock has to start building towards another run at the Brier, knowing there are a few other teams from Saskatchewan looking to knock them off this year at the provincial tankard.  A strong run here would build some momentum and confidence, similar to last year.  Their draw is not too daunting but they should see some challenges from Team Forrest and Team Brown.  They should qualify though and have a shot at defending their title.

Team Krista McCarville - Welcome back to the curling scene Krista, we have missed you!  And what a way to make your presence known.  We have not seen McCarville on tour since the 2013/14 season but she is back and putting everyone on notice she is a threat to not only win events on tour but may just become a dark horse pick at the Scotties (watch out Tracey Fleury and your N. Ontario title btw).  McCarville is the second hottest team on tour right now, behind Team Homan.  Her first event back on tour in Portage at the end of October was a struggle, failing to qualify.  But that was just a warm up event for her.  She has been on fire since, winning her last three events.  Yes, you read that correct, her last THREE events.  This team has not lost an event in two months.  Need an even more impressive stat on why this team is a HUGE threat this weekend?  Since the beginning of November, this team has put together an overall record of 20-2, including defeating many of the teams entered in the US Open this weekend.  20-2 over two months with 3 titles to your name....yup, the comeback is complete.  She also draws three American teams in her pool but has defeated all of them in her impressive run to end 2015.  American contender Erika Brown and former Ontario Scotties champion Alison Flaxey should provide her toughest competition but, with the way this team is curling right now, don't be surprised with a perfect 4-0 record entering the playoffs.  Once they make it there....well they never lost in the playoff round in 2015, why should 2016 be any different?

The Dark Horse

Team John Shuster - Previous champions of this event have come from China and Saskatchewan, Canada.  We have never seen the home country truly thrive at their own event.  Last season only 1 American team qualified for the playoffs (Craig Brown) and they were eliminated in the QF.  This season could bring a change to the home country curse.  The 2006 Olympic bronze medalist Shuster is having a curling career revival of sorts this season.  Already a three-time champion this season, including their most recent event in Eveleth, MN right before the Christmas break, this team will enter the US Open full of confidence.  Shuster and company seem to be the front runners for the World Championship spot representing USA as well, which would be the skips first world championship appearance since 2008.  It has been a long road back for Shuster, but winning the biggest event on home soil of the season would be a huge step in the right direction.  He is in the easiest pool with his toughest challenge coming from Charley Thomas.  Luckily they play one another in the final round robin game, meaning both teams could be 3-0 and have a playoff spot locked up, taking a bit of the pressure off.  If you are looking for an American team to brings the title back to the Red, White and Blue, Team Shuster could be your best bet.

Editor's Note:  Shuster actually skipped Team USA at the World Championship last season, finishing with a 6-5 record and losing a TB to Team Finland.  My apologies Team Shuster!

Team Sijia Liu -  Looking for a team that probably will garner the least amount of media attention at the US Open this weekend but have a strong chance at qualifying and playing the role of spoiler?  Let me introduce you to Team Liu.  The quiet team from Harbin, China is the pure definition of a dark horse team this weekend.  The 27 year old skip Sijia Liu is no stranger to competition.  When she broke onto the women's scene back in 2010, she played lead for the great Bingyu Wang.  Only 4 years later, she skipped Team China at the 2014 World Championships finishing with a 6-5 record.  This team is also the 2014 Pacific Curling Champions.  The biggest question for this team will be motivation.  At the 2015 Pacific Curling Championship in November, the team lost a SF to Korea (Ji-sun Kim) thus losing out on the opportunity to play at the upcoming Women's World Curling Championships in March.  This team is left to just play out the remainder of their season and build towards 2016/17.  Having said that, the first event they played after failing to qualify for the world championships was the Curl Mesabi Classic in mid-December where they reached the SF.  Their draw this weekend looks a bit tricky, having to contend with Sherry Middaugh and Nina Roth.  However, Team Middaugh will have a completely different line-up seeing Jo-Ann Rizzo move to skip and Stephanie LeDrew at second in the absence of Sherry Middaugh.  Team Liu doesn't face Team Middaugh until the final game of the RR so, if they get on a hot start and pile up at least 2 wins in their first 3 games, they could find themselves in a playoff position.


Men - Team Carruthers, Team Epping, Team Laycock, Team Shuster, Team Thomas, Team Forrest, Team Lyburn, Team Casey

Women - Team Liu, Team Carey, Team McCarville, Team Middaugh, Team Birt, Team Brown, Team Flaxey, Team Sinclair

MEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP:  Team Epping over Team Laycock - This is a tough call as I can see Carruthers returning to the final, Thomas continuing their hot streak of 2015, Shuster riding American pride and watch out for red hot Willie Lyburn back on the ice after surgery.  This field is very strong and of these teams could take home the title.  Right now though, hard to bet against the hottest team, and skip, on tour right now.

WOMEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP:  Team McCarville over Team Carey - I find it very hard to bet against Krista heading into this event.  Sure they have not been playing and winning big #gsoc events but they are still winning and against many of the teams they could face this weekend.  The overall record since November, the three straight titles, the confidence and momentum....how can you bet against them?  This is also great for the sport seeing a top skip from the past come back on tour and find success, challenging the top teams once again.  McCarville last made the Scotties in 2010 and came away with a bronze medal.  It will be great to see a slug fest for the Northern Ontario Scotties this year as well: Fleury vs McCarville.  Another championship this weekend in Blaine could move the challenger into the favorite role.

On a personal note, I want to thank each and every one of you who read this blog.  The #TwineTime blog ended 2015 with a milestone of 15,000 page views.  In what started as a small little blog I write in my spare time because I love sports, seeing it grow over the past year and a half with people showing genuine interest in this is nothing short of humbling and amazing.  While it is still a small blog I write in my spare time, it has opened the doors of meeting new people around the world, whether in person or through social media.  I have been blessed to cover the 2015 Tim Horton's Brier in Calgary last March as a member of the media.  I would also like to announce I will be in Banff, AB next weekend for the TSN All-Star Curling Skins Game, offering full behind the scene coverage of the event on this blog.  I will do my best to bring coverage of the excitement both on and off the ice....and hopefully a few player interviews as well.  I could not be more excited and thrilled for the opportunity and cannot thank TSN and Bell Media enough for including me.  Stay tuned!!

As a result, there will be no official blog post next week.  Rather, I will do my best to blog from Banff during the weekend.  Thank you all, whether it be the athletes on the ice, the fans in the stands or just sport junkies like myself, for reading and supporting the blog.  Thank you to CurlingZone and Spark Sports for continuing to feature my blog posts on their sites.  And thank you to Curling Canada and TSN for the opportunities to continue in my quest to #growthesport even if I am not a traditional media member.

 All the best to each of you in 2016!

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