Here we go #curling fans....the Scotties Tournament of Hearts has finally arrived and we are ready to crown our national champion. For the teams who have made it this far, congratulations! But don't get too comfortable in just winning your provincial/territorial championship, there is LOTS on the line this week. The 2016 Scotties winner will not only receive the picture perfect ending hoisting the trophy but also receive the following:
- Represent Canada at the 2016 Ford Women's World Curling Championship in Swift Current, SK, Canada and play in front of home country fans
- If Team Canada finds the podium at the 2016 Ford Women's World Curling Championships, the team will also receive a berth in the Roar of the Rings Canadian Curling Trials - the event deciding who will represent Canada at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea
- Represent Team Canada at the 2017 Scotties Tournament of Hearts in St. Catherine's, ON
- Participate in the 2017 Continental Cup in Las Vegas, NV as a member of Team North America
If there has been a theme to provincial/territorial playdowns this season it easily would be "Expect the Unexpected". We have seen numerous upsets, from the nobody saw coming (Hanna over Homan in Ontario) to the shocking (Campbell over Lawton in Saskatchewan) to the surprising (Brothers over Arsenault in Nova Scotia) to the minor (Carey over Sweeting in Alberta). Add into the mix the Welcome Back grouping (Larouche, McCarville, Hanna) from multi-year absences on tour. This year's field is wide open for many of the teams competing. In fact, if you look at tour results this season, the field this week has collected only 8 tour wins. Of the 15 teams competing, only 8 tour wins combined. Yikes! Even a more frightful stat, of the 8 wins, 50% of them come from 1 team...and not the team many expect (more on that below).
However, as a true believer behind #growthesport, an open #STOH2016 field can actually be a win for the sport. While many may be disappointed to not see powerhouse tour teams in the field, do not right away assume the high-level of curling will not be displayed on the ice over the next week. Heck, Julie Hastings thinks this could be one of the most exciting fields to watch (Interview HERE) and she could be right. Besides do you really want to argue against a seasoned tour vet and the 2015 Ontario Scotties Champion? Didn't think so!!
In breaking down the field for this preview, I have categorized teams into one of four headlines: The Favorites, Watch Out For, The Dark Horse and Relegation Round-Up. Now this is not to say at the end of the week a Watch Out For team could not end up in Relegation Round-Up or vice versa or even that my final predictions (found below) will follow these categories. This is the preview portion remember and based on a number of factors (Tour events, Scotties history etc), here is how the teams stack up ENTERING the event (according to #TwineTime anyways).
Team Canada (Jennifer Jones) - The defending champs must be licking their chops over the past few weeks after seeing the results pour in across the country. Originally expecting to face off against the likes of Homan, Sweeting, Lawton, Arsenault and Strong....they now find themselves looking at a field of Hanna, Carey, Campbell, Brothers and Curtis. Not exactly the most daunting field Jones has faced. Jones and second Jill Officer will also be chasing history this week in trying to claim their record-tying SIXTH Scotties title (Colleen Jones leads the way). Jones has not had a stellar season though (1 tour win in November plus the TSN Skins game title in January) and has been prone to losing games many expect her to win. Entering as the overwhelming favorite is nice but playing teams with literally nothing to lose can be wary. Jones has all the pressure on her this week...anything less than a repeat title in Grande Prairie will be a huge upset.
Team Alberta (Chelsea Carey) - Speaking of teams with everything to gain this week, home province favorites Team Carey have to be thanking their lucky stars for the field being handed to them. Not only did they have to survive beating two-time Scotties runner-up Val Sweeting in the Alberta final...but now they get to have a home crowd cheering them on and face a field of teams they SHOULD beat. Now I say SHOULD because, similar to Jones above, Carey has not had a great tour season either. They have no tour titles to their credit and have been very hot and cold all year. They go from struggling and missing playoffs at 3 events to qualifying at their next 3 events only to fail to qualify for the next few events and then qualify for the last few events. Consistency comes in spurts with this team. With a long week of round robin games, you can't afford to have 1 or 2 days of bad results. The experience factor is tough to bet against though with Amy Nixon and Laine Peters previously hoisting the trophy and Chelsea also finding the podium in her only other appearance here.
Team Manitoba (Kerri Einarson) - This team started the season on a tear, winning the Tour Challenge Tier II event in Paradise, NL gaining qualification to the Masters grand slam. They would take full advantage of their grand slam experience making the SF. However, since the beginning of the season the team has been hit and miss. Einarson has been praised as the future of Manitoba curling (now with Chelsea Carey playing in Alberta) and this could be her break-out year at the national stage after back-to-back loses in the Manitoba final. The team will need to keep their nerves in check and stay calm, it's a long event. If the front of the team can ensure Einarson is not left with difficult trick shots every game, they should make a playoff push. Don't get me wrong, Einarson can make the big shots when she has to but to do it every game could be tiresome. The backbone to success could end with vice Selena Kaatz. The 24-year old will be up against more experienced competition in most games but if she can hang with them, her skip could find herself in less trouble in close games.
Team Northern Ontario (Krista McCarville) - Welcome back McCarville! This blog has been following the welcome back trail for Krista since the start of the season and, have to be honest, is fully booked on the bandwagon train. But the results speak for themselves. If you went by tour results and victories alone this season, McCarville would be the favorite. The team has won their last 4 tour events....add in the perfection of winning the Northern Ontario Scotties...and they have not lost an event they entered since their opening season event back in October. 5 straight events....5 straight titles. They have more success in winning this year than any team in the field. Sure they were not beating Jones, Homan, Sweeting and the top European teams...but only Jones is in Grande Prairie for them to deal with. Almost every other team in this field McCarville has played and beat this year. Plus she has Scotties experience and been on the podium. As I have said in the past on this blog, if curling teams were stocks I would be buying Team Northern Ontario now (in fact, the price might just be too high...should have bought back in December when I did).
Team Ontario (Jenn Hanna) - The Giant Killer! Hanna knocking off Homan in the Ontario final was the big story across the curling world. Now the question is can they back up the big win on the national stage? There will be lots of media attention on Jenn this week. Back from a three-year hiatus this year, wins Ontario, beats the top-ranked team in the world, returns to the Scotties where she was on the losing end of one of the greatest curling shots in history losing the 2005 final to Jones. The team only qualified in 1 tour event of 4 played this season so they have had a light, slightly unsuccessful season. However the build-up always was to be competing this week and here they are. How they handle the pressure of the spotlight being known as the Homan Slayers will be interesting to see though.
Team Quebec (Marie-France Larouche) - Another giant welcome back...this time to Quebec skip Marie-France Larouche. This will be Larouche's 9th Scotties appearance, twice finding the podium. Interesting note on Marie-France, the past 2 Scotties she competed hosted by Alberta, she made the playoffs with a runner-up finish in 2004 and losing the bronze medal game (to Jones) in 2012. Alberta seems to be where she has found her most Scotties success, could the playoff streak continue?
The Dark Horse
Team Nova Scotia (Jill Brothers) - The sophomore skip will be making her third Scotties appearance this week, previously playing vice for Heather Smith (2014) and skipping her own team in 2007. Brothers has the experience playing on the national stage and winning being a past Canadian Junior Champion. They also have a tour victory under their belt this season and have qualified in their previous 3 events. Interesting factoid, Brothers played her first Scotties in Alberta as well (Lethbridge). She will be hoping for a better result this time around though (3-8 in 2007).
Team Prince Edward Island (Suzanne Birt) - Birt will also be making her 9th Scotties appearance this week and looking to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2007. This has actually been one of the most successful seasons on tour for the Islanders. The team has qualified in all 6 events entered (including the Tour Challenge Tier II grand slam) and has collected a tour title as well. In a wide open field, experience is key and Birt brings a ton to the ice being a two-time Canadian Junior Champion (2001, 2002) and a World Junior Champion (2001). Last year Birt struggled to a 4-7 record but given the wide-open field this year, improving the win total by at least 2 games to be in the playoff picture is not out of the question.
Team New Brunswick (Sylvie Robichaud) - Robichaud will be making her first back-to-back Scotties appearance after last year's 4-7 record. The team will want to try and, at least, replicate the result to avoid any relegation conversation. The team does have Scotties appearance to help though as vice Rebecca Atkinson will make her 5th straight Scotties. A playoff push may be too long of a reach for the New Brunswick foursome but winning enough games to avoid relegation should be considered possible.
Team Newfoundland & Labrador (Stacey Curtis) - This team dominated the Newfoundland & Labrador Scotties Championship and made quick work of Scotties regular Heather Strong, denying the 12-time NL rep a shot at going for the #3peat at the Ford Hot Shots. In all serious though, Curtis is a great skip and perhaps all of us (myself included) are underestimating her, she is a former Canadian Junior Champion. Unfortunately her Scotties record speaks for itself. In her previous appearances she has posted 1-10 (2011) and 2-9 (2013) records. If she cannot improve on those results, she may just find herself sending next year's NL rep to the pre-qualification event.
Team Northwest Territories (Kerry Galusha) - #PolarPower returns and once again will need to fight itself out of pre-qualification. Last year, the heartbreak of the entire event happened in Draw 1 watching the tears of sorrow from Galusha after the heart-breaking pre-qualification final loss to Northern Ontario (Team Horgan). This will be Galusha's 13th Scotties appearance and, experience alone, this team has to be considered the favorite to advance from pre-qualification. The team from NWT is always a fan favorite and seeing them not compete at the Scotties all week just seems wrong. Remember, Galusha is no slouch at this event either. Galusha has been kryptonite for Team Canada teams in the past, besting them on 3 occasions: 2009 (Jones), 2012 (Holland) and 2013 (Nedohin). If Galusha can survive the pre-qualification, there is no reason to think she could not turn some heads over the week. Remember, the theme for this week is Expect the Unexpected after all.
Team British Columbia (Karla Thompson) - Crazy to see B.C. sitting in pre-qualification isn't it? A province that has produced Scotties and World Champions in Kelley Scott and Kelley Law finds itself in a battle to just compete over the coming week. This team will be the co-favorite though to come from pre-qualification but could be in tough to stay with the teams above them during the week. They already made history this week....becoming the first team to lose to Nunavut at the Scotties. They battled back though and find themselves in the pre-qualification final vs. #PolarPower. This is a toss-up as both teams are capable of getting the win and staying alive. The head says Thompson pulls through and can keep B.C. out of relegation next year. The heart however....
Team Yukon (Nicole Baldwin) - Great opportunity and experience for Team Baldwin this week. With Sarah Koltun and team taking time away from the game to focus on academics, this team was able to take advantage and win the Yukon championship. Advancing from pre-qualification was a bit of a lofty goal but remember this only the second year Yukon competed and fielded their own team. Previously combined as a NWT/YK team at this event, the separation can truly help #growthesport up North.
Team Nunavut (Geneva Chislett) - Welcome Nunavut to the Scotties, we are happy to see you this year! What a great season of curling it has been for the youngest territory in our country. First the junior women and men pick up their first ever competitive wins at the Canadian Junior Curling Championships. Then Chislett and team arrive in Grande Prairie and make history in the very first game they ever play on the national stage, picking up a victory over heavily favored British Columbia. Sure they would lose their remaining two games but these victories are HUGE, again #growthesport right?! Also, Team Nunavut lays claim to having the youngest ever competitor on the ice for a Scotties when alternate Sadie Pinksen played in a pre-qualification game this week at the age of 16 years old. More history for Nunavut! Success and championships will not come overnight but to already taste victory in the first ever event competing, this has to feel like a Scotties championship for Nunavut. I am excited to see the progression this territory makes in the sport over the next few years. Congrats on the history-making victory Team Chislett. Welcome to the Scotties!
Games To Watch
Draw 1 (Sat. 1:30 p.m.): Canada vs. Manitoba - Could the event start and end the same?
Draw 1 (Sat. 1:30 p.m.): Pre-qualification Final (#TwineTime projected NWT vs. BC) - Who advances?
Draw 3 (Sun. 8:30 a.m.): Saskatchewan vs. Ontario - Two teams looking to capitalize on an open field.
Draw 4 (Sun 1:30 p.m.): New Brunswick vs. Newfoundland and Labrador - Huge opportunity early in the event for one of these teams to pick up a victory. The winner could build momentum towards another 1 or 2 wins to avoid relegation and a 4-7 finish at best. The loser...relegation may be coming for them!
Draw 5 (Sun. 6:30 p.m.): Canada vs. Northern Ontario - The first big test for McCarville's Welcome Back Tour!
Draw 6 (Mon. 8:30 a.m.): Alberta vs. Northern Ontario - HUGE two-game stretch for McCarville in a playoff push needing to go 1-1 in these back-to-back games against the contenders.
Draw 8 (Tues. 8:30 a.m.): Manitoba vs. Quebec - Tuesday could be movement day and both of these teams should be in the playoff hunt when they hit the ice to face one another. The winner will see their playoff odds increase drastically.
Draw 10 (Tues 6:30 p.m.): Alberta vs. Ontario - If Hanna can continue the upset streak she started in besting Homan with a win over Carey, a shot at the final is not out of the question. Carey should be well into the playoff picture at this point and will not want to have a slip up against a dangerous team.
Draw 11 (Wed. 8:30 a.m.): Qualifier vs. Newfoundland & Labrador - Possible relegation for the loser?
Draw 12 (Wed. 1:30 p.m.): Alberta vs. Manitoba - Carey knows Einarson well, defeating her in the Manitoba final back in 2014 to earn her first Scotties trip. Could she end Einarson's Scotties dreams once again? A loss for Manitoba here could eliminate them from the playoff picture.
Draw 15 (Thurs. 1:30 p.m.): New Brunswick vs. Qualifier - Possible relegation for the loser (Part II)?
Draw 15 (Thurs. 1:30 p.m.): Northern Ontario vs. Quebec - Loser of this game risks missing the playoffs and even possible tiebreakers. The winner could have a shot at the 1vs2 game though, depending how the rest of the results. Big stakes for two skips rejoining the Scotties stage.
Draw 15 (Thurs. 1:30 p.m.): Canada vs. Manitoba - Einarson again draws a familiar Manitoba foe. If Manitoba is to make a playoff push, Einarson needs to beat at least one of her past Manitoba nemesis skips. If she enters this game already with a loss to Carey, she will need this one to stay alive. Jones should have her place in the 1vs2 Page Playoff locked down...could she be ripe for an upset?
Draw 16 (Thurs. 6:30 p.m.): Ontario vs. Canada - Again, if Jones has locked down a top spot by now, she may be open for a defeat against a team possibly needing a win to stay alive. Oh yeah, and don't forget the MASSIVE history between the skips. Imagine if Jones doesn't make the miracle shot to win the 2005 Scotties, what a different curling landscape we would see today. Hanna would have at least 1 Scotties title, perhaps McEwen stays in Ontario curling with her...oh so many what if's. This game is going to be fun!
Draw 16 (Thurs. 6:30 p.m.): Alberta vs. Saskatchewan - See above. Carey could have her playoff spot nailed down and find a mental lapse against a Saskatchewan team with their backs against the wall clawing for a tiebreaker.
Draw 17 (Fri. 8:30 a.m): Ontario vs. Northern Ontario - Winner probably has a playoff spot, loser at best hoping for a tiebreaker. This could be a de facto tiebreaker game as well with winner moving on and loser going home. High stakes all-Ontario match to end the round robin.
Canada: 10 - 1
Quebec: 8 - 3
Northern Ontario: 8 - 3
Alberta: 8 - 3
Manitoba: 7 - 4
PEI: 7 - 4
Ontario: 7 - 4
Saskatchewan: 5 - 6
Nova Scotia: 2 - 9
New Brunswick: 2 - 9
NWT (Qualifier Winner): 1 - 10
Newfoundland & Labrador: 1 - 10 (Relegation)
Qualifiers: Team Canada (Jones), Team Quebec (Larouche), Team Northern Ontario (McCarville), Team Alberta (Carey)
2016 Scotties Tournament of Hearts Champion: Team Canada (Jones) over Team Northern Ontario (McCarville) - Jones is the overwhelming favorite and she should be. There is no reason to bet against her. Sure she is prone to random mind blips in games but on the big stage when games matter most, she always comes through in the clutch. She will also be aiming to get back to the World championships, where she had struggled mightily over the years with only 1 World Championship title (2008) in her 5 previous appearances. Those appearances include missing the podium all together in 2005 and 2009. McCarville will be the story of this event though. The confidence and momentum they bring to Grande Prairie is going to be tough to beat. Not many people are really predicting them to make lots of noise against the likes of Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec but I firmly stand by my McCarville stocks. In a season of Expect the Unexpected, why should we not see a Scotties finalist who is just returning to competitive curling after taking a few years off? McCarville has the game to match Jones but the difference will be at third with Lawes outcurling Lilly. McCarville will be left with too many difficult shots and when Jones puts the squeeze on she is tough to beat.
2016 Scotties Tournament of Hearts Bronze Medal: Team Alberta (Carey) over Team Quebec (Larouche) - A second Scotties for Chelsea Carey and a second bronze medal finish. The Alberta fans will go home a bit happy at the close of the tournament seeing their representative on the podium but I think Carey and company will be a bit disappointed in not playing in the final. On the flip side, I think Larouche will be thrilled to be playing for a spot on the podium given their lack of competitive curling tour action this season. To still be in the running for the title come playoff weekend will be a nice welcome back gift for Marie-France and hopefully bring enough encouragement, confidence and momentum into next season for her.
What an event we are in for rock heads and stoners. Stay tuned for live coverage on TSN all week as well as additional coverage at the official Curling Canada Scotties Tournament of Hearts website, CurlingZone and CurlingGeek for additional coverage if you cannot tune in on TV. As always, feel free to share your thoughts with me via a comment below or on twitter. I always welcome a friendly conversation/debate on the predictions you read above.
I would be amiss to not discuss the other big part of the Scotties: The Annual Sandra Schmirler Day. The annual telethon day will take place on the opening Sunday, February 21. As a proud Sasky boy, Sandra is one of my all-time favorite curlers. Even watching the highlight reels of some of her historic shots in the sport gives me goose bumps today. I cannot believe it will be 16 years this March since we lost one of the best in the game. The telethon will raise funds for the Sandra Schmirler Foundation, assisting families with premature and critically-ill babies across Canada. Since the Foundation began in 2001, over $3.2 million to 40 Canadian hospital intensive-care units have been contributed. I challenge each of you who are reading this blog to support this tremendous Foundation on Sandra Schmirler Day this year. Any amount, regardless how big or how small, can benefit the lives of others. I donated last year and will be doing the same this year. Remember, 100% of every dollar donated directly goes to giving the most critically ill babies a chance at survival!! Help all of us continue the legacy of "Schmirler the Curler" on Sunday, February 21. To donate, please visit the Sandra Schmirler Foundation website or call toll-free 1-866-210-6011.
Most importantly, support your fellow Canadians and enjoy the action!!!