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Wednesday, 4 January 2017

#BetweenTheSheets: Bracketology Comes To Curling!
The rings runneth red at the Canadian Open


Welcome 2017!  I hope all of you curling fans were able to enjoy the holiday season and ring in the New Year...get it, "ring" in the new year?!?  The curling house has rings...see what I did there?  Ok, already starting the new year with a bang!

The calendar barely flipped over into a new year and already we have a grand slam event to get excited about.  The Canadian Open, usually held in December, was moved to January this season.  While it may not give the athletes lots of time to prepare so close to post-NYE celebrations, it sure gives curling fans something to wet our rocks with.  The Canadian Open is the fourth stop on the grand slam of curling calendar and, for the third year in a row, will be hosted by my home province, Saskatchewan.  Go #TeamGreen!!

Before we jump into the first grand slam of 2017, the curling calendar for the new year has already crowned it's first champions.  The US Open (an event which perhaps should be the next grand slam event on the calendar in my opinion) began before the end of 2016 and wrapped up at the beginning of this week.

With mad respect to Mr. Jason Gunnlaugson, let's toss the #GunnerRunback heater down the ice and see what went down in Blaine, MN.

  • On the women's side, #TeamCanada picked up a huge win on their rival nation home ice when Ontario's Sherry Middaugh defeated USA'a Nina Roth in the US Open championship final.  Middaugh used a pivotal steal of 1 in end 7 to help build a lead coming home and hold off the late charge of Roth to claim the title.  Ontario's Julie Tippin and Switzerland's Alina Paetz reached the SF stage.  The remaining qualifying teams were Northern Ontario's Krista McCarville and Tracy Fleury, China's Bingyu Wang and USA's Cory Christensen.
  • For the men, it was an all-Manitoba US Open championship with Matt Dunstone defeating provincial rival William Lyburn in the final.  Dunstone would wear the #StealPants to take 2 in the opening end for an early lead and put the vice grip of death on the final with a big 3 in 7 to close out the match and literally prove #DunnyIsMoney to kick off 2017.  Saskatchewan's Shaun Meachem and China's Rui Liu had great results in making the SF.  The other qualifiers all represented #TeamUSA as Craig Brown, Hunter Clawson, Brady Clark and Todd Birr were QF participants.
As there was only one event taking place over the holiday break, there will be no update to the #TwineTime Power Rankings....yet!  It is probably best to save the update after the first grand slam of 2017 concludes next weekend.  If you need a refresher though, check out the First Half Report Card blog post for a summary of the opening few months of the 2016/17 curling season and the final power rankings of 2016.

Bring on the Red Rings!  As the grand slam marketing machine moves on to another event as do the change in ring colors.  The Canadian Open will see the ice house look red...you know Canadian red of course.  As with all grand slam events, before we tackle this year's event let's take a brief history lesson on the event itself so you are up to date with all your trivia knowledge to wow your fellow curling fan friends.

  • 2017 will be the 16th edition of the men's championship.  Starting in 2001 with Wayne Middaugh defeating Jeff Stoughton, the event has run every year except 2004 and 2008.  The Canadian Open was held twice in the same calendar year on two occasions (2007, 2011) with a January and December offering.  Interesting to note, both double year events were won by the same teams with Kevin Martin claiming the titles in 2007 and Mike McEwen winning both in 2011.
  • The Canadian Open has generally been hosted by western provinces with Manitoba leading the way with 6 (Winnipeg has 5 of those).  This will be the 3rd consecutive year for Saskatchewan to play host as North Battleford takes over from Yorkton, who hosted the previous two.  Alberta has hosted twice and B.C once.  Ontario has also hosted 3 times and Quebec has one host location.
  • The home province of Saskatchewan has 1 Canadian Open title to it's credit...but that was way back in 2003 when Glen Despins defeated Dave Boehmer for the title in Brandon, MB.  The only other finalist appearance for a Saskatchewan team was Steve Laycock's runner-up appearance in 2014.  Saskatchewan men will have two shots at the title in 2016 with Steve Laycock and Bruce Korte joining the field.  No Saskatchewan women's teams qualified for this year's event.
  • The men's championship, for the most part, has actually been spread out evenly amongst the top teams over the years.  Kevin Martin leads the way with 5 titles while Glen Howard and Mike McEwen each have 2.  Glenn Howard leads the way in runner-up finishes with 3 while Randy Ferbey, Jeff Stoughton and Brad Gushue each have 2.
  • Speaking of Brad Gushue, he seems to really enjoy this event over the past few years.  Gushue has reached the championship final three straight years, losing the final in 2013 (l. to Kevin Koe) and last season (l. to John Epping) while winning his only Canadian Open title in 2014 (d. Steve Laycock).
  • This will be the 3rd Canadian Open grand slam for the women.  Similar to Brad Gushue, Rachel Homan also seems to enjoy this event.  Homan has reached both finals, falling to Eve Muirhead in 2014 before taking home the title last season over Jennifer Jones.
  • The Canadian Open is a unique event on the grand slam circuit...and not just because of the red rings.  This grand slam uses the triple knockout format, ditching the usual grand slam round robin format.  The triple knockout is more common on World Curling Tour events during the season and presents new challenges for teams.  With a round robin, teams know their schedule and teams they will face before the event starts.  With a triple knockout, you only know your opening game opponent.  Every other match is a wild card and your schedule depends on how well you play.  Qualify A side and you get a complete day off before playoffs.  Struggle and you could find yourself playing a few games back to back trying to qualify out of C.  This is the 3rd straight year using the triple knockout format and, based on previous results, finalists usually come from the A and B side.  There has been one C finalist, also champion, in the two-year history: Brad Gushue (2014).  Last season saw both men's finalists qualify A side as well as the women's runner-up.  Hedge your bets on the A winners folks!
  • Finally we see a grand slam event with different qualification standards, hence why we see a few different teams join the field in North Battleford compared to the teams we have watched at the other slam events this season.  This year qualification was based on Order of Merit (OOM) and Year to Date rankings.  Previously the Top 15 in the OOM qualified but this year only the Top 7.  7 more spots were reserved for the top teams based on this season results.  The final two spots were granted to the Tour Challenge Tier II winners and sponsor's exemption.  The qualification system for grand slam events and the world rankings system still needs some tweeking in this blogger's opinion (see the season opening blog HERE on this topic) but this is a step in the right direction. #growthesport
Ok you know the history and the changes to this year's event.  You are up to date on all the facts to make you a knowledgeable curling fan over the next few days watching this grand slam event.  Let's take a look at the 2016 field.

As mentioned above, the Canadian Open employs the triple knockout format.  Throughout this season, #TwineTime has tried to use different preview techniques for each grand slam.  We want to mix it up a bit and have some fun right?  Well, since this is a bracket event, why not dip into the mecca of bracket events, March Madness, and steal that preview format for this event?  As this event has 4 bracket "pods" the easiest and fairest way to name them was by Canadian regions: West, East, North, Atlantic.  It is time for some curling #Bracketology my friends for this week's #TourLifePredictions:

The Meridian Canadian Open

North Battleford, SK

2015 winners:  John Epping (men) & Rachel Homan (woman)

Format:  16 team triple knockout with 8 qualifiers

MEN

West

The west runs through the prairies as Saskatchewan's Steve Laycock and Manitoba's Reid Carruthers find themselves headlining this pod.  Laycock will open against Alberta's Brendan Bottcher, looking for revenge from the loss handed to him at The National.  Bottcher will be interesting to watch as well, given the announcement of previous vice Pat Simmons leaving the team and picking up Darren Moulding (stealing <?> from Team Matt Blandford before an Alberta provincial qualifier?) for the remainder of the season.  Carruthers will open against USA's John Shuster, who is struggling at the slams this season.  A Laycock-Carruthers west pod final should be expected here...and one I think the fans are looking to see.  Laycock is the home province team though and the fan support should carry him through.  Laycock or Carruthers may not be considered A-side favourites but both should be considered strong playoff contenders into the weekend to represent the west.  However, if either team slips up, keep an eye on how the new Bottcher team works together, could it be success?  And Shuster has turned on the jets the past few events in his home nation so he does enter with some momentum and much-needed confidence.

East

The east pod will be highlighted by the most Eastern team in the field, Sweden's Niklas Edin.  Edin won the opening two slams of the season and there is little to no doubt in expecting him to challenge for another slam here.  Edin opens against USA's Heath McCormick, one of the hottest teams on tour right now.  McCormick could be a dark horse team out of this pod.  Mike McEwen and John Morris will duke it out in the other East match up.  Neither team has a ton of momentum on their side entering this event.  Both do have tons of expectations though for the second half of the season.  Edin should run away with the East and would be a strong bet for an A-side qualifier.  The other three east teams could still make some noise though in the B and C brackets with #TeamUSA McCormick being the best chance to see a #BracketBuster from the East pod.

North

It will be a battle of Alberta and Ontario in the North bracket.  We have an all-Alberta first round match-up with Kevin Koe vs. Charley Thomas.  The present Alberta champs vs. the future of Alberta curling perhaps?  We see an all-Ontario first round match as well when 2015 champ John Epping takes on Tour Challenge Tier II winner Greg Balsdon.  Koe, Thomas and Epping all reached the QF at The National in December and all three should be considered contenders to qualify here.  The north championship will be an Alberta-Ontario battle, we know that much for certain.  Hard to bet against the defending champ here if he can channel the magic of last season's run (including curling 100% in the final) but don't underestimate the fellow grand slam winner in Tour Challenge Tier II Team Balsdon.  Remember how last year's Tier II champions did at their first slam?  Team Cotter reached the championship final!! #HistoryRepeating perhaps for #TeamUpset and a major #BracketBuster?

Atlantic

The three-time finalist and 2014 champion Brad Gushue leads the Atlantic bracket....which makes sense given he is from the most Atlantic province in Canada, Newfoundland & Labrador.  But a return trip to the championship will not come easy.  Gushue made his return to the ice at The National, reaching the SF.  Unfortunately, once again, he finds the other Brad in his bracket...Brad Jacobs that is.  Jacobs defeated Gushue in The National SF and we should expect another epic showdown in the Atlantic pod final.  Jacobs is coming off a home slam win and the confidence of that title could be the difference between an A or B qualifier.  Either way expect both of these teams to qualify for the playoffs.  The other two teams in the Atlantic pod are Scotland's Kyle Smith (Tour Challenge finalist) and Saskatchewan's Bruce Korte (sponsor's exemption).  Both teams are having strong seasons but qualifying for the playoffs may be a bit out of reach.  Smith could be a darkhorse upset team to watch once again though, they did win their final event on 2016 in Dumfries, Scotland remember.

#BracketBusters:  Team McCormick, Team Thomas, Team Smith, Team Balsdon

Qualifiers:  Team Jacobs, Team Edin, Team Koe, Team Gushue, Team Epping, Team Laycock, Team McCormick, Team Morris

MEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP:  Team Gushue (Atlantic) def. Team Edin (East)

WOMEN

West

This pod really could be considered an all-Manitoba grouping.  We have Manitoba teams in Jennifer Jones, Michelle Englot (Ok Englot is from Saskatchewan but her team is in Manitoba) and newcomer Briane Meilleur (#TeamUpset to the extreme here!).  We also have Manitoba born skip Chelsea Carey, leading her Canadian champs from Alberta.  It's safe to say a Manitoba team will win out west...but which one?  Jones will be the overwhelming favourite, coming off a Canada Cup win and a tough TB loss at The National.  Who beat her in that TB though?  Well that would be Carey.  It has been a tough season for the defending Scotties winners but the QF showing at the past grand slam should bring some confidence.  Englot's team has to still be on a grand slam high after their Tour Challenge finalist appearance, not to mention finishing runner-up at their past two events since Cranbrook.  As for Meilleur?  The rookie grand slam team has qualified in 4 of 6 events this season, including their past two events.  This is Jones' for the taking...with a few #BracketBuster teams that could surprise (Meilleur, Meilleur?).

East

When this pod was announced, nobody could be happier than overwhelming favourite and defending champion Rachel Homan.  She draws what many could consider the easiest pod and path to an A qualifier.  Homan has the experience and winning factor the other three teams just don't have...yet!  Homan opens with Tour Challenge Tier II champ Jacqueline Harrison though, perhaps a preview of the Ontario Scotties final?  Harrison has a few grand slam events under her belt now and could give Homan an early scare.  Similar to the men, remember last season's Tier II winner Kerri Einarson reached the SF at their next slam event.  Harrison has the skills to replicate this result here, don't sell this team short.  The other East match-up is actually an all-Alberta affair between Kelsey Rocque and Casey Scheidegger.  Rocque has under-performed at the majors this season, reaching the QF once (Tour Challenge) and needing a TB to do so.  Scheidegger will be making her Tier I slam debut after reaching the QF at the Tour Challenge Tier II event.  Scheidegger has two titles to her credit this season and could be another perfect #BracketBuster to watch at this event...hmmm and another Tour Challenge Tier II team #growthesport.

North

This pod could be re-titled #TeamUpset with Masters champ Allison Flaxey and National champ Kerri Einarson headlining the group.  But don't overlook 2015 Tour Challenge champ and National runner-up Silvana Tirinzoni from Switzerland or 2015 National runner-up Tracy Fleury.  This is probably the most wide open bracket in the event and the toughest to call.  All four teams have strong resumes.  All four teams have also faltered at various times during the season.  The opening match-up of Einarson vs. Tirinzoni will be a National final rematch while Flaxey vs. Fleury is the perfect opportunity for a #TeamUpset bracket contender to emerge with a victory early.  The QF finish at the US Open for Team Fleury may help them early on against a few teams with some holiday ice melt and perhaps set them up for a surprise #BracketBuster qualifier.  The Swiss team has been the most consistent at the slams this season though and is always a threat for the playoffs...they should be considered the early North bracket favourite.  Also worth noting is Tirinzoni will welcome back #SuperSpare Cathy Overton-Clapham to the vice role for another slam.  Their maiden event together worked out well, a finals appearance at The National.  They could be a huge threat to go one win better in North Battleford.

Atlantic

The Atlantic pod is highlighted by #TeamWorld participants and one lone #TeamCanada member.  However that lone Canadian team just happens to be Tour Challenge winner Val Sweeting!  The international teams will be no slouch though for Sweeting and company.  2015 European Champion Anna Sidorova from Russia will contest Sweeting in the opening match.  2009 World Champion Bingyu Wang from China will face the hot, upstart team from Sweden Anna Hasselborg.  Sweeting has been up and down all season, winning in Cranbrook and a QF showing at The National but failing to also qualify at 5 events.  Sidorova still is looking to prove herself after losing the Russian Euro qualifier.  The QF finish at The National was a nice result though and the SF finish in Karuizawa should bring some much needed confidence.  Hasselborg started the season gun's a blazing, winning 2 of their first 4 events.  However grand slam results are hit and miss with a SF finish at the Tour Challenge and failing to qualify at The Masters and National.  Wang is on the welcome back tour this season and is looking like a threat once again.  Two titles already this season, Wang comes to North Battleford off a QF finish at the US Open and will be playing her first grand slam event since the 2013 Masters.  Another wide open pod here but the hot streaks of the rising Chinese team could make for a surprise A or B qualifier.

#BrackBusters:  Team Scheidegger, Team Meilleur, Team Harrison, Team Wang

Qualifiers:  Team Tirinzoni, Team Sweeting, Team Wang, Team Fleury, Team Homan, Team Jones, Team Scheidegger, Team Meilleur

WOMEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP:  Team Homan (East) def. Team Sweeting (Atlantic)

There you have it rock heads and stones.  If the #TwineTime predictions hold up, both championship finals will feature East vs. Atlantic match-ups with each pod taking home a title.  Which team do you think will come out on top and claim the Canadian Open?  Are you rooting for #TeamCanada?  What about #TeamWorld?  Could we see, yet again, another #TeamUpset brewing in North Battleford?  Share your thoughts on the preview/predictions in the comment section below or hit me up on twitter.

Enjoy the action everyone....and see if you can put together the perfect bracket or suffer the inevitable BracketBuster implosion!