Oh how I love the month of November. We anticipate the arrival of snow...lots and lots of snow! We reflect on those who have fought for our country. We prepare for the upcoming Christmas season. We celebrate personal milestones (it is the #TwineTime birthday month after all). And, for 2017 at least, we start the dog fight known as the Olympic trials.
November will either go down as a month of joy or a month of heartbreak for numerous curling athletes around the world. The US Olympic trials are set to go this month. As are the European Championships, which hold some Olympic dreams based on results. And of course we start the path towards naming the men's and women's representatives for Team Canada in PyeongChang. The #Roadto2018 will end for many within a week's time while curling fans are left salivating over the process.
Welcome to the 2017 Road to the Roar curling fans!
The Olympic pre-trials, as they are commonly referred to as, are the perfect build-up towards the actual trials themselves. The idea of teams having a last chance qualifier opportunity to keep their Olympic dreams alive is pure gold, pardon the pun.
2017 will mark the 3rd iteration of this process. The inaugural pre-trials concept was formed prior to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics as the entire Olympic trials process saw a complete overhaul. Curling Canada recognized the amount of high quality athletes in our great nation was growing and the demand for more opportunity to qualify became prevalent. Plus you can grease the media wheel a bit more by having the pre-trials on television. Fans want more curling right?
The first pre-trials event was held in 2009 and featured 12 men's and women's teams who had failed to reach the qualify standards for the direct entry into the trials but did meet the secondary requirements to still have a shot (ie: CTRS points over 1, 2 or 3 seasons). Some well known curling names competed in those trials, like Kerry Burtnyk, Jeff Stoughton, Wayne Middaugh, Kelly Scott, Cathy King and Amber Holland. A few names competing in the 2017 pre-trials also competed in 2009 (ie: Pat Simmons, Jean-Michel Menard, Jason Gunnlaugson, Sherry Middaugh, Krista McCarville). And quite a few of the top curling names in the world today can perhaps credit the 2009 pre-trials as the kick starter to their Olympic hopes as these names now find themselves with a direct entry spot in the 2017 Olympic trials (ie: Brad Gushue, Mike McEwen, Michelle Englot, Rachel Homan).
Back in 2009 the pre-trials format was a triple elimination with 4 qualifiers. The end game was simple, make it to one of the qualifier games and win. It didn't matter if you won the A-qualifier or one of the two C-qualifiers, just be one of the last 4 standing and you punched your ticket to the Olympic trials. A few familiar names found success in 2009 as Jeff Stoughton, Pat Simmons, Jason Gunnlaugson, Wayne Middaugh, Crystal Webster, Krista McCarville, Kelly Scott and Amber Holland were the teams emerging victorious. Of these 8 pre-trails qualifiers, Stoughton and McCarville proved the importance of the second chance event as both teams would reach the playoffs at the trials and end up with a 3rd place finish.
The format received a slight makeover in 2013. Again 12 men's and women's teams were invited to participate in the newly named Road to the Roar and once again it was a triple knockout format. However, this time winning one of the 4 qualifier spots would not punch your trials ticket. Winning a qualifier game only advanced you to the playoffs for one of the two coveted trials spots available. Now there would be a benefit to winning the A or B qualifier though as those two teams would play off for one spot while the loser would get a second second chance for the final trials spot by playing the winner of the match between the two C qualifier teams. In 2013, John Morris and Brad Jacobs would win the A and B qualifiers while Steve Laycock and Brad Gushue would win the C spots for the men. Morris would claim the first trials spot defeating Jacobs, who in turn would win the final trials spot by defeating Gushue. Of course, as we know now, Jacobs would ride this final trials berth all the way to the Olympic gold medal, extracting revenge on Morris in the Olympic trials final along the way. For the women, Kelly Scott and Renee Sonnenberg were the A and B winners while fellow Alberta competitors Cheryl Bernard and Val Sweeting would take home the C qualifiers. Sonnenberg upset Scott for the first berth and Scott would come up empty once again losing the final trials spot to Sweeting. Unfortunately Sonnenberg and Sweeting would not replicate the playoff runs of their fellow pre-trials victors on the men's draw as both would miss the playoffs in Winnipeg.
Bring on 2017 and, of course, you know we have to have another format adjustment. This year we have an increase in the amount of teams participating, up to 14 men's and women's teams from 12 the previous two iterations. Also, say goodbye to the triple knockout! Now teams are divided into two pools of 7 teams and will compete in a round robin format. The 14 teams were seeded based on their 2016-17 CTRS rankings before being split into the two pools. The top 3 teams will keep their Olympic hopes alive, advancing to the playoffs. Similar to 2013 though, you want to finish in the Top 2 spots of your pool this week. In doing so, you gain an extra second chance for one of the two Olympic trials berths. As you can see in the graphic to the right (men's and women's playoff bracket has the same formula), the top pool finishers will play the second place finisher in the opposite pool in the first qualifier bracket, with the winners playing one another for the first trials ticket.
Meanwhile the two third place finishers will play the losers of the two 1 vs. 2 games with the winners advancing to play one another in a qualifier SF game if you will. The SF winner then advances to play the loser of the first qualifier game. Got all that? Basically, finish Top 2 and win your first playoff game and you are guaranteed to be playing for an Olympic trials ticket. Simple as that!
Personally, I like this format. I think the RR format is what the teams are becoming more and more used to given how tour events and grand slam events are played. Plus, one or two bad games does not mean you are eliminated. Sure you back is still up against the wall, as it would be in a triple knockout, but you have a bit more hope. Of course, on the flip side, with a RR you also are relying a bit more on how the other teams perform. If you slip up one or two games, you need those teams who defeated you to slip up as well.
The real advantage here is the new playoff structure. I actually really like it. I think it creates the "dog fight" mentality we want to see in a last chance qualifier event. Teams not only have to finish Top 3 in their pool to keep the dream alive but the added incentive of finishing Top 2 is HUGE! If you finish in 3rd, sure you are still alive but you are barely hanging on and you still need to win 3 games to punch your trials ticket. The odds are slightly stacked against you; however, the teams who finished 4 through 7 in either pool would still gladly take your place in the playoff round. The "Win and In" mentality still holds true at the end of the day, similar to the triple knockout. The intensity and pressure the teams will be under this week in Summerside will be almost crippling at times but for the teams who can turn the stress and intensity into excitement and focused positive energy, the reward will pay off come the weekend.
Regardless of results, lets kick off the Road to the Roar 2017 by saying Congratulations to ALL the teams who have earned their spot in P.E.I. Curling fans around the world wish you all the best of luck and good curling!
Let's get down to the Tale of the Tape for the men's and women's draws (with current YTD records in parenthesis below):
ROAD TO THE ROAR
Format: 14 team RR with 2 pools of 7. Top 2 in each pool advance to Qualifier 1 bracket. 3rd place in each pool advance to Qualifier 2 bracket.
2013 Qualifiers: John Morris, Brad Jacobs (men) & Renee Sonnenberg, Val Sweeting (women)
Team Casey (11-9) - The defending Sask champs struggled early in the season, failing to qualify at their opening two events including the Tour Challenge Tier II as home province favourites. Since then they have found a bit of a groove reaching the SF in Edmonton and the QF in Medicine Hat. Casey himself will be the home province favourite, returning to the island and hoping to ride some fan support to a few wins. Do you remember 4 years ago Casey was competing in this exact same event as second on Team Gushue? The experience of that event, and disappointment of missing out on the trials, should help light the fuse this week. The draw is not easy but Casey could be a dark horse team to keep an eye on this week.
Team Flasch (15-8) - Well who saw this coming when Colton Flasch announced he was leaving Team Laycock to form his own team? Here he his with newly said team and competing for an Olympic trials spot, where he would run up against his former teammates. Don't laugh it off folks, Flasch has been one of the biggest surprises of the season. Remember they did take home the title in Saskatoon earlier in the season, knocking off big name teams like McEwen, Shuster, Epping (twice!) and Korea's Kim in the final. This team could be the ultimate #RTTR2017 dark horse!
Team Gunnlaugson (26-14) - Without question the favourite to punch on of those trials tickets by the end of the week has to be Gunner....and for great reason. The team won the Tour Challenge Tier II event in Regina, followed that up with a win in their next event in Winnipeg and reached the QF at The Masters a few weeks ago. Gunner has been here before too. Remember he competed at the 2009 trials, surviving the pretrials back then before going 0-7 at the trials event, and competed as a fifth for Team Morris in 2013. It would almost be considered a shock if this team didn't qualify here.
Team Howard (15-12) - A month ago many, #TwineTime included, probably were ready to write off Glenn Howard and the boys as being serious contenders here or at the upcoming Ontario tankard. Fast forward to today and Glenn is right back in the conversation, bolstered by an incredible championship run in Portage and championship win in Sarnia. The boys sport an impressive 11-3 record in their two lead-up events. The team will have a minor line-up change however as Richard Hart is unable to compete due to injury and will be replaced by super spare Adam Spencer this week. Howard is always a threat!
Team Morris (7-11) - 4 years ago Team Morris won the first qualifier at this event and rode that all the way to the Olympic trials final...and Brier final! Fast forward to today and this team seems to be heading in the opposite direction. They come to PEI winless in both #gsoc appearances this season. But they have qualified for the QF in their other 2 events on tour so there is a slight glimmer of sun for the team. Morris and Cotter seem to really excel in the past when their backs are up against the wall and should be considered a favourite here on history alone. You can never count out a previous Olympic gold medal too right (Morris, 2010)? The biggest factor for the team could be not on the ice but between the ears. Has the slam disappointment got to their confidence or can they put it behind them? No team is in more desperate need of a strong start then these guys.
Team Murphy (13-10) - The Atlantic region has another reason to celebrate this week with Nova Scotia's Jamie Murphy and company competing on the island. And compete they will...so much so they should be considered a dark horse in this pool. Murphy has strung together a solid season, qualifying in 2 of 4 events including the SF at Stu Sells Toronto (l. to Gushue) and the SF at their most recent event in Halifax. Casey will be the overwhelming fan choice but Murphy should be right behind him and the roar of the crowd might just be enough to push them down the Road to the Roar playoff contention.
Projected Standings: 1. Team Gunnlaugson 2. Team Howard 3. Team Morris 4. Team Flasch 5. Team Casey 6. Team Murphy 7. Team Bice
Team Bottcher (18-8) - The current Alberta champs have played a light schedule in preparation for the pre-trials but have found success. They have qualified in 3 of their 4 events and, in their final tune-up for PEI, took home the title in Medicine Hat (including a QF win over fellow #RTTR challenger Casey). An undefeated run to the SF at the Tour Challenge Tier II (l. to Lyburn) also shows this team has what it takes to make a deep run here. Expect them to challenge for a playoff spot.
Team Deruelle (11-20) - Last season was the big breakout year for Dayna Deruelle and company. The team sported a strong 49-27 record on the year and fought their way into this position with strong consistent results. This year has been a struggle though. The team has qualified in only 2 of 7 events and sports a 2-6 combined record in the last two events leading up to competing here. If they can find their groove from a season ago they could surprise a few of the big contenders. If not, they could be in for a very long week.
Team Lyburn (17-11) - Perhaps the team to Watch Out For in this pool is Manitoba's Willy Lyburn! Lyburn has been quietly putting together a consistently solid season thus far, qualifying in 4 of 5 events and reaching the Tour Challenge Tier II final. The team did struggle to a 2-3 elimination at their final tune-up event in Portage but that could just be a minor blip on the radar screen.
Team Menard (14-4) - If any team is flying under the radar coming into this event it may be the Quebec foursome. Well at least as flying under the radar as one can be considering the skipper is an 11-time Brier participant and 2006 Canadian champion and world silver medal winner. Menard has only played three events this season but started the year on a 10 game winning streak, including winning their opening tour event in Ottawa. They reached the final of their second event, also in Ottawa, before falling to a disappointing 4-3 record to miss the playoffs in Gatineau as their final pre-trials tune-up event. Menard had a disappointing result 4 years ago at this event and, in what could be his final kick at the can, will be looking for some redemption to keep the Olympic dream alive. Weird fact, only once has a team from Quebec competed in the Olympic trials and that was way back in 1987 at the very first trials when the sport was still tagged as an Olympic demonstration. Since earning Olympic full sport honours, no team from Quebec has even qualified for the #TeamCanada trials The only other province with the same distinction is....the host province for this event PEI!
Team Simmons (20-13) - The feel good story of the first part of the season has to be Pat Simmons and his new team from Manitoba. Taking skipping duties of the former Canadian junior champs has been a partnership made in curling ice heaven as the team has qualified in 4 of 6 events, including reaching the QF at their inaugural slam event The Tour Challenge Tier I. They recently had a strong run to the SF in Edmonton before suffering a tough 0-4 outing at The Masters in Lloydminster as a final tune-up. But this team is young and resiliency is strong with a young age. Add in the factor of Pat Simmons and his experience to help guide and lead the team and they should be considered a strong threat to punch one of those two tickets to Ottawa.
Team Thomas (6-8) - This has not been a kind season to Team Thomas, failing to qualify in all 3 events they have played including a tough 2-2 record to just miss the playoffs at the season opening Tour Challenge Tier II. Expectations have been high on Charley Thomas since last year when results started pouring in as expected for the former two-time world junior champion. But the results have not been there. This will not be an easy draw for the team either, given the level of experience they will be up against. This team is good and can compete with any of the teams on the ice; however, the little mistakes and one or two big ends could cost them games when every win is vital here.
Projected Standings: 1. Team Menard 2. Team Simmons 3. Team Bottcher 4. Team Lyburn 5. Team Balsdon 6. Team Thomas 7. Team Deruelle
Qualifier 1: Team Gunnlaugson def. Team Howard
Qualifier 2: Team Menard def. Team Howard
Team Breen (16-7) - Love a good dark horse story? Hitch your wagon to Nova Scotia's Team Breen this week and you could be laughing all the way to Ottawa. Breen has been playing outstanding this season. They may have only played in 4 events but they have qualified in 3 and, when they do qualify, they reach the championship final each time. Sure they have only 1 title to show in 3 championship finals but those odds are still looking good for a playoff push here. Plus being the only Atlantic Canada team on the women's draw should rally the Islander fans to cheer her all week. They are the #TwineTime dark horse of the entire women's draw. Be careful of this team folks!
Team Fleury (13-8) - Heading into this event, Fleury has perhaps been flying a bit under the radar. Usually we see this team competing at #gsoc events and the big marquee spiels on tour. This has been a slightly different season for the veteran team. We saw them at the Tour Challenge Tier I but they quietly wisked away to an 0-4 finish. Since then they have qualified in 3 straight events and are currently riding a 6 game winning streak fresh off an undefeated championship run in Whitby. Fleury (back when she was Horgan) competed here 4 years ago, losing a C-qualifier to Sweeting and just missing out on a possible qualification spot. She should be able to use that experience to her credit against a field of Olympic contending rookies. This team is always a fan favourite as well so expect to hear some moose calls in Summerside.
Team Kleibrink (15-7) - No rookie here though. In fact, full on Olympian. In fact, Olympic medal winner. Shannon Kleibrink knows this entire experience all too well. She went through it back in 2006 to win the #TeamCanada spot in Turin, Italy where she would walk away with a bronze medal. 11 years later and Kleibrink is knocking on the door once again. The defending Alberta champions have qualified in 3 straight events since failing to qualify in their season opener. They also have a championship final to their credit from their competition in Finland. Shannon herself is a wildly vet and should never be underestimated. Outside of the 2006 success, remember Kleibrink also reached the Olympic trials final in 1997 and 2009. She seems to really step up her game in this environment. Expect this team to contend for a playoff spot deep into the week with a pool as close as this. Don't be surprised to see all these teams still in the playoff picture come the final day of RR play actually.
Team Rocque (21-9) - The next generation could be the now generation! Kelsey Rocque is no stranger to international curling, having back to back world junior title wins in 2014 and 2015. After making the decision to skip provincials last year to represent Canada at the World University Games, one could say maple runs through her veins and red and white is her color combination of choice. Rocque is having a great season, qualifying in all 5 events entered thus far. The hurdle for them is the QF round however, where they have fallen short 4 times. The last time they competed though in Portage they did finally jump the QF hurdle before stumbling in the SF. They are familiar with most of the teams competing here and, for some, have already defeated them this year. They could be considered the favourite of this pool.
Team Scotland (18-13) - It has been an interesting ride for Team Scotland this season. The team qualified for their first #gsoc when they hit the Tour Challenge Tier II ice in Regina but fell prey to a TB. They suffered a similar fate their next event in Edmonton before rallying off 6 straight wins to defend their Avonair title the next event. Since then, the team is struggling a bit to find momentum and consistency. They have failed to qualify in their past two events (Calgary, Portage) yet have also claimed some nice W's along the way (Englot, Jones, Robertson). It has been hills and valleys so far but if they can gain some momentum and confidence early, watch out. They should be in the playoff hunt all week.
Team Tippin (20-9) - Another flying under the radar team not many are talking about but is quite capable of making a deep run towards Ottawa this week is Team Tippin. This team made their #gsoc debut at the Tour Challenge Tier I and qualified for a TB (l. to Muirhead). How did they follow-up their debut performance on the big stage? They went on a 14-0 run to claim back to back titles in Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto! Ok they stumbled in Portage leading into this event but that result could be attributed to natural causes....you can't win them all right? Plus, if there was a time to take some losses it would be in Portage and not Summerside! This team seems to rebound quite nicely and should be a huge threat this week. Is it wishful thinking to label them co-favourite for the pool?
Projected Standings: 1. Team Rocque 2. Team Tippin 3. Team Breen 4. Team Birchard 5. Team Fleury 6. Team Scotland 7. Team Kleibrink
Team Harrison (15-11) - Speaking of Tier II, how about last season's Tour Challenge Tier II champions Team Harrison? This team seems to excel in the underdog role and continues to surprise many with their mantra of "slay the top dogs".....just ask Team Homan! The team has qualified in 3 of 5 events this season, including the Tour Challenge Tier I. However they did have a minor setback in their last event, the #gsoc Masters where they went 1-3. This is a good team though and should be in the thick of it throughout the week.
Team McCarville (12-10) - As per the usual, we don't see Krista McCarville and company too often during the tour season. But when we do they are usually making deep playoff runs. This season has been no exception as they opened their year with a championship final appearance in Cornwall and a SF appearance in Toronto. They did venture a bit more West for their last event in Portage where they just missed the playoffs finishing 3-3. Back in 2009, McCarville won 2 TB games before losing the Olympic trials SF to Kleibrink. 4 years ago McCarville went 2-3 in these same pretrials, falling short of her Olympic trials pursuit. The team has come a long way since, including a silver medal performance at the 2016 Scotties. Another #FearTheMoose team in the draw as well so expect more moose calls for a fan favourite all week.
Team Meilleur (11-16) - One of the surprise qualifiers for the pre-trials would be Briane Meilleur from Winnipeg. The team found consistent strong results on tour last season to help bolster their ranking points and they earned this spot. The question now is how they respond to the pressure. This will be without a doubt the biggest event of their curling careers to this point. They could come in a little overwhelmed in the experience or come to PEI thinking they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Their season has been patchy, qualifying in 2 of 5 events and qualifying in only every second event played. However, if that pattern continues they would be due for a playoff run this week.
Team Middaugh (18-13) - The runner-up from the trials 4 years ago, Middaugh came oh so close to punching her Olympic ticket last go around. Does she still have enough in the tank to make another deep run? 4 years ago she had a direct spot in the trials, not this time. If she is going to replicate the result from 2013 she is going to have to go at it the long way...the #CSideGrind path if you will. But Middaugh is certainly no slouch to competition and the extra games and ice time could be to her advantage. Remember at the 2013 trials she had to knock off home favourite Chelsea Carey in the TB and upset pre-roar favourite Rachel Homan in the SF. She loves the underdog role. This is a wide open event and she has the most experience in her pool, which plays to her advantage. This season the team has qualified in 3 of 6 events and, similar to competitor Meilleur above, they seem to excel in every second event. Again, after a disappointing 0-4 result at The Masters recently they are now due for a playoff run right? Also, fun fact: Sherry Middaugh has competed in the past 5 Olympic trials!! That is 20+ years of being in Olympic contention folks. Props to that alone! Her first was in 1997 and she was runner-up in 2013. It would almost seem weird now not to see Middaugh competing at an Olympic trials!
Team Robertson (29-18) - Welcome the #TwineTime leading candidate for #TeamUpset of the Year: Darcy Robertson. How many of you thought Robertson would pull out the season she has had already to this point prior to the beginning of the year? Yeah, not many hands in the air! Robertson has been consistent and upsetting top teams and making deep playoff runs. The team has qualified in 5 of 7 events this year, including a championship win in Winnipeg and another championship final to start the season. They even went on a stretch of reaching 3 straight SF's in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Calgary. The interesting factor for this team is they are no longer flying under the radar and actually come to PEI with a bit of a target on their back as being one of the most consistent teams on tour this season. Lets see how they handle the pressure.
Team Thompson (8-6) - A B.C. women's team is here competing but no team from Saskatchewan? Really? Yup this is fact my friends. And here we thought we were seeing the decline in B.C. women's curling over the past few years based on Scotties results. Well put an end to that discussion for now because Karla Thompson put together a smart schedule last season to earn this spot. The team went 31-18 on the year, picked up important wins and now find themselves with an Olympic trials ticket dangling in front of them. This has not been the best lead-up season for the team mind you. They have only played 3 events and, outside a TB loss at their last event in Kamloops, they have underperformed in failing to qualify in any event. This could be a tough event for them too as they open with favourites Einarson, Harrison and Middaugh. If they don't go 2-1 to start the event might be over by mid-week.
Projected Standings: 1. Team Einarson 2. Team Middaugh 3. Team Harrison 4. Team Robertson 5. Team McCarville 6. Team Meilleur 7. Team Thompson
Qualifier 1: Team Einarson def. Team Middaugh
Qualifier 2: Team Middaugh def. Team Harrison
So what say you rock heads and stoners? Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts and predictions in the comment section below or on social media...and remember to tag your comments with #RTTR2017!
#TwineTime also wants to toss the special good luck curling stones to fam members Nadine Scotland and Catlin Schneider competing this week with their respective teams. Best of luck Nadine and Catlin!
While it is disappointing to see no RR games televised (nothing being streamed either?? How is that possible when I was able to stream a tour event in Penticton this weekend but not a national Olympic-calibre event???) luckily for us CurlingGeek will be on-site to offer live rock by rock coverage of select games throughout the week.
As well #StayTuned curling fans as the US Olympic Trials are set to hit the ice this weekend and the European Curling Championships, as well as the next #gsoc event The National, hit your house next week. Man, I love November (and not just because next week is my birthday haha)!!!