Can you believe we are in the first week of September and already preparing for a curling grand slam event? The season is barely a week old and in less than a week we will celebrate the first #gsoc champion of the 2017/18 season. Crazy right?
Perhaps this is the perfect tone to the season though. We already know the Golden Season is going to be magical and exciting and dramatic and intriguing....and a plethora of other descriptive words. Why not slide right out of the hack with the largest grand slam event in the calendar? Let's bring together 60 of the top teams across the globe to one city, one venue and let them kick off the season with an epic grand slam battle! It may be tough for some of the teams as many have not even had a competitive game of curling under their sliders this season....but from a fan perspective, sure bring it on!
Ok I know the argument here. There may be a risk we don't see each team competing at their absolute best given this could be the first event of the season for them. But come on, these are competitive athletes and many are still in the running for an Olympic berth. If you doubt their intensity just because it is the opening event of the season, you are being foolish! I think it will be the opposite. I think the teams will come out more fired up, more intense and more ready to play a slam this early in the season because it is the Olympic year rather than say next year if this event took place at the same time. Be ready for some fine ass curling rock heads and stoners!
The Tour Challenge event is one of the most talked about events of the season, let alone the fact it has a grand slam moniker attached to it's name. Still in its infancy stage, fans often get excited about the opportunity to see 60 top teams on the ice competing at the same time all week long.
Before we clean our rocks for the 2017 edition, here is a brief history lesson on the #TourChallenge:
- 2017 will mark the 3rd edition of the Tour Challenge. The event started in 2015 in Paradise, Newfoundland where we had the now infamous Fog Final between Team Homan and Team Tirinzoni. Fans in the arena and watching at home could barely see the rocks due to the fog hovering over the ice surface. It would have been the perfect setting for a Halloween game....zombie fog takes over the curling ice. Hmmm, maybe a future horror film idea?
- The Tour Challenge is part of the overall Grand Slam of Curling (#gsoc) season. However, the Tour Challenge is only considered a grand slam event and not a major. The #gsoc major's are the Big Four: Masters, Canadian Open, National, Players Championship. The other #gsoc events (Tour Challenge, Elite X and Champions Cup) receive grand slam recognition only.
- The Tour Challenge is a unique event and format as it brings together 60 teams to one location to compete for a grand slam title. 15 men's and women's teams compete in the Tier I and Tier II competition, based on rankings. The Tier I teams compete for the #gsoc title, a $100,000 purse and an invite to the season ending Champions Cup. The Tier II teams compete for a $50,000 purse but also the winners receive an automatic berth in the next grand slam event.
- The inaugural Tier I champions included Kevin Koe (defeating home favourite Brad Gushue in the final) and Silvana Tirinzoni (upsetting Rachel Homan in the final). At the time, Tirinzoni's upset of Homan was considered one of the biggest upset wins in the history of the slam events. Of course now we know this was less about an upset and more about the start of a skyrocketing rise to curling's elite for the Swiss team. Tirinzoni is now considered a threat in each slam she competes, including reaching two F and two additional SF last season.
- History was made last season in the Tier I final when Niklas Edin and Kyle Smith competed in the first All-European grand slam final. Edin would go on to win his second ever slam, coming right on the heels of his first slam only a few weeks earlier at The Masters. Last season also saw the rise of a #TeamUpset contender when Michelle Englot, fresh off the move to Manitoba, lost the finale to Alberta's Val Sweeting. The victory would be Sweeting's second slam triumph (The Masters, 2014)
- The inaugural Tier II champions were Jim Cotter (besting #TwineTime fam Mark Kean in the final) and Kerri Einarson (defeating Amber Holland). Both Cotter and Einarson are perfect examples of why the Tier II is a valuable event. Only one year later both Cotter and Einarson claimed their first grand slam titles. If tradition were to hold true, could we see last year's Tier II winners Greg Baldson and Jacqueline Harrison take home a slam title this season?
Our season opening grand slam version of #TourLifePredictions begins now:
2016 Champions: Tier I - Niklas Edin (men) & Val Sweeting (women), Tier II - Greg Balsdon (men) & Jacqueline Harrison (women)
Format: 15 teams competing in each Tier I and Tier II event with 3 pools of 5 teams. Top 8 qualify.
This pool it full of world champions highlighted by the defending Canadian and World champs Team Gushue. Brad himself missed this event last season when the team, skipped by Mark Nichols, reached the SF before losing to Edin. Team Gushue were in New Brunswick competing at the Everest Curling Challenge (a win for the skipper!) and were also on the ice for mixed doubles last weekend. We have not seen the full Gushue line-up on the ice since the season ending Champions Cup but expect this team to challenge for the title this week. Past world champions Kevin Koe and Glenn Howard will look to derail the world champs slam title hopes however. Koe finished a disappointing 1-3 here last season while Howard lost the Tier II final. Weird to see Howard playing in Tier I now though while Tier II winner Greg Balsdon is still competing in Tier II this year isn't it? Oh that rankings system.....don't get me started again! We have yet to see either team hit the ice this season either. Rounding out the pool are international teams Switzerland's Peter De Cruz and USA's John Shuster. Hmmmm we have 3 of the Top 4 teams from last year's world championship competing in this pool. This truly is a world championship themed grouping. De Cruz defeated Shuster for bronze in Edmonton at the world championships last year. As well De Cruz competed last weekend in Baden, reaching the QF round. Team Shuster will be making their season debut in Regina after Tyler George and Matt Hamilton have been playing mixed doubles last weekend.
Projected Standings: 1. Gushue 2. De Cruz 3. Koe 4. Shuster 5. Howard
You gotta love the Draw Gods when they position both of last year's finalists in the same pool this year. In 2016, Niklas Edin's #SwedishVikings crew took home their 2nd grand slam title in Cranbrook, a back-to-back slam win accomplishment might we add. In the final he defeated the up and coming young Scottish team skipped by Kyle Smith. This event was the coming out party for Smith, who would go on to have a breakout year and, as a result, be named Team GB representative in PyeongChang. Both Edin and Smith will be favourites here, especially given both had strong starts to their season last week with Edin winning in Baden and Smith qualifying in Oakville. Speaking of Oakville, two more qualifiers will compete in this pool with USA's Heath McCormick and Manitoba's Pat Simmons (which feels weird to say still). McCormick even reached the SF last week. The extra time on competitive ice should help both of these teams prepare for the slam. Neither team competed here last year and will looking to leave a lasting impression and stay within the slam cutoff with a good result here. The final team in the pool will be John Epping. Team Epping competed in the Everest Curling Challenge in August and some of the team were competing in mixed doubles last weekend; however, similar to a few other slam competing teams, the team as a whole has not been on the ice together in a competitive setting this season. Epping did not have as strong of a slam season last year as they would have hoped, including a disappointing 1-3 finish in Cranbrook (and a loss to Smith in pool play).
Projected Standings: 1. Edin 2. Smith 3. Epping 4. McCormick 5. Simmons
This is easily the most wide open pool and the one to keep a close eye on. Any of these teams have a realistic shot at making a deep slam run this week and 4 of the 5 teams will be making their season debut. Brad Jacobs may have the slight advantage here given the two slams the team took home last season and being the highest ranked team in the pool. Last year Jacobs lost a TB to Edin at this event....and look how that TB win worked in Edin's favour. 3 of the 4 other teams were all playoff bound last year at this event with Reid Carruthers, Steve Laycock and John Morris all reaching the QF. Of course both Laycock and Morris had slightly different line-ups at this point in the season last year and both teams adding some #TwineTime fam members to the second position this year (Matt Dunstone to Laycock and Catlin Schneider to Morris). All 3 teams will be making their competitive season debut. The final team could be the darkhorse of the entire field, Norway's Steffen Walstad. Walstad made headlines last season knocking off rival Ulsrud to win the title in Norway and punch a spot to the world championships, where they would finish a respectable T7. Walstad was on the ice in Baden last weekend as well, reaching the SF and losing a tight match to Ulsrud once again. Ulsrud will not be in Regina due to other commitments but don't be surprised if the Norway flag is still flying high come playoff weekend. This is a tough group to predict as you can see each team wining 1 to 2 games but also each team losing 1 to 2 games. I would expect TB's in this slam and you could see up to 4 of these teams still reach the QF stage.
Projected Standings: 1. Jacobs 2. Laycock 3. Morris 4. Carruthers 5. Walstad
Qualifiers: Team Gushue, Team Edin, Team Jacobs, Team De Cruz, Team Smith, Team Laycock, Team Morris, Team Koe
Tour Challenge Tier I Men's Championship: Team Edin def. Team Gushue - The advantage of competing and winning already this early part of the season is the slight tipping point for Edin in this world championship finale rematch. Plus, I'll be honest here, I want to see these two teams play one another in the playoffs of every event they both participate in all season....culminating perhaps in an Olympic battle for gold?
This opening pool could be a preview to some heavyweight Olympic battles a few months from now in PyeongChang. We already know Scotland's Eve Muirhead will make her 3rd Olympic appearance in Korea as Team GB. China's Bingyu Wang has a strong change of reaching the field for a third time as well, although China still needs to advance out of the final qualification event in December (similar to her result in 2014 btw). Oh and then we have the defending world champion and hottest team on tour the past few season Rachel Homan. Homan will be the overwhelming favourite to claim the Canada berth at the trials this December in Ottawa. All 3 of these teams are world champions and Olympic contenders. But don't underestimate Val Sweeting and Jacqueline Harrison either. Sweeting is the defending champion here and already had punched her ticket to the trials. Harrison is the defending Tier II champion and the team has really elevated themselves into a team on the cusp of the Top 10 in the world after last season.....plus they really have been known to give Homan the fits and have defeated them numerous times on tour. Harrison may have a slight advantage in competing last weekend in Oakville and reaching the Stu Sells SF.
Projected Standings: 1. Homan 2. Harrison 3. Muirhead 4. Sweeting 5. Wang
Forgive a few of the competitors in this pool if they think they are experiencing Groundhog Day in September. Team Jones, Team Middaugh and Team Paetz were all drawn into Pool B last year at this event, with Jones going 3-1 en route to QF spot and Middaugh and Paetz missing the playoffs with 1-3 records. In fact Jones and Paetz seem to draw against one other quite often, as recent as the Champions Cup to end last season, where Paetz got the best of Jones in the RR en route to a SF finish. And don't forget their history at the world championships! Middaugh could be the perfect under the radar team here though. They competed last weekend in Oakville and went undefeated qualifying on the A side and reached the final before coming up short against Tirinzoni. As for the other 2 teams in this pool? They just happen to be the original #TeamUpset co-flag bearers from a season ago Allison Flaxey and Casey Scheidegger. Both of these teams shocked the world last season in claiming their first grand slam titles (Flaxey - The Masters, Scheidegger - Canadian Open) and both have vaulted themselves right into a direct entry for the Canadian Olympic trials in Ottawa. Flaxey may have a slight advantage similar to Middaugh in competing last weekend; however, they did fail to qualify. And remember Scheidegger was competing in the Tier II event last season and even lost in the QF. Jones will be the overwhelming favourite here but honestly this pool is wide open.
Projected Standings: 1. Jones 2. Scheidegger 3. Paetz 4. Flaxey 5. Middaugh
Another chance to see Anna Hasselborg and Silvana Tirinzoni square off? Yes please! Quickly these two teams are becoming the top contenders for the slam events, reaching numerous finals and SF each season. Hasselborg has the slight advantage last season in also winning a silver medal at the European Championships and finishing 4th at the World Championships. However, Tirinzoni does have 2 slam titles to her credit and defeated Hasselborg in the SF last week in Oakville en route to defending her title. I know we all love watching our Canadian teams in action but you may want to start paying attention to both of these teams, especially when they face off against one another! The 3 remaining teams in Pool C are all looking to wave the #TeamUpset flag in Regina. Ok perhaps still calling Michelle Englot a #TeamUpset candidate is unfair given they did reach the final here last year and then lost a tight Scotties final to Homan. Plus they do have a trials spot sewn up and, should they fail to win in Ottawa but see Homan take the Red and White jackets, Englot would advance to the Scotties as Team Canada! The question for this team is whether they can sustain the great season from last year and carry it over this year or not? Tracy Fleury and Julie Tippin. Last season Fleury reached the QF here and could be a dark horse contender for a deep playoff run. This team often flies under the radar during the season but they did reach 3 slam QF last season and are only a season removed from their first slam final (The National, 2015). Tippin will be making her grand slam debut after an outstanding season on tour last year. Team Tippin quietly crept up the rankings just outside the Top 10 due to the strong consistent results at tour events, mostly close to home in Ontario. Consistency and winning have their rewards! Crazy stat to support their huge rise up the rankings, last year Tippin went 0-4 at the Tier II event and here she is a year later competing at the Tier I. Tippin did compete last week in Oakville, losing a C final to two-time world champion Binia Feltscher.
Projected Standings: 1. Hasselborg 2. Tirinzoni 3. Fleury 4. Englot 5. Tippin
Qualifiers: Team Homan, Team Jones, Team Hasselborg, Team Tirinzoni, Team Harrison, Team Scheidegger, Team Fleury, Team Muirhead
Tour Challenge Tier I Women's Championship: Team Hasselborg def. Team Tirinzoni - Let's make it a Sweden Sweep! I went with the same prediction last weekend for Stu Sells, going with it again. Hasselborg is too good not to have a slam title and, given they already know they are PyeongChang bound as Team Sweden, this would be the perfect time to win her first slam title.
It's an Ontario vs. Saskatchewan battle in Pool A....but it just might be an international team that quietly steals the wins. Defending champion Greg Baldson will look to recreate the magical run of one year ago and defend his Tier II crown, a feat never before accomplished. Imagine it, we could see both Tier I and Tier II men's champions repeat their title wins?! Balsdon started his season last weekend in Oakville with a QF appearance, including a win over Tier I team McCormick. Co-flying the Ontario flag will be Dayna Dereulle. Team Dereulle is now in their 3rd season together and had a strong sophomore run last season, picking up two titles along the way. Dereulle had a rough start to their season at Stu Sells Oakville last weekend though, going 1-3. All eyes may actually be on Saskatchewan's Colton Flasch though. Yup, the same Colton Flasch who bolted away from Team Laycock mid-season last year to form his own team. This event will give fans their first opportunity to see the new team and Flasch move from sweeping to skipping. Flasch added the Marsh brothers to his team when their previous team disbanded and Matt Lang rounds out the team. Expectations will be high on this team and you better believe all eyes will be on them for their first game. The other Sask team is Carl deConinck Smith. Team deCS won an event last season and will looking to make a name for themselves on the big slam circuit in front of home province fans. And then we have perhaps the favourite of the group: China's Rui Liu. Liu is a two-time Olympian and 6-time Pacific-Asia champion. Liu finished 5th last season at the world championships and the team did compete last weekend in Oakville qualifying from the A-side but suffering a tough QF loss.
Projected Standings: 1. Liu 2. Balsdon 3. deConinckSmith 4. Dereulle 5. Flasch
The Border Battle will be fierce in Pool B with 3 Saskatchewan teams taking on 2 Alberta teams. The advantage will be with the AB boys though. Brendan Bottcher is the defending Alberta men's champions and did play in 5 grand slam events last season, including reaching the QF at the Canadian Open. But this could be the big breakout for Charley Thomas. The former two-time world junior champion is still waiting for his men's coming out story and this event could deliver for him. Thomas has found tons of success on the mixed doubles circuit with Kalynn Park but he has the pedigree to rise up in the men's rankings. The team will be different from last season as Thomas adds Mick Lizmore as his vice. Lizmore has also been making a name for himself on tour the past few seasons and this good finally be the right combination for success. The Sask contingent will be led by defending Sask champion Adam Casey. Casey is on a roll right now, competing in the past 6 Brier championships albeit with a few different provinces now. This team, formally skipped by Shaun Meachem who now throws second stones, has been up and coming for the past few seasons and had their breakthrough last year. A respectable Brier showing also means this team could surprise everyone and pull off a good run for the home fans. The difference however will be adding Brock Montgomery at vice as last season's vice Catlin Schneider moved over to Team Morris at the end of last season. Montgomery is no slouch though, the big question is whether the new team can gel this soon or not? Josh Heidt is no stranger to the Tier II, he competed in the very first event back in 2015. And yes, you should be familiar with the last name. Josh is the son of former Sask champ Brad Heidt. The final team is home city fav Jason Ackerman. Ackerman is a former Canadian mixed champion and will be looking to ride the home fans to a few victories and a #TeamUpset run.
Projected Standings: 1. Thomas 2. Bottcher 3. Casey 4. Heidt 5. Ackerman
Buffalo Pride could rule the final group of the men's Tier II competition. Manitoba's Jason Gunnlaugson and William Lyburn are both strong contenders for a deep playoff push this week (and given how their home province Blue Bombers performed this weekend, they will may want to try and change some Manitoba luck in Regina!). Gunnlaugson took over the former Matt Dunstone team when Dunny left for Team Laycock last season...and the chemistry seems to be right so far this year. Team Gunner has already competed in two events this year, reaching the SF at the Spider Performance Icebreaker and losing a C qualifier (to Kyle Smith) in Oakville. They have played more games than anyone else this young season and that should help them out. Gunner did compete in the Tier II last season with his former team, going 1-3. Also back in the Tier II after competing last year (and also finishing 1-3) is Willy Lyburn. Lyburn is a team that can suffer some weird losses at times but also compete and knock off any of the big boys and given night and also reached the SF at the Spider Performance Icebreaker. Lyburn also has sentimental appeal being one of the still competing "Original 18" skips of the #gsoc. Let's add in another Spider team shall we? USA's Craig Brown also competed at the event and also qualified, reaching the QF. Brown also played in the Tier II last season, going 3-1 and reaching the SF. The Spider tri-fecta could dominate this group. When Scotland's David Murdoch announced his retirement in the off-season, his old team was left trying to figure out what to do this season already knowing they are not Olympic bound. The result was a tri-fecta mix match between the old Team Murdoch, Team Brewster and Team Mouat. Players were swapping teams and all three teams were trying to build for the future and try out different line-ups. Former Murdoch vice Greg Drummond moves to the skip position while picking up Ross Paterson from Brewster and Gergor Cannon from Mouat and retaining his old teammate Michael Goodfellow. Team Drummond opened their season in Oakville going a quick 0-3 and eliminated early. Give this team some time to gel though and let's see what they can do. The final team will be another Sask team led by Jason Jacobson. Jacobson recorded his first tour win last season in Medicine Hat and will be looking to play the #TeamUpset role this week in Regina.
Projected Standings: 1. Gunnlaugson 2. Brown 3. Lyburn 4. Jacobson 5. Drummond
Qualifiers: Team Liu, Team Thomas, Team Gunnlaugson, Team Balsdon, Team Bottcher, Team Brown, Team Lyburn, Team Casey
Tour Challenge Tier II Men's Championship: Team Thomas def. Team Liu - If you have followed this blog from the beginning you already know I am a huge fan of Charley Thomas. I really think this is his breakout event for the taking. It is a strong field but not a daunting one and, if Thomas and Lizmore can click right away, they could take this title. The only concern is whether all the mixed doubles play from Thomas already this season (New Zealand, Winnipeg) detracted from team bonding time or not. If so, China's Liu is the perfect team to steal a grand slam win for #TeamWorld.
A former Tier II champ returns to the ice looking to kick-start her momentum for another season. Kerri Einarson has had an up and down past few years. She wins the inaugural Tour Challenge Tier II event. She finally wins the Manitoba Scotties as well in 2016. Last season the team struggled on tour. They played in all the slams, minus the Players, but failed to qualify in 4 of the 5 events. Of course then they go on and win the one slam they do qualify in (The National) to claim their first grand slam title. Yet here they are competing back in Tier II. Consistency seems to be the biggest issue plaguing this team although they do have a tournament win to their credit already this season (Spider Performance Icebreaker). They will be favourites in Regina though but it won't be easy. Korea's Kim Eun-jung is coming off her first world championship appearance last season (T6) after winning her first Pacific-Asia Championship in three attempts. Kim will be a strong favourite to also represent Korea at her home Olympics and will be a dark horse medal threat. Oh, and she just happened to reach the SF at the inaugural Tour Challenge event in 2015. Speaking of this year's world championship, a team who finished just above Kim was USA's Nina Roth. Last season was one of the most successful year's on tour for Roth, culminating in the 5th place finish at worlds, one game out of a playoff spot. Roth could be a dark horse this week and would love to be the first American team to claim a grand slam title. Speaking about #TeamUpset and dark horse contenders, what about Nadine Scotland (formerly Chyz)? This team was winning and winning often on tour last season and were able to jump their ranking from outside pre-trials possibility to outright pre-trials spot in a matter of months. I wouldn't underestimate this team! The final Pool A team will have the crowd support as Nancy Martin makes her debut to the slam circuit. Martin may be a name more familiar to those who follow mixed doubles as she has seen great success teaming with fellow Sasky Catlin Schneider. Martin has been closing in on a Sask Scotties title the past few seasons and could use this slam experience to really jump start the season.
Projected Standings: 1. Kim 2. Scotland 3. Einarson 4. Roth 5. Martin
The Prairie Province Pool....with 2 Sasky teams and 2 Alberta teams competing. The advantage may go to the Alberta teams though with former Canadian champ Chelsea Carey and former world junior champ Kelsey Rocque leading the way here. The big news here will be watching Carey and new vice Cathy Overton-Clapham compete together for the first time. Carey's team struggled mightily last season under the pressure of defending Canadian champions. However, due to the retirement of Amy Nixon, adding CathyO might turn things around for this team. CathyO seems to find success with every team she joins up with, just ask Silvana Tirinzoni! We also welcome back Kelsey Rocque, who we haven't seen as much near the end of last season as the skipper really dedicated herself to her school studies...which we highly praise and support! It will be nice to see this up and coming team back on the ice, let's just see if they can get right back into the competitive swing of things quick. The Sask teams represented are defending Sask Scotties champ Penny Barker and former Sask Scotties champ and 4-time grand slam champion Stefanie Lawton. Barker's Scotties win last season was probably the ultimate #TeamUpset moment of the season. Barker ended up stealing victories, literally, along the way to the Scotties title, including defeating Lawton. Lawton has a new team line-up this season so we will see if the shakeup works to their advantage early on. The final team in this group is a former Canadian rep now sporting the Red, White and Blue: USA's Jamie Sinclair. Of all the teams in this group, Sinclair probably has the most momentum carrying over from last season. She won her first US National Championship and reached her first slam QF at the Champions Cup to end the season. The 25yo Alaskan could become the #AlaskanAssassin this week!
Projected Standings: 1. Carey 2. Sinclair 3. Rocque 4. Lawton 5. Barker
I must admit this is a weird grouping to see on paper. Is it just me or does anyone else feel a bit strange seeing Russia's Anna Sidorova, current world silver medal winner, and two-time world champion Switzerland's Binia Feltscher competing in the Tier II? To be fair, Sidorova had a very up and down season as we all know. And Feltscher had a disastrous season coming off a world championship victory. But it still feels weird right? Both of these teams will be HUGE favourites to take home the Tier II title in this field. Both also competed last weekend in Oakville with Feltscher reaching the QF and Sidorova falling short in a C side SF. The surprise of the group may come from Scotland's Hannah Fleming. Fleming is back competing at the Tier II after a 2-2 record last season and a tough TB loss to just miss the playoff picture. Fleming is a former world junior champion remember. The final two teams of this pool will be home province favourites Chantelle Eberle and Robyn Silvernagle. Both have new teams this season so the question on coming together and gelling at your first event together, a slam and at home, will be what everyone will be watching for. Silvernagle could have dark horse potential though with the addition of former Sask Scotties champion Jolene Campbell at vice.
Projected Standings: 1. Feltscher 2. Sidorova 3. Silvernagle 4. Fleming 5. Eberle
Qualifiers: Team Kim, Team Carey, Team Feltscher, Team Scotland, Team Sinclair, Team Sidorova, Team Rocque, Team Einarson
Tour Challenge Tier II Women's Championship: Team Feltscher def. Team Scotland - Going with a bit of an upset and gut feeling on this one and picking a battle of #TwineTime fam members. I think Nadine Scotland could be a dark horse candidate for Surprise Team of the Year if they play like they did last season....but now on the bigger stage. But they will be in tough against the #TwineTime preseason pick as Most Improved Team of the Year. This is a tough call though because I do think any of the 8 qualifiers could steal this championship and auto berth into The Masters.
#TwineTime will be in Regina taking in the #TourChallenge action this week. I simply could not miss the opportunity to enjoy a grand slam event in my home town....plus I can see some family. And who knows there may just be a few surprises along the way. #StayTuned
And I want to thank all you rock heads and stoners for your continued support of the #TwineTime blog. We are entering the 3rd full season of #BetweenTheSheets and it would not continue without your support.
Have a grand slam week!