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Wednesday, 25 April 2018

#ChampionsCup Preview

#BetweenTheSheets: Champions Cup Concludes Curling Year
An intense, high profile curling season spins its final rock at Canada Olympic Park



The time has arrived curling fans.  The moment we knew would finally have to become reality.  We are preparing for the final curling event of the 2017/18 curling season.  Yes, I know it is going to be tough.  Take a few moments right now and let your emotions out before continuing on........

Ready?  Ok....bit more time.....

And exhale!  The Olympic curling season is always one full of emotion, excitement and energy but also one of exhaustion...and not just for the athletes themselves!  We have collectively laughed, cried, disagreed, celebrated and cheered and the time has come to put the season to bed.

Welcome to the 2018 Grand Slam of Curling Champions Cup!

In its brief two-year history the Champions Cup has quickly become one of my favourite events of the curling season.  What is there not to like?  The points/ranking system this very blog is still critical of is out the window.  If you want to play in the final slam of the season and end on a winning note, you best be winning during the season!

It doesn't matter if you are ranked #1 or #4 or #22 or #44 in the world.  If you won an event on tour during the year, you have a shot at qualifying for the Champions Cup.  Ok sure there are pre-determined qualification spots such as Olympic Gold (for this season anyway), World Championships, World Junior Championships and #GSOC Champions.  Not to mention continental/national champions like the USA National Championship, The Brier/Scotties, the European Championship and the Pacific-Asia Championship.  But on top of all those spots there are also #wct spots available.  To claim a tour spot the first step is...well to win a tour event.  Tennis has been using this season-ending model for years and I love it.  Now in curling if you win a tour event and the it has a high strength of field quotient attached, you will earn a spot at Champions Cup.  Pretty simple right?  #WinAndIn!!

Now of course, as is the case with each event, not everything is perfect.  The biggest slam against this slam (see what I did there?!) is timing.  The event takes place at the end of April.  The season starts end of August for some teams.  We are talking about 8 months of curling for teams.  8 months folks!  That can make for a long and tiring year.  Sure other professional sports like tennis and golf have even longer seasons and, in many cases, less time off in between events with more travel, but being an athlete of any sport competing for 6-8 months a year is still a grind on your physical, mental and emotional well-being.

What we have come to see with this event is teams declining their "invite" or actually their "earned" spot in the field.  Timing comes into play.  Life comes into play.  Career and jobs back home become a factor.  You have already been away from a job and family and friends for most of the season, sometimes you just cannot keep asking for favours and asking employers to grant more time away.  This is understandable.  This is life.  No fault to any team and/or athlete who has to decline their participation in the event due to those reasons.  As we said, it ain't always sunshine and rainbows living the life of an athlete right?

The question mark unfortunately comes more on the international side of earned spots.  Over the  three years (2018 included) 16 of the 22 declined invites have come from international teams.  And this should not be too surprising.  Travel alone would be a major deterrent for many teams.  If teams are not 100% funded through a sponsor or through their home member association, by the end of a long season the financial requirements for travel, accommodations and hospitality simply might not be feasible.  Lets be honest, it is not like you can budget fully for Champions Cup.  If you don't win during the season, your financial team picture does not matter because you didn't earn a berth regardless.  Or you go and budget for the invite but don't earn it during the season.  Was that a misstep in budgeting?  Could you have used those funds to go play another event somewhere else during the season?  Lots of factors in play on the logistics side alone.

Of course travel is going to be tough even on our Canadian teams but travel from Winnipeg or Toronto to Calgary or Saskatoon sure doesn't have the same cost as flying from Bern, Switzerland or Moscow, Russia does it?  This situation also leads to a major discussion going on right now around the various funding models of member associations around the world.  Everyone knows the current situation in Sweden.  Korea has been similar in providing funding for travel to events.  The sport does not have infinite funds for its athletes all over the world unfortunately.  It is not to "blame" member associations either.  They need to been sustainable as well and often receive limited funding from a national government or umbrella national sporting body.  

Honestly I do not know what the best answer or solution would be either.  Move up the event or condense the season?  But then something else has to give right?  More funding?  Well yeah of course but from where?  What about lowering the purse for the Champions Cup event and using funds originally slotted for the overall purse to go towards supporting teams in their year-end costs to attend?  But would teams still accept their earned spot if the prize money was less?  Is it worth additional time away from family? Friends? Career?  If teams are finding the purse strings becoming even more tight over the next few years, should we expect more teams (especially international teams) to continue to decline their earned spot?  We already have 73% of those declined spots sitting with non-Canadian teams.  It certainly isn't great for the #growthesport model to see that number increase.

What say you on this one curling fans?  Have any suggestions on attempts to decrease the decline percentage overall but continue with the authenticity of a champions-only season-ending event?  Share your thoughts in the comments or on social media.  Maybe this isn't really that big of a concern for people and it is something only the #TwineTime blog finds interesting?  Could be, could be?!

In the meantime though, lets focus on the 15 men's and 15 women's teams who did accept their earned berth in the 2018 Champions Cup field.  Lets slide out of the hack with our final event preview of the 2017/18 curling season:

Champions Cup

Calgary, AB

Format: 15 men's and women's WCT winners compete in 3 groups of 5 teams.  Top 8 qualify.

2017 Champions:  Team Jacobs (men) and Team Homan (women)

WOMEN

Pool A

Favourite: Jennifer Jones - Is there any question or cause for debate here? Jones is the current world champion.  She is already a two-time slam winner this season (Masters, National).  She reached the final of the previous slam (Players Championship) and reached the SF of the other two slams (Tour Challenge, Canadian Open).  Basically pencil her in for the SF at least now.  This will be an emotional event for the team as this will be the final event for long-time Jones second Jill Officer.  You have to believe the perfect story book ending for Offier would be to win a record 16th #gsoc title with her best friends.  Expect some tears after their final game this weekend, regardless of the result.

Watch Out For: Silvana Tirinzoni - Is there any team you can think of who enters a #gsoc event with little to no press as a favourite but consistently puts up strong results and qualifies for the playoffs more than Silvana Tirinzoni?  Just look at her resume folks.  In the past 3 years she has played 16 slam events (she did not play The National this season as she was representing Switzerland at the European Championships).  In those 16 events she has qualified in 13 of them (81%).  She has won one title (2015 Tour Challenge).  She has reached two finals (2016 National, 2017 Canadian Open).  She is currently on a streak of reaching the playoffs in the past 9 slams played.  The numbers do not lie.  Yet she still enters slams flying a bit under the radar perhaps due to only 1 title?  Never count her out though and expect her to still be on the ice come playoff time.

#TeamUpset: Kaitlyn Jones - One of the reasons why I love this event is the included invite for the current World Junior Curling Champions.  This season, similar to the inaugural Champions Cup in 2016, Kristin Clarke and Karlee Burgess are back competing at a slam.  Unlike 2016 with Mary Fay at the helm as world junior champs, this season Sasky skipper Kaitlyn Jones is in the house and, once again, they are world junior champs.  Back in 2016, Clarke skipped the team at this event as Fay was taking a step back from the sport due to pursuing her education (which we still strongly support) and the team finished with a respectable 1-3 record, knocking off Chelsea Carey in their opening game.  This is a very strong "junior" team who plays a style of game capable of hanging with the "Big Girls" in the sport.  Many teams may not be as familiar with them as they play the junior circuit on tour or play #wct events close to home in Nova Scotia.  But do not underestimate them.  Another world junior title under their belts and another slam experience (for Clarke and Burgess anyways) could make this team VERY dangerous, more so considering two of the teams they will face are breaking up at season end.  The perfect time to catch them off guard and seize their opportunity.

Projected Standings: 1. Team J. Jones  2. Team Einarson  3. Team Tirinzoni  4. Team K. Jones  5. Team Sweeting


Pool B

Favourite: Anna Hasselborg - Olympic Gold.  World Silver.  Last year's finalist.  It is tough to really place your bet behind another team in this grouping given the resume of the third-year #SwedishVikings team.  They also reached a slam final this season (season opening Tour Challenge) and recently had a QF appearance at the Players Championship.  They are fighting for the top spot in the world with Jennifer Jones right now (and atop the #TwineTime #PowerRankings mountain).  Can they cap off a truly Golden Year with their first #gsoc title?

Watch Out For: Jamie Sinclair - What a season for Jamie Sinclair and her US squad!  They suffered the disappointment of losing the US Olympic Curling Trials final to rival Nina Roth but when one door closes another door opens?!  They turn the disappointment into opportunity and go on to win the US Curling Championship, represent USA at the World Championships and finish in 4th place.  It keeps getting better though as they provided, perhaps, the shock of the year (Team Shuster may have an argument here though!) when they dominated Jones in the final of the Players Championship a few weeks ago to claim not only their first grand slam title but also the first slam championship for any team from USA.  No more flying under the radar now though.  How do they respond with a target on their back entering a slam as the most recent slam champion?  Can they continue riding the wave of momentum?  They have the top bill on opening night when they battle Team Hasselborg to kick off the event.  Regardless of the outcome they should be in the playoff hunt by week's end.  But an opening W sure keeps that momentum going doesn't it?

#TeamUpset: Binia Feltscher - Never discount a two-time world champion in any field right?  Plus skipper Binia Feltscher is a #TwineTime fam member so she and her team from Flims, Switzerland will always have a special place in my heart.  This will be the final event for the current line-up as they are having a minor break-up at the end of the season.  Long-time vice Irene Schori is unable to make the trip to Calgary to compete this weekend so it will be a bit disappointing to not see this world championship squad together one last time.  This team has only played in 4 slam events the past two years but have reached the playoffs each time.  This season they reached the SF of the Tour Challenge Tier II to start the season and reached the QF at The National.  World champions always deserve respect and, even with a #TeamUpset moniker, this team should not be underestimated.  They could be the most dangerous dark horse team in the field.

Projected Standings:  1. Team Hasselborg  2. Team Sinclair  3. Team Feltscher  4. Team Homan  5. Team MacDiarmid


Pool C

Favourite: Eve Muirhead - It has been an up and down season for Muirhead and her Scottish Squad.  The European Championship win was huge but the Winter Olympics proved to be a slight disappointment when they failed to find the podium once again after their bronze medal win in Sochi.  We have not seen them at all the slams either, due to European Championships and Winter Olympic prep of course, but when they have played they not only compete but they qualify.  They started the season with back to back SF slam appearances at the Tour Challenge and Masters and recently reached the QF at the Players Championship.  Eve is a 4-time slam champ remember, and the first-ever non-Canadian slam winner, so never count her out.  The team has competed in this event the past two years but have failed to qualify both times.  Expect the non-playoff streak to end this year though.

Watch Out For: Chelsea Carey - Another new member to the #gsoc champions table this season (based on the current slam format of events), Carey won her inaugural title at the Canadian Open in January.  This team can be a bit tough to read.  They opened the season playing the Tier II final at the Tour Challenge (l. Einarson), regrouped with a SF appearance at their next slam (The National) and won the next slam.  They had a lot of momentum heading into the Alberta Scotties but were unable to secure the W forcing them into the Wildcard game where they, again, would love to former Manitoba rival Einarson.  We saw them compete at the Players Championship a few weeks ago but they failed to qualify.  This will be the final event for this line-up together.  If they play to their potential and the strength we have seen in the past they can be a threat for the title.  But, as we always say here, consistency, consistency, consistency!

#TeamUpset: Delia DeJong - No team may be flying more under the radar vs. their competition this week than Grand Prairie, Alberta's Delia DeJong.  The team has only competed in two events on tour this season but, as they needed to do to qualify here, they did win a tour title in Red Deer knocking off fellow Pool C participant Team Fujisawa in the final.  They failed to qualify for the playoffs at the Alberta Scotties, going 3-3 and being eliminated on the C-side.  Overall they have a record of 11-8 on the season.  This will be their debut slam appearance.  Will rookie nerves prevail or can they do in knowing they have everything to gain and nothing to lose and surprise a few of their more experienced opponents?

Projected Standings:  1. Team Muirheada  2. Team Carey  3. Team Paetz  4. Team Fujisawa  5. Team DeJong


MEN

Pool A

Favourite: Niklas Edin - World Champion. Olympic Silver.  Three-time slam winner last season (Tour Challenge, Masters, Players Championship).  Three slam finals this season (Masters, Canadian Open, Players Championship).  In the past two seasons the #SwedishVikings have reached the SF or better in 10 of 12 slam events.  The only exception is the Elite X the past two years where they have failed to qualify (but we all know how I feel about THAT event!?).  What is there left to really say about #KingNiklas that has not been said already?  Without question one of the best teams on tour over the past two seasons and should be considered as the #1 team of this season.  What a perfect cap to the year to claim #gsoc title #4 and the first of this season.

Watch Out For: Bruce Mouat - So you are 23 years old, own a World Junior championship (2016), a World Men's bronze medal (2018) and a #gsoc title (The National)....how did you celebrate your 23rd birthday year?  Sure makes you feel a bit of an underperformer hey?  This will be Mouat's 6th career slam appearance and he already has a title under his belt and reached the QF at the recent Players Championship.  We always talk about the future of curling but the future of curling (and certainly Scottish curling) is NOW!  Watch out for this young team who are beaming with confidence right now and have the shot-making ability to back it up.  Interesting note, this team will play their 100th game of the season Wednesday night vs. Colton Flasch.

#TeamUpset: Marc Pfister - Swiss curling has long been considered dominated by the likes of Sven Michel and, recently, Peter De Cruz.  But underestimating young Marc Pfister is a mistake this week curling fans.  Pfister may not have a ton of experience on tour level events in Canada as they play a ton of European events during the season.  The win at the German Masters clinched their spot here (in conjunction with a few multiple winners of course) and they own a respectable 52-37 record on the year.  The 2014 European bronze medal winner recently represented Switzerland at the World Championships in Las Vegas, finishing with a 6-6 record and just missing the playoffs due to the H2H loss to USA which was the ultimate TB process for the new format.  I was in Vegas and watched a few of games this team played.  They have the skills to contend for a playoff spot here as long as they can control the house and not leave themselves with tough, circus shots late in the end to score or forced to bail out.  The biggest question mark on the team will be the line-up change as the full team was unable to make the trip to Calgary as regular vice Enrico Pfister will be replaced with sub Dominik Maerki.  At least they keep it all in the family?!  Keep your eyes on them.

Projected Standings:  1. Team Edin  2. Team Mouat  3. Team Bottcher  4. Team Pfister  5. Team Flasch


Pool B

Favourite: Brad Gushue - Defending Canadian champ.  World Silver.  Two slam titles (Tour Challenge, Masters).  Another slam finals appearance (Elite X).  And recently Team Gushue played in the SF at the Players Championship.  If consistency alone was used to predict slam winners, Gushue would at or near the top of the table for the season ending event.  Gushue will be chasing the Career Slam record as well in Calgary, having claimed every other slam event on tour thus far and just needing a Champions Cup win to complete the #gsoc title puzzle.  Now that would be a perfect ending to a long season.

Watch Out For: Brad Jacobs - The defending champions return to the site of their last slam win and will look to make it two for two.  Remember way back in 2016 at the inaugural Champions Cup when the big story was Team Jacobs not qualifying to compete due to not winning on tour?  Well last year they made their Champions Cup debut in a big way claiming the title and will look to #defendtheice this week.  Jacobs has been slightly consistent with the slam performance this season, it just may not be as positive and successful as they would like.  Here is the trend: SF (Tour Challenge), QF (Masters) DNQ (The National), SF (Canadian Open), QF (Elite X), DNQ (Players Championship).  Hmmm....if we follow recent trends and historical data should we pencil in Team Jacobs for the SF now?

#TeamUpset: Tyler Tardi - The #TardiParty will hit the grand slam of curling ice in Calgary and could be the ultimate #TeamUpset flag bearer.  They have won back to back Canadian Junior championships and, this year, got the job done on the world stage in re-claiming the World Junior title for Canada.  Skipper Tyler only turns 20 this August so he has time still in the junior ranks but is already being heralded as the future/now present skip in B.C. and an early favourite for the BC title next season.  Do not be surprised to see this team collect 2 wins this week and be in the playoff picture come the weekend.

Projected Standings:  1. Team Jacobs  2. Team Gushue  3. Team Tardi  4. Team Carruthers  5. Team Persinger


Pool C

Favourite: Kevin Koe - Up until the Players Championship win a few weeks ago in Toronto it had been quite some time since Koe held up a #gsoc title...three years to be exact (2015 Tour Challenge).  The team had gone 18 slam events without a win and only once did they even reach the final...which happened to be last year's Champions Cup!  Now in those three years between slam titles they did qualify in 14 of the 18 events played of course....not too shabby of a record from a consistency standpoint.  This will be the final event for this iteration of Team Koe as the team breaks apart in the off-season.  As well, this may be the final slam event we see of Marc Kennedy who announced his retirement after the Olympics during the Brier in Regina.  They will be a favourite in Calgary and you know Kevin, Brent and Ben would love to send Kennedy out on a winning note.

Watch Out For: Mike McEwen - Speaking of swan song teams, hello Team McEwen!  This team announced their break-up and then went on the ice and collected another slam title at the Elite X. They will look to close out their tremendous history together by ending the season with an 8th #gsoc title together.  Sure none of these guys are retiring and will encounter one another on tour next year but it will be with different teams.  It will be a bit sad, perhaps more over for fans, watching these team take their final slide together this week.  They have qualified in every slam entered this season, adding SF runs at The Masters, The National and Players Championship.  Wouldn't it be great to see them bust out the #RedPants one last time?!!?

#TeamUpset: Jason Gunnlaugson - Analytics praise aside, Gunner is the guy to watch out for the most perhaps in the next 4-year Olympic cycle.  He has the brains.  He has the skill.  He has the fun personality and passion.  This season really was the coming out party for him and his new team, winning the Tour Challenge Tier II to open the season and playing on a tear throughout the year.  Sure the wildcard game loss to Manitoba rival McEwen at the Brier was a bit disappointing but the year surely is going to be considered a big win for Gunner.  They have played in every slam, reaching the QF in every one except the Elite X (again...you know my thoughts here).  Another playoff appearance this week is not out of the question....plus they are bringing in a super spare with Matt Dunstone joining the squad and playing second.

Projected Standings:  1. Team McEwen  2. Team Koe  3. Team Gunnlaugson  4. Team Howard  5. Team Balderston


Women Qualifiers: Team J. Jones, Team Hasselborg, Team Muirhead, Team Einarson, Team Sinclair, Team Carey, Team Tirinzoni, Team Feltscher

Men Qualifiers: Team Edin, Team Jacobs, Team McEwen, Team Mouat, Team Gushue, Team Koe, Team Bottcher, Team Gunnlaugson


WOMEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP:  Team Jennifer Jones def. Team Silvana Tirinzoni

MEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP:  Team Niklas Edin def. Team Brad Jacobs


What say you rock heads and stoners?  Agree with the #TwineTime blog predictions?  Disagree perhaps?  Share your thoughts in the comments section below or hit me up on twitter.  This is one of my favourite events of the season and a perfect way to conclude the curling year.

Special shout out and thank you to Sportsnet for once again granting the "Tiny Blog That Could" media accreditation for this event (and all the events I am able to attend actually).  I continue to be humbled and thankful for the opportunity and will continue to strive to bring you, THE FANS, the best coverage possible.  #Enjoy

#StayTuned as the blog will be at WinSport Arena throughout the competition bringing you light coverage during the week and full-on rock by rock, draw by draw coverage starting Friday.  Toss a follow to the #TwineTime twitter account for updates, pictures of the event and venue and who knows what else?!

PLUS we have some new fam members ready to be shared with you SOON!!

Of course I would be remiss not to mention once again my upcoming participation as a contestant on #StrandedWaterValley in Alberta this August.  I first made the big announcement on the recent #PowerRankings blog post and through various social media channels.  I fully believe in the intent of this event, and not just the competition side, so it bears repeating the message:

Stranded:Water Valley is a Kids Up Front Calgary Survivor-esque competition.  I will be one of 16 contestants competing to Outwit, Outplay and Outlast.  Camera crews will be following our every move.  There will be immunity challenges.  Reward challenges.  Team competitions.  Individual competitions.  Tribal Councils.  Votes.  Blindsides.  Backstabs.  And more!!


NOW I need YOUR help!!  Did you know Kids Up Front delivers over 30,000 experiences to deserving kids in Calgary and the surrounding area?  As a contestant I am looking to raise funds....and ensure my survival!  The Top 4 contestants to raise the most funds will be immune at the beginning of the competition.  Every $5 raised helps send a kid to an event.  Any donation of $20 or more will also receive a tax receipt.  And ALL donations will be matched up to 50% by Shaw Charity Classic's Birdies for Kids program!

I am also participating in this event to not only raise funds for a great cause but also raise awareness towards mental health.  Initiatives like #SickNotWeak, #ProjectSemicolon and #BellLetsTalk have helped increase awareness and I want to continue the conversation.

For more information on my personal pledge to participate AND to provide a donation (of any amount!) please visit my Contestant Page.  Please share this page with your family, friends and network.  I need all the help and support I can get to Survive!

Enjoy the final event of the season folks!