Curling season starts with eye on Olympic prize

The top 60 curling teams from Canada and around the world are in Regina this week to begin the Grand Slam of Curling calendar year.

This is the 17th season for the curling series and it begins with Tour Challenge.

There are two different tiers at this event. Tier 1 features the top 15 men’s and women’s teams based on the World Curling Tour’s Order of Merit. Tier 2 also includes 15 men’s and women’s team but with the catch being five teams on each side are all from Saskatchewan, giving local rinks the chance to play on a big stage.

Canadian skips such as Brad Gushue, Brad Jacobs, Kevin Koe and Mike McEwen are garnering a lot of attention on the men’s side while Rachel Homan, Jennifer Jones, Val Sweeting and Michelle Englot are considered some of the favourites on the women’s side.

But there is a lot of international talent in Regina this week as well, with the likes of Sweden’s Niklas Edin, Switzerland’s Peter De Cruz and American John Shuster on the men’s side. Switzerland’s Silvana Tirizoni, Sweden’s Anna Hasselborg and Scotland’s Eve Muirhead add to a strong women’s field.

Olympic trials in December

This is no ordinary season for all the teams. With the Winter Olympics less than five months away the clock is ticking on the Canadian curling trials set to take place the first week of December in Ottawa.

For Saskatchewan’s Michelle Englot, who competed with a newly formed team from Winnipeg last year, this is an early start to the season but she says the team is ready to get back on the ice.

“At this point though we’re turning off the technical work we spent a lot of time on during the off-season and getting back into the performance part of the game,” she said.

Englot, whose career has spanned three decades mostly in Saskatchewan, said she was nearing the end of her career when she was rejuvenated by a younger group of ladies from Winnipeg.

“I really wish I was 25 instead of nearing 55,” Englot said. “I’m excited every time I step on the ice with these ladies because it’s just been such a great experience.”

Englot, third Kate Cameron, second Leslie Wilson and lead Raunora Westcott made it all the way to the Scotties final last season before being defeated in extra ends by Homan.

Englot said she needed a strong season last year to prove to herself she still had what it took to play at the highest level.

“I think going into last season I think I wasn’t that confident I would be able to compete. And after last season we know we can do that. For me it was a personal thing,” she said.

Peaking at the right time

Mike Harris, CBC curling analyst, knows about the pressure of Olympic trials. He skipped Canada to a silver medal in 1998, the first Olympics involving curling since 1924. He said the lead up to those trials were crucial.

“We had a good season that year,” he said. “There weren’t as many events back then but we won four events going into the trials. We were super confident.”

CUR Harris Return 20160128

Mike Harris, CBC curling analyst, won silver at the Nagano Olympics in 1998. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Harris said his rink wasn’t considered one of the favourites, but as a team they knew they were competing their best when they needed it most. He’s quick to point out that a slow start to the season in Regina this week for more experienced teams won’t be a problem.

“You want to win an event like this but you can’t be on top the entire season,” he said. “Teams won’t be overly concerned about a strong start. It’s about being your best in the first week of December.”

Harris said for less experienced teams a bad start to the season can add unnecessary pressure, especially if it has yet to qualify for the trials.

Tune-up for teams

“Teams want to get a good start to the season but I don’t think it’s critical. The last two or three seasons it’s been important to get enough points to get into the trials. This year is a little different.”

Harris said this event in Regina will be a tune-up for a lot of teams, but come next Grand Slam event in late October, teams will be in a very different state of mind.

“That’s when it’s gets to be more critical and then that last Slam in November before the trials, those are the ones that are important,” he said.

As for those Olympic trials in Ottawa at the beginning of December, Harris said it will be a stacked field of elite curlers.

“Every time it comes around people say it’s the best field in curling. There’s no regional restrictions and it’ll be no different this year.”

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