When it comes to finding the two teams who will represent Canada in curling at the Olympics in February, the country has an embarrassment of riches on its hands.
Nowhere else in the world is the talent pool so deep that a separate tournament is held to finalize the rinks who will have the right to compete for a spot at the Winter Games. That’s right, in this curling-crazed country, there are trials just to get to the Olympic trials.
Fourteen women’s and 14 men’s teams are in Summerside, P.E.I., this week to compete in their respective pre-trials tournaments (an event Curling Canada calls the “Road to the Roar”). By the end of the week, two teams of each gender will have won a spot in the Canadian Olympic trials (the “Roar of the Rings”) in Ottawa at the beginning of December.
It’s a field laden with talent, involving past national and world champions and Olympic medallists.
“You’re not going to get a team that’s not ready. Most of the teams at this event are very competitive,” says Mike Harris, a 1998 Olympic silver medallist and now colour commentator for CBC Sports.
Under the pressure
It’s been 20 years since Harris won the right to wear the maple leaf in Nagano, Japan. At that time, there was no pre-trials event prior to the Olympic qualifier. But this tournament, says Harris, not only allows more teams to make a run for the Olympics but gives younger teams a feel for the intensity of a big-time bonspiel — experience that could pay off for Canada down the road.
“Can these teams deal with the pressure? That’s the big question for teams that haven’t played in big events like this,” Harris says.
And should anyone scoff at the idea of a pre-trials survivor having a shot at beating the top teams who have already qualified for the trials, all you have to do is go back four years to when Brad Jacobs and John Morris both made it through the preliminary event and ended up facing each other in the trials final. Jacobs won that matchup and went on to capture Olympic gold in Sochi.
Since the sport became an official part of the Olympic program in 1998, Canada has won both a men’s and women’s curling medal at every Games, including five of a possible 10 gold.
“You can’t sneak through the Olympic trials,” Harris says. “You can’t fake this. There are just too many good teams in Canada that if you make it through all of this, chances are you’re going to win a medal at the Games.”
Teams to watch
Harris admits there are some teams at the pre-trials who are hoping to get hot at the right time but are probably not prepared for the pressure and intensity. On the other hand, he sees a handful of teams on both the women’s and men’s sides who have been preparing for this moment since the last Olympics.
“There are some teams that have done the hard work,” Harris says. “Do they believe? They have to… They also have to take some confidence in knowing Jacobs and Morris qualified from this event.”
Harris says the most important factor is how well teams have been playing leading up to this week.
On the women’s side, he points to Kerry Einarson, Krista McCarville, Kelsey Rocque, Sherry Middaugh and Shannon Kleibrink as skips who will be in the mix for a spot in the trials.
On the men’s side, Harris looks for John Morris, Glenn Howard, Jason Gunnlaugson and Pat Simmons to be in contention.
“A lot of the teams have been around for so long,” Harris says. “We get used to seeing the same names at these events. [But] this is a little bit of a changing of the guard. What’s happening is some of the younger teams are becoming part of the conversation.”
How it works
The format is the same for both the men’s and women’s tournaments. Remember, two spots in the Olympic trials are up for grabs in each.
Fourteen teams are split into two pools of seven. Each team plays a series of round-robin games against the other six teams in its pool. When that’s over, the teams with the top three records in each pool advance to the playoff round.
In the playoffs, the top team from each pool faces the second-place team in the opposite pool. The winners of those two games advance to the “A” final, where the winner gets an automatic berth in the Olympic trials and the loser gets another chance (more on that in a second) after a few other things shake out.
First, the two losers from the initial playoff games face off against the third-place teams from the round-robin (remember them?) The winners of those two games then meet, with the winner of that matchup taking on the loser from the “A” final for the last remaining Roar of the Rings berth.
When the dust settles, we’ll know the two men’s and two women’s teams who will round out the field of nine on each side at the Olympic trials in Ottawa in December.