The Roaring Game will have some of its mojo back at the upcoming national men’s curling championship.
While not fully back to a normal pre-pandemic setup, the Tim Hortons Brier will feel more like a regular competition now that Alberta has lifted many of its COVID-19 restrictions.
Unlike the last edition of the Brier that was played in a spectator-free bubble in Calgary, there will be no capacity limits for the March 4-13 event at the 5,900-seat Enmax Centre in Lethbridge.
“All of us love to curl and play this game in front of people but when you get a whole building full, regardless of where it is in Canada, you just enjoy it so much,” said Ontario skip Glenn Howard.
“It’s just so much fun to play under those circumstances.”
Two powerhouse Alberta rinks should give local supporters plenty to cheer about. Brendan Bottcher’s Edmonton rink will wear Canada colours and Calgary skip Kevin Koe will represent the province.
Other headliners in the 18-team field include Howard, Northern Ontario’s Brad Jacobs, Manitoba’s Mike McEwen and Beijing Games bronze medallist Brad Gushue, one of three wild-card entries along with Matt Dunstone and Jason Gunnlaugson.
“I think it’s a pick ’em at this point,” Howard said of the parity among the headliners.
A vaccine passport is not needed for fan entry into the venue, a Curling Canada spokesman said via email, adding that masking is recommended for spectators but not required.
Players, meanwhile, must be fully vaccinated in order to compete. They’ll be given a PCR test upon arrival and have two rapid tests done during round-robin play.
Bottcher will have a different lineup than the one that beat Koe in last year’s final. Patrick Janssen is the new vice after the mid-season departure of Darren Moulding, who landed with New Brunswick’s James Grattan.
The event will be a short turnaround for Gushue, who just returned home to Newfoundland and Labrador last week after over a month away. His team held a training camp in B.C. before representing Canada in China.
Gushue admitted last month he was concerned the team may not be in top form at the Brier given the mental, physical and emotional toll of competing at the Olympics.
“We’ll go and give 110 per cent for sure, but when you play a team like Jacobs or Koe and Bottcher, you need to be at your best because they’re just as good as (Sweden’s Niklas) Edin and (Britain’s Bruce) Mouat,” he said in Beijing.
“So it’ll be a challenge for us.”
The Brier wild-card spots were awarded to the top three teams in the Canadian rankings that didn’t qualify through their respective provincial or territorial championships.
Curling Canada went from one to three wild-card entries last year since many teams didn’t have the opportunity to play down for berths due to the pandemic.
The arrival of the Omicron variant last fall forced the postponement or cancellation of several provincial/territorial championships again this season.
Other teams in the field include Quebec’s Michael Fournier, Nathan Young of Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan’s Colton Flasch, Prince Edward Island’s Tyler Smith, Yukon’s Thomas Scoffin, Nova Scotia’s Paul Flemming, British Columbia’s Brent Pierce, Nunavut’s Peter Mackey and Jamie Koe of the Northwest Territories.
Starting Friday night, teams will play a round-robin format within their respective nine-team pools. The top three teams from each pool will advance to an expanded playoff field.
The standard Page playoffs begin March 12 and the final is scheduled for March 13. The winner will represent Canada at the April 2-10 world men’s curling championship in Las Vegas.
Kerri Einarson won the Canadian women’s curling championship last month in Thunder Bay, Ont. She’ll wear the Maple Leaf at the March 19-27 world women’s curling championship in Prince George, B.C.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 3, 2022