There's always a lot on the line in the Grand Slam of Curling, but this season the stakes may be higher than ever.
With the trials for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver just over a year away, time is running out for Canada's top rinks to position themselves for a run at the gold medal. The final dash begins this week at the Masters of Curling, the first leg of the World Curling Tour's invitation-only Grand Slam series.
Along with the usual $100,000 purse up for grabs, the Canadian teams competing in Waterloo, Ont., will resume their three-year-long quest for valuable points toward one of the eight spots at the Olympic trials in Edmonton in December 2009.
Including results from this season and the prior two, the top four skips after the season-ending Players' Championship in April receive a direct ticket to Edmonton, while the next 12 will have to battle it out for the four remaining berths at a qualifying spiel.
Based on their stellar performances over the last two seasons, the rinks of Glenn Howard and Kevin Martin have already guaranteed their place in the trials. Randy Ferbey, Kevin Koe, Pat Simmons, Jeff Stoughton, Kerry Burtnyk and Wayne Middaugh are assured of at least a spot in the qualifier, which is slated for Prince George, B.C., next November.
That leaves quite a bit up for grabs at the four Grand Slam tournaments. Following the Masters, there's the National (Dec. 3-7, Quebec City), the Canadian Open (Jan. 21-25, Winnipeg) and the Players' Championship (April 14-19, Grande Prairie, Alta.).
Already big dates on the pro curling calendar, those events are now looming even larger, according to Howard.
"The main focus is the Olympic trials right now, and the Brier is probably a secondary focus," the Coldwater, Ont., skip told CBCSports.ca.
CBC Sports brings you live coverage of the playoff rounds of the four Slam events, beginning with the Masters quarter-finals on Nov. 15 (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 3 p.m. ET). The championship final is set for Nov. 16 (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 1 p.m. ET).
To preview the action in Waterloo and beyond, CBCSports.ca spoke with CBC curling analyst Mike Harris about the big questions heading into the new season.
Who's No. 1?
At this time last year, everyone was asking the same question: Can anyone beat Martin? The Edmonton skip was smack in the middle of a Grand Slam winning streak that would eventually reach an unprecedented five tournaments — an astounding feat given that the Slams don't require regional representation, and thus assemble a particularly fierce field. Martin and his rink were consistently shellacking the top teams on the World Curling Tour's Order of Merit.
But it all came to a crashing halt at last year's Masters in late January in Saskatoon, where Howard unceremoniously dumped Martin in the quarter-finals en route to winning the trophy (which, last year, was the third event in the Grand Slam series). Howard then defeated Martin in the final of the Players' Championship for his second straight Slam title.
Martin exacted revenge with a last-rock victory over Howard in the Brier final in March, and he went on to capture his first world championship. Martin also edged his rival for top spot on last season's WCT money list, collecting $127,000 to Howard's $126,795.
But Howard, the 2007 world champ, regained the upper hand in early November at the Cactus Pheasant Classic in Brooks, Alta., stealing two off Martin in the last end of the final to claim the lion's share of the $70,000 purse.
That was Howard's third title in as many tournaments this season, and teammates Richard Hart, Brent Laing and Craig Savill won yet another with Hart playing skip while Howard recovered from hernia surgery.
Odds are that curling's best two skips will meet again with a pile of money on the line — perhaps as soon as this weekend in Waterloo.
"Those two teams are going to be No. 1 and 2 right up until Vancouver," Harris says. "There's very little difference between the two of them, but they've separated themselves from the rest of the world."
Who's No. 3?
Curling fans used to talk about the Big 3 — Martin, Howard and Ferbey. But while the first two teams have tightened their grip on the sport, the third has faded. Since winning four of the five Briers held from 2001-2005 — along with three world championships — Ferbey hasn't even qualified for the top event in Canadian curling (Martin has won the Alberta playdowns three years running).
The fall of the Ferbey empire has played out on the WCT as well, where he's gone from tops on the money list in 2005-06 to second in 2006-07 to fifth last season.
With Ferbey fading from prominence, or at least dominance, a new skip has emerged as the top threat to Martin and Howard. And, as coincidence would have it, he's from Edmonton.
Kevin Koe finished third on the money list last season, when he joined the last two world champions as the only men to earn over $100,000. That was no fluke, either: He also cracked the $100K mark in 2006-07, when he finished fourth in money.
Now the question is, can Koe climb into the rarefied air occupied by curling's two superpowers? Last year's head-to-head matchups suggest he may not have far to go. Though Koe lost to Martin in the final of the National and in the semis at the Players', and fell to Howard in the final at the Masters, his rink also scored a huge confidence-building victory over Martin in the final of the prestigious Canada Cup in March.
"They're talented, they work hard and they do all the right things," Harris says. "After Howard and Martin, you've got Koe, Ferbey, Wayne Middaugh, Brad Gushue and Kerry Burtnyk that are all pretty good. Koe's team is the best of that bunch. They seem to be playing their best, and they've been together the longest."
So who will be this season's Koe? Harris says there are several dark-horse candidates, including 34-year-old Bob Ursel of Kelowna, B.C. (tied for 10th on the money list in 2007-08) and 20-something Winnipeg skips Mike McEwen (16th) and Daley Peters (53rd).
But the guy to really keep an eye on is a lot more familiar. St. John's skip Gushue, the 2006 Olympic champion, has been in a state of transition since all-time great Russ Howard (Glenn's brother) left his rink following their victory at the Turin Games.
For the second straight season post-Howard, Gushue and ace third Mark Nichols are breaking in a revamped front end. Well, sort of. There's a fresh face at second in Ryan Fry, who left his job as the third for Jeff Stoughton. But the new lead is actually the old lead. Fun-loving Jamie Korab returns to the same role he held on the Olympic champion team after being dumped in favour of Dave Noftall prior to last season.
The early returns look promising. Gushue and his new mates won the Swiss Cup in October and made the semifinals at the Meyers Norris Penny Prairie Classic a few weeks later. With over $22,000 in winnings, the team is more than halfway toward the total take of last season's squad, which finished 12th on the money list.
"They've been searching for a way to get back to where they were," Harris says. "I don't think anyone thought any of the changes they made in the last two or three years improved their chances. However, this change is the first time everyone would agree they're back to where they need to be. They're definitely a better team.
"Jamie is a good lead and a good team guy. After they cut him, they were kind of lost. They weren't scaring anybody and they weren't playing all that well. But now they're back and they're better than they were. I could see them having a pretty good year."
Who's at third?
Gushue wasn't the only skip to shuffle his lineup in the off-season. With the race for a trials spot entering its last leg, a couple of veteran Winnipeg skips made waves by adding experienced help in a last-ditch effort to improve their rinks over the summer.
Winnipeg's Burtnyk ditched third Dan Kammerlock in favour of decorated veteran Don Walchuk, who won Olympic silver in 2002 and a Brier in 1997 under Martin. Stoughton also had a vice-skip job to fill after Fry's defection to Team Gushue, and opted to go with Kevin Park, who won a Brier with Martin way back in 1991.
"Those were big moves. They were front-page news in the Winnipeg papers," Harris says. "Both teams picked up good players."