There's a compelling case to be made that the 2013 Scotties Tournament of Hearts field assembled in Kingston, Ont., is the strongest ever.
There are three women who've previously skipped teams to the national championship, as well as three-quarters of the rink — in shuffled positions — that dominated Canadian women's curling during the first years of this century.
Meanwhile, the home province representative, to most curling observers, wears the "only a matter of time before they win one" tag. Could this be their year?
Sizing up the field, former Olympic men's silver medallist Mike Harris said what makes the women's game so exciting these days is that any number of teams can win a tournament, and there's much less dropoff between the top and bottom six than in the men's game.
"There are no freebies, there are no easy games out there," Harris said of the 11-game round robin.
Indeed, this year's 12-team field will feature eight women who once skipped a Canadian junior championship-winning rink.
The winner of this event, which runs Feb. 16 through Feb. 24, represents Canada at the world championships in Latvia next month. That tournament takes place in Riga from March 16-24, with Canada looking for its first world champion since 2008.
We're also less than a year out from the Sochi Games, so there's even more impetus to impress. Jennifer Jones and Heather Nedohin have already qualified directly into the Olympic curling trials in December in Winnipeg, along with Stephanie Lawton, who won't be competing at this event in Kingston after getting upset in the Saskatchewan final.
That leaves three more spots that can be booked directly into the trials, with an additional two to be determined from a 12-team pre-trials competition in November in Kitchener, Ont. Those will be assigned based on points accrued in the individual years since the last Olympics, as well as point totals from the past two years combined.
Here's a look at the top contenders at the Tournament of Hearts, with analysis from Harris.
Heather Nedohin, Canada
- 2-time Canadian champion (1998, 2012)
- 6th Hearts appearance
- Former Canadian & world junior champion
Nedohin is coming off her first national championship as skip; her first Hearts win came as a member of Cathy Borst's rink. If you could say that a defending champion is "under the radar", Edmonton native Nedohin might fit the bill. The team's results to start the Grand Slam season in Calgary and Winnipeg weren't great, and there are two or three other teams who are getting more ink, for reasons to be explained below.
But Nedohin could be peaking at the right time, just as last year. She finished third at the Canada Cup in Moose Jaw in December.
Harris: "They were a little bit under the radar last year, too. They weren't one of the top seeds going in and they played great all the way through … I think it will provide some extra motiavtion for her — let Jennifer Jones and Rachel take most of the media and just go about her business. That might be helpful for her."
Jennifer Jones, Manitoba
- 4-time Canadian champion (2005, 2008, 2009, 2010)
- 10th Hearts appearance
- World champion (2008)
- Former Canadian junior champion
Jones is getting a lot of attention heading in because of her remarkable pedigree, but also the mere fact she's a top contender at all. The Winnipeg skip had knee surgery in 2012 and gave birth to a daughter, Isabella, who arrived earlier than expected in mid-November. She always intended on defending her Manitoba title, but the window to prepare was extremely tight.
The team wasn't idle last year; two-time Canadian junior champion Kaityln Lawes took over as skip in her absence. Lawes has shifted to the vice spot.
Harris: "It's pretty surprising to see what [Jones] has been doing [since childbirth] … [Switching back from Kaitlyn as skip] doesn't appear to have affected them. If it would have, you would have seen it at the provincial playdowns … If their performance was going to be below par, you would have figured it would have happened in Manitoba."
Mary-Anne Arsenault, Nova Scotia
- 5-time Canadian champion (1999, 2001-04)
- 11th Hearts appearance
- 2-time world champion (2001, 2004)
The sentimental choice? Arsenault's previous championships at the nationals and worlds were as a team member on Colleen Jones's juggernaut rinks. It's Arsenault's second time at the Hearts as skip, following up on a ho-hum 2008 appearance which also included current team members Kim Kelly and Nancy Delahunt (now alternate). The big news is that after a multi-year hiatus, Jones is back for a whopping 21st Hearts appearance dating back to 1979. Jones is the second on the team. Lead Jennifer Baxter, 18 years the junior of the next youngest on the team, has been with Arsenault since 2009.
They have much to gain from a strong appearance at the Hearts; because of their relative inactivity the past couple of years compared to other teams, they are further down the ranking system in points.
Harris: "I think the spoiler is Mary-Anne Arsenault. She's the darkhorse, you just don't know what's going to happen … It's great that they're back and it wouldn't surprise me to see them win their share of games … Their experience is going to do them really well …They went undefeated against a really strong field in Bern [in mid-January] and ended up losing in the semifinals and they looked really good … Colleen's comfortable playing second … [Mary Anne's] not going to make too many bad calls back there, she's certainly capable of making good decisions, which is almost as imporant as making good shots at the Scotties.
Kelly Scott, British Columbia
- 2-time Hearts champion (2006, 2007)
- 8th Hearts appearance
- World champion (2007)
- Former Canadian & world junior champion
Scott is coming off her fourth straight provincial championship. She lost 7-6 in the final of the Tournament of Hearts last year, but after going up 1-0 on Nedohin in the first end was playing catch-up the rest of the way.
As often happens in the women's game, Scott's lineup has evolved due to pregnancies and other life commitments. But the team more closely resembles the squad that last won in 2007. Rejoining Scott and Sasha Carter is Jeanna Schrader, who was off last season due to childbirth. As well, lead Sarah Wazney is a new recruit since last year's final, moving from Manitoba.
Harris: "I think [Scott] is pretty much guaranteed for the pre-trials in Kitchener, but a good performance in Kingston would almost guarantee a spot right to Winnipeg, which is massive … Jeanna Schraeder is back playing third again, and that to me is a big thing … They have been playing a lot [this season] and they are ready, one of the teams that's poised to win.
Rachel Homan, Ontario
- 2nd Hearts appearance
- 3rd in 2012-13 standings
- 6th in 2011-13 standings
- Former Canadian junior champion
Making her second Hearts appearance, Homan's Ottawa rink are the young guns, averaging about 25 years of age. They've gone a ridiculous 31-2 in the provincial playdowns the last three years; unfortunately for them, one of the losses was in the 2012 final. So they're back at the Hearts after finishing fourth two years ago. They've been in the mix every time on the Grand Slam circuit this year, with two runner-up finishes and a win at the Masters in Brantford, Ont.
Harris: "I actually think Rachel's the favourite …This is a young team, but they get better every time they play … Their first Scotties two years ago they came fourth and they were just out of juniors … They're incredibly talented, they work hard at it, and they've been beating women's teams since they were about 14 … Once they figure out how to actually win the Scotties, they'll be a dominant force … I think they'll actually thrive [being the home province team] as opposed to feeling more pressure.
- Suzanne Birt (Prince Edward Island) — 7th Hearts appearance, 2-time Canadian junior champion, former world junior champion.
- Andrea Crawford (New Brunswick) — 6th Hearts appearance, Canadian junior champion, world junior bronze medallist.
- Stacie Devereaux, (Newfoundland & Labrador) — 2nd Hearts appearance, Canadian junior champion, world junior silver medallist.
- Kerry Galusha (Northwest Territories & Yukon) — 11th Hearts appearance.
- Kristie Moore (Alberta) — 2nd Hearts appearance, Olympic silver medallist.
- Allison Ross (Quebec) — 1st Hearts appearance.
- Jill Shumay (Saskatchewan) — 1st Hearts appearance.
Birt (nee Gaudet) and Crawford (nee Kelly) were last at the Hearts under their maiden names.
Crawford and Allison Ross went undefeated in their respective provinces, while Jill Shumay was the upstart in the event held in Balgonie, Sask. She avenged a Page playoff defeat to Lawton and also upset Amber Holland. (Holland, at minimum, has a spot booked in the pre-trials event in Kitchener)
Alberta's Moore already has an Olympic medal, a silver as an alternate on Cheryl Bernard's 2010 team in Vancouver.