Road To The Olympic Games

Curling

Vegas Continental Cup mixing and matching curlers in new team scramble

Kaitlyn Lawes playing third for Rachel Homan, Ben Hebert throwing lead stones for U.S. skip John Shuster and Sweden's Niklas Edin calling games with Scotland's Jennifer Dodds as his vice are all possible scenarios in this year's Continental Cup of Curling.

Skips to play alongside thirds and a front-end player from another team in 'scramble' games

Pete Fenson of the U.S. will serve as North America's captain in the Ryder-Cup style competition which begins Thursday in Las Vegas. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)

Kaitlyn Lawes playing third for Rachel Homan, Ben Hebert throwing lead stones for U.S. skip John Shuster and Sweden's Niklas Edin calling games with Scotland's Jennifer Dodds as his vice are all possible scenarios in this year's Continental Cup of Curling.

The format of the annual Ryder-Cup style competition between North American and international sides starting Thursday in Las Vegas will include a day of "scramble" games, in which skips will play alongside thirds and a front-end player from another team.

The Continental Cup will still include traditional team, mixed doubles and skins games over four days. But Saturday's scramble draws reduce the number of regular team draws from six to two.

The women will shuffle their lineups Saturday morning with the men following suit in the afternoon.

Mixed scramble ups the intrigue

A mixed scramble at night — with at least one female skip per side — ups the intrigue with skips playing with an unfamiliar vice of the other gender.

"So you are going to have skips with new thirds, leads with new seconds," explained Nolan Thiessen, Curling Canada's manager of championship services.

"It's going to be mixed up in that the back ends are going to be a different dynamic and the front ends are going to be a different dynamic."

The curlers wanted to try this, so Thiessen "had to really get down in the weeds," he said, and come up with a template.

"Because the skip and the third and that dynamic is so interesting and important, one of the things I wanted to do was have that change so it does create that different dynamic," he said.

The Continental Cup, in both its 15th season and fourth stint in Las Vegas, was the incubator for mixed doubles. That discipline is now in the Winter Olympics.

Continental Cup the place to experiment

The tournament is the perfect environment to experiment because it doesn't impact qualification for Olympic Games or world championships, Thiessen said.

"It's a great place because there's no real end-game after Sunday," he said. "It's a stand-alone entity, so it's fun to be able to try things.

"This is where mixed doubles came from, where it was originally tried and adapted and eventually became an Olympic sport. I don't think the team scramble will become an Olympic sport."

Rinks skipped by Canada's Homan, Jennifer Jones, Kevin Koe and Brad Gushue, join forces with Jamie Sinclair and reigning Olympic champion Shuster of the U.S. to comprise Team North America.

Pete Fenson of the U.S. is North America's captain. Canada's Jeff Stoughton and Jill Officer will serve as coach and assistant coach, respectively.

Stoughton curled for North America in the Continental Cup in both 2012 and its first time in Sin City in 2014.

The former world champion said the curlers themselves are doing most of the mixing and matching for the women's and men's scrambles.

A decision on the mixed scramble lineups could happen right before that draw, he said.

"The teams certainly know each other and certainly sent their suggestions and talked together," Stoughton said. "They basically made up the teams themselves because they see each other so much at the Grand Slams. That's fine by me.

"For the mixed scramble, we're just going to wait. That one we can kind of make a judgment call as we go along to see who is playing well and who wants to play.

"That one, we haven't made any calls yet and we're not releasing that yet so the other side knows what we're doing."

The World squad features Sweden's Edin and Anna Hasselborg, Scotland's Bruce Mouat and Eve Muirhead and Switzerland's Peter de Cruz and Silvana Tirinzoni.

Scotland's David Murdoch is their captain and Sweden's Fredrik Lindberg will coach.

Skips forced out of their comfort zone

The scramble brings in an element of unpredictability as skips are forced out of their comfort zone with unfamiliar teammates.

"You have no idea how they're going to throw the rock or what kind of weight to call, so it makes it a little bit more interesting from a fans' point of view," Stoughton said.

"You'll probably get a few more misses because of the wrong weight or the wrong broom, considering the skip doesn't know everyone's releases."

With 60 points available, the first side to reach 30.5 by Sunday earns the title and $84,500 from a total prize purse of $130,000.

North America has won 10 of 14 Continental Cup titles, including six straight.

"It really is just a fun, relaxed atmosphere until it gets down to the nitty-gritty," Stoughton said. "Having played in it, you're feeling it out for the first day or two and then after that, the serious faces start coming on a little bit more as it gets closer and closer to someone actually winning it.

"The competitive juices kick in pretty quick and no one likes to lose, that's for sure."

Curling fans can watch Edin play Gushue almost every weekend in a World Curling Tour event, Thiessen said, so the Continental Cup must throw different ingredients into the mix to retain viewership.

"One of the big things with curling is live mics and I think it's going to be even more interesting now when you have, say, Kaitlyn Lawes playing third for Rachel Homan or you have Ben Hebert playing lead for Brad Gushue or John Shuster," he said.

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