Alberta's top curlers say provincials should be cancelled amid rising COVID-19 concerns
Manitoba, Northern Ontario, Ontario have already nixed their events
Sports bubbles in Alberta seem to be all the rage throughout the pandemic, with Edmonton's successful NHL and world junior events and Calgary curling, skiing and snowboarding bubbles on the horizon.
And now Curling Alberta is in the final stages of plans for a Sylvan Lake curling bubble to hold the province's men's and women's provincial championship at the end of January.
It was announced a couple of months ago that for the first time in the province's history both the men and women would play at one event, in Sylvan Lake, at the end of January.
Then cases in the province started to spike and restrictions have shut down curling in the province for the last number of weeks. Now some of this country's top curlers who hail from the wild rose province have some serious concerns about the event taking place.
"I'm definitely of the view that the event should not happen," skip Kevin Koe told CBC Sports.
Koe, who represented Canada at the 2018 Olympics and is a four-time Brier champion, says he appreciates the work Curling Alberta has put in to make an event happen, but with case numbers rising he believes it's time to pull the plug.
"Why is Curling Alberta willing to take a big risk on player safety? That's my biggest question," he said.
"I believe they don't have approval yet and the event starts in a couple weeks."
The event is set to begin on Monday, Jan. 25 and wrap up on Sunday, Jan. 31. It will include 12 men's teams and eight women's teams — when you include all the officials and other volunteers the number of people in the Sylvan Lake bubble gets large in a hurry. Curlers in Alberta have not thrown a rock since the beginning of December.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced Thursday that the province's current health restrictions to battle transmission of COVID-19 will remain in place until Jan. 21, leaving curlers without time to prepare.
"Show up cold after not practising for six weeks. Practise for a day and then play provincials. That seems a little silly to me," Koe said.
"I don't think the event should run but if it does we want to play for a Canadian championship so we'll be there."
At the time of publishing, Curling Alberta had not responded to CBC Sports' request for comment.
Walker laments lack of communication
Koe isn't the only one expressing concern.
Last year's Scotties representative from Alberta Laura Walker gave birth to her first son a little more than three months ago. She says Curling Alberta has told the players to begin a "soft quarantine" starting this Sunday leading into the event.
"I'm supposed to find a caregiver and start quarantining on Sunday. There are so many facets and a lot being asked of us," Walker said.
Walker, whose husband is Geoff Walker and the lead for Brad Gushue's rink, says she has been asking Curling Alberta for answers for weeks without much clarity.
"I've asked many times when their go or no-go date would be and they keep saying it's flexible, but now we're at the point where we're supposed to start quarantining on Sunday. Our mental health as curlers has suffered a lot this year with all of the unknowns."
Koe and Walker say players will be required to come up with negative tests leading into and during the event — and that Curling Alberta is using Curling Canada guidelines for a return to play in a pandemic.
Manitoba, Northern Ontario and Ontario have already cancelled their provincials and selected last year's winners to attend the Scotties and Brier. Both Koe and Walker say it's time to do that in Alberta.
If that were the case, Walker and Brendan Bottcher would get the spots based on winning last year. Koe was at the Brier due to being the 2019 champion.
Curling Canada has said this year's event won't include a wild card game but hinted at changing the format to include teams that would have been in it — that potentially sets up a scenario where Bottcher and Koe would both be at the Brier.
Bottcher wary of risks
Bottcher, who sits on the Curling Alberta board, is in a tough spot and wants to make clear he's been removed from any of the conversations around how this year's provincials will look.
"Any reasonable person would look at what's happened this year and say Team Koe needs to be at the Brier," Bottcher said. "They're putting on this Calgary Brier bubble in large part for the TV coverage. And that's a team you'd want to be there."
As for whether or not he thinks the Sylvan Lake bubble should happen, he doesn't shy away from sharing his personal opinion.
"If you're asking for Brendan Bottcher's personal opinion on whether this bubble should run, my answer is unfortunately no. I don't think it should run," he said.
Bottcher, Koe and Walker all make clear they appreciate the efforts being made by Curling Alberta to make this event happen. However, with so little time before this event and the Calgary curling bubble looming, they all say it's time to pick winners and end the guesswork.
"This is an opportunity to provide some clarity in this craziness," Walker said.
A meeting with the Alberta curlers is scheduled for Friday. The Scotties is scheduled to begin in Calgary on Feb. 20.