From hub cities to reworked Olympic qualifying, Curling Canada looking at all scenarios for sport's return

Curling Canada is keeping an icy stare on the upcoming season, trying to come up with every way imaginable to keep the nation's teams at peak performance.

Organization fears financial losses of playing without ticket-buying fans

As the days get longer and summer heat rises, Curling Canada is keeping an icy stare on the upcoming season, trying to come up with every way imaginable to keep the nation's teams at peak performance.

Both Curling Canada CEO Katherine Henderson and Gerry Peckham, the organization's high performance director, said they are taking steps to ensure they're prepared for whatever comes their way in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that has shut down curling and sports around the world.

"We're carefully planning for all of our commitments, which really begin in the November time period," Henderson said. "We haven't cancelled anything on our calendar. We're looking at things day by day. We're dealing with public health authorities, partners and want to ensure we can deliver as much curling as we can."

The Canada Cup, a crucial event on the calendar with Olympic trial ramifications, is scheduled to begin Nov. 24 in Fredericton. That's a lot of time under normal circumstances — these are anything but.

Whether the event takes place is just one part of the puzzle. One of the bigger challenges is determining which teams will even play as qualification is based on ranking in the order of merit, which is based on a team's placing in events. 

But there are no events being played because of pandemic cancellations, and with no certainty a bonspiel will happen before the Canada Cup, Peckham said they are developing a number of contingency plans.

"In hearing from and talking to our teams, they have received very little information to what the front part of this curling season will look like," he said. "If there is no normalcy to the bonspiel circuit as we know it, and events of that magnitude are not happening, then what can we create that can fill that gap?"

The 2020 Shorty Jenkins Classic, scheduled for mid-September in Cornwall, Ont., has been cancelled. The Canad Inns men's, women's and mixed doubles Classics, set to take place in mid-October have all been cancelled. 

"Without questions there's concern. We're trying to identify what curling clubs will open first and where, and how might we gain access to them for training some of our more elite teams," Peckham said.

One of the scenarios being considered is identifying a number of hubs across Canada where the elite teams could come together in a training camp-like setting to prepare for the season.

"What we've been looking at is identifying centres in each province or each region so that people could in fact drive to them as opposed to fly to them," Peckham said. "If we can provide some access to training to be on the ice and re-engage delivery dynamics, we will be close to being as competitive as we were at the end of last season."

While Peckham and his senior leadership group continue to come up with ways to keep Canada's curlers competitive, Henderson has been spending hours coming up with ways to return to play.

Brad Gushue celebrates his win at the Brier in March, the last curling event before the global shutdown of sports. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"We're going to have to stay flexible," she said. "How far away do you have to be? What protective measures? Handshakes. I think until we're fully over this crisis, people are going to have to approach curling differently."

Henderson said Curling Canada has been putting together informational webinars to help clubs navigate what a return to play might look like, and how to access government funding and how to keep their members safe.

"At some point the clubs are going to need to invite people back and let them know what they're doing," Henderson said. "It will be up to the various clubs, but we'll give them the best advice."

The Olympic trials are set for Saskatoon in December 2021. Making sure the best teams in Canada are there competing for the chance to wear the maple leaf in Beijing 2022 is top priority.

"What we need to ensure is that ... the six or seven most deserving teams in Canada have access to the trials per gender."

Peckham said that might mean changing the Olympic qualification process entirely.

"My only concern is getting our most elite teams ready to perform and ensuring those teams on the bubble have been given a fair and reasonable opportunity to fill in those last spots," he said. "We are definitely at risk at having to reimagine the Olympic qualification process."

Should events take place, Curling Canada is looking into ways to get people into the arenas.

Henderson has been talking to a number of organizations, ranging from the Korean Baseball Organization to the Bundesliga German soccer league, NHL and NBA trying to get a sense of how these leagues are considering having fans in their venues.

"I've talked with people about ticketing apps that allow people to sit separately and enter a venue at different times," she said. "People are starved for sport."

Having fans at major curling events is vital to the bottom line for Curling Canada. Peckham said they couldn't host many events without people attending.

"It's the nastiest challenge facing us. An event like the Canada Cup is not financially viable without ticket sales. Could we run it? Yes. Would it satisfy a TV deal? Yes. Would it satisfy some sponsors? Yes," he said.

"Would it be financially viable? No."

Peckham said hosting the Canada Cup in November without fans to "create momentum" is something they're entertaining, but they couldn't do many other events outside of it without spectators.

"It would be too big of financial hole that not even the Brier and the Scotties would allow us to recover from," he said.

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