Canada's Olympic curling trials a battle of talented, experienced teams

Eighteen of the best women's and men's curling teams in Canada have been preparing over the last quadrennial for these Olympic trials, which begin Saturday at the SaskTel Centre.

Winners will look to get Canada back on Olympic podium in Beijing

Manitoba's Tracy Fleury and her rink enter the Canadian Olympic trials as the No. 1-ranked women's team in the world. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The Canadian Olympic curling trials, set to begin in Saskatoon on Saturday, can shake even the most prolific and seasoned curlers to their core. 

This is the seventh such tournament since curling became an official Olympic event in 1998 and as the talent in Canada has increased, so has the pressure. 

Six-time national champion Colleen Jones and CBC Sports curling reporter Devin Heroux are back with That Curling Show starting Friday at  7 p.m. ET to preview the trials, and then nightly from Nov. 24 to Nov. 28.  Watch it on the CBC Sports YouTube page and CBC Olympics Facebook and Twitter.

"When you have a field like this where it's so equal and so talented, what it comes down to is the mental toughness and withstanding the pressure. That's why experience matters," says Colleen Jones, a six-time national champion who competed in two Olympic trials. "There's just so much at stake for all the teams. The pressure grows. They want to be Olympic champions."

Eighteen of the best women's and men's teams in the country have been preparing over the last quadrennial for this bonspiel. They've faced an unprecedented journey in their pursuit to wear the maple leaf at the Beijing Olympics in February. The incessant pandemic derailed most of last year's curling season, forcing curlers onto backyard rinks and frozen lakes to try to stay somewhat in form. 

It's a field ladened with talent and experience. Only one women's team and one men's team, however, will outlast the rest of the competition to earn the right to represent Canada in Beijing in February. 

Kerri Einarson has won back-to-back national championships. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Women's field: 

Rachel Homan comes into the event as the defending champion, having won the trials in her hometown of Ottawa four years ago. But Homan didn't even make the the playoffs in Pyeongchang, the first time a Canadian women's curling foursome had missed the podium at an Olympics. 

Jennifer Jones is looking to make it back to the Games after winning gold in Sochi in 2014. She has two-time Olympic champion Kaitlyn Lawes as her third. Lawes also won mixed doubles Olympic gold alongside John Morris in South Korea in 2018, the first time the event had been included in the Games.

"The only team on the women's side that can say they're past Olympic champions is Jennifer Jones. That experience matters, even if you've been struggling, somewhere in the back of your mind you can tell yourself I've been there, done that and can do it again," Colleen Jones said. "And don't discount the magical shotmaking, making the impossible shots look easy.

"That's what the great skips do and is what we saw from Homan and Kevin Koe in Ottawa — pure magic."

The only team on the women's side that can say they're past Olympic champions is Jennifer Jones. That experience matters ...- Colleen Jones

The all-skip rink out of Gimli, Man., led by Kerri Einarson, comes into the event as one of the favourites having won back-to-back national championships. The team also clinched an Olympic berth for Canada at last spring's world championship by virtue of its top-six finish. 

But perhaps the team to be most feared on the women's side is the rink skipped by Tracy Fleury. The foursome from East St. Paul, Man., has been nearly unbeatable in the early part of the season, winning the first Grand Slam event of the season and then making it to the championship game in the second. Fleury enters the tournament as the No. 1-ranked team in the world. 

Alberta-based teams skipped by Casey Scheidegger, Laura Walker and Kelsey Rocque all earned spots at the pre-trials event in Ottawa last month. Rounding out the field on the women's side are Krista McCarville of Thunder Bay, Ont., and Jacqueline Harrison of Dundas, Ont. 

John Morris and Kaitlyn Lawes won gold in mixed doubles four years ago in Pyeongchang, the only Canadian curlers to reach the podium. (Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

Men's field:

The nine teams feature nine curlers who have won Olympic gold, including skips Brad Jacobs and Brad Gushue, thirds Ryan Fry, Mark Nichols and Marc Kennedy. 

John Morris is the only curler in the men's field to have captured two Olympic gold medals, in 2010 and 2018 in mixed doubles. 

Kevin Koe has redemption on his mind after also failing to reach the podium for Canada at the Olympics in Pyeongchang. The defending trials champion from Calgary has two new teammates going into Saskatoon — Morris and B.J. Neufeld were not part of Koe's foursome in 2018. 

Brendan Bottcher comes into the tournament as the defending Brier champion and has played in the past four Canadian men's championships. 

Matt Dunstone, out of Regina, is the hometown favourite. He, Jason Gunnlaugson (Morris, Man.) and Mike McEwen (West St. Paul, Man.) all earned their tickets to Saskatoon in October at the pre-trials qualifier in Ottawa. 

Gushue, out of St. John's, Nfld., and his team decided to play only three tournaments in advance of this event and have won 16 of 17 games they've played this season. 

"On the men's side we have so many past champions," Jones said. "That kind of skill level, talent and experience is pretty mind-blowing. And that's what you want to see from the Canadian teams at the Olympics,"

Tanner Horgan from Kingston, Ont., makes his trials debut after defeating Glenn Howard in a last-chance qualifier in Nova Scotia in late October. Epping, from Toronto, returns to the trials again and has added Howard as a fifth. 

The format:

There are nine women's teams and nine men's teams. They all play one another, with the top three advancing to the playoffs. 

Draws are scheduled for 10 a.m. ET, 3 p.m. ET, and 8 p.m. ET, with both the women's (noon ET) and men's (8 p.m. ET) championship games scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 28. 

The first-place teams after the round robin go directly to the championship games. The second- and third-place teams meet in a one-game semifinal showdown with the winners advancing to the championship games. 

It's a simple format built to ramp up the pressure.


Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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