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Eight Ends: Einarson, Homan early Canadian athlete of the year candidates

Eight Ends is your source for news, notes, insight and analysis from around the curling world. This week features red-hot takeaways from the double bubble Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling events.

FIRST END: Kerri Einarson and Rachel Homan are certainly making the case as early candidates for the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s athlete of the year.

Einarson has had a bubble run for the ages at Calgary’s WinSport Arena capturing the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in February, the Canadian mixed doubles championship last month and the Princess Auto Players’ Championship — the crown jewel of the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling — this past Sunday with a 5-2 victory over Homan in the final. Einarson’s season isn’t finished yet either with her Gimli, Man., based team competing in the world women’s championship starting Friday, plus a trip across the pond next month to Scotland for the world mixed doubles championship with Brad Gushue.

Homan finished runner-up to Einarson in the Scotties and Players’ Championship, competing in the former while eight months pregnant and the latter just four weeks after giving birth to daughter Bowyn. The Ottawa skip barely stepped away for maternity leave and returned for the Humpty’s Champions Cup — the first of the two bubble Slams — and captured her record-extending 11th Grand Slam women’s title by defeating Switzerland’s Team Silvana Tirinzoni 6-3 a week ago.

“How impressive Rachel was at eight months pregnant I think really stands out in my mind,” Team Homan third Emma Miskew said after the Scotties. “She played amazing and you can tell just how she was getting down the ice, it wasn’t easy for her even just to be walking let alone curling and throwing peels with the accuracy that she was. That was insanely impressive.”

All of that would be impressive in a normal year, but in this abnormal year it’s all in an isolated bubble where players are restricted to either the rink or their hotel room for weeks and months at a time. For Homan it’s also raising a newborn in the bubble. Looking at some of the texts I received from Homan — from 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. MT — she was working around the clock.

The players have been away from their families and co-workers and in the case of Einarson and Team Homan lead Joanne Courtney, residents and patients. Both Einarson and Courtney are essential frontline workers with Einarson employed at a long-term care facility and Courtney working as a nurse. They’ve seen up close how the pandemic has taken its toll on everyone.

Homan isn’t just a trailblazer on the ice, she’s also one of the leaders off the ice for the sport, too. Team Homan, along with Brendan Bottcher and Jason Gunnlaugson’s teams, used Goldline’s new United We Curl line of brooms during the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling events. United We Curl aims to promote diversity and inclusion in the sport with brooms designed by BIPOC members of the curling community. The Grand Slam of Curling has partnered with Goldline as part of this initiative.

This isn’t about politics and being left or right, it’s about ensuring if curling is truly for everyone, those who are underrepresented have their voices heard, too.

“We are really excited to be part of United We Curl and honoured to be using the broom designed by Deb Martin,” said Homan, who used the Black Curl Magic brooms. “Deb’s design honours Black excellence, hope and joy. It is an important issue for us and supporting people that are largely not represented in our sport.”

Courtney added: “Amplifying the voices of those who are underrepresented is something that we really believe in and we are just so happy to be able to showcase these beautiful brushes. Deb Martin made such a powerful design. For us out there to be able to look at what we have in our hands and just feel that pride to be involved in this initiative is a really special feeling.”

SECOND END: Pop quiz: Name a curler who has won the Lou Marsh Trophy? If you can’t think of one, that’s because there isn’t one. In the 79 times the trophy has been awarded, a curler has never won it.

How about the Lionel Conacher Award for Canadian male athlete of the year or the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award for Canadian female athlete of the year? Also zero.

Curling has fared better in the Canadian Press Team of the Year award — as in, curling teams have actually won it twice with Sandra Schmirler’s team in 1998 and Brad Gushue’s team in 2006. The common theme there was both captured Olympic gold and it was also in years when Canada’s men’s hockey team missed the Olympic podium.

Considering this is a summer Olympic year, curling’s shutout of the top individual player awards is likely to remain, pending Canada’s results in the Tokyo Games.

Perhaps it’s because curling is a four-player team sport even though teams are named after their skip, who acts as the leader and conductor on the ice. They’re the ones calling the plays and throwing the most important shots like a captain, coach and general manager all rolled into one. Besides, bobsledder Kaillie Humphries won the Lou Marsh Trophy in 2014 and that’s also a small-team sport.

It could also be because we take for granted Canada’s achievements in the sport but the world has caught up. Finishing on the podium is no longer a lock and not because Canada “choked.” Curling was never really Canada’s game, Scotland was merely letting Canadians think it was (and if Bruce Mouat’s team is any indication, they’ve come to reclaim it anyway). Of the 12 women’s teams competing in the Grand Slam events, only four were Canadian, and yet the Players’ Championship women’s final was an all-Canadian matchup. That isn’t indicative of Canadian dominance but a reflection of how Team Homan and Team Einarson are playing at another level right now.

The onus also falls on the press, i.e. those who vote for these awards. How many times have you read a column that started with an anecdote about the one time the writer curled as if it’s comparable. You wouldn’t start an NHL story by writing about your floor hockey exploits or an IndyCar story about the time you got caught on the highway driving over the speed limit. The intention might be to make curling relatable but it’s slightly disrespectful to the athletes and the amount of hard work and sacrifices they put into mastering their craft to get to where they are.

TV ratings and web page views suggest curling isn’t really all that niche and the unique hub city concept at Calgary’s WinSport Arena has brought extra attention in a year when there hasn’t been a whole lot else going on in the world of sports in Canada.

“I think it’s just so fantastic for the game,” said Shannon Birchard, who throws second stones for Team Einarson. “We want to see curling grow and part of that is also inspiring the youth to pick up the game because they see top players succeeding in it, so I think it’s just wonderful for curling in general and women in sport as well.”

THIRD END: Team Einarson appear all tuned up now for the world women’s curling championship. The Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling events were their first games against top international competition in 15 months since the Meridian Canadian Open in January 2020.

Einarson passed the test with flying colours. Their title defence in the Players’ Championship was a success following up on their Grand Slam title victory at the event in 2019 when it was last held in Toronto. Team Einarson were also semifinalists in the Humpty’s Champions Cup, falling to Homan, and Birchard said they’re feeling pretty good right now.

“I think we’ve just got to keep with our processes, doing small things and keep communication up,” Birchard said. “It’s a long stretch here in the bubble and a long stretch with each other, so just make sure we’re doing the right things for ourselves and for each other out there.”

Funny how all the naysayers who said the “all-skip squad” wouldn’t work or wouldn’t get along are now suddenly quiet. For starters, Einarson didn’t stack the deck and recruit any of them — Birchard and Meilleur approached Einarson together wanting to play with her when she was a free agent and Sweeting inquired as well shortly thereafter. They wanted to play new roles and have strived to become the best at what they do. Sweeting showcased that in the Princess Auto Players’ Championship final throwing 100 per cent.

FOURTH END: Birchard is the only one of the four members of Team Einarson who has experience on the world stage. She served as the alternate for Jennifer Jones’s club when they captured the 2018 world championship in North Bay, Ont. Team Einarson should have played in the worlds last year and were in Prince George, B.C., when the event was cancelled right on the eve of the tournament.

“We’re so excited to be able to wear our jerseys this time,” Birchard said. “The bubble’s been super safe so far and we’re just so confident that things are going to go well next week. We’re just going to try and carry on and keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

Team Einarson can also rely on their coach Heather Nedohin, who is a two-time bronze medallist for Canada at the women’s worlds. Nedohin is the perfect mentor for Team Einarson as she has a great mind for the game from a tactical perspective and her fun personality keeps the nerves down and the team relaxed, too. If you find a rubber snake in your bag, you know it was that prankster Nedohin.

“She’s a fantastic wealth of knowledge to be able to have with us out there for worlds,” Birchard said. “She definitely keeps the mood light and keeps us laughing as well. She’s super smart about the game, so she’s been a fantastic addition to our team.”

FIFTH END: All this talk about Canadian athlete of the year is early, right? Indeed, Einarson and Homan could even capture so much more. There are still three more Grand Slams on tap for the fall plus the Olympic Trials, which in all honesty, should come down to another Einarson vs. Homan final.

Which sets up an interesting question: Who wouldn’t want to see a best-of-seven series between them for the spot? We’ve already seen Einarson and Homan face off five times in the past three months with Einarson holding the edge 3-2. All the other women’s teams would disagree but if the goal is to send the best, Team Einarson and Team Homan showed these past few months they’re a step above the rest.

The bubble was certainly a wild card, but looking at the past few seasons Team Einarson has back-to-back Scotties Tournament of Hearts and Players’ championships and Team Homan has three Scotties silver medals, four Grand Slam titles and a Canada Cup. Tracy Fleury’s team from East St. Paul, Man., comes closest with one Grand Slam title from the 2019 Masters and a second-place finish to Homan at the 2019 Canada Cup.

Nobody was in their final form as they would be in a normal season but the cream always rises and we saw top-notch shot-making skills. That speaks volumes to the off-ice training and work these teams put in. For Team Homan this was also a rebuilding year although you’d hardly have guessed it with Courtney moving over to a new position at lead and Sarah Wilkes joining at second and both adjusting seamlessly.

“A few people have commented like, ‘Oh three silvers in a row, losing three finals in a row,’ but this year that is not how we feel in any way,” Miskew said after the Scotties Tournament of Hearts. “We’re really happy with our results. If someone before the event had said you’re going to come in second, we would have been like, ‘Amazing!’ We were locked into our homes. The whole year was almost a full lockdown where we couldn’t train together let alone train at all a lot of the time. It was hopping into an event and trying to make the best of a situation this year that wasn’t ideal. I thought we did a really good job of doing that.”

SIXTH END: Hats off to Bruce Mouat and a fantastic showing for his Scottish squad as they followed up their silver medal performance in the men’s worlds by sweeping through the Grand Slam portion of the bubble, capturing both Humpty’s Champions Cup and Princess Auto Players’ Championship men’s titles.

Mouat posted a perfect 7-0 record in the Princess Auto Players’ Championship, capped with a 6-5 victory over Team Brad Gushue of St. John’s, N.L., in Sunday’s final.

Altogether Team Mouat went an outstanding 13-1 combined with their lone loss coming against Gushue during pool play of the Humpty’s Champions Cup. That was avenged with a win in the semifinals where Mouat made a sizzling game-winning shot to score two points for the victory similar to what he pulled off in the Princess Auto Players’ Championship men’s final.

“To go 13-1 for the Slams is a really good achievement for us considering the field this year,” said Mouat, who beat Bottcher 6-3 for the Humpty’s Champions Cup title last Monday. “They’re literally the best 12 teams in the world. To win 13 games and to win two Grand Slam titles is more than I could ever dreamt of coming here and trying to play two Slams in a row.”

Mouat also acknowledged the history of the Players’ Championship, which actually predates the inception of the Grand Slam series, as the list of winners like Kevin Martin, Glenn Howard, Wayne Middaugh, Gushue and Bottcher are a who’s who of curling royalty.

“It feels unbelievable and quite amazing,” Mouat said. “Seeing the names on that trophy, it’s just a real honour to be part of that and to be on that trophy now is going to be one of the major successes of my career, I think.”

As for what’s next for Mouat, he’s just going to have to wait and see. There are no Olympic trials for Great Britain, but his team’s podium performance at the worlds and back-to-back Grand Slams certainly makes him the front-running candidate.

SEVENTH END: Kudos to Curling Canada for setting up the bubble and providing a successful blueprint for Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling to follow. The health and safety of all individuals involved was the No. 1 priority and zero COVID-19 cases were reported during the two events.

The only hitch was pushing back the start of the Humpty’s Champions Cup after the world men’s championship suspended play for a day when four positive cases were announced. Fortunately, they all turned out to be false positives, the bubble never burst and play resumed.

“There are such few games and we’re so grateful that Sportsnet is able to continue this bubble even with a little bit of a scare early in the week,” Homan said after winning the Humpty’s Champions Cup. “Everyone is so happy to be curling, so I think everybody is bringing their A-game right now.”

EIGHTH END: The no-tick zone rule implemented during the Humpty’s Champions Cup was either loved or loathed depending on who you asked.

The five-rock rule — where teams cannot eliminate rocks that are in the free-guard zone until five rocks have been thrown — is meant to generate offence, but teams have found a loophole by ticking the rocks to the side, thus technically keeping them in play but rendering them useless. Adding a no-tick zone rule to the centre line as a caveat to the five-rock rule was meant to keep in line with the style of play desired.

Yes, some gripe about changing the game and it’s fine as is, but that’s why this was just a trial run. You don’t know how things will work out unless you test things. The Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling has always been at the forefront of trying out new rules like the aforementioned five-rock rule that’s now the standard. Even thinking time was a Grand Slam innovation replacing the previous total time. This wasn’t even the first time the no-tick zone was used either as it was used in the now-defunct Elite 10 event and in 2019 Humpty’s Champions Cup where it was only in effect during the eighth and extra ends.

Credit to Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling competition director Pierre Charette, a Grand Slam title winner and one of the Original 18 skips in the series, who is making as much if not more of an impact off the ice as he did during his playing career.

EXTRA END: What’s the top shot of the double bubble run? There were so many but context is also key, so let’s go with Mouat’s last against Gushue to score two for the win.

Wait, there’s more than one? OK, the one in the Humpty’s Champions Cup semifinals that required such precision and effort from the whole team to pull off and also kicked off a nine-game win streak to sweep the two men’s titles.