What happens in Vegas isn’t going to stay in Vegas this time with the rest of the globe watching.
The world men’s curling championship begins Saturday in the entertainment capital with Canada’s Brad Gushue opening his title defence against Russia’s Alexey Timofeev in the first draw.
It’s not curling’s first foray into Las Vegas with the Continental Cup — curling’s version of the Ryder Cup pitting North America against the World — being held there three times previously. The novelty of that event is befitting of the spectacle that is Vegas as a made-for-TV tournament and a far different atmosphere from a world championship though.
But the timing couldn’t be better for a high stakes event with not only curling experiencing a spike in popularity in the U.S. thanks to Team Shuster’s gold-medal victory at the Olympics but it also coincides with another winter sport dominated by Canadians now taking off in Las Vegas with the expansion Golden Knights already qualifying for the NHL playoffs in their inaugural season.
1st End: Gushue not going to let Vegas be a distraction
The bright lights of Las Vegas can be quite alluring, but Gushue will have the blinders on and treat it the same as when his team competed in the worlds a year ago in Edmonton. The only difference is it’ll be way warmer.
“We kind of know what to expect,” Gushue said Tuesday during a media teleconference, “and really I believe, at the end of the day, once the event starts and we get into the routine of two games a day, it’s going to feel like any other event other than it’s going to be 25 or 30 degrees when we walk to the rink instead of minus-5.”
While Gushue, second Brett Gallant and lead Geoff Walker will be newbies when it comes to curling in Las Vegas, third Mark Nichols competed with Team North America at the 2014 Continental Cup in the city.
“We were down there in the middle of January. It was not quite as warm as what it’s going to be this time but the ice was good and the crowds were great,” Nichols said during the teleconference. “It’s everything you want in a great curling event. Like Brad said, you get on the ice it’s another event as long as there are a lot of fans in the stands and cheering loud, that’s kind of what we want regardless of where it is.”
Gushue is anticipating a contingent of supporters to flock south and not just friends and family but also fans from across Canada.
“I certainly feel like if we’re not the crowd favourite down there we’re going to be number two,” Gushue said. “I do expect quite a bit of support and there’s probably a lot more people that are going down that we’re not even aware of at this point. It’s been a pretty big whirlwind for us over the last couple weeks, obviously, going right to Winnipeg for the Elite 10 [from winning the Brier in Regina] and we’ve only been home for, I believe, eight or nine days, so we haven’t had a chance to talk to everybody to see who is actually going.”
2nd End: Nichols playing with a heavy heart
Mark Nichols remembers when he was very young being on the curling sheet with his mom Helen in Labrador City, N.L.
Helen, who competed for Newfoundland at the 1992 Scott Tournament of Hearts and played a large role in her son’s pursuit of the game, passed away recently at age 63.
“It was a tough week for sure,” Mark Nichols said. “I’ve got a great support system around me so I know they’re going to help me through it and obviously the focus is on winning the world championship.”
3rd End: Edin stands out from the pack
As Gushue looks to repeat, also aiming to get back into the final (and flip the script) is last year’s runner-up Niklas Edin of Sweden. The recently minted Olympic silver medallist ranks No. 1 in the world thanks to another solid season with three tour titles and a European Championship gold.
Experience may be on Edin’s side having played in all three Continental Cups in Las Vegas plus third Oskar Eriksson has shown his support for the Golden Knights at Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling tournaments.
Team Edin third Oskar Eriksson rocking a Vegas Golden Knights hat during play at the 2017 Masters in Lloydminster, Sask. (Anil Mungal)
Norway’s Steffen Walstad was a finalist in his Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling debut at the start of the year in September’s Tour Challenge Tier 1 and was undefeated until running into … Gushue. Walstad, who beat perennial favourite Thomas Ulsrud for the Norwegian championship, will attempt to build upon his 5-6 record at the worlds last year.
Scotland’s Bruce Mouat also gets his chance to shine on the world stage in the midst of a phenomenal breakout campaign. Mouat became the youngest skip to win a Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling men’s title at age 23 when he captured the Boost National in November. The team, which has picked up four other tour championships in 2017-18, won the Scottish title and beat Olympic rep Kyle Smith in a playoff to get the opportunity to go to the worlds.
Boost National runner-up Chang-Min Kim of South Korea is another one to watch as he too has risen up the tour ranks this season. Kim is coming off of a spirited Winter Olympics competing for the host nation.
4th End: No Shuster at worlds? No problem
Greg Persinger’s crew, and not the Olympic gold squad skipped by John Shuster, will be representing the home team at the world men’s curling championship. The U.S. nationals took place almost immediately after the Pyeongchang Winter Games and Shuster was swept up in the media frenzy following the “Miracurl on Ice.”
Although Shuster playing in the worlds would have been a draw, hitting the talk shows and throwing ceremonial rocks and pitches at other sporting events will bring far more outside attention to the sport, according to Gushue.
“I think doing these shows and throwing the first pitch at the Minnesota [Twins] game, all those things are just going to bring a little bit more awareness to the sport of curling that’s going to provide more value to the whole sport in general than if they had played in the nationals and eventually in Vegas,” Gushue said. “Credit to those guys for taking that on. Obviously, it’s a lot of fun doing what they’re doing as well but certainly, it’s going to help the game.”
5th End: Jones practically perfect with memorable run at worlds
What a week it was for Canada’s Jennifer Jones, whose team ran the table finishing with an unblemished record on home ice at the world women’s curling championship in North Bay, Ont.
Jones completed the 14-0 run with a thrilling 7-6 extra-end victory Sunday over Sweden’s Anna Hasselborg in front of a soldout capacity crowd at Memorial Gardens.
It’s quite the sendoff for second Jill Officer, who will be stepping back from competitive curling after the season. Who knew when Jones approached Officer by that Coke machine when they were teenagers it would be the start of a 20-plus year partnership resulting in an Olympic gold, two world titles, six Canadian championships and a record nine Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling women’s championships. A sign in the crowd said it best: second to none.
6th End: Hats off to Hasselborg
Kudos to Hasselborg as well. Hasselborg followed up an impressive Olympic performance winning gold at the Pyeongchang Winter Games with a runner-up finish at the worlds in North Bay.
After reaching the pinnacle of the curling mountain, a hard crash mentally and physically would have been understandable or even expected but Team Hasselborg got right back to work. They showed no signs of burnout in the final taking Canada to the distance and then some to force an extra end.
7th End: Curling musical chairs continue
Saskatchewan has been hit with the free-agent storm as provincial champion Steve Laycock and his team announced last week they were parting ways. Front-end brothers Kirk and Dallan Muyres are sticking and added another sibling pair, Kevin and Dan Marsh. Kirk Muyres is moving up to skip the all-new team out of Saskatoon.
Also, we’re starting to see more news trickle out of Europe now with Silvana Tirinzoni’s team in Switzerland adding former skips Alina Paetz and Melanie Barbezat to build a powerhouse squad. Second Esther Neuenschwander stays in the mix while third Manuela Siegrist will recover from knee injuries and lead Marlene Albrecht takes a step back.
Mouat also announced his team is staying together for another go.
8th End: Players’ Championship draw schedule now out
The matches have been set for the Players’ Championship running April 10-15 at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto. Click here to see the full draw schedule.
You don’t want to miss the 26th running of the crown jewel Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling tournament featuring 12 of the top men’s teams and 12 of the top women’s teams of the season. The GSOC Bonus Cup is also on the line plus the final spots in the season-ending Humpty’s Champions Cup.
Full-event and weekend passes plus single-draw tickets are available, click here for ticket information. If you can’t make it to Toronto, Sportsnet and CBC will have you covered. Click here for the TV schedule with online streaming at Sportsnet NOW (Canada) and Yare TV (international).