OAKVILLE, Ont. — Here are takeaways from the WFG Masters that wrapped up Sunday where Team Kerri Einarson of Gimli, Man., defeated Ottawa’s Team Rachel Homan 6-5 in an extra end for the women’s championship and Italy’s Team Joël Retornaz capturing their first Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling title with a 6-2 decision over Scotland’s Team Bruce Mouat in the men’s final.
First End: Italy is emerging as a curling contender. While the European scene has been dominated by countries that start with the letter S — Scotland, Sweden and Switzerland — you can now add Italy to the list of countries whose teams have won Grand Slam titles.
“It means a lot first of all to ourselves but also for our country,” Retornaz said. “We were not a huge curling country but we’re showing that with passion and dedication you can get to the top. Today we are at the top, so we couldn’t be more proud.”
Second End: It’s a crucial quadrennial for Italy as they will host the 2026 Winter Olympic Games in Milan and Cortina. They’re already the reigning Olympic gold medallists in mixed doubles with Amos Mosaner, who also throws third for Retornaz, and Stefania Constantini, who skips her own women’s team as well. In fact, Team Constantini, who finished fourth at the European Championships last month, will make their Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling debut next month in the Co-op Canadian Open.
The program is in good standing and Retornaz is also thinking about helping develop the next generation.
“The men’s team is doing well, the women’s team is doing well. The mixed doubles, we don’t need to say anything about that, so we’re in a good spot,” Retornaz said. “We hope also to grow some youngsters back home. We need someone behind us to keep up in case we stop one day. I’m getting old, so I’m not going to last forever, but I don’t want to stop right now because I’m enjoying this moment.”
Third End: It has been a meteoric rise through the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling for Retornaz. Although the 39-year-old skip has made eight appearances at the world championship and 14 at the European championships, being the reigning bronze medallist at both, he only made his Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling debut last season at the Princess Auto Players’ Championship.
His lineup — featuring Mosaner, second Sebastiano Arman and lead Mattia Giovanella — is undoubtedly the best he’s ever had with room to grow (well, not literally, as Mosaner and Arman are already quite tall). The WFG Masters represented a number of firsts: first semifinals, first final and first Grand Slam title.
“It feels great. I mean, I wasn’t expecting this before coming here but we started playing and realized we were playing very well,” Retornaz said. “We felt comfortable on the ice and the team was performing amazingly. We kept winning, we lost one during the round-robin but still, we felt good and we thought we could make this.”
Fourth End: While it was a first for Retornaz, over in the women’s division, Einarson is now a five-time Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling champion (can you dig that?) and is fourth among skips all-time in the women’s division trailing Homan (12), Jennifer Jones (nine) and Anna Hasselborg (seven).
“It’s pretty special,” Einarson said. “After losing two finals, back to back, it was tough because we didn’t come out as sharp but you definitely learn from those losses. We came out and we played really great today.”
Among the four majors, Einarson now just needs to win the Co-op Canadian Open to complete a career Grand Slam. Only Hasselborg has accomplished that feat in the women’s division. Einarson captured the Boost National in 2016 and the Princess Auto Players’ Championship twice (2019 and 2021). Oh, guess which event is next on the schedule?
Fifth End: Einarson had an ambitious goal coming into this season: qualify for the playoffs in every event her team played in. They’ve kept up that goal so far while also reaching three consecutive Grand Slam finals. Impressive.
Most impressive: Einarson’s streak actually extends to five straight in the series if you go back to last season with her team’s title victory at the KIOTI Tractor Champions Cup and a runner-up result in the Princess Auto Players’ Championship. Only Homan (in 2018) has reached five consecutive Grand Slam women’s finals.
“To make it to the final is tough, especially at a Grand Slam with all of the world’s best,” Einarson said. “We’ve been playing really well and being consistent and I think that’s been key to our success.”
Sixth End: Norway is also trending upwards in the curling world as the WFG Masters saw the debut of Team Magnus Ramsfjell, who had a stellar run making it to the semifinals, while the HearingLife Tour Challenge in October featured the return of Team Steffen Walstad. That event’s Tier 2 division also saw the debut of Team Lukas Hostmaelingen, who reached the quarterfinals and will only get better as they’re still junior eligible.
Meanwhile, Netherlands’ Team Wouter Gosgens will make their GSOC top-tier debut next month in the Co-op Canadian Open.
Is this a cause for concern with fewer Canadian men’s teams at the top? No. Let’s not forget Team Brad Gushue just won the BOOST National in October while Team Matt Dunstone finished runners-up at the HearingLife Tour Challenge. As of Dec. 12, there are still seven Canadian teams in the top 16 with only Scotland — who, you know, invented this sport — having more than one.
The depth has taken a bit of a hit with skip Brad Jacobs stepping back from competitive curling this year plus teams skipped by Glenn Howard and Mike McEwen sliding down the rankings. Even from a North American perspective, John Shuster’s American squad is on the outside looking in.
It’s tough to get into the Slams — as it should be. The slogan is “the world’s best in one series” for a reason and as Ric Flair said, to be the best you have to beat the best. Maybe if Canadian teams weren’t so provincially restricted, stronger teams would emerge but let’s kick that hornet’s nest another day.
Seventh End: The semifinal matchup between Retornaz and Team Brendan Bottcher saw the Calgary club blank the first six ends of the game before giving up a steal in the seventh and settling for a single in the eighth. That finally handed the hammer over to Retornaz for the extra end where his team scored two for the win.
Before you raise the question of what to do about blanking ends, some perspective is needed. In the nearly nine years I’ve covered the series, this is the only game where blanking stands out so egregiously. The other three semifinal matchups happening at the same time only had two blanked ends — combined.
Yes, blanks can be boring when it’s hit-for-hit takeouts just as they can be exciting when it’s the only option and teams attempt to bail out of a bad end. We’ve also seen seemingly routine blank attempts go wrong and create drama like in the women’s quarterfinals just this week. Hasselborg whiffed a blank attempt against Homan and gave up a critical stolen point. It’s not worth radically changing the sport because of an outlier.
Eighth End: That’s it for the calendar year in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling. The series kicks off the new year with the Co-op Canadian Open, Jan. 10-15, 2023, at Encana Arena in Camrose, Alta. Stay tuned as the field should be announced soon.