Eight Ends: Takeaways from the 2023 KIOTI Tractor Champions Cup
Eight Ends is your source for insight and analysis from the Grand Slam of Curling tour. This edition looks at takeaways from the KIOTI Tractor Champions Cup.
FIRST END: Are you not entertained? The haters dismissed the thought of a winter sport stretching its season into early May (don’t tell them when the NHL season ends) but the top teams in the world left it all on the line this past week for the Grand Slam of Curling finale at the KIOTI Tractor Champions Cup in Regina. With the summer break on the horizon, teams went pedal to the metal emptying the tank as we saw some impressive shot-making and unbelievable moments right down to the last rock.
Of course, we had to wrap things up Sunday with an extra end as the curlers just refused to let the season finish on time. Kerri Einarson had to make a really tricky shot to tick her other stone really thin to nudge it over to the button. It was a crowded house in the four-foot circle though and Rachel Homan’s rock also spun up in the ensuing chaos to cover the pin and take the prize with a 6-5 victory.
SECOND END: Homan had to win her record-extending 13th Grand Slam women’s title the hard way as her Ottawa-based team fell behind 4-0 early off of steals before putting on their rally caps (even if coach Ryan Fry was the only one actually wearing a hat). No one finishes the season quite like Homan as she’s won four Champions Cup titles while no one else has won it more than once in the women’s division.
Let’s not forget this is practically a new team this season as Emma Miskew and Sarah Wilkes (with Rachelle Brown subbing this week) have had to adjust to new positions with Tracy Fleury coming on board at third. Fleury has been handling skip duties as well up until this week. Homan returned to calling all the shots as she’s been nursing a “middle-body injury,” which we can now say is she’s expecting her third child.
“Even the way that we won was pretty gritty and never let up,” Homan said. “Obviously, we struggled with the ice conditions early, but we figured them out and kept making more shots.
“It was just an unreal feeling to win and battle back. Obviously, we have a different lineup this week, so some new challenges with a new lineup and team. It was just a great effort by our team.”
THIRD END: One team’s comeback is another team’s disappointment, from a certain point of view. That was a tough shot Einarson had to make and you have to give credit to Homan for setting up the steal scenario.
The loss will certainly sting Team Einarson but it shouldn’t take away from the outstanding season they’ve had in the series. Einarson’s club reached four consecutive women’s finals and a record six straight when stretching that back into last season. Even when the streak ended, they were only one game away from extending it as they reached the semifinals of the Princess Auto Players’ Championship.
Team Einarson bounced right back to get into the KIOTI Tractor Champions Cup final to make it five out of six championship games on the season. There are 10 other women’s teams that would have loved to have been in that final with six of them that would have just liked to have qualified for the playoffs even.
FOURTH END: Brendan Bottcher’s team was built for moments like these, as we said when they won the Co-op Canadian Open in January, and the Calgary-based club captured their second Grand Slam men’s title in three events with a 5-3 victory over Brad Gushue’s crew from St. John’s, N.L.
Team Bottcher went undefeated en route to winning the Grand Slam title both times.
Bottcher formed an entirely new crew this season with third Marc Kennedy, second Brett Gallant and lead Ben Hebert. It can take time for chemistry to form and one powerhouse team that comes to mind is Kevin Koe’s club he formed in 2014 featuring Kennedy, Hebert and Brent Laing. They didn’t reach any Grand Slam finals in their first season together and it wasn’t until Year 2 when things really started to come together as they won a Grand Slam title at the Tour Challenge. That was followed by Brier and world championships plus a trip to the Winter Olympic Games.
“We put this team together for one thing and that was to win,” he added. “It’s just a great week here to win going into the summer, lots of energy and excitement. Hopefully, we come out good and play good to start next year.”
FIFTH END: Bottcher might be the champion of the Champions Cup, but the king of consistency is Gushue, who has qualified for the playoffs in 25 consecutive Grand Slam events. Since 2012, Gushue’s team has only missed the playoffs four times. Even if you want to toss in the 2013 Masters that they skipped while competing at the Olympic pre-trials, the fact you only need one hand to count a decade-plus of playoff misses is impressive.
Breaking it down another level, since the start of the 2018-19 season, Gushue has made it to at least the semifinal stage in 15 of 16 Grand Slams. Most impressive.
In case you’re wondering, the outlier there is this season’s WFG Masters where Gushue lost in the quarterfinals to (guess who) Bottcher.
SIXTH END: This was the first time both finals in a Grand Slam event featured all-Canadian matchups since the Tour Challenge in November 2018 when Brad Jacobs beat Bottcher on the men’s side and Homan defeated Fleury for the women’s title. Four-and-a-half years might seem like a long time but keep in mind the series has had finals with two Canadian teams facing off since then (just not both simultaneously) and only one event (the 2022 Princess Auto Players’ Championship) finished without any Canadian teams winning titles.
Canadian curling is in great standing even if there are fewer teams qualifying for the Grand Slam level — but it’s a case of quality over quantity. The Grand Slam of Curling features the world’s best in one house and to be the best, you have to beat the best.
“We had a phenomenal season as a team and it just goes to show you how much work we put in that we were able to perform right away as a new team,” Homan said. “I mean, there are a lot of new teams this year that did phenomenal as well, so it’s been a great year of change.
“I think everybody needed a bit of a change across the board and we’ve seen lots of good results from Canadian teams. It was great to see four Canadian teams in the final here. That’s huge for Canada.”
SEVENTH END: There’s no question what the shot of the tournament was as it would also be in contention for the shot of the year if it wasn’t for a certain super spinner (you may have seen that one) that made it pointless to hold a contest this season. We’re talking about Matt Dunstone’s angle raise from downtown Broad Street that resulted in a double takeout and a score of three points against Joël Retornaz during pool play.
Dunstone said at the start of the week they were going to “go out and leave it all on the table” and he certainly tossed his chips and went all-in here.
We can only score it four-and-a-half stars out of five though because he didn’t save the raised rock (just kidding).
Dunstone defeated Retornaz 8-7 to finish undefeated at 5-0 in pool play for the first time in a Grand Slam tournament and secure a bye to the semifinals.
“Our draw was quite awful this week, so we knew 4-1 wasn’t going to get us into the semifinals,” Dunstone said. “We knew we had to win that one. Those are fun little shots to play. I wasn’t quite sure if it was there for two or three, almost hung it on for four, but to pick up a deuce, even three there, was pretty big in that moment.
“Any time you go out, regardless of record, you’re going out to win the game. That’s the way this team always plays and we fight each and every game. I would expect nothing less out of this group.”
EIGHT END: That’s a wrap on another fantastic season. The Grand Slam of Curling returns in the fall with the HearingLife Tour Challenge kicking off the 2023-24 campaign, Oct. 17-22, at the Gale Centre in Niagara Falls, Ont. It’s going to be a blast that you will not want to miss. Visit thegrandslamofcurling.com/tickets for ticket info.