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Eight Ends: Team Fujisawa turns dream of winning a GSOC title into reality

CAMROSE, Alta. — History was made at the Co-op Canadian Open as Team Satsuki Fujisawa capped a memorable week at Encana Arena by becoming the first Japanese club, and first from Asia, to win a Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling title.

Fujisawa defeated Team Kerri Einarson of Gimli, Man., 5-3 in the women’s final Sunday.

Meanwhile, Brendan Bottcher won his fourth career GSOC men’s title — and first with his new Calgary-based club — beating Sweden’s Team Niklas Edin by the same score, 5-3.

Here’s an in-depth look at some takeaways from the Co-op Canadian Open.

FIRST END: When Team Fujisawa arrived at the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling in 2016, they didn’t just come here to have fun, they came here to one day win a championship. Seven years and lots of hard work later, the dream became a reality at the Co-op Canadian Open while blazing a trail along the way.

“I think when you are a Japanese team and nobody has ever done it before, it’s really difficult to be the first,” Team Fujisawa coach J.D. Lind said. “Even if you know you’re good enough, to be the first is always very difficult because you never fully believe it until it happens. Hopefully, now that we’ve done it we’ll see even more Pacific-Asia teams excel at the Slams.”

Third Chinami Yoshida also alluded to the point that now that they’ve done it, the road to the championship for other Japanese teams has been lit.

“For all of the Japanese curlers, it’s kind of a dream to be a champion of the Grand Slams but right now, it’s not just a dream, it’s a goal,” Yoshida said. “I hope that not just us but maybe every Japanese team coming to the Grand Slams can compete at this amazing competition together.”

SECOND END: Hard work was also the common refrain from Team Bottcher. The crew of Bottcher, third Marc Kennedy, second Brett Gallant and lead Ben Hebert had a combined four Olympic medals, five world championships, 12 Brier titles and a whopping 42 Grand Slams with their previous teams before coming together this season. You’d be hard-pressed to find many teams with resumes of that calibre.

That’s all in the past now though and it’s all about what have you done lately.

“It’s big for us,” Gallant said. “All the best teams in the world are here and we’re competing against them. Our goal is to reach that top spot in the world. To have success here this week is important. We know there are still things we need to improve to be consistent week in and week out but we’re trending in the right direction, so that’s really positive.”

Gallant said the team has been taking “bits and pieces” from what’s worked with all of their previous teams. Bouncing back from an 0-4 run at the HearingLife Tour Challenge in October with a semifinal finish in last month’s WFG Masters and now reaching the top of the (figurative) podium shows the process is working.

“We’ve been working hard since August. Since we got ice, we’ve been working our butts off,” Gallant said. “We made a few changes, each individually to try to get our team to where we were throwing it similarly and we could make shots as a team and play really well together.

“We took a few lumps definitely at the Tour Challenge but really since that event, we’ve been on the upswing. It’s great and we’re just going to keep working hard and, hopefully, carry this momentum into the provincials and into the Brier.”

THIRD END: It’s hard to put into words what Einarson has accomplished this season simply because no one else has done what her team is doing right now. Team Einarson has reached a record six straight Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling women’s finals stretching back to last season’s Princess Auto Players’ Championship in April. They’ve captured two titles in that span winning the KIOTI Tractor Champions Cup in May and last month’s WFG Masters.

Yes, consistency is key but that’s usually referring to teams just qualifying for the playoffs. This is a whole other level.

“It feels pretty amazing,” Einarson said after the semifinals. “We’ve put a lot of hard work into our game. Consistency is a thing for us. That was one of our goals that we had set, just being consistent throughout the year and getting ourselves into as many finals as possible.”

It’s also incredible how the team raises its game while on the brink of elimination. Einarson fell into the C-side of the triple knockout, and her team won three consecutive games Saturday in order to get into the final.

“It’s definitely been a grind. It’s been a long week. We love curling,” Einarson said with a laugh. “We love playing those extra games, but when our backs are against the wall, we come out and we perform. The girls have been playing phenomenally all week. They’re definitely making my job easy.”

FOURTH END: Just call Niklas Edin the Bionic Man (or Bio-Nik, if you prefer) because we can rebuild him, we have the technology. Edin went down with a knee injury that flared up just before the start of the HearingLife Tour Challenge semifinals.

Following surgery and recuperating, Edin returned to action this week and hardly missed a beat. The reigning Olympic and world champion Edin, who was sporting a knee brace and had to alter his slide, may not have been feeling 100 per cent but he was playing close to it finishing the week second among all skips (just behind Bottcher) shooting 90 per cent.

As Edin explained, typically when he has surgery it’s at the end of the season, so he can recover over the summer and not miss any playing time.

“It was really an unfortunate injury in the middle of the season,” said Edin, who also admitted he was bored not being able to play. “I’ve never really had one like that before. I’ve had many injuries but this one felt a little extra bad to get it in the middle of the season. We had started so well and then before a semifinal in a Slam, it was so unexpected as well.

“Mentally, it was really, really nice that I felt that I could play this one. I never thought I would be back close to 100 per cent. It felt like I would try and otherwise, the team would play on with three players, so this is a huge bonus I can actually play close to what I do normally. It’s a super nice feeling.”

FIFTH END: The Co-op Canadian Open saw the series debut of Stefania Constantini’s women’s crew just one month after compatriots Team Joël Retornaz became the first Italian club to win a GSOC title at the WFG Masters. Much like with Team Fujisawa, the same can be said for Italian curling as Retornaz has led the way with Constantini now catching a tow in the slipstream and looking to charge ahead.

“In Italy, curling is really growing,” Constantini said. “We are not so many (in numbers) but we are really improving our curling. Now the team of Joël Retornaz is doing great and they’re really high level; we as a women’s team are trying to reach their level. We’re young, so we’re trying to grow as a team, and maybe we are doing it.”

All four players on the team are 25 years old or younger — lead Giulia Zardini Lacedlli, who turns 20 later this month, is the youngest — but Constantini herself is already an Olympic gold medallist in mixed doubles with Amos Mosaner. The success in all three curling disciplines bodes well for the next Winter Games.

“In 2026 we will have the Olympics in Italy and curling will be played in Cortina where I live, so it’s really important,” Constantini said. “So now we have to grow during these three, four seasons to try to arrive at the Olympics.”

SIXTH END: What do Tracy Fleury, Darren Moulding, Andrew Stopera and Robin Brydone all have in common? They all skip but their teams aren’t named after them. Skips throwing third isn’t a recent phenomenon, but skips (or now former skips who throw fourth) taking on sweeping duties is what’s trending.

Teams don’t have to be named after their skips any more thanks to a recent World Curling Federation ruling. For some like Rachel Homan and Korey Dropkin, who have had success in mixed doubles and have proven skips can sweep, it makes sense for them to let the third hold the broom more.

SEVENTH END: What do Bottcher, Einarson and Edin all have in common? Besides reaching the Co-op Canadian Open finals, they also all have thirds who are left-handed: Marc Kennedy, Val Sweeting and Oskar Eriksson, respectively. That can’t be a coincidence, right? I mean, left?

EIGHTH END: Although Reid Carruthers’ team missed the playoffs, it was great to see Brad Jacobs back on the ice. Jacobs decided to take a hiatus from competitive curling after last season and was called back into action on Team Carruthers after they parted ways with third Jason Gunnlaugson. The seven-time GSOC men’s champion Jacobs has joined the team for the remaining events in the series this season and will compete in Northern Ontario playdowns with Jordan Chandler’s club.

Jacobs’ job carried on outside of the competition. Even though they were eliminated, Team Carruthers continued to conduct the Junior GSOC clinic Sunday.