As much as Tracy Fleury is looking forward to returning to action next week in the Humpty’s Champions Cup, she’s more excited to finally see her teammates again.
It’s been over a year since the skip from Sudbury, Ont., has even seen the Manitoba-based trio of third Selena Njegovan, second Liz Fyfe and lead Kristin MacCuish when they lost the wild-card game in the 2020 Scotties Tournament of Hearts.
The COVID-19 pandemic pushed back the start of this season and kept the team off the ice until this February’s Canadian women’s curling championship in the Calgary bubble. Fleury opted out of the event though to look after her young daughter, Nina, who was diagnosed with infantile spasms, a seizure disorder, in November.
Nina is still receiving some treatment, but with her daughter responding well and seizure-free, Fleury is ready to rejoin her teammates for the first of two Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling events at WinSport Arena.
“Yes, of course I’ve missed curling but not as much as I’ve missed the girls,” Fleury said in a phone interview last week. “I think that’s really what I’m excited about is seeing them in person.”
Her teammates missed her too and Njegovan came up with the idea to wear purple ribbons during the Scotties Tournament of Hearts to raise awareness of Nina’s condition and let their skip know they were thinking about her family.
“It seemed Tracy was very appreciative and really touched by it,” Njegovan said. “We just wanted to have a piece of Tracy out there with us as well because we missed her so much. There’s just so little we could do and if that little thing brightened her day we were just happy to do so.”
She added: “It’s been over a year since we’ve seen her so we’re super excited that she’s able to play at least one of the weeks of the Slams.”
Fleury has chatted with the team through Zoom meetings and is all caught up to speed on what to expect for the bubble. Lockdown restrictions have limited her to at-home workouts for the moment although she was able to get some ice time in February.
“It’s nice that the girls have had experience with the venue and the bubble,” Fleury said. “I think that’ll help us heading into the Slams but I’m always keeping in touch with the team. Since it’ll be my first time in the bubble, it’s nice to know that the girls have been in there and I can ask them questions if I need to.”
Njegovan, who also competed in the Canadian mixed doubles championship with Reid Carruthers, said playing in the bubble has been a very interesting experience and her biggest takeaway is how important mindset is.
“It is just a very strange situation where you’re just in the hotel and in the arena,” Njegovan said. “You don’t really get to go out to restaurants or don’t really get to hang out with your team or other teams. You just have to be in that mindset that we are very grateful that this is happening and the Slams and Curling Canada were able to put together a successful bubble. Just be in that mindset that we are very lucky to go out there and curl and not think about all of those different things that are weird about this event.”
While the mixed doubles was another learning curve for Njegovan since she hadn’t played with Carruthers before, it was a fun experience for her and a bit of an advantage to get to play another week on the ice in the bubble.
“Greg Ewasko is one of the best ice makers in the world and the ice was perfect,” Njegovan said. “It was for sure very beneficial to have another week on the ice and get to play with those rocks again. I’m looking forward to getting back on the ice for the Slams.”
Team Fleury is No. 3 on the women’s world curling team rankings, although this will be the first time the skip has played in the Humpty’s Champions Cup. The newest Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling event required teams in years past to win a top event in order to receive an invitation, something that eluded Fleury until last season. Fleury captured her first Grand Slam women’s title at the 2019 Masters in North Bay, Ont., and not too far from her hometown. That secured Fleury a berth into last season’s cancelled event, but the major victory continues to resonate with her some 17 months later.
“That was a huge win for us and I think it really showed us we can win big games and big events,” Fleury said. “I think it was really a confidence booster for us and will help us in future Grand Slam events.”
Fleury is planning to return home after the conclusion of the Humpty’s Champions Cup and Chelsea Carey, who skipped the squad at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, will fill in once more during the Princess Auto Players’ Championship. Getting back into a groove with Fleury and then with Carey again is what Njegovan is focusing on.
“It has been a year since we played together, so we want to put what we learned at the Scotties into action at the Slams,” Njegovan said. “Then with Chelsea too in the second week just taking forward what we learned about each other and just about our game in general and taking that into the Slams as well.”
The two-time Canadian women’s champion Carey skipped the Wild Card One team at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts to a 6-6 round-robin record and a tie for sixth place in the championship pool. Although missing the playoffs was a disappointment, it’s remarkable they were able to come together quickly and also serves as a testament to their chemistry.
“Obviously we had never really played together so it was a learning curve for sure,” Njegovan said. “We did a lot of Zoom calls before just to get to know each other, but once we were all on the ice I thought, and I think everyone else on the team too agreed, we gelled really well together. It was a really seamless experience. Even people watching on TV commented that it looked like we gelled and were having a good time out there, so that was really good. We had a lot of fun, unfortunately, our results weren’t what we were hoping for but we took a lot of lessons learned from that week.”
Fleury can also rest easy knowing her team has a spot locked up in the Olympic trials in the fall and can start planning and preparing for that too.
“It’s a relief for sure to have a spot and not have to worry about qualification next season,” Fleury said. “Just from a planning perspective, it makes it a lot easier. We were quite thrilled to get that invitation.”
Njegovan added: “It’s for sure very helpful. We have never played in a trials before, so this was very exciting news for us and lifted the stress off of us. We don’t have to worry about chasing a spot to get into the trials. We can just focus on peaking for the trials and working on the things that we know we need to work on.”
Fleury’s first game of the Humpty’s Champions Cup is Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. MT against Min-Ji Kim’s team from South Korea.