Sorry teams, but if you need a super spare for the Meridian Canadian Open, Edmonton’s Laura Walker is not available.
Walker will be skipping her own squad in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling major tournament taking place next week at the Gallagher Centre in Yorkton, Sask.
Although Walker appreciates getting the call to help pinch hit for other clubs, she’s excited to return to the elite series with her team featuring third Kate Cameron, second Taylor McDonald and lead Nadine Scotland.
“We’re pretty pumped to be able to bring Nadine to her first Slam and just to do it as a foursome,” Walker said. “We’ve worked really hard to get here this season and we worked our way up the rankings quite a bit to put ourselves in this position, so we’re feeling pretty proud.”
Walker had quite an interesting 2019 in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling appearing in five events with five different lineups. She started the year skipping her former team in the Meridian Canadian Open, made a mid-event emergency appearance at second with Team Homan during the Players’ Championship, subbed at skip on Team Flaxey for the Humpty’s Champions Cup, skipped her new team in the KIOTI Tractor Tour Challenge Tier 2 and filled in at lead on Team Jones at the BOOST National.
“It’s an honour for sure to even be thought of by those teams,” said Walker, who is originally from Scarborough, Ont. “To spend some time out on the ice is a privilege and I felt very lucky. I learned a lot and I got to play with the best teams in the world. It was a lot of fun for sure. Every team that I’ve spared with this year has been really welcoming, just really kind and supportive.”
Playing with Team Jones last month in Conception Bay South, N.L., was extra special for Walker as she reached her first career Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling women’s final finishing runner-up to Team Hasselborg.
“They were really supportive of me as I got my feet wet sweeping again and figuring out a little bit about the lead position, they were super patient,” Walker said. “I got to spend some games out on the ice with three of the best curlers in the game right now and that was a great experience for me.”
Almost like Undercover Boss, playing other positions and seeing a different side of the game has not only helped Walker expand her repertoire but also gain a new appreciation of what her teammates do for her as a skip.
“When I played lead a couple of weeks ago in CBS, I threw a ton of draws and I gained a lot of respect for that position,” Walker said. “Throwing in a path that we haven’t seen, just being kind of a guinea pig, I think I gained a lot of respect for people playing that position. As a skip, I usually get to throw in a path that we’ve worked in, so as a thrower that’s really interesting for me to put myself in their shoes a little bit and have more empathy I guess when things aren’t going well.
“From a sweeping perspective, how hard it is to be precise as a judger and know exactly what all of the paths are doing at all times, it really opened my eyes. Of course, I’ve always had a ton of respect for sweepers but it made me realize just how hard it is and that just means they’re that much better at what they do because they are so good at it.”
The physical side of sweeping wasn’t a problem for Walker based on her mixed doubles experience (although she admitted teammate Kirk Muyres handles most of the brushwork), it was the tactical side of knowing when to sweep that was tough. Fortunately, she had one of the best in the business in Team Jones second Jocelyn Peterman beside her.
“There were definitely some rocks that if Jocelyn wasn’t there with me, I probably would not have put in the right spot,” Walker said with a laugh. “I relied on her a lot to help me judge. Just putting yourself into a position where you need to do something totally different and on-demand in a high-pressure situation like a Slam playoff game, that’s pretty tough for a spare.”
Since she’s naturally a skip, Walker believed one of the biggest challenges was going to be related to team dynamics and knowing when to speak up and share her thoughts on shots. That wasn’t an issue with Jones though.
“It seemed like they valued my input, it seemed like they wanted to hear it and just made me feel like I was able to offer what I thought,” Walker said. “That’s definitely a challenge most of the time. I didn’t find it as much of a challenge.”
Of course, it helped the skip was the G.O.A.T. of women’s curling like Jennifer Jones: an Olympic gold medallist, two-time world champion, six-time Canadian champion and winner of nine Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling titles.
“When it’s Jennifer Jones your mind defaults to her,” Walker said. “That wasn’t too hard to do just because of the skip I was playing with.”
Walker’s current team came together this season and captured a couple of titles winning tour events in Winnipeg and Morris, Man., to rise up the rankings and earn an invitation into the Meridian Canadian Open. Walker said having a lot of patience was crucial as they had to overcome some early-season growing pains before hitting their stride.
“We qualified in one of our first five events and I think a lot of new teams could kind of see the bleak future in that or maybe feel a little bit like folding after that but we felt like we were really close,” she said. “We learned from every game, we learned from every event and we were really cohesive as a unit and our support for each other. We just used all of the information and all of our experiences as best we could to figure it out and we just feel like we’re finally figuring it out.”
The Meridian Canadian Open will serve as the perfect tune-up for the Alberta Scotties Tournament of Hearts, which takes place the following weekend in Okotoks, considering both events use triple knockout preliminary rounds and are held in arenas.
“That’s going to be a huge asset for us to be able to get used to that ice surface again before heading to our provincial,” Walker said. “Also, just playing against the best teams in the world. It’s just such a good preparation for us to test where we’re at, test out a few things that we’ve been working on and build some confidence going into provincials.”
The Meridian Canadian Open starts Tuesday night with Team Walker hitting the ice for their first game Wednesday afternoon against Team Hasselborg.
NOTE: The Meridian Canadian Open is the fourth event and third major of the 2019-20 Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling season with 16 of the top men’s teams and 16 of the top women’s teams from around the world. … A $300,000 purse, split equally between the men’s and women’s divisions, is on the line with the winners earning $35,000 plus berths to the season-ending Humpty’s Champions Cup. … Points are also up for grabs towards the Pinty’s Cup, which is the season championship awarded following the conclusion of the Princess Auto Players’ Championship in April.