As the championship round got underway at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts Friday, there was a different kind of urgency among the curlers than there has been from teams in similar positions in years past.
Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, Curling Canada changed the playoff format for this year’s Scotties-in-a-bubble and that means only three teams will make it past the Championship Pool, instead of four.
There’s no customary Page playoff, in which the top two teams play for a spot in the final, while the third- and fourth-place teams battle for a spot in the semifinal. There are no second chances.
This year, the top team after the round-robin will make Sunday’s final and the next two will play in the semifinal on Sunday afternoon.
As of Friday there were still eight teams left in the championship and they all agreed they could ill-afford any more losses.
“It’s a massive difference, actually,” six-time champion Jennifer Jones said of the playoff format. “It makes it a lot more challenging to make it in, especially with the expanded field. It’s gonna be difficult and you have to play well and it looks like it’s gonna come down to the wire.”
Heading into Friday’s evening games, Ontario’s Rachel Homan and Team Canada’s Kerri Einarson were tied at the top with 8-1 records, while Jones was at 7-2, Saskatchewan’s Sherry Anderson. Quebec’s Laurie St-Georges and Alberta’s Laura Walker were at 6-3 and Wild Card No. 1 (Team Fleury, with Chelsea Carey skipping) and Wild Card No. 3 (Beth Peterson) were at 5-4.
Though it was clear the teams with more than three losses already could not afford any more defeats, two-time Canadian champion Carey said you can’t play in fear.
“I don’t think thinking like that is a way to win any game, ever,” Carey said. “No matter what, going into the championship pool is going to be tough. You can’t look forward, you can’t worry about what your record is. You just go out and try to win each game and at the end of the week you look at the standings and see if you’re in the top three.”
Jill Officer, a six-time Canadian champion and Olympic gold medallist who is now retired, has been doing analysis for Postmedia this week and on Friday she said there’s a real psychological element to dealing with the intensity of a championship round that features nothing but must-win games.
The key, it seems, is downplaying the importance of each game.
“It’s not just a common thing for curlers to do, it’s a common thing for athletes to do,” Officer said. “There’s research around that and mental performance consultants and sports psychologists will all tell you to be in the moment and play one rock at a time, because if you start looking at too much of the bigger picture it can be overwhelming and stressful.
“It’s hard not to peek at the standings to say “How do we get into the playoffs?” But it really does come down to ‘Let’s just take this one rock, one end at a time.’ That’s the simplest way to look at it and if you just execute each of your shots it will pay off in the end.”
Of course, all of this — the 18-team format, the three wild card teams and the playoff system — will likely change again once the pandemic dies down and Curling Canada can go back to its normal planning.
“It definitely changes the dynamic when there’s 18 teams and only three qualify for the playoffs — that’s a real low percentage,” Carey said. “That definitely makes it tough.”
Players clearly like the Page playoff system, but it wasn’t possible this year because the expanded field meant more days were needed to complete the round robin.
“I wish we could have had the Page and had four teams qualify,” Jones said. “With the number of teams here, I think that’s much better. But they are doing the best they can with the situation. At the end of the day it’s just about trying to get the teams that are playing well into the playoffs and hopefully we’re gonna be one of those teams.”
The bottom line is that Curling Canada has done a remarkable job with the Scotties this year. It took months of planning and preparation to get all of the athletes into the bubble at Calgary’s Canada Olympic Park. It has taken regular COVID-19 testing, along with social distancing and masking protocols.
The end result has been an event featuring more than 100 people, including four players per team, alternates and coaches, with no positive tests for the coronavirus.
“It’s been bizarre, overall,” Carey said.
“With all the test requirements, and being in the bubble and isolation in the hotel rooms, it’s just been a strange experience. But we’re just happy to have some place to curl. It’s nice to have something to do and to look forward to.
“They’ve done a really good job and managed to have everybody come back with negative tests, which is great.”
The championship pool portion of the round robin concludes Saturday night.
After 19 draws
x-Ontario (Homan) 8-1
x-Canada (Einarson) 8-1
x-Manitoba (Jones) 7-2
x-Alberta (Walker) 6-3
x-Saskatchewan (Anderson) 6-3
x-Quebec (St-Georges) 6-3
x-Wild Card 1 (Fleury/Carey) 5-4
x-Wild Card 3 (Peterson) 5-4
Alberta 7, Quebec 6 (EE)
Canada 10, Saskatchewan 6
Ontario 7, Fleury/Carey 6
Manitoba 12, Peterson 8