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On the Road to the Roar

It isn’t the Roar, but you can see it and hear it down the Road from here.

For the first time in history, there’s a Pre-trials before the Tim Hortons Canadian Curling Trials and it all starts today at 8:30 a.m. on ice sheets at the CN Centre.

In the past, top teams were chosen and thrust into a single competition from which Canada’s Olympic standard-bearers emerged.

This time, the system is much more sophisticated, not to mention more convoluted.

Canada’s top curling teams have been battling tooth, nail, hoof and toe for three years, angling for positions in the (Roar of the Rings) Trials starting gate next month at Edmonton. Four men’s teams and four women’s teams accumulated the bulk of the qualifying points and are headed directly to Rexall Place.

The remaining qualifiers of each gender, Nos. 5 through 16, are in Prince George this week contesting the remaining four holes on the Trials draw sheet.

Surprisingly, the defending Olympic gold medallist has his back to the wall in this field. That would be Brad Gushue with his Newfoundland bunch.  So is the team Gushue defeated in the last Trials final. That would be Jeff Stoughton of Winnipeg, last season’s Brier finalist.  And so is the 2007 World women’s champion. That would be Kelly Scott of Kelowna, hopefully rebounding from a flat season last.

There are 12 men’s teams and 12 women’s teams set to scrap in a triple-knockout showdown which concludes Saturday. The winners of the A groups will be decided Thursday at 12:30 p.m. (women) and 6:30 p.m. (men).   The winners of the B groups will be declared Friday at 1 p.m. (women) and 6:30 p.m. (men). The remaining four teams, two of each gender, will be produced from the C1 and C2 sections on Saturday.  Scott is seeded No. 1 among the women. Stoughton is No. 1 among the men and Gushue is No. 3.

“We’re still getting in our groove but the potential we all see is great,” says Scott, who has made a personnel change on her team, replacing Renee Simons at lead with Jacquie Armstrong.

“Having experienced the things we’ve experienced in the last four years, things like wearing the maple leaf and handling that kind of pressure, expectations and the media and all the outside factors apart from the game of curling, we know what we’re getting into this time. We feel prepared. We just have to make the shots on the ice now.”

In effect, the draw is the standard cashspiel qualifier. The difference with this Road To The Roar is there will be no post-preliminary playoffs.

Among other teams in contention will be the losing Trials finalists of 2001 — Kerry Burtnyk of Winnipeg and Sherry Anderson of Saskatoon. Burtnyk is seeded fifth, Anderson 12th.

The 50-year-old Burtnyk still recalls the disappointment of losing the trials final in Regina to Kevin Martin.

“I’ll never forget the feeling,” he says. “It was like being kicked in the stomach, like standing on a highway and being mowed down by a semi.”  Burtnyk says that loss is the prime reason he’s still chasing the Olympic dream, in fact still playing the game at the competitive level.  “I made up my mind I’d stick with it, but I’m pretty sure this will be my last kick at it. But it’s the reason I’ve been putting so much work into it.”

The Winnipeg investment advisor definitely is the picture of fitness.  “I probably feel a lot younger at 50 that I felt two or three years ago,” he says.

Gushue, who to date has set a blazing pace in terms of cashspiel successes, has criticized the current trials format and favours big changes for the future.

“We had to make the changes we made to our team to make it better and that cost us a lot of qualifying points,” he says. “But we knew the rules going in so we’re resigned to what we have to do to be successful.”

Gushue, Stoughton and 1998 world champion Wayne Middaugh of Toronto are the heavy favourites to survive the gauntlet at the CN.  Among other ironies, almost all of the teams will be playing on arena ice for the first time this season. Most Tour cashspiels are played on decidedly straighter club ice.  All games are 10 ends and few, if any, of these teams have played a 10-end game since last March at the Canada Cup. All tour events involve abridged eight-end games.

“I’d suggest those factors should be an advantage for the more experienced teams,” says Gushue.

The top four men’s seeds fire opening salvoes tonight at 8:30 p.m. At 12:30 today, Burtnyk faces Jason Gunnlaugson of Winnipeg, Bob Ursel of Kelowna plays Ted Appelman of Edmonton, Joel Jordison of Moose Jaw goes against veteran 2000 world champion Greg McAulay of Richmond, B.C., and 2006 Brier champion Jean-Michel Menard of St-Romuald, P.Q. tackles Pat Simmons of Davidson, Sask.

This morning it’s Edmonton’s Cathy King vs. Thunder Bay’s Krista McCarville, Amber Holland of Kronau, Sask., vs. Crystal Webster of Calgary, Eve Belisle of Montreal vs. Rachel Homan of Ottawa, and Anderson vs. Heather Rankin of Calgary.  The winners will take on the top seeds — Scott, Sherry Middaugh of Coldwater, Ont., Marie-France Larouche of St-Romuald, P.Q. and Michelle Englot of Regina — at 4:30 p.m.