The Tim Hortons Roar Of The Rings has been billed the biggest, the best, the most pressure-dripping curling show in at least four years.
So why is it that the 32 curlers involved at the women’s level appear to be so footloose and fancy free?
During practice sessions at Rexall Place on Saturday, there wasn’t a smidgen of evidence that this event carried any more import than your basic weekend cashspiel. And no evidence, either, of impending tight collars or stretched knickers.
“I think all the work and pressure getting here has burned out some teams, a lot went into it, and now they’re just relaxed and probably saying, ‘OK, let’s have a little fun now’,” allowed Calgary’s Cheryl Bernard, one of four so-called top seeds in the women’s Olympic trials.
“Everybody’s more relaxed, for sure. Having more fun. I’m trying to enjoy it a lot more than usual and maybe everybody else is, too. Trying to stay away from the gotta-win, gotta-go thing. I’m sure as the week goes on that will disappear.”
Bernard takes on Krista McCarville of Thunder Bay in one of four first-round matches at 1 p.m. Sunday. Neither team could be construed as a favorite. Not with the likes of former world champions Jennifer Jones of Winnipeg and Kelly Scott of Kelowna, and defending Trials winner and Olympic bronze medallist Shannon Kleibrink of Calgary in the lists.
But you might expect these two, among others in the field, to be feeling slightly less pressure.
“This is more like a ‘spiel than a big event and we do better in ‘spiels,” reasoned the 43year-old Bernard. “I think that might be better for us. You can’t just be happy to be here, you have to go out and play. And not worry so much about what it is that you’re playing in. It’ll be hard to do but, that’s probably how you look at it.”
Bernard arrived in Edmonton after spending a week relaxing in the relatively temperate climes of San Diego.
“It’s nice to take a break and get away from it for a bit,” she said. “We’ve played every second weekend all fall. I’m glad I’m here when I’m older. I’m a little more laid back now. Ten years helps. Changes your perspective in life. Some times, when you’re younger, you want it too bad.”
There’s no doubt, though, that the eight-team field that also includes Saskatoon’s Stefanie Lawton, Calgary’s Crystal Webster and Kronau, Saskatchewan’s Amber Holland is about as redoubtable as you’ll find anywhere.
“It’s going to be a good week and a good team that wins,” predicted Bernard. “For the team that handles the pressure, makes the shots, and has a little luck, it will all work out. You’re just going to have to figure out everything you can in practices and make sure you catch it and go with it and do it the right way because there’s no room to mess around with only seven games.”
In other Sunday openers, Kleibrink tackles Webster, Jones plays Holland and Lawton goes against Scott.
“We play the top four teams first so we know we have to be sharp from the get-go,” said McCarville who, like Bernard, has played in numerous Scotties but never won. “Every single team here has earned it and deserves it so everybody knows they’re going to have to be at its best.”
Holland, skipping another darkhorse in Saskatchewan green, shrugged as she gave her assessment of the task ahead.
“You still have to go out and put more wins on the board than losses and you have to win the last one. Game at a time, rock at a time. It’s that simple. We all know what’s at stake here and the prize at the end of the day. It’s a matter of rocks, in-turns, out-turns, hit-the-broom, throw the right weight. Whoever does it best for eight draws will be the winner.”
The Rex represents the largest icehouse into which Holland has set curling footwear.
“Every time you walk into an arena like this and see the curling ice,” she said, “it’s just like ‘oh, this is where I’d love to play all the time’. It’s a good feeling. You get a few people in the stands it’ll be even better.”
That fact is assured. The Tim Hortons trials will have the distinction of being curling’s highest revenue-grossing event of all time, made possible by the most aggressive ticket pricing in the sport’s history.
Kleibrink discounts any theory her Olympians have a ghost of an advantage in this fracas.
“It’s a good feeling going in to know you’ve been here before and had success,” she admitted. “But there’s no advantage to having been here. All eight teams are under the same amount of pressure so there’s no advantage to anybody.”
At Halifax in 2005, Kleibrink lost three of her first four games, then won seven straight in a 10-team affair.
“It’ll be more important here to get off to a good start,” she said of these Trials, with two fewer teams, hence two fewer round-robin draws. If we have the kind of start we had last time, that wouldn’t be good enough. You definitely have to come out firing.”
Defending Canadian champion Jones, too, agreed early matches were more vital that they might be in a tournament involving more teams.
“You can’t lose many games if you want to stay in it,” she said. “But, just like any other event, as long as you get to the playoffs that’s really all you’re looking for. Obviously, this is a high-calibre field. All the top teams are here and you’re going to have to play really well to beat them. There’s great respect among the teams and we all know we’re going to have to play well and get on a bit of a roll.
“The key to our success always has been losing bad games at the right time when we could get away with that and closing well at the end. We’re hoping for the same sort of fortune this week.”
Said Kelowna’s Scott, the loser in the 2005 final:
“We’re better prepared, a more seasoned team, and we realize the significance of this a lot more now,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anything more we could have done back home to get us ready for this week.
“It’s a short round robin and there’s no easy games along the way so you have to get off to a good start. It’s a bit of a challenge when you’re learning the ice. But if you can play a smart game right off the bat, instill some confidence and get some momentum and really get into the games later in the week, you’ll be fine. That’s how we’re looking at it.”
Added Lawton, “We’ve played in round robins that are eight teams in our provincial playdowns so we have experience with it and, yeah, you can’t be messing around. You have to make sure you get every win that you possibly can. There’s no added pressure on it. You can’t put any more pressure on yourself. It’s just a matter of playing your game.”
Webster, a rookie at this level, admitted she expected to be nervous.
“But I think every other single person out there will be, too,” she said. “I was nervous in Prince George (qualifying), too, but I think I play my best when I’m feeling a little bit on edge.”