Canada’s top curling teams scramble for competition amid pandemic

A file photo of a curling rock during play at the 2019 Brier. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Canada’s top curling teams are trying to cobble together a competitive fall season despite the COVID-19 pandemic decimating the calendar.

The Grand Slam of Curling was whittled from six events this winter to just two scheduled for next April and November’s Canada Cup of Curling was cancelled, creating a competitive void for the country’s elite curlers.

Read more: ‘New normal’ of curling coming to Saskatchewan in September

A slew of September and October bonspiels across Canada have been called off, but some remain on the calendar.

Curling Canada’s return-to-play guidelines provide a template for events to go ahead with several modifications on and off the ice to prevent the spread of the virus.

Team Northern Ontario skip Brad Jacobs. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward.

“We want to play as much as we can under whatever guidelines are set and get some competition in,” said skip Brad Jacobs of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

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“That’s about all we can hope for. It’s not about going out and trying to win prize money and points. None of that stuff really matters.

“It’s about finding some teams and competition. It’s a weird feeling to not be able to get out there and play like we normally do.”

Read more: Curling Canada cancels slate of tournaments as a result of coronavirus

The annual Stu Sells Tankards in Oakville, Ont., and Toronto were both moved to Waterloo, Ont., for the weekends of Oct. 2 to 4 and Oct. 9 to 12.

Jacobs, John Epping, Glenn Howard, Jennifer Jones and Rachel Homan are among the teams entered to play at the Kitchener-Waterloo Granite Club.

Reigning Canadian champions Brad Gushue and Kerri Einarson are not.

Click to play video: 'Jason Gunnlaugson still playing with first curling broom' Jason Gunnlaugson still playing with first curling broom
Jason Gunnlaugson still playing with first curling broom – Jan 17, 2018

Gushue, from St. John’s, N.L., said his team will likely enter Atlantic Canada events only for the rest of 2020.

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If the three-time national champion and his teammates left the region to curl, they would have to quarantine for 14 days upon return under current provincial public health regulations.

“To go play a four-day event and have to quarantine for 14, the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t add up,” Gushue said.

“We’re probably just going to play three events where typically we’d play in seven to 10 events.”

Read more: Team Kleiter perfecting the balance between life and curling

Epping, from Toronto, also keeps his expectations modest.

“I think we’d be very happy on the men’s side of it if we could fit in five ‘spiels before Christmas,” Epping said. “Generally it’s nine or 10.”

Einarson, from Gimli, Man., is planning to enter November bonspiels in Morris, Man., and Okotoks, Alta.

Manitoba requires people who return to or enter the province from anywhere east of Terrace Bay, Ont., to observe a 14-day quarantine, but there is an exemption for “professional athletes and team members” as long as they’re asymptomatic.

Team Manitoba skip Kerri Einarson. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Einarson is a rehabilitation assistant who works with the elderly, so she’s nevertheless proceeding with caution.

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“I just have to be quite careful because of my job,” Einarson said. “We’re going to try and stick close to home. We haven’t really discussed going east at all.”

Alberta’s curlers have worked with their provincial association to set up an in-province circuit that includes new and previously scheduled events.

Read more: Grand Slam cuts four events from six-stop curling circuit in 2020-21 season

The bonspiels will also serve as qualifiers for the provincial championships.

“Curling Alberta got behind us to do up safety documents and all that stuff,” said Ben Hebert, who plays lead for Calgary’s Kevin Koe.

“We have five, six really good teams in Alberta to give us some great competition, so that’s exciting.”

Canada skip Kevin Koe, third B.J. Neufeld, second Colton Flasch, lead Ben Hebert, left to right. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson.

Curling Canada’s game modifications include only one sweeper on a delivered stone and no sweeping in the rings, but high-performance director Gerry Peckham says what’s allowed at events will ultimately depend on what the province, municipality and even club deem safe.

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Competitive curling could look vastly different across the country this fall and early winter.

Read more: Manitoba doctors attended same curling bonspiel as COVID-19 positive doctor

“Sweeping-related realities will vary on a province-by-province, region-by-region, club-by-club basis,” Peckham said. “There’s way more grey than any other colour at this moment in time.

“We’ve already heard about situations where curling clubs have put in more stringent rules than a provincial or regional health authority has.”

Team Newfoundland skip Brad Gushue. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Gushue and Epping see the sense of one sweeper on a delivered stone in recreational leagues, but argue they and their teammates will travel together, stay in the same accommodations and eat meals together, and thus would form their own cohort or “bubble.”

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“We’re not adding more risk by sweeping together,” Gushue said.

Hebert says teams need to be prepared for different sweeping rules at Alberta’s bonspiels.

Read more: Unique Saskatchewan barn expansion is a curling sensation

“If we go to the Airdrie club and they want us to sweep with one, I get to rest my shoulders,” he said.

“We’ve already been told there are events that they definitely will be going with two sweepers, but they’re going to enforce social distancing from other teams on the ice.”

Click to play video: 'Team Manitoba heading to the National Wheelchair Curling Championship' Team Manitoba heading to the National Wheelchair Curling Championship
Team Manitoba heading to the National Wheelchair Curling Championship – Apr 8, 2019

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

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To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.

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