An unusual qualification process for the Tim Hortons Canadian Curling Trials is finally complete. The nine-team fields are set for the deepest domestic competition the sport has to offer.
A quadrennial unlike any other has two peaks remaining. The Nov. 20-28 trials in Saskatoon will leave two teams standing as Canadian representatives in the four-player competitions at the 2022 Winter Olympics in February.
"It's four years of prep and it's everybody's goal," said Darren Moulding, vice-skip for Brendan Bottcher's Edmonton-based team. "It's just all the work that you've put in for years and years is going to culminate in this event."
Since the pandemic upended the regular lead-up to the trials, Curling Canada revised the qualification process earlier this year. An additional qualifying event — the so-called 'pre-pre-trials' — was added to the calendar for September.
Four teams then emerged from last week's 28-team pre-trials event in Liverpool, N.S, to round out the field for the main trials at the SaskTel Centre. The result is a stacked eight-day bonspiel for the right to wear the Maple Leaf in Beijing.
"When it comes to the pressure, nothing beats what these teams are going to face at the Trials, that's for sure," said curling commentator Mike Harris, who represented Canada at the 1998 Nagano Games.
"It's only once every four years and it's a huge carrot."
Krista McCarville of Thunder Bay, Ont., and Jacqueline Harrison of Dundas, Ont., earned the last two women's spots. Jason Gunnlaugson of Morris, Man., and Tanner Horgan of Kingston, Ont., rounded out the men's field at the trials.
McCarville was a favourite to make the cut while the veteran Harrison, who beat Corryn Brown in the B-final, will be making her trials debut.
Gunnlaugson was a popular pick to make it out of the men's draw while Horgan defeated Glenn Howard to lock up the final berth and become the youngest skip at this year's trials at 23.
They join a men's field that includes teams skipped by Bottcher, Regina's Matt Dunstone, Brad Gushue of St. John's, Brad Jacobs of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Calgary's Kevin Koe, Toronto's John Epping and Mike McEwen of West St. Paul, Man.
"It's probably the most competitive event I've ever played in," said Moulding, who just missed the playoff cut at the 2017 trials in Ottawa. "There's probably never more on the line than in the Olympic trials in many ways. I just think that the competitiveness and pressure gets ratcheted up."
The women's field includes teams skipped by Edmonton's Kelsey Rocque, Casey Scheidegger of Lethbridge, Alta., Edmonton's Laura Walker, Winnipeg's Jennifer Jones, Tracy Fleury of East St. Paul, Man., Kerri Einarson of Gimli, Man., and Ottawa's Rachel Homan.
Einarson will be one of the favourites after successfully defending her national women's title last season.
"I see us on an upward trajectory right now," team second Shannon Birchard said in a recent interview. "We're building and that's what we want to be doing at this point in time and peaking in (late) November."
Koe and Homan skipped the Canadian teams at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, but both missed the podium. Canada's John Morris and Kaitlyn Lawes won mixed doubles gold in the discipline's Olympic debut.
The SaskTel Centre seats about 14,000 for curling. All athletes, volunteers, media, event staff, contractors, and fans over age 12 must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to attend or participate in the event.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2021.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press