Defending champion Einarson wins opener as bubble play begins at Hearts

·3 min read

CALGARY — Defending champ Kerri Einarson opened play in the curling bubble with a 7-3 win over wild-card entry Mackenzie Zacharias at the Canadian women's curling championship on Friday night.

With cardboard fan cutouts occupying the first few rows at a spectator-free Markin MacPhail Centre, the preliminary round kicked off with a four-game schedule as elite domestic curling returned after a long absence.

Einarson won the 2020 Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Moose Jaw, Sask., but did not play at the world women's championship last March after it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Only a handful of bonspiels were completed over the last year. A few provincial/territorial championships were played in recent weeks but many teams were invited to the Hearts by their respective associations.

In other Draw 1 games, Kerry Galusha of the Northwest Territories dropped an 8-7 decision to Krysta Burns of Northern Ontario. Wild-card entry Beth Peterson dumped Yukon's Laura Eby 10-2 and Alberta's Laura Walker beat Nova Scotia's Jill Brothers 10-5.

The event will be the season debut for several players as travel restrictions, COVID-19 concerns and club closures have stymied the regular calendar.

Modified rules and adjustments were made in parts of the country when the sport returned this season but regular play -- two sweepers could be used, for example -- was in effect Friday night.

Team alternates, coaches and game umpires wore face masks near the team benches. Players had the option to use them during game action but most did not.

Many curling traditions have been eschewed due to the pandemic. So no opening Hearts ceremony, no bagpipes and no post-game handshakes.

One noticeable change was that electronic hog-line sensors on the stone handles were not used due to equipment delays as a result of the pandemic. The honour system was in effect and officials can observe the hog line if requested, Curling Canada said.

Curlers will be shuttled between the hotel and venue to maintain the bubble setup. Players have had three recent COVID-19 tests and another round of testing is set for the next few days.

Einarson's Manitoba-based team held the No. 1 spot in the country when the national ranking system was paused last season.

She was in full control against Zacharias, a 2020 world junior champion, who picked up the second of three wild-card entries in the expanded 18-team field.

Three draws were scheduled for Saturday. Round-robin play will continue within the nine-team pools through Thursday night.

The championship pool begins Feb. 26 and a three-team playoff setup will lead to the final on Feb. 28.

The winner will earn a berth in the Olympic Trials in November and return as Team Canada at the 2022 Hearts.

Normally the champion would also represent Canada at the world women's championship. However, the 2021 event - which was to serve as the main Olympic qualifier - in late March at Schaffhausen, Switzerland was recently cancelled.

The World Curling Federation may create a replacement event, likely in the early autumn next season. If that's the case, Canadian representatives will be determined at a later date and the national champions would be "factored into" the decision.

The March 5-14 Tim Hortons Brier will be next up in the bubble. In all, six competitions will be held in the hub environment through late April.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 19, 2021.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

The Canadian Press