Tournament of Hearts first test of Curling Canada's Calgary bubble

·5 min read

CALGARY — Kerri Einarson will miss having her twin daughters ask her when can they go to the hotel pool.

The skip of the reigning Canadian women's curling champions says those moments are mental breaks from the intensity of the Scotties Tournament of Hearts.

The 2021 Tournament of Hearts opening Friday starts a run of four spectator-free Curling Canada events in Calgary in a controlled environment to avoid the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Einarson's daughters won't wait by the rink boards at the home end of the ice to celebrate or commiserate as they did on championship weekend in Moose Jaw, Sask., last year.

"They're my support team," Einarson said. "Just seeing that excitement in their eyes after mommy gets off the ice from a win is pretty special.

"Not being able to have them there with me, and my family and friends, it'll be hard."

The 18 participating teams will likely find curling the most normal aspect of Calgary's bubble.

What it takes to run a large-scale, indoor sports event in Canada in a pandemic will greet them as soon as they step off the ice.

Curling Canada is adopting many of the practices the NHL used to complete its Edmonton and Toronto playoff bubbles last summer, as well as some of Hockey Canada's protocols for the world men's under-21 championship Dec. 25 to Jan. 5 in Edmonton.

The Hearts is also a test event for the Canadian men's curling championship March 5-14, the national mixed doubles championship March 18-26 and the world men's curling championship April 2-11 all in Calgary's Markin MacPhail Centre.

"If we get through the Scotties and everything is absolutely successful, we put everyone on the plane on March 1 to go home and everyone was healthy, then it shows our protocols worked," said Nolan Thiessen, Curling Canada's director of broadcast, marketing, innovation and event presentation.

Curlers were required to quarantine for three days and be tested before heading to Calgary.

Upon arrival, they must produce two negative tests before playing their first game. More tests will be conducted next week.

The athletes are required to wear masks outside hotel rooms until they step on the field of play.

If they want to use the hotel's pool or gym, only one person at a time is allowed to do so for 45 minutes and must book in advance.

Restaurant meals outside their hotel and socializing with other teams are not allowed.

Curlers can have meals with teammates and be in teammates' hotel rooms once they've produced their pre-tournament negative tests.

The hotel is just across the Trans-Canada Highway from the arena at Canada Olympic Park. The teams will shuttle themselves back and forth in rental cars.

They'll undergo a wellness check twice a day with temperatures taken at both the hotel and the arena.

"We just want this to be safe and healthy for everybody," Thiessen said. "In talking to the curlers, they've had so much cancelled this year. They've had so much negative news. They want to get here and compete.

"We're at the point where it's happening. We're setting up the building, the athletes are arriving, people are testing, tests are coming back negative, so let's get going and try this and try to deliver for sports fans in Canada."

All provinces and territories will be represented, although many associations hand-picked their representatives instead of holding playdowns.

Some top teams thus unable to try for a Hearts berth, two more wild-card teams were added for a total of three this year.

That turns the 2021 Hearts into somewhat of an unofficial Manitoba championship.

All three wild-card teams hail from that province for a total of five alongside Einarson and six-time champion Jennifer Jones.

The top four teams from each pool of nine advance to the championship round, from which the top three advance to playoffs.

The top seed in the championship round earns a bye to the Feb. 28 final to face the winner of the semifinal.

A Canadian title, prize money of $100,000 and a return trip to the 2022 Tournament of Hearts in Thunder Bay, Ont., goes to the winner, but not necessarily a chance at a world championship

The World Curling Federation recently called off March's women's championship in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, when local Swiss health authorities wouldn't approve it.

Einarson, Val Sweeting, Shannon Birchard and Briane Meilleur didn't wear the Maple Leaf last year because the pandemic wiped out the world championship in Prince George, B.C.

A similar fate awaits this year's winner unless the WCF can find another host city. That wrinkle doesn't dull Einarson's motivation to repeat.

"We're beyond excited to step back on that ice again and treat it like it's our first bonspiel of the year," she said. "It's just a big one."

Einarson, Jones, Ontario's Rachel Homan and wild-card entry Tracy Fleury have locked down berths in November's Olympic trials in Saskatoon.

A Hearts winner other than those four teams will earn a berth in trials.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 16, 2021.

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Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had the wrong month for the Olympic trials.