Must admit, a couple of questions that were top of my mind heading into this curling season may have already been answered.
Or, perhaps, the results of two major competitions over the weekend merely raise more questions in their wake. Championships for Kaitlyn Lawes and John Epping may be early season indicators of what's to come.
Question one, for me, after watching Epping's Toronto crew beat Glenn Howard's world championship rink in last April's Players' Championship final in Summerside, Prince Edward Island was: "Is Epping ready to unseat Howard on the way to the 2013 Brier?"
Epping has begun the quest to do what has been impossible over the last seven Ontario winters: Keep Howard from going to the national championship. A men's side win this past weekend in the Shorty Jenkins Classic in Brockville, Ontario is a continuation of the signal that this might just be the crew with the best chance in 2013.
Epping, lead David Mathers, second Scott Howard and vice Scott Bailey repeated as "Shorty" champs, beating Jeff Stoughton, in the final, 5-2. While Howard was not in the field, the competition was chock full of big names: Brad Jacobs, Pete Fenson, Jean-Michel Menard, Guy Hemmings, Pierre Charette and Kevin Koe among them.
Considering the Epping rink won this event last year as well, it may seem not such a big deal that they've done it again. However, a poor showing would have suggested that the Grand Slam win over Howard last spring was not so much a coming out party as a blip. That notion has now been dispelled.
After blasting through The Players' Championship round-robin, that week in April, beating the likes of Howard, Mike McEwen, Stoughton and Koe in round robin play, Epping dumped Kevin Martin in the semi and then Howard, 7-6, in the final. True, it could be argued that Howard's team may have been exhausted and satiated after a world title victory earlier in the month. But they were sharp that day and Epping proved he was up to the task when he drew the button for the win.
It seems a major challenger has emerged for Howard in Ontario.
Question two: How would Kaitlyn Lawes perform as skip for the Jennifer Jones team?
Usually throwing third stones for Jones, Lawes has been touted as the next great women's skip-in-waiting. Under pressure to perform well after replacing Cathy Overton-Clapham in 2010, Lawes stepped up proved her mettle, leading to the optimism surrounding her future as a captain.
With Jones taking the first half of the season off to rehab a knee and give birth to her first child, Lawes was under an even brighter spotlight in her first major test as skip and she passed that test, leading Dawn Askin, Jill Officer and Kirsten Wall to a 6-2 win over Crystal Webster at The Shoot-Out, in Edmonton.
Lawes and company racked up an 8 and 2 record in the competition, playoffs included. Like Epping's win, it came in a field filled with established stars: Shannon Kleibrink, Cheryl Bernard, Stefanie Lawton, Amber Holland (with her new team in place) Chelsea Carey, Heather Nedohin and Cathy Overton-Clapham among the competitors. Lawes is staying grounded, telling the Edmonton Journal that her apprenticeship with the sidelined Jones has been eye-opening.
"She's the best curler in the world, I think. It's been amazing playing with her. I'm in an amazing position being able to play with Jen and learn from her and the girls. Both Dawn and Jill are amazing curlers, too, They make my job so easy. When I'm throwing guards and open hits, I can't complain."
Lawes bumping up to skip, Holland revamping her team, Ryan Fry joining Brad Jacobs, Brad Gushue adding Brett Gallant, Sarah Wazney joining Team Kelly Scott, Mark Nichols joining Stoughton -- changes abounded in curling's off-season, leading to a rather large number of questions being asked. Looks like we may have already gotten the answers to at least two of them.