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Curling’s 2013 Continental Cup filled with intrigue, pressure

Jennifer Jones has returned to action at the Continental Cup (CP file photo)

Extra pressure. The return of big stars after a layoff. Mixing up the rules of engagement.

It doesn't have the same cache as a Brier or Scotties. It's not as important as the Olympics or the Worlds (at least not to the average curling fan).

The Continental Cup has its allure, though, and part of that attraction comes from the variety of game types played and, of course, good ol' "us versus them" pride and bragging rights.

The 2013 Continental Cup of Curling is underway, in Penticton, British Columbia. It's the ninth edition of pro curling's international funspiel (If you don't think the players have some fun, I'll have proof of that in an upcoming blog).

There is a difference, though, between your run of the mill beef and booze bonspiel at the local club and the high skills shoot out at the South Okanagan Events Centre.

Extra pressure? Plenty.

Take Heather Nedohin's last rock draw against SIX in the second end of her opening game against Team World's Eve Muirhead. Already down 3 - nothing, giving up a big steal would have meant lights out. If it's the first game of pretty much any other event, a loss would be disappointing, but not devastating. You'd have a long week to make it up and, in the end, you'd only be letting you and your own team on the ice down. At the Continental Cup, the weight of all of her teammates - including the ones banging the boards on the players' bench as they watch - was on Nedohin's shoulders, meaning that draw was filled with a more than just a little extra pressure. For proof, you'd only need to have seen Nedohin's reaction when her rock narrowly avoided a wreck on a guard and settled in for shot stone and a single. Alas, for Nedohin, Muirhead's team was not to be caught, winning 8 - 3 to secure the first point of the competition.

Each point is huge, too. Organizers have (thankfully) seen fit to simplify the scoring. Many fans were baffled by the large number of points available, as well as how they were dished out. Last year, Team World won the competition 235 - 165. Varying amounts of points for different games were just a little too mind-boggling and gave the impression that some losses didn't really amount to much, what with soooo many points available elsewhere. This year, it's a little simpler: Get a win, get a point, basically. First team to 30.5 points (60 total available) takes the championship.

Spicing the points chase up will be the skins games on Sunday. While it's true that all other competitions mean you get a point for a win, skins will be different. First 6 ends of each skins game will be worth half a point, the seventh and eighth ends worth a full point each. This should ensure a fun race to the finish, as Sunday's skins will see 30 of the total 60 points available up for grabs.

Intrigue abounds with the return of three big name curlers who've been out of action for varying lengths of time, but return to the big, bright spotlight at this event.

Kevin Martin comes back after missing a month due to hernia surgery. There's a question as to how effective he can be, at least at the outset, as he tries to shake loose from the rust of an unusual mid-season break.

Swedish skip Niklas Edin will be a key member of a World Team that is trying to be the first squad to repeat as Continental Cup champ (Since the event's beginning in 2002 in Regina, the victories have alternated between Team North America and Team Europe, then Team World). When last many curling fans saw him, Edin was struggling to stay on the ice for his team at last spring's World Championships, in Switzerland. He couldn't and underwent back surgery for the second time in two years. Edin and his mates appeared at the Masters Grand Slam of Curling in Brantford, Ontario, in November, but were out of it early. It would appear that he's just fine, however, having led his team to a European championship last month.

Jennifer Jones is back, after taking the first half of the season off as she welcomed the birth of her first child, Isabella, in November. Jones didn't quite get the return she wanted, settling for a 6 - 6 tie with Margaretha Sigfridsson. However, considering the World had captured the first 2 points of the competition (Reigning world champion Mirjam Ott defeated North America's Allison Pottinger, 9 - 7) and the fact that Jones was playing in her first major competition in months, she seemed quite content, as evident in her broad smile after drawing for two in the final end.

Purists might decry the mix of different curling disciplines involved in this event. But, the combining of traditional four-person competitions with skins games as well as mixed doubles gives the Continental Cup a unique flavour. Without that variety, this is a competition that might well have the feel of just another international competition. Nothing wrong with that, but this format adds plenty of spice and really shows off a wide array of skills, styles and shotmaking choices. Compare it to the Ryder Cup in golf, where different types of scoring and different types of match-ups make for an incredible spectacle, one that is different than what is usual in the game, but no less intriguing.

It's the same in curling's Continental Cup. A place where mixed doubles seems a-okay. Where the smiling veneer of good fellowship and fun times is present. That will be fairly dominant. But watch for the moments where the smiles are replaced with intense gazes. That's where the real intrigue lies as North America and The World battle for bragging rights.

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