The 2015 Scotties Tournament of Hearts begins this weekend, in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. It is a field that is top heavy with three teams - perhaps four - that should really be considered the cream of the crop, with by far the best chances of posing with the trophy when the final stone is thrown, on Sunday night, February 22nd. Below that, a scramble that would see some rinks emerge as possible spoilers, but only should one or more of the favourites have an unexpectedly bad week. That is not likely to happen.
NOTE: Team rankings come from the World Curling Tour's Order of Merit Year-To-Date standings.
In this group, you will find four teams. They are most likely to be holding the four playoff positions when the round-robin portion of the schedule ends next week. They are the teams skipped by Rachel Homan, Val Sweeting, Jennifer Jones and Stefanie Lawton.
Team Homan comes in as the defending champions, although their line up has changed since they defeated Sweeting in 2014, claiming their second straight title. With the departure of second Alison Kreviazuk, Sweeting's former teammate Joanne Courtney has taken over the position. This team has yet to win a major this season (though they did win the TSN Skins Game), losing to Scotland's Eve Muirhead in the final of the Canadian Open and being eliminated in the semi-finals of the Masters of Curling. Standing 6th in the world rankings, Team Homan has lost the final of four tour events this season and they will be looking to convert in Moose Jaw. Of note: Kreviazuk's sister, Cheryl, will be the team's alternate in Moose Jaw and Rich Hart, will be their coach, taking over from Earle Morris. Since they are returning as Team Canada at this event, it means there were no Ontario playdowns for them. You might wonder if inactivity could slow them down but it didn't hurt the team last year as they rolled to an undefeated Scotties title in Montreal.
Team Sweeting has some unfinished business, too, after their 8-6 loss to Homan in last year's Scotties final. It's been a strange but successful year for Sweeting, ranked 2nd in the world. With the departure of Courtney, Andrea Crawford was first brought in to play third. When Crawford abruptly left the team on the eve of The Masters, in October, Sweeting asked Cathy Overton-Clapham to step in as a sub for the week. All they did was win the thing and a semi-final win over Homan along the way had to be sweet. Adding Lori Olson-Johns to the team after that event, Sweeting won the Canada Cup, in December, and beat Homan in the final to do it. At the Alberta Scotties, Sweeting was sublime, leading her team to a perfect 5 and oh record for the second straight year, upending Chelsea Carey in the final.
Team Jones is just not at all ready to give up the throne. Ranked number one in the world, the 2014 Olympic champions have suffered no letdown after the high of a perfect run to gold at Sochi. (Read more about what fuels their continued high performance here) Finishing third in their first event of the season, Jones and company won their second start and added another win right after it. Traveling to Japan in December, they won the Karuizawa International, besting a small but formidable field that included reigning world Champion Binia Feltscher, of Switzerland, and Russia's Anna Sidorova. “Are we excited? Absolutely," said second Jill Officer when asked if the team could still get pumped for nationals. "Because we missed last year. Despite the fact that we were at the Olympics, we were disappointed about not being able to do both.”
Team Lawton returns to the Scotties after last year's fourth place finish. You won't find Lawton's name among those on the World Curling Tour's Order of Merit standings, but there's a very good reason for that. Lawton had a baby boy, Eric, in the autumn and had turned the team over to her vice, Sherry Anderson, who skipped the rink until the Saskatchewan Scotties commenced. The results were not so great in Lawton's absence, but the 2012 Players' Champion skip returned to lead her team to a 7 and 1 record at provincials and has the rink back in form. “They’re playing as well as ever," said Jennifer Jones. "They’re super-tough to beat all the time.”
Should one of the big four falter, one of these teams might be able to sneak in and grab a playoff spot.
Northern Ontario's Tracy Horgan deserves to be in this group, but this is where it gets tricky. Her team will only be in the big competition if she can get through this year's new qualification mini-tournament. One team out of three (Northwest Territories and Yukon are also involved, while Nunavut took a pass) will make it into the field after playing a round robin that culminates with a "play-in" game on Day One of the Scotties. Horgan is back with the same team that went 4 and 7 at the 2012 Scotties. Older and wiser, she beat Jones in the final of a Manitoba spiel this past November and her team is ranked number 18 in the world.
Nova Scotia's Mary-Anne Arsenault is making her 12th Scotties appearance. A five-time national champion as a member of the Colleen Jones team, her squad includes two Scotties rookies and a lead (Jennifer Baxter) that has appeared at nationals once, with Arsenault two years ago. You know this: Arsenault will not be out-thought by any skip in the competition. If the execution is there, they could force the issue in any game.
Ontario's Julie Hastings gets a lot of respect out there and her team's win over Sherry Middaugh's rink in the Ontario final made a lot of people smile. That's because Hastings and her teammates - Christy Trombley, Stacey Smith and Katrina Collins - have been together for some 20 years, but had never before won a provincial title. They've been a little uneven, having to scratch their way into provincials through a last chance competition, but they certainly made the most of it when they got there.
These teams would have to be considered long shots to claim a playoff spot at the end of the week.
British Columbia's Patti Knezevic has a reputation as a pretty sharp shooter, but she comes into the Scotties with teammates who have had no previous national championship experience. The skip, herself, got her first taste of it last year, when she played in five games as an alternate for the Kesa Van Osch squad.
Kerry Galusha and her mates have tons of experience. Said one Scotties insider: “Kerry Galusha can beat anyone on any given day.” However, Galusha's teams have never come close to a playoff spot and if they upset Horgan and get into the main competition, they'd have to be seen as long shots.
Yukon's Sarah Koltun, P.E.I's Suzanne Birt, New Brunswick's, Sylvie Robichaud, Quebec's Lauren Mann and Newfoundland & Labrador's Heather Strong - who is making her 12th Scotties appearance - all fall into this category.
Even though Homan has won two straight Scotties, there is unfinished business here. The team wound up second at last year's World Championship and third the year before. That will be a motivating factor. As will last year's loss to Homan be motivation for Sweeting. And Jones? How about "just because"? That seems motivation enough for them. The three clear-cut favourites show plenty of hunger and talent. With Lawton not far behind, this should make for a battle royale at the top. It will come down to execution, execution, execution.
Way, way, way too tough to call. The playoffs should be sensational. Darn right, I wimped out.
Who you got?
TO SEE AN INTERACTIVE MAP WITH ALL SCOTTIES TEAMS AND THEIR CLUB LOCATIONS, CLICK HERE