The long road to the Canadian curling championships begins in earnest this week with the kickoff of the provincial playdowns, a process that will eventually fill the fields for the national showcases later this winter.
For defending champions Kerri Einarson and Brad Gushue, they only have to circle dates on the calendar. Einarson has an automatic berth as the Canada entry at the Feb. 17-26 Scotties Tournament of Hearts and Gushue will wear the Maple Leaf at the March 3-12 Tim Hortons Brier.
Other teams must go through playdowns in order to represent their province or territory. And some high-profile rinks had to take the long route through last-chance qualifiers just to lock up spots in those events.
For example, Robyn Silvernagle recently earned a last-chance berth in the Jan. 25-29 Saskatchewan championship in Estevan while Mike McEwen picked up a spot in the Jan. 23-29 Ontario Tankard in Port Elgin.
"It's a long process and it's a grind," said Brent Laing, who plays second for McEwen. "It definitely was a grind for us on the weekend but thankfully we pulled through."
British Columbia and Quebec plan to crown champions this weekend.
Nunavut, meanwhile, was the first territory out of the gate. Brigitte MacPhail took the women's berth in mid-December and Jake Higgs secured the men's spot.
The rest of the women's provincial and territorial playdowns are scheduled for later this month. The men's competitions will continue into mid-February.
The Scotties will be held at the Sandman Centre in Kamloops, B.C., and the Brier is set for Budweiser Gardens in London, Ont. Each event will feature an 18-team field after Curling Canada's decision to continue with three wild-card entries at the national championships.
The format was first used in the so-called curling bubble in Calgary in 2021. It replaced the play-in game format that determined a single wild-card entry.
The top three non-qualified teams in the Canadian rankings will get wild-card spots.
Matt Dunstone currently leads the national rankings with Gushue - who won the 2022 Brier as a wild card - followed by Kevin Koe, Brendan Bottcher and Reid Carruthers. Einarson tops the women's top five ahead of Rachel Homan, Jennifer Jones, Kaitlyn Lawes and Casey Scheidegger.
The wild-card setup creates deeper fields and allows highly ranked teams to breathe easier knowing they could still qualify for nationals if they fall short at provincials.
Alberta, for example, boasts four men's teams in the national top 10 with No. 8 Aaron Sluchinski and No. 9 Karsten Sturmay behind Koe and Bottcher.
Manitoba, meanwhile, has one of the strongest provincial women's fields in recent memory, even without the top-ranked Einarson. Jones, Lawes, and eighth-ranked Abby Ackland co-headline a draw that includes former Canadian champion Chelsea Carey, Darcy Robertson, Beth Peterson and Kristy Watling.
The national women's champions will represent Canada at the March 18-26 world women's curling championship in Sandviken, Sweden. The Brier champions will wear the Maple Leaf at the April 1-9 world men's playdowns in Ottawa.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2023.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press