Rinks make subtle changes in hopes of winning provincial championship
Weather and power permitting, the 2013 Scotties Tournament of Hearts Newfoundland and Labrador provincial women’s curling championship gets underway today at the Re/Max Centre (St. John’s Curling Club).
Fortunately for three of the five teams competing at this week’s spiel, the recent meteorological and electrical challenges didn’t have much of an impact on last-minute preparations. Defending champion Stacie Devereaux’s rink was forced to reschedule a practice, while skip Shelly Nichols, 2010’s winner, “punched a lot of hours” at the airport where she works for WestJet. Last year’s runner-up, Heather Strong, meanwhile, was feeling no anxiety about missing a few hours on the ice. “To be honest, it was nice to have the excuse not to have to go practice and know that no other team was practising either,” says the 10-time champ. Also skipping teams at provincials are Stephanie Guzzwell, out of the St. John’s club, and Bally Haly’s Beth Hamilton, making for a sixth straight year with no clubs from outside St. John’s vying for the right to represent the province at the Scotties national championship. In terms of preparedness for this week’s competition, Nichols, Strong and Devereaux insist their respective rinks put in a lot hours in the fall and feel ready to compete, though each team has gone about it in their own way. Devereaux took her rink to a pair of spiels outside the province — September’s Atlantic Curling Championship in Charlottetown, P.E.I., where they made it to the semifinal round, and another spiel in Halifax where they failed to qualify past the round robin. “It was definitely positive and definitely something you have to do,” Devereaux says. “We stayed a little closer to home this year where it’s an Olympic year and there’s a little less on the go on the World Curling Tour. We’re a new team, so we’re just trying to figure everything out and next year maybe be on the tour a little bit more.” Nichols also attended the Atlantics, but didn’t fare as well, collecting a single victory over five games. “We try to get out, but sponsorship dollars for us is a problem,” she says. “Our team haven’t been proven champions, so people are a little reluctant to hand you over money.” Still, Nichols says “staying in the province works well for us as a team.” Strong, meanwhile, stayed at home. “And that’s a first for me in a lot of years. By this time next week we’ll know whether it was a good decision or not.” Strong and company instead put their sponsorship dollars towards membership at both curling clubs, competing in both mixed SuperLeagues. Thus far, she’s sporting a 6-5 record at the St. John’s Curling Club and is a perfect 9-0 at Bally Haly. Devereaux is also playing in both major curling circuits, posting a pedestrian 2-9 thus far at St. John’s while going 4-3 at Bally Haly. The Nichols foursome is playing solely at St. John’s and are 3-6 in the standings. Hamilton is an even 4-4 at Bally Haly and Guzzwell is tied for fourth at St. John’s with a 7-4 record. Sweeper swap While Nichols is back with the same team as last year — third Michelle Jewer, second Kelli Turpin, and lead Rhonda Whelan — Devereaux and Strong debuted new front ends this season. Team Devereaux’s Lauren Wasylkiw joined Hamilton’s rink, and veteran lead Heather Martin moved on to the senior ranks. Signing on were a pair of two-time provincial junior champs in Halifax’s Marie Christianson and Noelle Thomas-Kennell of St. John’s.
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Christianson won Nova Scotia’s junior title in 2007 and 2009 and was a runner-up for the provincial ladies crown in 2010. That same year, she won her second straight Canadian Interuniversity Sport silver medal and was named all-star skip at the event. She comes to Newfoundland through her boyfriend Adam Casey, who curls with reigning provincial men’s champ Brad Gushue. Thomas-Kennell, meanwhile, reunited with Strong last year. The two were part of a Canadian junior silver medal-winning rink in 2002 on the heels of a second straight provincial junior title together. “We’re building and that Olympic qualifying spot is kind of already on everyone’s mind,” Devereaux says. “The curling teams are starting to go in four year cycles across the country, so when there were some changes going on last year (prior to the Olympic trials), we decided we were going to try to make a change a year early and see if we could maybe get a little jump start on everybody.” With former lead Stephanie Korab away from curling and enjoying the joys of motherhood and second Erica Trickett unable to commit due to school commitments outside St. John’s, Strong and her sister Laura, the team’s mate, brought on Kathy Cooper — “She’s a relatively new curler in terms of competitive curling,” Strong says — and Jessica Cunningham, fresh out of the junior ranks. It will be the third member of the Cunningham family Strong has curled with at provincials. “I used to curl with Cathy,” she says of the family matriarch with whom she collected two provincial titles, “and I also used to curl with Jenny, Jessica’s older sister. “I like my odds when there’s a Cunningham on the team,” Strong says. Odds may not play into it this week, however, as each of the skips suggest there is a great deal of parity in the five-team field. Nichols was recently asked if she was still curling and, if so, how she felt about her chances this week. “I said ‘one in five.’ “You could play this tournament four weeks in a row and you might get a different winner every week. There’s no team that’s a clear favourite. It could be anybody. I want it to be us, but it could be anyone.” Strong says the level playing field locally mirrors what’s happening on the national stage. “We just came off watching the Olympic trials and yes, Jennifer Jones pulled it off, but even at that level there were a lot of wins and losses, and I consider it to be the same on a smaller scale in our province.” And with that, Strong urges the public to take in some games throughout the week and weekend. “There’s no admission charge and there should be some good shot-making out there. Our team is interested in winning, but personally I’m also interested in seeing the sport grow.” The first draw starts today at 5 p.m. The top two teams advance to Saturday’s playoff, however tiebreakers could force it into Sunday. The winner will represent Newfoundland at the 2014 Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Montreal Feb. 1-9.
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