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Vancouver 2010

A trial by fire for the best teams on ice

Curlers' Olympic qualifying bonspiel in Edmonton this weekend promises to be a tougher competition than the Games themselves

Headshot of Bob Weeks

It has been three long years of sliding, sweeping, practising and training. Three years of dreaming and hoping, three years of juggling day jobs with curling ambitions. On Saturday, those dreams turn into reality as, at long last, the Tim Hortons Canadian Curling Trials get under way in Edmonton at the Rexall Centre.

The prize at the end of it all is a ticket to Vancouver wearing the Maple Leaf as Canada's representatives in curling. But to get there will take every ounce of skill along with a healthy sprinkling of good breaks. The Trials will be far tougher to win than the Olympics; in fact, it may be the most difficult competition in all of curling.

"It's going to be the greatest curling event ever," summed up Glenn Howard, the skip of the Coldwater, Ont., team that is one of the favourites. "You're going to have eight of the best teams in Canada and as long as the ice conditions are what we hope for, it's going to be amazing."

"This will be the biggest event in the game's history," said Jennifer Jones, one of the women's favourites. "It's going to be so much fun."

This will be the fourth time the Canadian Curling Association has held an Olympic qualifying bonspiel since curling was readmitted to the Games as a medal sport in 1998. By most accounts, the process to assemble the teams this time around has been the best, gathering a crop of rinks that may be as deep and talented as any ever assembled. At the past three Trials, the qualifying process allowed some teams to make it in by playing well over a short period of time, in some cases just a single bonspiel. That allowed for some wild cards to make the final field. Not this time around. Every team has proven itself over the past three years, every team working toward this week.

In fact, the long, drawn-out qualifying process has led to some champing at the bit to get it started. "To tell you the truth, we're a little anxious to get going," said Howard, who qualified almost two years ago. "It's been a lot of hurry up and wait. We want to get it on."

The rinks will play a seven-game round robin with the first-place finisher advancing to the final and the second- and third-place squads meeting in the semi. Unlike the Brier or the Scotties, there are no page playoff games and no second chances. And without any weaker teams that regularly appear at the Canadian championships, no easier contests. "Every game is absolutely critical," said Kevin Martin, who won the 2001 Trials and went on to capture silver in Salt Lake City. "Because it's such a small field, the games mean so much more. And there aren't any easy games at all. They're all battles. You're trying to get hammer coming home tied up after seven. Even then, you're not going to win all those."

"This is so much bigger than the Scotties," said Krista McCarville, who will skip for the Thunder Bay team in Edmonton. "These are the best teams in Canada and everyone's been working for three or four years to get here."

With so much on the line, pressure has sometimes played a part in deciding the winner and upsets have happened, particularly on the men's side of the draw. At the first Trials, Mike Harris, who made it into the event by winning a bonspiel in Halifax, surprised Martin in the final and represented Canada in Nagano, Japan, in 1988, eventually winning a silver medal.

Martin won in 2001, also collecting silver and in 2005, Brad Gushue of Newfoundland and Labrador, aided by a 50-year-old Russ Howard, shocked Jeff Stoughton to win the Trials. He completed his run by winning gold in Torino in 2006.

The women have been more predictable. Sandra Schmirler in 1997, Kelley Law four years later and Shannon Kleibrink - who is back again at this Trials - in 2005. All four were among the top picks but other top squads that were expected to challenge went down in flames.

"I don't know if teams go over the top doing strange things, or maybe it's the pressure," stated Richard Hart, who played third for Harris and now holds the same job for Glenn Howard. "The Brier is an amazing thing but it happens every year so you only have to wait 12 months. Waiting four years is a lot different. People's careers end and it's a huge commitment. When people get to that event, I think something happens and the pressure builds and they short-circuit."

This year's men's field is comprised of Martin, Howard, Stoughton, Wayne Middaugh, Kevin Koe, Randy Ferbey, Jason Gunnlaugson and Pat Simmons.

On the women's side are Jones, McCarville, Kleibrink, Cheryl Bernard, Stefanie Lawton, Crystal Webster, Kelly Scott and Amber Holland.

Whichever teams win, they won't have much time to celebrate - the opening matches in Olympic curling take place just nine weeks later.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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