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Canada's top curling teams scramble for competition amid pandemic

Canada's top curling teams are trying to cobble together a competitive fall season despite the COVID-19 pandemic decimating the calendar.

Canada's top curling teams are trying to cobble together a competitive fall season despite the COVID-19 pandemic decimating the calendar.

The Grand Slam of Curling was whittled from six events this winter to just two scheduled for next April and November's Canada Cup of Curling was cancelled, creating a competitive void for the country's elite curlers.

A slew of September and October bonspiels across Canada have been called off, but some remain on the calendar.

Curling Canada's return-to-play guidelines provide a template for events to go ahead with several modifications on and off the ice to prevent the spread of the virus.

"We want to play as much as we can under whatever guidelines are set and get some competition in," said skip Brad Jacobs of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

"That's about all we can hope for. It's not about going out and trying to win prize money and points. None of that stuff really matters.

"It's about finding some teams and competition. It's a weird feeling to not be able to get out there and play like we normally do."

The annual Stu Sells Tankards in Oakville, Ont., and Toronto were both moved to Waterloo, Ont., for the weekends of Oct. 2-4 and Oct. 9-12.

Jacobs, John Epping, Glenn Howard, Jennifer Jones and Rachel Homan are among teams entered to play at the Kitchener-Waterloo Granite Club.

Reigning Canadian champions Brad Gushue and Kerri Einarson are not.

Gushue, from St. John's, N.L., said his team will likely enter Atlantic Canada events only for the rest of 2020.

If the three-time national champion and his teammates left the region to curl, they would have to quarantine for 14 days upon return under current provincial public health regulations.

"To go play a four-day event and have to quarantine for 14, the cost-benefit analysis doesn't add up," Gushue said.

"We're probably just going to play three events where typically we'd play in seven to 10 events."

Epping, from Toronto, also keeps his expectations modest.

"I think we'd be very happy on the men's side of it, if we could fit in five 'spiels before Christmas," Epping said. "Generally it's nine or 10."

Einarson, from Gimli, Man., is planning to enter November bonspiels in Morris, Man., and Okotoks, Alta.

Manitoba requires people who return to or enter the province from anywhere east of Terrace Bay, Ont., to observe a 14-day quarantine, but there is an exemption for "professional athletes and team members" as long as they're asymptomatic.

Einarson is a rehabilitation assistant who works with the elderly, so she's nevertheless proceeding with caution. 

"I just have to be quite careful because of my job," Einarson said. "We're going to try and stick close to home. We haven't really discussed going east at all."

Alberta's curlers have worked with their provincial association to set up an in-province circuit that includes new and previously-scheduled events.

The bonspiels will also serve as qualifiers for the provincial championships.

"Curling Alberta got behind us to do up safety documents and all that stuff," said Ben Hebert, who plays lead for Calgary's Kevin Koe.

"We have, five, six really good teams in Alberta to give us some great competition, so that's exciting."

Curling Canada's game modifications include only one sweeper on a delivered stone and no sweeping in the rings, but high-performance director Gerry Peckham says what's allowed at events will ultimately depend on what the province, municipality and even club deem safe.

Competitive curling could look vastly different across the country this fall and early winter.

"Sweeping-related realities will vary on a province by province, region by region, club by club basis," Peckham said. "There's way more grey than any other colour at this moment in time.

"We've already heard about situations where curling clubs have put in more stringent rules than a provincial or regional health authority has."

Gushue and Epping see the sense of one sweeper on a delivered stone in recreational leagues, but argue they and their teammates will travel together, stay in the same accommodations and eat meals together, and thus would form their own cohort or "bubble." 

"We're not adding more risk by sweeping together," Gushue said.

Hebert says teams need to be prepared for different sweeping rules at Alberta's bonspiels.

"If we go to the Airdrie club and they want us to sweep with one, I get to rest my shoulders," he said.

"We've already been told there are events that they definitely will be going with two sweepers, but they're going to enforce social distancing from other teams on the ice."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2020.

Follow @DLSpencer10 on Twitter.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press