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Slow Game: Curlers waiting, watching, wondering what might happen to season

The slow game is on for the country's top curling teams who are waiting, watching and wondering what might become of the season.

The slow game is on for the country's top curling teams who are waiting, watching and wondering what might become of the season.

They're hoping to soon get answers on plans for a potential curling bubble, a domestic rankings restart, and Olympic Trials qualification in a campaign dramatically altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the meantime, their focus has been limited to regional bonspiels, training and preparation for a one-of-a-kind season that will almost certainly need a hub approach to salvage the national championships.

"All of the top teams that I've spoken to are on board and want to make it happen," said reigning Tim Hortons Brier champion Brad Gushue. "I think we're all kind of in the situation where life kind of has to go on, but you've got to make sure that you minimize the risk and not to do anything unnecessary or stupid. 

"But I think we're all at the point now where we also can't live in a bunker and wait for this thing to go away. We've got to get creative and do something in ways that are going to provide minimal risk to the people involved."

Lower-tier bonspiels resumed in recent weeks under return-to-play guidelines. Many showcase competitions have been cancelled or postponed. Curling Canada has yet to provide an update on the status of its major Season of Champions events for early 2021. 

"The athlete side of me wants to get back out and play (big events)," said Ben Hebert, lead for Team Kevin Koe. "The fire is burning to get going here. But the other side of me is understanding of the situation that we're in and there's people in a lot worse situations than us who can't play at all. 

"So that's why I'm really grateful for the curling right now. But we'll see what happens. I hope that things can stay at a reasonable number here and we can continue to play and feel out the season."

The domestic ranking point system is on hold until Nov. 30. Four teams have berths in the Olympic Trials next fall, but plans on how to fill the other 14 spots remain up in the air.

The Scotties Tournament of Hearts is scheduled to begin Feb. 20, a couple weeks before the Brier. Provincial and territorial playdowns - should they happen - would be held in January and February. 

High-performance director Gerry Peckham told The Canadian Press a month ago that Curling Canada was definitely getting into the "deep end of the pool" regarding the possibility of a hub city concept. 

"In all honesty, I think that is arguably our final card to play as it relates to our more major events," he said at the time.

COVID-19 numbers are up throughout most of the country but curling seems to be managing well. Most top pro sports leagues have returned and helped provide templates of what could be possible.

While curling doesn't have the budget of the Big Four sports, a shorter, softer bubble plan could still work, according to infectious diseases physician Dr. Isaac Bogoch.

"You really need everyone to buy in and to really stay close to home and adhere to measures that would prevent them from getting this infection before they even go into the bubble," he said in a recent interview from Toronto. 

"To do that, you need buy-in by the coaches, the players, the ancillary staff, everyone who's going to be in that bubble."

Testing, venue safety, screening, symptom checks and the like would all be part of such a process. The Brier and Scotties are 10-day competitions so player commitment of at least a few weeks would be required.

"If I had to be in one certain place for 30 days or 25 days or whatever the number might be, I would vote hard yes for that," Hebert said from Calgary. "Everybody is going to have their own opinion and I can't speak for everybody. Is it ideal? No. But is anything ideal right now?"

Team Kerri Einarson second Shannon Birchard said a potential bubble would be quite similar to her team's usual approach at major events. 

"We very much keep within our team," she said from Winnipeg. "And we try to maximize our rest time in those events anyway. So it's not like we're spending a ton of time outside of the hotel regardless, so I think the transition won't be too bad."

Colin Hodgson, lead for Team Mike McEwen, is confident that such a setup would work.

"It's really up to the people, to the competitors, to self-police themselves and make sure no one's stepping out of bounds and just having respect for everyone else," he said from Balmertown, Ont. "So I think curlers can do that and will do that."

Gushue said getting confirmation that top events are actually happening would create a shift. At the moment, his team is playing mid-tier events and the veteran skip admits motivation is lower than normal.

"I think that engagement, that focus, kind of goes up a notch or two when you know what's going to happen because there's just so much uncertainty right now," he said from St. John's.

When asked Wednesday if there were any updates on season plans, a Curling Canada spokesman said the federation was still "sorting through all options to find the best ones that will work."

Hebert, for one, will be ready if and when hub confirmation arrives.

"Things change, man," he said. "You've got to shuck and jive and roll with the punches. 

"So if we had to play in a bubble format to live out a dream of trying to win another Brier and represent your country, hell yeah I'd be into that."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2020. 

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press

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