A week today, 20 rinks will begin play in Halifax in the toughest bonspiels in the curling world -- the Canadian Olympic trials.
At stake is a trip to Turin, Italy, for the 2006 Winter Games.
But there's a potential headache for the women's winner. The women's gold-medal game in Turin is Feb. 23, two days before the Scott Tournament of Hearts opens at the John Labatt Centre.
That's forcing the two Ontario teams at the trials, Jo-Ann Rizzo of Brant and Sherry Middaugh of Coldwater, to make a decision.
Zone playdowns are set for December except for Zones 10 and 15, which have been moved to this weekend to accommodate Middaugh and Rizzo.
If they qualify, the regionals are set for Jan. 6-8, but their involvement depends on what happens in Halifax.
And with Strathroy resident Kim Tuck and Sara Gatchell playing front end for Rizzo and the Hearts in London, the decision gets even trickier if they snare the Games berth.
Olympic coach Jim Waite of St. Thomas said the amount of preparation the trials winners will need for Turin makes it unlikely they'll try for an Ontario crown as well.
"There's a month-long plan," he said. "It involves going to Europe to play there, plus sessions with the (Canadian Olympic Association) people about things like drug testing and what to expect in the athletes' village.
"We'd also like them to play in the Canada Cup in Kamloops (Jan. 30-Feb. 5). It would be difficult through all that in January and still go through the (Ontario) playdowns. We'll lay it all out on the table, but it'll still be their decision."
Jennifer Jones of Winnipeg doesn't have to worry about the Manitoba playdowns as her team comes to the Hearts as defending champion.
But if she's in Italy, it'll mean a quick turnaround, something the late Sandra Schmirler had to do in 1998. She won Olympic gold in Nagano, but fatigue caught up with her rink at the Hearts and she lost the semifinal to Anne Merklinger of Ottawa.
The fields assembling in Halifax are the world's best. Also entered on the women's side are Colleen Jones of Halifax, Shannon Kleibrink of Alberta, Kelly Scott of B.C., Marie-France Larouche of Quebec and Stefanie Lawton, Sherry Anderson and Jan Betker of Saskatchewan.
The men's side is even more impressive: Randy Ferbey, Kevin Martin and John Morris of Alberta, Pat Ryan and Jay Peachey of B.C., Jeff Stoughton of Manitoba, Brad Gushue of Newfoundland, Shawn Adams and Mark Dacey from Nova Scotia and Ontario's Glenn Howard.
Picking favourites out of that immense wealth of talent is almost impossible, but Waite gave it a shot.
"On the men's side, it will not surprise me if it's a Ferbey-Martin final. Martin hasn't had the best of seasons, but he has a knack of getting it all together when he has to. If I was going to pick two others to round out the semifinals, I'd take Howard and Stoughton.
"The women's side is a lot tougher because there are six or seven teams that could win it. I'd have to go with Jennifer Jones simply because she's won $31,000 on tour this year and the last two events she's entered. Colleen, you have to put her in that pack just because of her experience, but Rizzo's one of those rinks that could come in under the headlights.
"But every game is going to be like the final of a Hearts or Brier and that's why mental toughness is going to be important. That much pressure over that length of time is going to get to you."
Around the house
Scott McDonald's Highland rink is one of eight competing in junior men's regional playdowns this weekend at Ripley. Among the other entries are Scott MacGregor of Exeter, Dennis Hays of Palmerston, Mark Kean of Woodstock and Matt Mapletoft of Wallaceburg Sydenham. The junior women's regional is also at Ripley, with Amanda Corkal of Highland, Cassie Collison of Sarnia, Dayne Connelly of Aylmer, Lindsay Chordash of Woodstock, Leanne Elston of Wingham and Kaylene Rundle of Exeter among the entries. The A and B winner from both advance to their provincial championships at Toronto Tam Heather Jan. 4-8 . . . Zone playdowns for senior men and senior women are on this weekend at Dundas Valley (13), Harriston (14), Brantford (15) and Glencoe (16). Two rinks from each advance to regionals Dec. 3-4 in St. Catharines . . . Joanne Laws and her London CC team of Penny Brown, Barb Gordon and Sherry Chambers won the ninth annual Curl for the Cure charity bonspiel at LCC, which raised $30,100 for breast cancer research through pledges, entry fees and a silent auction.