The Canada Cup — Curling style

GEORGE KARRYS, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:36 PM ET

When most Canadian sport fans hear the words “Canada Cup” they — depending on age — think back to the five international hockey events held between 1976 and ’91. The 1987 Canada Cup, in particular, is a strong memory, thanks to the on-ice displays from legends Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.

The Canada Cup of Curling made its debut in 2003 as the Canadian Curling Association’s first foray into cashspiels, or curling for money. This move into the World Curling Tour’s turf seemed only fair as the top money teams of the day, led by Edmonton’s Kevin Martin, had promised exclusivity to the new Grand Slam circuit and refused to enter provincial playdowns.

Nine years later, the Canada Cup is still going, but only now has it suddenly become the most important event on the 2011-12 curling event calendar.

The reason? The men’s and women’s champs will be the first squads to qualify directly for the 2013 Olympic Trials.

For the superstar curlers we love to watch on television, this is what it’s all about. They can’t even win the Brier to get a spot in the Olympic Trials. No sir, if they want the quickest and easiest route to get in, they must get invited to — and then win — the new Capital One Canada Cup in tiny Cranbrook, B.C.

The prize purse is still solid — $70,000 for each gender with $26,000 going to the winners — particularly when there are only seven teams per gender battling for the big prize. But again, it’s all about the shot at Olympic glory at Sochi 2014.

Herewith is The Curling Guy’s look at the competitors:

WOMEN

7. Chelsea Carey Morden, Man.

Not one of the seven women’s squads has particularly impressed this fall, so this field can be considered wide open, and that means Team Carey could blaze a trail right into Sunday’s final. The squad that impressed so much last season, however, has struggled mightily this fall … so that gives them the No. 7 spot.

6. Shannon Kleibrink Calgary

Another team in poor form since the skipper returned from injury, this team can turn it around on a dime, and has done so before. Kleibrink herself can carry the squad, and she’s done that before. Vancouver 2010 Olympian Carolyn Darbyshire reportedly plays super-spare this weekend — and she’s done that before, too.

5. Amber Holland Regina

The defending Canadian champion and world silver-medallist has also struggled this fall, but her team is known for showing up for big events. Now would be a good time.

4. Heather Nedohin Edmonton

No longer simply Dave’s wife, the other Nedohin had an amazing run at last April’s Players’ Championship and looks comfortable with her second-year team. She could surprise.

3. Jennifer Jones Winnipeg

She’s had a good fall season despite missing faithful second Jill Officer, who will give birth in the middle of the Canada Cup. Jones has a bugaboo about the Olympics after underperforming at the previous two Trials and serving as a reporter during Vancouver 2010.

2. Rachel Homan Ottawa

The young guns have played so-so this fall but their aggressive big-weight hitting game still baffles opponents. They should have beaten Jones in the Players’ Championship final.

1. Stefanie Lawton Saskatoon

The defending Cup champ has competed in five tournaments and qualified for the playoffs in four of them. And they do love this bonspiel.

MEN

7. Steve Laycock Regina

Back at skip stone after Pat Simmons took off to Edmonton, the former world junior champ is still figuring out what makes his new lineup tick.

6. Brad Jacobs Sault Ste. Marie

Constantly working hard to improve their game, these beefy boys will need a fast start as their first three matchups (versus Howard, Stoughton and Martin) are potential dream-killers.

5. Kevin Koe Edmonton

New third Pat Simmons seems to be fitting in nicely, but it’s still a new Team Koe foursome that is trying to find its sea legs.

4. Jeff Stoughton Winnipeg

Placing the defending Brier and world champ out of the top three seems harsh, but recent form has been somewhat blasé. After losing the 2005 Trials final to Brad Gushue, however, three of these guys desperately want back in the Olympic chase.

3. Mike McEwen Winnipeg

Another playoff appearance last weekend in Quebec sees the McWins now sitting on $83,500 in WCT winnings. That’s pretty good form heading into Cranbrook.

2. Glenn Howard Coldwater, Ont.

Last year’s Canada Cup was the first time Wayne Middaugh was in this lineup, and they won it by beating Martin in the final. They’ve already won the first Grand Slam of the season, too.

1. Kevin Martin Edmonton

They’re not in great form, but this team rarely plays poorly in back-to-back competitions. They also love competing in B.C. but the kicker may be the rocks: the event is using the Vancouver 2010 Olympic stones, and Team Martin are the only men’s team in the field with a first-hand knowledge of their tendencies.

Besides, it’s for a berth in the Olympic Trials, an event which Martin has never missed. He’ll be there in 2013, guaranteed.

BROOM BITS

Cup play begins Wednesday and concludes on Sunday. TSN begins live coverage with the men’s and women’s semifinals on Saturday ... Finally, the Canadian Curling Association will experiment with “thinking time” at the Cup. That means the time clocks will run while the teams are discussing strategy, and will be turned off when the rocks are in motion — the opposite of what normally happens at CCA championships. The Grand Slam first made the jump to “thinking time” a couple of years ago ... Even the first Olympic Trials berths won’t be enough to keep Capital One curling guy Ian Cunningham in Cranbrook for the entire event. The main man with the title sponsor will jet back to Toronto this weekend in time for the Chisholm, a popular club bonspiel held at the ancient cricket club. Cunningham will be competing with Richard Hart, the recent retiree from Team Howard, as well as the infamous Steski brothers.


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