Amid the quiet rumble of practice stones sliding down the ice, finishing touches were being applied at Rogers Sportsnet's first wholly-owned sports event.
The Masters, the first of four Grand Slam of Curling tournaments this season, was poised to begin Wednesday night at the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre in Brantford, Ont. Sixty-eight of the world's top men's and women's teams are battling for chunks of the $200,000 prize purse, and no less than eight draws will be televised live on either Sportsnet or CBC by the time Sunday's finales wrap up.
Action kicks off Thursday on all four of Sportsnet's regional channels (East, Ontario, West and Pacific) with round-robin games at noon ET (Kevin Martin vs. John Epping) and 3:30 p.m. ET (Glenn Howard vs. Jeff Stoughton). Two more games are scheduled for those channels on Friday, beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET and 7 p.m. ET.
Saturday sees a first quarterfinal match televised on sub-licensee CBC at 3:30 p.m. ET, and a second on Sportsnet One at 8:30 p.m. ET.
Sunday morning sees semifinal action airing on the four regional Sportsnet channels at 8 a.m. ET, while CBC gets the championship finals at 1 p.m. ET.
Sportsnet's Rob Faulds will handle the play-by-play on all shows, with analysis provided by ex-CBC partners Joan McCusker and Mike Harris.
"It looks pretty familiar but at the same time it's different," said Sweden's Niklas Edin, surveying the arena. "It looks like any other Slam event but this is a new era. There's a new owner who is a big media company, and that's exciting."
For the players, the sight of Kristi Petrushchak and her event crew bustling about is thoroughly reassuring. Petrushchak and cohort Jennifer Bradley worked last year's Slam events for the previous owner, and slid over to Sportsnet when the new deal was signed in late August.
"It's been super-crazy, but I'm glad to be back on board," said Petrushchak. "The curlers are great people, as are the volunteers, and although it's hard work it's a lot of fun. And Sportsnet really wants to make these events sing for years to come."
The enormous amount of teams -- which totals 272 high-performance athletes -- means that four local venues are being used. In addition to the Gretzky arena, curling clubs in Brantford (two of them) and nearby Paris will all feature simultaneous action.
As will the parties at the host hotel, no doubt. After all, the Olympic season is still a few months away.
Fans looking to follow their favourite teams through the maze of Masters competition will be challenged by a somewhat intimidating draw schedule, which is posted online at themastersgrandslam.com. Social media will also be in full force, on Twitter (@curlingmasters) and at facebook.com/TheMastersGrandSlam.
WHO TO WATCH
Current World Curling Tour form charts point to Winnipeg's Mike McEwen and Saskatoon's Stefanie Lawton, both winners on Tour over the weekend. McEwen grabbed his first title of the 2012-13 season in Swan River, Man. while Lawton won her second women's Grand Slam of the season in her home town.
The form chart also favours Calgary's Kevin Koe and Ontario's Sherry Middaugh, who have both captured multiple Tour titles over the past two months. But there's just too many squads in this thing to discount anyone. Huge names such as Ontario's Howard and Edmonton's Martin are joined by teams riding recent hot streaks, like Ottawa's Rachel Homan and Chelsea Carey of Morden, Man. Throw in the usual Eurosquads from Sweden (Edin), Scotland (Eve Muirhead), Norway (Thomas Ulsrud and his pants) and Russia (Women of Curling Calendar cover girl Anna Sidorova) and boom: anyone can bolt from Brantford with the cash.
One big name missing from the field is Vancouver 2010 Olympic women's silver medallist Cheryl Bernard of Calgary. Bernard is representing Alberta at the Canadian Mixed in Montreal, which starts Thursday and runs through to the final on Nov. 24.
A new event format sees last year's bottom four Mixed finishers -- Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Nunavut and Yukon -- battling in a pre-championship "relegation" playoff for two spots in this championship.
Another new twist will see the winning team split into two pairs, and both will compete in the inaugural Canadian Mixed Doubles Trials at Leduc, Alta. in mid-March. The winners of that 32-team shindig will then represent Canada at the World Mixed Doubles Championship, April 13-20 in Fredericton, N.B.
Another big name missing out on Brantford -- although she is listed on the event website -- is Winnipeg titan Jennifer Jones. The 2009 world champion gave birth to her first child (Isabella) on Tuesday; the proud papa is Howard second Brent Laing. Jones is off the ice until January, and her Brantford replacement is ex-Sherry Middaugh third Kirsten Wall.
BLAST FROM THE PAST
Rumours say that former Toronto Sun curling scribe Perry Lefko has been dragged -- kicking and screaming, perhaps? -- back onto the curling beat by sportsnet.ca. This should be fun; the last time Lefko covered the curling ice, hair covered Kevin Martin's head.