Jason Gunnlaugson and Mike McEwen acknowledge — with the greatest respect to Nova Scotia's southern shore — they have no desire to visit the charming tourist area in October.
Undoubtedly, the skips of Manitoba's pre-eminent men's curling squads would prefer to wrangle a place in the climactic Canadian Olympic Trials by way of this week's direct-entry event in Ottawa, instead of being compelled to play in a last-gasp event in Liverpool, N.S., next month.
McEwen and Gunnlaugson are part of a rock-solid, five-team field — alongside Saskatchewan's Matt Dunstone (a former Winnipegger) and Colton Flasch, and Ontario's Glenn Howard — set to compete in the nation's capital, with two Trials berths on the line. It's a suitably short but ambitious way for a couple of talented teams to keep their Olympic dreams alive, as the pair that post the best records after six games earn spots.
Three unsuccessful teams, however, must compete for the last two berths at a pre-trials event — a 14-team battle royale — in the Maritimes — an entirely sub-optimal scenario, Gunnlaugson said Tuesday.
"It's definitely a weird thing. I'm sure (the pre-Trials) is going to be a fantastic event. But from the direct-entry side, we're just trying to avoid that wonderful trip," he said, before his afternoon flight to Ottawa. He's guiding a Morris-based crew of third Adam Casey, second Matt Wozniak and Connor Njegovan, ranked 12th by the World Curling Federation.
"There's a lot of excitement to compete, for sure, especially for our team to see where we stack up against this group, which would be the band (of teams) that we've been in the last few years, and see if we've made some gains."
Gunnlaugson meets Flasch on Thursday's 11 a.m. draw and then faces McEwen at 7 p.m.
"It's the kind of event where you have to be at your best, but it also leads to something bigger — and you're definitely building toward that," he added.
The direct-entry event runs today through Sunday at Ottawa's RA Centre, with the aforementioned men’s teams and five women’s squads — Alberta's Laura Walker, Casey Scheidegger and Kelsey Rocque, Suzanne Birt of Prince Edward Island and Corryn Brown of British Columbia — vying for berths into the Trials, scheduled for Saskatoon in late November.
There are actually three spots on the line in women's play.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of several Trials qualifying events, propelling Curling Canada to hold the unique qualifying event for a handful of some of the nation's finest teams still looking for berths.
Gunnlaugson and McEwen would dearly love to join reigning Brier champion Brendan Bottcher of Alberta, Kevin Koe of Alberta, Brad Gushue of Newfoundland-Labrador, and 2014 Olympic gold-medallist Brad Jacobs and John Epping, both of Ontario, in the prestigious Trials.
Gunnlaugson has represented Manitoba at back-to-back Briers and has already skipped teams at two previous Trials. His current group participated in just one fall bonspiel, making the playoffs in Oakville, Ont., a few weeks ago, but has put in plenty of hours on the practise ice.
"Such a major event in September isn't a normal thing on the curling calendar, so it's unchartered territory for a lot of us. We've taken a practise-first approach and have done a lot of training, and we're ready to go," said Gunnlaugson. "We've had a fantastic few seasons together and we're pretty excited. This is going to be a stern test with that spot to the Trials on the line, which is still the mecca of Canadian curling."
McEwen's dynamite foursome of third Reid Carruthers, second Derek Samagalski and lead Colin Hodgson, is No.5 on the WCF list, but remains the highest-ranked men's team in Canada still searching for a Trials berth. The West St. Paul foursome opens tonight against Flasch.
Traditionally, McEwen's lofty standing on the Canadian Team Ranking System would have ensured a Trials berth by now, however, the pandemic threw the usual rules out the window.
"We feel good. Playing and staying for back-to-back Oakville (bonspiels) was an important part of our reboot. Despite our feelings about the event and our team’s exclusion from a direct Trials berth, we are ready to perform in Ottawa," he said.
McEwen nearly represented Canada in PyeongChang in 2018, narrowly losing to Koe in the Trials final just two months before the Winter Games.
Schedules and scores are available at www.curling.ca/scoreboard. Daily draws will be streamed on Curling Canada's YouTube channel.
The women's side of the Trials field in Saskatoon (Nov.20-28) already has a distinctly Manitoba flavour to it, with two-time reigning Scotties champion Kerri Einarson, 2014 Olympic champion Jennifer Jones of Winnipeg and Tracy Fleury of East St. Paul in the draw. Rachel Homan of Ontario has also qualified.
Running concurrently in Ottawa is an event best described as a pre-pre-trials qualifier, as eight men's and eight women's compete in a triple-knockout draw for a couple of spots, respectively, to the pre-Trials in Liverpool.
It could have been staged at Fort Rouge — for the sake of convenience — as 75 per cent of the men's field hails from Winnipeg. Corey Chambers, Jacques Gauthier, Sean Grassie, Ryan Wiebe, William Lyburn and JT Ryan are in the mix, while Kaitlyn Jones of Winnipeg curls on the women's draw.
"Us, Grassie and Lyburn were all on the same plane and I'm thinking, 'Why are we doing this? We could have had it anywhere in Winnipeg,'" joked Gauthier, the 2020 world junior men's champion. "Actually, it gives us more of that championship mindset when we travel to something like this. It's a big deal. We just have to focus on the task at hand, and that's getting out of Ottawa with one of the two spots. We can't think about what's down the road.
"We're throwing rocks in the middle of September but at least we have a chance to keep going toward the Olympics and get as close as we can."
Looking ahead, three Manitoba-based women's teams, Darcy Robertson, Mackenzie Zacharias and Beth Peterson, and a pair of local men's teams, Braden Calvert and Pat Simmons, have already pledged their attendance to the pre-Trials in Liverpool, Oct. 26-31.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).