MONTREAL -- With a one-two punch in the first two days, this weekend could mark the most daunting tournament start Chelsea Carey has ever faced.
Tonight, the Fort Rouge skip will lead her foursome into the first game of their rookie Scotties Tournament of Hearts campaign, and it will be against defending Canadian champion Rachel Homan. On Sunday, the Manitobans will rise early for a morning match against Saskatchewan's Stefanie Lawton, who will be waiting for them in the Maurice Richard Arena, a quirky dome in the heart of Montreal's greying 1976 Olympic park.
Homan and Lawton: these are arguably the top teams to beat, of the dozen women's curling squads competing this week. The sharpest, the most likely to get hot.
And Carey, well, she's hungry to give 'em a shot. "We like it that way, it gets you right into it right away," Carey said Friday while TSN technicians lugged cables around the arena floor. "If you split, it's great, but even if you don't win either one of those games it's still okay. You've got two of the hardest teams out of the way and a whole week to go. It's about the toughest start you could have asked for."
At least she has a little feel for this pebble now, for how the rocks might slide.
It was a practice day on Friday, and Carey, third Kristy McDonald, second Kristen Foster and lead Lindsay Titheridge turned out to a morning practice, their first chance to feel the ice before the games began in earnest. The fresh sheets were swingy, Carey noted, and though the big curl foiled a few teams during a skills competition later in the afternoon, it should smooth down perfect, she thought.
"It will end up being perfect," Carey said. "It feels great."
The Maurice Richard Arena is a quaint sort of place to play. Built in 1962 and, despite a mid-'90s renovation, it's showing its age. In 2012, a windstorm ripped off a chunk of its roof -- it was soon replaced -- and part of the outside wall has been hammered with a sheet of plywood.
Inside the arena, it looks as if a giant blue bowl was upended over the stands, and more than 4,700 plastic seats ring around the dome. Speed-skaters train here, and wrestlers and boxers have competed here and sometimes there are concerts. It's kind of an old-time hockey feel, named after an old-time hockey legend, and that puts Chelsea Carey -- an old-time hockey fan -- right at home.
"We played in the old Maple Leaf Gardens last year... and it was the same kind of thing, with the really high ceiling," she said, glancing up at the Maurice Richard Arena's deep blue dome. "It's a great arena, and the sightlines couldn't be better, so hopefully they get some people in the stands."
There was a smattering of fans out already Friday for the preliminary rounds of the perennial Hot Shots competition, where each member of the 12 Scotties teams threw six different skill shots -- a simple draw to the button, for instance, or a double takeout. The top individual performers move on to the playoffs, which kick off today at 11 a.m., right after the morning's opening ceremonies. None of the Manitoban foursome made it to the playoff round.