With the Olympic trials spotlight twinkling behind her, and the lights of the national bonspiel sparkling beyond, Chelsea Carey will enter the provincial Scotties Tournament of Hearts wearing the promise -- and the pressure -- of being No. 1.
On Thursday, Curl Manitoba revealed the top five seeds and draw for the provincial women's championship, which kicks off in Virden on Jan. 8. Carey is at the top, followed by veteran Barb Spencer, third-seeded Michelle Montford, fourth-ranked Darcy Robertson and fifth-seeded Kerri Einarson. With the powerhouse Jennifer Jones rink absent as they prepare for the Olympics, the announcement came as little surprise to Carey and her team.
"You never know, but we've been seeded two I think about three years running now," said Carey at Thursday's press conference to announce the draw. "It's different, for sure... certainly a little bit more spotlight, but coming from the (Olympic) trials experience, it doesn't seem like as big a deal as it might have otherwise. The spotlight and the pressure is so much bigger on a stage like that. I think we're ready."
In the weeks after Carey slipped out of the Roar of the Rings, in a 6-3 tiebreaker loss to Ontario's Sherry Middaugh, the skip and her crew -- third Kristy McDonald, second Kristen Foster and lead Lindsay Titheridge -- took some time off to lick their wounds. But they hit the practice ice soon after that, getting ready to take a crack at a Scotties which is now, with Jones' absence, wide open.
The caveat: Anything could happen. The circumstance: Carey has twice made it to the Scotties final, including in 2011 where she lost a tough one to Cathy Overton-Clapham and 2012 when she lost a tight 6-5 final to Jones. Last year, Carey fell in the Page playoff to Spencer, who ranks second in all-time games (137) and wins (93) at the provincial championship.
Still, Carey isn't entertaining the idea that it's now or never for her Fort Rouge Curling Club foursome to take the provincial title.
"I don't think you can ever feel like that," she said. "If you start to feel like that, you put too much pressure on yourself that way, and you can't expect to win then. You just have to go out, and try to make some shots, and hope you come out on top at the end of the week."
The opportunity presented by Jones' absence isn't lost on Spencer, a three-time provincial champion who fell to Jones in last year's final. "Jennifer has a great team, and you know you're only going to beat her once in awhile, so it's nice to have a new champion coming out of Manitoba," said Spencer, who made it to the Road to the Roar Olympic pre-trials in Kitchener in November. "It's going to be exciting."
Whether the top two seeds face each other, time will have to tell. Sixteen teams earned a berth to the Scotties, divided into two round-robin groups of eight: Carey, Robertson and Einarson are the top seeds in the Asham Black Group, while Spencer and Montford lead the Red Brick Red Group.
The top-ranked teams from each group after the round robin will play each other for a bye to the final, with the second-ranked teams battling for a spot in the semifinal.
Games are set to begin at Virden's new Tundra Oil and Gas Place on Jan. 8. Over 500 passes have already been sold, and 300 volunteers have signed up to help host the event, which is the first curling event at the arena. The sheet ice was set to go in on Thursday night.
The bonspiel will also serve as a fundraiser for the Virden Curling Club, which is looking to do major upgrades on its aging facility.
"The curlers should be thrilled with the crowds that are going to be out there," said Scotties co-chair and Virden Curling Club president Cory Barkley. "I think everybody's pretty excited to see a big event come to town."