It jumps off the curling calendar like a big, bold X on a treasure map. And getting there -- let alone winning an Olympic medal and seeing your nation's colours raised to the rafters -- is the ultimate for every elite athlete in the sport in this country and beyond.
Think Brier, Scotties, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, Wimbledon, the Masters and the World Series all wrapped up in one tidy event that will unfold Feb. 16-27 in Vancouver at the 5,000-seat Olympic/Paralympic Centre at the XXI Olympic Winter Games. Curling was contested at the Chamonix, France, Olympics in 1924, but didn't return until 1998 as an official medal sport.
"The Olympics are the epitome of all sports and to go to them would be unbelievable," says Jennifer Jones, skip for the three-time Canadian and 2008 world championship quartet from the St. Vital Curling Club. "This is definitely an Olympic-focused year, but it's really how you approach it.
"Curling is pretty new to the Olympics, so growing up, we dreamed of doing all the things we've already been doing, like going to the Scotties and the World and winning those events," Jones says.
"But now you've got the Olympics and, yes, absolutely we would love to go."
So as we slide out of the hack with our preview of the 2009-10 curling season, it's the Olympics and the two events leading up to it that will determine our men's and women's representatives that will clearly dominate the winter for the athletes and fans.
Not surprisingly, Manitoba rinks figure to play prominent roles in the road to Vancouver.
Jones and her foursome of Cathy Overton-Clapham, Jill Officer and Dawn Askin already have their ticket punched to the Roar of the Rings Olympic Trials in Edmonton in December as one of four rinks -- and the only from Manitoba -- to qualify for the 16-team (eight men/eight women) event.
Three men's teams from Manitoba -- Jeff Stoughton, Kerry Burtnyk, Mike McEwen and Jason Gunnlaugson -- have qualified for the pre-trials tournament that will be held next month in Prince George with four of the 12 in the field advancing to Edmonton from the triple-knockout competition.
In other words, the next couple of months leading up to February in Vancouver should serve up some riveting drama -- and some of the most-intense curling -- this country has ever seen.
As a result, the fallout afterward could be dramatic both for the two teams that will play in Vancouver, but with 'super' squads built for an Oly run dismantled and some of the legends after one more shot at glory gearing down or retiring altogether.
A decorated curler like Stoughton, for example, admits that the next two months likely represent his last shot at Oly glory.
"I'm not one that's going to say I'm going to retire from the game of curling, but it's tough to put all that time and effort into it," said Stoughton, who lost in the final to eventual gold-medal winner Brad Gushue in the last Olympic Curling Trials. "A lot of teams are going to re-analyze after this year and who knows what's going to happen in the future.
"We know you have to be at your best at the right time. The difference this for us is we actually have to do it twice -- we have to be really good in November (in Prince George) to get to the Trials and then re-focus in 2 1/2 weeks and win the big one at the end of the year. It takes hard work, dedication and maybe a little bit of luck, but more luck happens when you are prepared properly.
"We did last time and afterward said we did everything we could but we just came up a millimeter short."
And so, just getting to Edmonton will be a grind for many and the Trials -- let alone the big prize in Vancouver -- can be a little overwhelming. That's why every rink also has to balance the Vancouver dream with living in the here and now.
"You can't focus all on one thing," said Jones, whose crew has already won major World Curling Tour events in Norway and Calgary this season. "Honestly, our team just loves to play and loves to compete in all these events. Yes, the Olympic Trials are huge this year... it'll probably be the best event ever and every time it comes around it gets bigger and better. That's going to be a blast, it's going to be fun.
"Hopefully we can go in there and play well. That's what we've been working toward. But if it doesn't happen then we'll refocus and turn our minds to the Scotties in January-early February. That's the thing: there's also a lot of other events we'd like to do well in so it's actually quite easy to stay in the moment.
THE BIG THREE EVENTS
1. Winter Olympics, Vancouver, B.C., Feb. 12-28 (curling runs from the 16th-27th)
Notable: Brad Gushue won Canada's first curling gold in Turin in 2006; Kevin Martin in 2002 and Mike Harris in 1998 both won silver. Sandra Schmirler's crew won gold in 1998; Kelley Law in 2002 and Shannon Kleibrink in 2006 both took bronze.
2. Roar of the Rings Olympic Trials, Edmonton, Ab., Dec. 6-13th
Notable: Jennifer Jones' foursome has qualified along with Shannon Kleibrink and Cheryl Bernard of Calgary and Saskatoon's Stefanie Lawton. The four men's teams already in the field are Edmonton's Kevin Martin, Randy Ferbey and Kevin Koe and Coldwater, Ont.'s Glenn Howard.
3. Road to the Roar Olympic Pre-Trials, Prince George, B.C., Nov. 9-14th
Notable: No Manitoba women's teams have qualified, but four men's rinks have: Jeff Stoughton, Kerry Burtnyk and Mike McEwen and Jason Gunnlaugson.
5 PRESSING QUESTIONS
1. Could any of the five Manitoba rinks still in the fight end up wearing Canada's colours at the Olympics?
-Despite this province's rich history in the game, no Manitoba squad has represented Canada in either Nagano, Salt Lake City or Turin (although the W.H. Burns team won gold representing Canada in 1932 in Salt Lake when it was a demonstration sport).
2. What of the rumours of Kerry Burtnyk retiring should his foursome not earn the coveted Olympic spot?
-He missed the playoffs in the 1997 Canadian Olympic Curling Trials and lost to Kevin Martin 8-7 in the 2001 Trials. Is the third time a charm?
3. Can the Jones' foursome capture the missing piece?
-They are the 2008 World champs and three-time national title holders. An Olympic medal would look dandy in the trophy case, wouldn't it?
4. Is there another women's contender emerging from the province?
-Jones has owned the national stage since 2005, winning three times, but who else is on the horizon? Of note, one of the rising stars, two-time Canadian junior champion (2008, 2009) Kaitlyn Lawes has taken her act to Alberta to throw third stones for Edmonton's Cathy King, who will be in Prince George for the pre-Olympic Trials qualifier.
5. Who is the next big thing from this province?
-Burtnyk, Stoughton and Jones have dominated the headlines locally, nationally and internationally, but who's next? Is it McEwen, the MCT champion and 2007/08 World Curling Tour Rookie Team of the Year? Or the 25-year-old Gunnlaugson and his crew?
CURLING CALENDAR KEY DATES
-Women's Scotties Tournament of Hearts, Jan. 6-10, Killarney
-Men's Safeway Championship, Feb. 25-March 1, Steinbach
-Junior Women's - Dec. 18-22, Charleswood
-Junior Men's - Dec. 18-22, Deer Lodge.
-Strathcona Senior Men's - Feb. 25-March 1, Brandon
-Senior Women's - Feb. 25-March 1, Brandon
-MHSAA - March 4-6, Winkler/Morden
-Manitoba Credit Unions Master Men's - March 11-15, Fort Rouge
-Mantioba Credit Union Master Women's - March 4-8, St. Vital
-Dominion Club Championships - April 9-11, Portage la Prairie
-Scotties Tournament of Hearts - Jan. 30-Feb. 7th, Sault Ste. Marie, On.
-Tim Horton's Brier - March 6-14th, Halifax, N.S.
-Seniors - March 20-27th, Ottawa, On.
-Mixed - Nov. 15-22, Burlington, On.
-Dominion Club Championships - Nov. 24-28, Etobicoke, On.
-Juniors - Jan. 16-24, Sorel-Tracy, QC
-Wheelchair - March 22-27, Kelowna, B.C.
-University - March 24-28, Edmonton, Ab.
-Masters - April 3-11, New Brunswick.
-Women's - March 20-28, Swift Current, Sk.
-Men's - April 3-11, Cortina, Italy.
-Juniors - March 6-14, Flims Switzerland
-Mixed doubles/Seniors - April 16-24, Chelyabinsk, Russia
-Manitoba Lotteries Women's Classic (largest purse on MCT), Oct. 23-26, Fort Rouge
-Meyers Norris Penny Prairie Classic (largest purse on MCT), Oct. 23-26, Portage la Prairie
-MCT Championship - Dec. 18-20, Brandon
-BDO - Jan. 20-24, MTS Centre, Winnipeg.
-MCA Men's Bonspiel - Jan. 28-Feb. 1, variouis Winnipeg clubs.