KILLARNEY -- It started, as it often does in curling, with a phone call, followed by drinks at a local eatery and, ultimately, a handshake agreement.
When the chemistry is right and the skill sets mesh perfectly, it can all lead to pure magic on the pebbled ice. As evidence, we give you Jill Thurston and her Deer Lodge Curling Club foursome of Kristen Phillips, Leslie Wilson and Raunora Westcott -- the freshly minted Manitoba Scotties Tournament of Hearts Champions after Sunday's thrilling 7-6 extra-end victory over Janet Harvey of Assiniboine Memorial.
"It's amazing, absolutely amazing," a teary-eyed Phillips said amid the commotion of the post-game celebration. "When we called Jill last year to ask her to come skip us, we knew we could do this, and now it's all finally true, it's just unbelievable.
"We just thought she was the right person for this team. We wanted someone with experience, someone who knew how to win, and obviously it was the right decision."
Yeah, you could say that. Thurston & Co. were spectacular all week at The Shamrock Centre, losing only once -- to Harvey in the round-robin -- while racking up nine victories, including three in the playoffs.
As a result, Thurston's squad is off to the national Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Jan. 30-Feb. 7. Manitoba will have two teams at the Scotties with two-time defending champion Jennifer Jones wearing Team Canada colours there.
It'll be the 38-year-old Thurston's third trip to the nationals -- she was a third for Harvey's 2006 team and for Cathy Overton-Clapham in 2000 -- but her first as a skip.
And that, in itself, is an intriguing story.
Thurston, you see, opted to walk away from the game that had been such an integral part of her life a couple years ago, "retiring" to spend time with her husband and their dog and disappear on vacation during the winter.
Then came the call from Phillips, Wilson and Westcott, who were looking for a skip. Their coach, Ron Westcott, put in a call to Don Duguid -- Thurston's stepfather -- and with that an idea was born.
"I just felt like I had lost my passion for the game," Thurston explained. "I was tired. I just wanted a vacation and I didn't really want to play anymore. And then Ron Westcott called and left a voicemail on my answering machine.
"The time off did me well. I got a chance to watch a lot of curling, a lot of fantastic curling. I watched the Scott and the world championships, the Olympic Trials and all of the stuff leading up to the trials. It kind of stirred up some competitive feelings to watch that. I was ready to come back. I don't think I was ready to jump at any opportunity, but I realized the right opportunity when it came knocking.
"I was more than happy to skip these three... These three players are the right fit for me."
Thurston's credentials, even with her two-year sabbatical, are mighty impressive. She skipped Manitoba's junior team in the 1991 nationals, an outfit that featured Jennifer Jones at third, Kristie Moroz at second and Kelly Scott as the lead. But it's been the better part of 14 years since she called a game and threw last rock.
"It feels amazing, and you know what? It feels even more amazing to win with those three, because they lost in the final a bunch of times and it's so gratifying for them to win it and to win with them," Thurston said.
"(The nationals) is going to be a different thing. I haven't skipped, actually, in a long time. This is going to be an amazing feeling. I'm really looking forward to it.
"I got my passion for the game back."
And, in the process, she has helped author one of the most compelling local curling stories of the season.
"Jill came on board and it just clicked. Everything meshed," Westcott said. "We all get along."
"Playing in events like this, this is what everybody wishes for," added Thurston, gazing out at an emptying Shamrock Centre.
The cast at Scotties nationals
A look at the teams that will be at the nationals in Sault Ste. Marie Jan. 30-Feb. 7:
"ö Team Canada: Jennifer Jones, St. Vital Curling Club in Winnipeg -- The two-time defending Canadian champion and former world champ is back to defend her crown.
"ö Alberta: Val Sweeting, Saville Sports Centre, Edmonton -- The youngest team in the field, took down two heavyweights, upsetting Cathy King in the semifinal and Shannon Kleibrink in the final.
"ö British Columbia: Kelly Scott, Kelowna Curling Club -- The former Winnipegger, world champ and two-time Canadian champion will make her sixth trip to the Scotties after knocking off Kelley Law in the final.
"ö Manitoba: Jill Thurston, Deer Lodge Curling Club -- Making her first trip as a skip.
"ö New Brunswick: Andrea Kelly, Capital Winter Club, Fredericton -- Beat Ashley Howard, daughter of Russ Howard 8-7. Kelly is a former Canadian Junior champion who won bronze at the worlds in 2005.
"ö Newfoundland & Labrador: Shelley Nichols, St. John's Curling Club -- Finished first in the round-robin, then defeated Heather Strong in an extra end of the two-game final. Nichols won provincial championships as Strong's third in 2006 and 2007.
"ö Nova Scotia: Nancy McConnery, Dartmouth Curling Club -- McConnery defeated Mary-Anne Arsenault for the second straight year, winning 5-4 in the provincial final Sunday. It's her third Nova Scotia title.
"ö Ontario: Krista McCarville, Fort William Curling Club -- Cruised to the Ontario title after going 10-0 in the round-robin. Making her fourth trip to the Scotties.
"ö Prince Edward Island: Erica Carmody/Kathy O'Rourke, Charlottetown Curling Club -- The 21-year-old Summerside native is in her first year of women's competition after representing P.E.I. at the last three Canadian junior championships. "ö Quebec: Eve Belisle 7-5 over Marie-France Larouche, the third time they met in the final. Scored three in the 10th for victory
"ö Saskatchewan: Amber Holland, Kronau, Sask. -- Defeated Sherry Anderson in Sunday's final.
"ö Yukon/Northwest Territories: Sharon Cormier, Yellowknife -- Cormier's team won five straight do-or-die games to win the Scotties berth.