Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 2/3/2018 (1053 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
IN the beginning, there were a couple of teens behind the Coke machine at the old Highlander Curling Club.
That was where a promising young skip named Jennifer Jones pulled Jill Officer aside, and asked if she wanted to play together. Officer replied that she’d have to ask her parents first; that’s how young they were, when it started.
Today, Jones can’t quite remember why she zeroed in on Officer, only that she knew her to be a great player. And look at what they earned together: six Canadian championships, one world title, and a glinting Olympic gold medal.
In between, a quarter-century of friendship, an unshakeable partnership that set the curling world on fire.
Now, Jones, third Kaitlyn Lawes and lead Dawn McEwen will forge ahead (mostly) without her. On Friday morning the team announced what they’ve known for months: Officer, 42, will step back from regular play after this season.
"I don’t want to call it a retirement, because it seems too final," Officer said. "Who knows what will happen in the future? I just know right now that I need to get away. I need a break."
She will stay close to the team as an alternate, including at next year’s Scotties, where Jones will return as Team Canada. But her spot at second will be filled by rising Albertan Jocelyn Peterman, currently with Chelsea Carey.
It’s been a month of shake-ups and break-ups around Manitoba curling, as players switch things up for the start of a new Olympic quadrennial. Yet Friday’s announcement was the most poignant; marking, as it does, the end of an era.
So as Officer, Lawes and McEwen met to practice on Friday at Fort Rouge Curling Club, the tears started flowing.
Lawes remembered how, when she joined Team Jones in 2010, Officer was quick to embrace her. McEwen, who’s been Officer’s front-end partner since 2007, said Officer was "like my mother sometimes," and a nurturing figure.
So it was an emotional day in January, when Officer made it official that she was done. It didn’t come as a total surprise; they team knew since summer that 2017-18 would likely be Officer’s last season as a full-time curler.
For Jones, the announcement came with "mixed emotions," she said. On one hand, she was eager to support her friend; on the other, it was hard to let go of a partnership that has carried them to the top of their sport together.
In this day and age, few curling relationships last as long as that of Jones and Officer.
"There’s always a mutual respect for each other," Jones said. "We bring out the best in each other. I always told her she’d always have a spot on my team. It’s going to be weird to not see her at the other end, but I’m happy for her."
Though the team kept Officer’s decision under wraps, there were hints that it was coming.
Last month, in the emotional moments after winning a record-tying sixth Canadian championship in Penticton, Jones noted that "you never know" how long the team would play together. It wasn’t the first time she’d said that, this year.
At the time, it seemed like a hint to the skip’s own intentions. In retrospect, it was a nod to a momentous occasion that the team kept private. Officer competed in 12 Scotties as Jones’ second; Penticton will stand as the last.
But what a way to end it, by tying Colleen Jones’ record for six Canadian titles.
"I just wanted to enjoy it all," Officer said. "And I did, and I felt like I played one of my better events that I’d ever played, probably because of that... to go out there, and enjoy each moment that I could, it was a relaxing effect."
And the time for making memories isn’t yet over. In two weeks, Team Jones will head to North Bay, Ont. to contend for the world championship; after that, Officer will join the team for two more grand slams to round out the season.
"I’m just looking forward to going and having fun in North Bay with the girls," Officer said. "I’m still really motivated to win. I’m still really competitive. I’m just looking forward to enjoying and celebrating."
Lawes didn’t play with the Jones rink at Scotties; she was busy preparing to win Olympic mixed doubles gold with partner John Morris. Watching from afar was especially difficult, she said, knowing it would be Officer’s last run.
But Lawes is back in the line-up for worlds, and they will get to finish Officer’s competitive career together. And Lawes wasn’t with the team in 2008, when they last won a world championship; so this tournament means so much more.
"We’re certainly going to be leaving it all on the ice," Lawes said. "I really want to win that worlds with Jill."
The Jones foursome will be joined at worlds by alternate Shannon Birchard, who filled in for Lawes at Scotties.
After the season, it’ll be time to focus on what lies ahead. Friday’s announcement also served as a de facto confirmation that the rest of the Jones foursome will compete through another Olympic quadrennial.
There are a few details to work out. Curling Canada residency rules require three-fourths of a team to live in the province for which they compete; the changes leave just Lawes and McEwen as current Manitoban residents.
They’ll work that out soon, Jones said; they plan to satisfy the requirements to stay a Manitoba-based team.
And the trio also looks forward to bringing Peterman into the fold. The 24-year-old has already won a Canadian championship with Chelsea Carey; Jones believes Peterman is one of the top front-end players in the world.
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She arrives on Team Jones with a wealth of experience. A former Canadian junior champion skip, Peterman is also an accomplished mixed doubles player with partner Brett Gallant, having come in third at this year’s Olympic trials.
When Jones, McEwen and Lawes sat down to figure out who to approach, Peterman was at the top of the list.
"She’s grown so much as a player," Jones said. "I really believe Jocelyn’s a great person and a great teammate, and that’s the number one part of our list. The curling stuff you can figure out. She’s tremendous at her position."
Still, right now it’s hard to imagine watching Jones call the shots, without hearing "go, Jilly, go!" ringing down the ice.
Then again, old habits die hard. "I’ll probably still say it," Jones said, and laughed.
Melissa Martin Reporter-at-large
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Jill Officer's upcoming retirement wasn't the only big local curling news to drop on Friday.
Another major shake-up will see a former Manitoba junior champion coming home, in a manner of speaking.
On Friday, skip Allison Flaxey revealed she will form a new Manitoba-based team for the upcoming season. The line-up includes 2017 Manitoba champions Kate Cameron and Raunora Westcott, as well as Taylor McDonald at second.
Cameron and Westcott are all that remains of this year's Team Michelle Englot, which competed at Scotties as Team Canada. Englot retired after nationals, and second Leslie Wilson also stepped back to focus on her master's degree.
But Cameron wanted to keep going with Westcott; the veteran lead "always tries to bring the best out of any player she curls with," Cameron says. So they turned to Flaxey, a 2001 Manitoba junior champion, to take over the reins.
Flaxey, who now lives in Ontario and won a provincial championship there in 2014, was quick to say yes.
Cameron never played against Flaxey, while the latter was still in Manitoba; their junior days didn't overlap. Still, the hard-hitting third has seen enough around the circuit to be excited about what the new skip will bring to the team.
"With Ally, she’s just free spirited and super positive and always looking for a new challenge," Cameron says.
To round out the new foursome, they turned to 24-year-old McDonald, who currently plays second for Alberta skip Kelsey Rocque. Together, Roque and McDonald won a Canadian university title and a 2014 world junior gold.
To satisfy Curling Canada residency requirements, McDonald will move to Manitoba.
This latest announcement sets up what should be a wild 2019 buffalo hunt, set for Gimli next winter.
Jennifer Jones won't be there; she already has a berth at next year's nationals, as the reigning Canadian champion. That will open the door for a whole new wave of teams, freshly-minted for the start of a new Olympic quadrennial.
In addition to Team Flaxey, former Northern Ontario sharpshooter Tracey Fleury will also skip over to Manitoba, where she will take over the what was the Kerri Einarson team of Selena Kaatz, Liz Fyfe and Kristin MacCuish.
And Einarson, the darling of the 2018 Scotties as wild card skip, will lead a veritable all-star team. That foursome includes former Alberta champ Val Sweeting at third, with a front end of Shannon Birchard and Brianne Meilleur.
Whatever happens next winter in Gimli, count on some fireworks as these teams battle it out.
"I think it’s exciting," Cameron said. "Manitoba has already been a really tough, deep province to win, and it’s only getting tougher now. We’re looking for the challenge, and I think it’s great to have these people in the backyard."