It’s hard to describe what these last weeks have been like for Kaitlyn Lawes. There were the Olympics, which were beautiful and heartbreaking in equal measure, followed weeks later by the breakup of the iconic Team Jennifer Jones. Then came the flurry of phone calls and conversations, and a whole lot of reflection about where she wanted her career to go.
Now, she knows. And Monday, in the midst of one of the wildest post-Olympic team shuffles that anyone around curling can remember, Lawes made it official: starting next season, she’ll be calling the shots for a brand-new Manitoba superteam, composed of third Selena Njegovan, second Jocelyn Peterman, and lead Kristin MacCuish.
"The last couple of weeks have been an emotional rollercoaster," Lawes says, chatting moments after she revealed the new team on social media. "I’m still so focused on finishing out the season with Team Jones, and we have so much to celebrate. But moving forward, I’ve always said change isn’t a bad thing… I’m excited about the new challenge."
News of this new foursome had actually trickled out last week, when 2010 Olympic champ Kevin Martin revealed a slew of new and rumoured line-ups on his Inside Curling podcast, without getting the go-ahead from players. That sparked a wave of frustration amongst curlers, many of whom hadn’t yet had a chance to tell their sponsors or even their families.
"It’s strange times, that’s for sure," Lawes says, of that fracas. "We would have loved to get the announcement out on our own terms, but we’re still really excited about it, and happy to officially have it out there."
For years, reporters and fans have asked Lawes when a moment like this would come. The assumption, always, was that the former two-time Canadian junior champion skip would one day bail on Jones and strike out on her own; but that was never her focus. She loved playing third, loved sweeping, loved calling line for who she gladly calls "the legend" in Jones.
"Skipping isn’t something that has been on my radar lately," she says. "I know some people think that it has, but to be quite honest, playing third has been so much fun for me. I’ve learned so much over my 13 years playing this position. (After Team Jones broke up), I just wanted to see what was out there, what the opportunities were, and let it happen organically."
Organic is as good a word as any to describe this new team. It started, as so many do, with a lot of focused and honest talks about what sort of commitment they were willing to make; but like every team, it also requires making a leap of faith, a bet that this particular blend of talents will lead to something great.
"I’m super excited," Njegovan says. "We just kind of chatted a couple weeks ago, just kind of wanted to see where all of our heads were at and what our goals were going forward. They all matched right up, and we thought we might as well give this team a chance, and give it a go."
The connections here run deep, on and off the ice. Peterman and Njegovan have been friends since they were juniors; Lawes and Peterman are fresh off four years with Team Jones. Njegovan and MacCuish have played together since they were just 12 years old, most recently with the disbanding Team Tracy Fleury; they also happen to be best friends off the sheet.
"Selena and Kristin pretty much came out of the womb together," Lawes says, with a laugh. "I’m really excited to join up with them because they have that strong dynamic, and Jocelyn and I do as well. I think I can learn a lot from Selena and Kristin… they’re just such kind, nice fun people, and I think we’re going to have a lot of laughs out there."
That sense of fun might be especially important, as Lawes looks to reacquaint herself with the skip’s job. Support from the team will be key to making the transition, and it helps that Njegovan has recent experience with that herself: she led Team Fleury to a 7-1 round robin record at the Scotties, after skip Fleury sat out those games due to COVID-19.
Njegovan, who had last skipped in junior, had more fun than she expected in that role, and "learned a lot" too, she says. But she never considered aiming for a full-time skipping gig herself; she loves playing third, she says, and is eager to help Lawes settle into the job.
"We did talk about that, especially since I skipped at the Scotties too," Njegovan says. "I think we’re going to all lean on each other. We all have that experience in our back pocket, and we just told Kaitlyn we’ll be supportive of her in everything, and I know she’ll be a great skip. I’m very, very confident in her."
Though next season still feels far away, there is one future match-up that fans will surely mark on their calendars. Lawes has played against Jones just once, when she was fresh out of junior playing for Alberta’s Cathy King. Now, with Jones taking the reins of Manitoba’s Mackenzie Zacharias team, they’ll be up against each other a whole lot starting next season.
Playing against Jones for the first time will be "a little bit strange," Lawes admits, but that’s just part of the adventure.
"To be honest, I’m so excited about her new team, and they have such a great line-up and it’s going to be really fun to watch them and follow their journey," she says. "I’m always going to be a Team Jennifer Jones fan, and Jen’s going to always be a friend for life… the fact we get to hopefully battle it out at provincials will be a ton of fun."
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.