To prepare for this year’s Scotties Tournament of Hearts, Krista McCarville and her rink from Thunder Bay, Ont., spent time with a sports psychologist learning how to cope with the excitement and pressure of playing for the Canadian women’s curling championship in front of a hometown crowd.

To prepare for this year’s Scotties Tournament of Hearts, Krista McCarville and her rink from Thunder Bay, Ont., spent time with a sports psychologist learning how to cope with the excitement and pressure of playing for the Canadian women’s curling championship in front of a hometown crowd.

Instead, because of concerns created by the Omicron variant, the stands at the Fort Williams Gardens will be empty when McCarville’s Northen Ontario team steps on the ice for its first game Friday night against Chelsey Carey’s Wild Card 2 rink from Regina.

"It’s something you can feel when your hometown crowd is cheering so much," said McCarville, the 2016 Scotties silver medallist who is making her ninth championship appearance. "It could be a little bit of an advantage when you have all the fans on your side and cheering for you.

"Then all of a sudden, you’re in your hometown and you can’t have any (fans). It’s super disappointing. But once we step on the ice it doesn’t matter what city we are in. We focus and zone into our game."

Ontario will allow up to 500 fans at sports events beginning Monday, but Curling Canada says because of COVID-19 concerns its "erring on the side of caution" and not allowing any fans or media into the arena during the round robin portion of the competition.

"It could be a little bit of an advantage when you have all the fans on your side and cheering for you...Then all of a sudden, you’re in your hometown and you can’t have any (fans). It’s super disappointing." –Krista McCarville

There is a chance spectators might be allowed for the final three days of the event that ends Feb. 6.

Tracy Fleury and Kerri Einarson are among the favourites at the 2022 Scotties Tournament of Hearts, which gets underway Friday in Thunder Bay, Ont.

TREVOR HAGAN/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Tracy Fleury and Kerri Einarson are among the favourites at the 2022 Scotties Tournament of Hearts, which gets underway Friday in Thunder Bay, Ont.

This will be the first experience of a strict bubble for McCarville and her rink of third Kendra Lilly, second Ashley Sippala, lead Sarah Potts and alternate Jen Gates. She believes teams who have played in a bubble before will have an edge.

"They would know how they felt last year and probably expect the same sort of things this year," said McCarville. "The teams that have never been in this sort of bubble, are we going to feel frustrated because we can’t leave?

"We have some things planned. We have some games that we’re going to bring. It nice that on our team we’re great friends."

Two-time defending champion Kerri Einarson from Manitoba said there are advantages to playing before empty stands.

"It’s definitely different," the Team Canada skip said. "It’s a lot more quiet so it kind of makes it a little easier because you can actually hear your teammates and not have to yell over the crowd or those other distractions."

"It’s a lot more quiet so it kind of makes it a little easier because you can actually hear your teammates and not have to yell over the crowd or those other distractions." –Kerri Einarson

This year’s event will feature a modified 18-team draw and the return of the Page playoff system.

The teams will be split into two pools of nine, seeded based on their final standing on the Canadian Team Ranking System as of Jan. 10.

Cardboard cut-out fans watch the action from the stands at the 2021 Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Calgary, Alta. This year, Curling Canada says because of COVID-19 concerns its “erring on the side of caution” and not allowing any fans or media into the arena during the round robin portion of the competition.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Cardboard cut-out fans watch the action from the stands at the 2021 Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Calgary, Alta. This year, Curling Canada says because of COVID-19 concerns its “erring on the side of caution” and not allowing any fans or media into the arena during the round robin portion of the competition.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

There will be an eight-game round robin with the top three teams in each pool advancing to an expanded playoff field. The second- and third-ranked teams in each pool cross over to play in Page playoff qualifier games. The winners then advance to play the winners of Pool A and Pool B.

The winners of those games go to the Page 1 versus 2 game, while the losers will compete in the Page 3 versus 4 game.

The winner of the Page 1-2 game on Feb. 5 advances directly to the final. The loser plays the winner of the Page 3-4 game in the semifinal.

The winner of the Feb. 6 semifinal advances to that evening’s final.

"We’re going to give it our all and leave it all out on the ice. Hopefully at the end of it we’re raising the trophy again." –Kerri Einarson

The Scotties champion will represent Canada at the 2022 Women’s Curling Championship in Prince George, B.C., from March 19-27.

Einarson and her rink of third Val Sweeting, second Shannon Birchard, lead Briane Meilleur and alternate Krysten Karwacki play in Pool B, against teams like Alberta’s Laure Walker, the 2021 bronze medallist, and Manitoba’s Mackenzie Zacharias, the 2020 world junior champion.

"I would say they (the pools) are a little lopsided but that’s just how the points system works," she said. "Every team is really good so you can’t take anyone lightly.

Team McCarville skip Krista McCarville reacts to a shot against Team Einarson during the Women’s Tiebreaker #2 of the 2021 Canadian Olympic curling trials in Saskatoon, Saturday, November 27, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards

Team McCarville skip Krista McCarville reacts to a shot against Team Einarson during the Women’s Tiebreaker #2 of the 2021 Canadian Olympic curling trials in Saskatoon, Saturday, November 27, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards

"Every team comes to play Team Canada, so I know we’re going to have to play our very best every single game."

Two notable names will be missing from this year’s Scotties.

Six-time champion Jennifer Jones and her Winnipeg rink are representing Canada at the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. Jones won the women’s gold at the 2014 Sochi Games.

Rachel Homan, who has led Ontario to three Scotties titles, will also be competing at the Olympics, pairing with John Morris in the mixed doubles.

Her rink, playing at the Scotties as Wild Card 3, will be skipped by longtime third Emma Miskew. Sarah Wilkes takes over as third with Alli Flaxey second, Joanne Courtney lead and alternate Lynn Kreviazuk.

Einarson has a chance to join an elite group of rinks to win three consecutive titles.

Saskatchewan’s Vera Pezer won three titles between 1971 and 1973 while Jones won championships between 2008 and 2010. Collen Jones of Nova Scotia won four consecutive titles beginning in 2001.

"It would be an absolute dream come true," said Einarson, who curls out of the Gimli Curling Club. "That’s pretty awesome and pretty special to be able to do that.

"But we’re not going to put that pressure on ourselves. Whatever happens, happens. We’re going to give it our all and leave it all out on the ice. Hopefully at the end of if it we’re raising the trophy again."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2022.