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Team Einarson has target on backs heading into Scotties

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/1/2019 (219 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

More than a decade later, Kerri Einarson still remembers the first time she slid on Manitoba women's championship ice.

It was 2008, the last time the playdowns roared into Gimli. Einarson was just 20 years old that year, fresh out of junior, suddenly going toe to toe with the province's top women's curlers. She won a few games, not bad for a first-timer. She was thrilled to feel the eyes of the crowd on her.

Eleven years later, Einarson is a "very different" player, she says with a laugh. She's savvier now, and more battle-tested. She's launched herself into the televised grand slams, clinched a Manitoba women's title, and made history last year as the national Scotties' first-ever wild-card berth winner.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/1/2019 (219 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

More than a decade later, Kerri Einarson still remembers the first time she slid on Manitoba women's championship ice.

It was 2008, the last time the playdowns roared into Gimli. Einarson was just 20 years old that year, fresh out of junior, suddenly going toe to toe with the province's top women's curlers. She won a few games, not bad for a first-timer. She was thrilled to feel the eyes of the crowd on her.

Eleven years later, Einarson is a "very different" player, she says with a laugh. She's savvier now, and more battle-tested. She's launched herself into the televised grand slams, clinched a Manitoba women's title, and made history last year as the national Scotties' first-ever wild-card berth winner.

Kerri Einarson at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Penticton in 2018.

SEAN KILPATRICK / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Kerri Einarson at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Penticton in 2018.

But she had her share of heartbreaks, too, often striking just when she seemed poised to burst onto the next level. Perhaps the most bittersweet of those came last year, when she clashed with — and fell to — Manitoba rival Jennifer Jones in a tense national final.

Through it all, Einarson was evolving. Now, at the dawn of a new Olympic quadrennial, she will march back into her Gimli hometown with a target on her back, a head-turning new rink, and a revitalized mission: to reclaim the buffalo jacket she last won in 2016.

It's the first time she has entered a provincial championship as No. 1 seed, and that comes with its perils.

"Going into it, you just want to go out and play," says Einarson, chatting over the phone from Saskatchewan, where she was competing in the Canadian Open grand slam last week. "I know all the teams will be gunning for that number."

That's 15 other hopefuls who will be aiming to dislodge Einarson as they chase their own Scotties dream. Third seed and perennial contender Darcy Robertson has recently been a thorn in Einarson's side on provincial ice, knocking her out of the buffalo hunt in back-to-back upsets in 2017 and '18.

A life-size cutout of Jennifer Jones stands behind the backdrop while Shannon Birchard with Team Einarson talks to the media during a CurlManitoba announcement at the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame regarding the Scotties Tournament of Hearts which will take place January 23-27, 2019 at the Gimli Recreation Centre.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A life-size cutout of Jennifer Jones stands behind the backdrop while Shannon Birchard with Team Einarson talks to the media during a CurlManitoba announcement at the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame regarding the Scotties Tournament of Hearts which will take place January 23-27, 2019 at the Gimli Recreation Centre.

Or, there is fourth seed and former Ontario champ Allison Flaxey, who grew up in Manitoba and now skips a new crew that includes 2017 Manitoba champs Kate Cameron at third and Raunora Westcott at lead, as well as second Taylor McDonald. Beth Peterson of Assiniboine Memorial is the fifth seed with third Jenna Loder, second Katherine Doerksen and lead Melissa Gordon.

But in a twist that so many great curling dramas are built on, few challengers could pose a bigger threat to Einarson's No. 1 spot than her own former teammates Selena Njegovan, Liz Fyfe and Kristin MacCuish, who are now lined up for Sudbury, Ont., skip Tracy Fleury as second seed.

Flash back to the end of last season, and the news that sent Canadian curling abuzz. After five years together, the former Einarson team announced they would part ways, with the skip starting something new and the other three looking to continue elite play together.

Days later, Einarson unveiled a startling new lineup. For the 2019-20 season, she would lead a team stacked with four longtime skips, including three-time Alberta champion Val Sweeting at third and rising Manitoban talents Shannon Birchard and Briane Meilleur on the front end.

Few observers knew quite what to expect. On paper, it was a powerhouse team, full of sharpshooters and loaded with high-level experience. On the other hand, would the dynamic mix have a few too many skips in the kitchen?

Turns out: not a problem. Despite little time to practise together, and three-fourths of the team learning new positions, the revamped Team Einarson came out rocking. They won four events in the first half of the season, including Calgary's tough Curlers Corner Autumn Gold bonspiel in October, where they bested Jones in the final.

For awhile, they were the hottest team on the circuit, making one final after another. They came in second at the Canad Inns Prairie Classic in October. In December, they pushed into the final at back-to-back grand slams, the Canada Cup and The National.

Shannon Birchard with Team Einarson.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Shannon Birchard with Team Einarson.

"We’ve had a really consistent season so far, and that’s really cool for a brand-new team," Sweeting says. "We took the heat off the 'four skips' thing and showed everyone that it can work. We never put that pressure on ourselves."

Still, they've had disappointments, most recently when the team slipped out of contention at the Canadian Open (Fleury and Jones also struggled in that one). But they always knew there would be some bumps in the road, especially as they settle into new roles and communication.

"It was going to be a work in progress of the girls getting used to the sweeping, me getting used to their throws," Einarson says, praising Birchard and Meilleur's efforts. "They’ve both become strong sweepers, getting the judging down. They’ve just been phenomenal."

Meanwhile, the trio of Njegovan, Fyfe and MacCuish were also making moves. They'd reached out to Fleury, whose longtime Northern Ontario team had also decided to part ways. Third Njegovan thought the bubbly three-time Northern Ontario champion would be a good match for the three longtime friends.

That hunch proved right. The team has had some strong outings, including a second-place finish at the high-calibre Tour Challenge grand slam in mid-November. Right from the start, Njegovan says, Fleury fit into the team's dynamic "seamlessly," bringing a buoyant energy.

"She's super supportive and super positive," Njegovan says. "We gelled a lot faster than I expected... that team chemistry was there from the beginning. That really helped in being together for so often, when you’re on the road so much."

'IT'S THEIR EVENT TO LOSE'

Kerri Einarson's top-seeded team for the upcoming Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Gimli has earned the respect of its rivals. To beat the best, other top contenders at the provincial women's curling championship know they will have to elevate their game.

"I don't think the pressure has honestly ever got to Kerri and the girls," said Raunora Westcott, lead on Allison Flaxey's No. 4-seeded team from the Granite. "They've always played well under pressure, so for sure having a spotlight on you changes the dynamic a little bit. They're the team to beat — it's their event to lose. So for us, being a little bit more under the radar, if we have a good week together, anything can happen."

Kerri Einarson's top-seeded team for the upcoming Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Gimli has earned the respect of its rivals. To beat the best, other top contenders at the provincial women's curling championship know they will have to elevate their game.

"I don't think the pressure has honestly ever got to Kerri and the girls," said Raunora Westcott, lead on Allison Flaxey's No. 4-seeded team from the Granite. "They've always played well under pressure, so for sure having a spotlight on you changes the dynamic a little bit. They're the team to beat — it's their event to lose. So for us, being a little bit more under the radar, if we have a good week together, anything can happen."

Einarson's newly contructed super team of third Val Sweeting, second Shannon Birchard and lead Briane Meilleur has been an immediate success.

"They've had an excellent season," said Katherine Doerksen, second on Beth Peterson's No. 5 seeds from Assiniboine Memorial. "They've hardly shown any flaws this year, so we're definitely expecting nothing but that from them."

What makes them so good?

"I think their team is fearless," said Doerksen, "but I also think that Kerri Einarson as a player, individually, has always been that type of curler."

Birchard, a young but seasoned competitor, doesn't sound fazed by the top billing in Gimli.

"I think we would've had a target on our backs regardless, so yeah, we just have to play well, play our game and make our shots," says Birchard.

Birchard has a healthy respect for the field.

"There's a lot of really tough teams in Manitoba," said Birchard, giving a specific nod to the Peterson rink and Fort Rouge's Kristy Watling. "There's gonna be quite a few dark horses coming up and nipping at our ankles and they're going to give us a lot of tough games. We're going to have to play well and play smart. Hopefully that's enough."

Westcott, whose squad is 0-for-3 against Einarson this season, hopes Team Flaxey is poised for a breakout performance after working through some geographical challenges.

"We are scattered all over the place," said Westcott. "That's probably been our biggest challenge — just finding the ice time together. With (third) Kate (Cameron) being in Thompson, (skip Allison Flaxey) being in Toronto and of course, (second) Taylor (McDonald) made the move to Winnipeg, so her and I have been working alot together. But it's definitely been challenging working together on things."

— Mike Sawatzky

 

For Fleury, the move to compete out of Manitoba was a notable gamble. Northern Ontario has talented curlers, but the pool is shallow: its playdowns typically feature just four teams. For more than a decade, its championship has most often been a two-way battle between Fleury and one other skip, Krista McCarville.

By contrast, Manitoba is crowded. Of the top 10 ranked women's teams on the planet, four of them — Jones, Einarson, Fleury and Robertson — are based here. (The logjam this year could be worse. Jones won't be in Gimli; the reigning world champion will serve as Team Canada at this year's Scotties in Sydney, N.S.)

But Fleury wasn't discouraged by the added challenge of moving into a deep province. In fact, she embraced it.

"It’s going to be tough," Fleury says. "It’s going to feel kind of national, like a Scotties, because the calibre of teams is there... I think the team that wins will be really prepared for the Scotties because of the depth of competition."

Kerri Einarson throws a rock while curling against the Darcy Robertson rink at the Granite Curling Club in September 2018.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Kerri Einarson throws a rock while curling against the Darcy Robertson rink at the Granite Curling Club in September 2018.

For now, this is all that's certain: 16 teams will walk into the Gimli arena next week. One will walk out wearing the buffalo jacket. Along the way, there will be plenty of big hits, a few heartbreaks and — given the depth of this province, and the energy of the new quad — some head-turning surprises.

"I'm expecting us just to go out and play as well as we can," Njegovan says. "People always get up for provincials. The competitiveness is even higher than anything else. So you can’t really say if this year would be harder than any other year."

The 2019 Manitoba Scotties Tournament of Hearts kicks off Jan. 23 and runs through Jan. 27 at the Gimli Recreation Complex. The full tournament schedule, as well as live scores, can be found at curlmanitoba.org.

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

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