Curling is front and centre this week as fans in Thunder Bay and across the country are finally getting their fix despite not being able to hit the local clubs. They’re tuning in for the live broadcasts of the Scotties Tournament of Hearts from the bubble at Olympic Park in Calgary.
Fans had expected to be watching Krista McCarville play in the Scotties here this week before a partisan crowd at the Fort William Gardens, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed all that.
That said, there is hope on the horizon as Thunder Bay will host the 2022 Canadian women’s curling championship at the end of January next year and most local fans are anticipating that McCarville and her rink of Kendra Lilly, Ashley Sippala and Sarah Potts will be playing for the Canadian title as Northern Ontario, the reigning champions.
It has been a bit of bittersweet for McCarville, Sippala and Potts watching the games from Calgary this week wishing they were there competing. However, they are all comfortable in their decision of putting family first by turning down their invite to compete, thereby giving the opportunity for the Krysta Burns rink from Sudbury to represent Northern Ontario.
“It has been quite difficult watching knowing that we could be there and curl against these teams. However, I know I made the right decision for me at this time during this pandemic so do not regret my decision at all,” said McCarville, a mother of two and a Grade 6 teacher at Holy Family School.
Added Sippala: “It was never a decision we wanted to have to make. It was very hard but I still think we did make the right decision for our families and jobs.
Sippala is a health services worker employed as a medical lab technician at Thunder Bay Regional Health Science Centre.
Sarah Potts, who also works in the health field at St. Joseph’s Hospital, as a social worker, echoed the same sentiment as her teammates.
“Yes, I am comfortable with our team’s decision. Krista was not in a position to go and feel good about returning home. She always puts her family and students first. I knew that once she wasn’t able to play, I really couldn’t have my heart in it and justify the time away from my family and health risks to play with a spare,” said Potts the lead on the team who became a mother herself with the birth of her twins at this time last year.
In fact, Sippala and Potts have both had to watch from the sidelines at different times over the past couple of years. Potts was at home watching while Team McCarville was challenging for a playoff spot in Moose Jaw, Sask., last year (falling to Rachel Homan in the 3-4 Page game). The year before in Sydney, N.S., it was Sippala who sat out the year to give birth to her second child. The Northern Ontario champions also made the Page playoffs again, losing the 3-4 page game to Homan.
“I know that based on our last few seasons, we would have been competitive and had a shot at winning it. It’s hard because we want to be there, but we still feel we made the right call to protect our families and community,” said Potts.
NEW COUNTDOWN FOR LAKEHEAD: The McCarville rink will now turn their sights to next year to win yet another Northern Ontario title. The team will have the added motivation that the 2022 Scotties is slated to be played at Fort William Gardens, Jan. 27-Feb. 6.
“Our team is really excited to hopefully get back on the ice and be competitive again. We are very excited that Thunder Bay will get the opportunity to host next year and of course we would love to play in it here at home,” said the 38-year-old McCarville, who is looking to make a ninth Scotties appearance.
“We will be itching to get back to the Scotties and the idea of playing at home would be that much more exhilarating. To have all of our family and friends there would be a dream come true,” said Potts whose father Rick Lang is also the coach of the team.
“It would be amazing to have friends and family be in the crowd to support us so motivation for sure,” added Sippala.
Aside from the goal of playing in another Scotties, Team McCarville is hopeful of being in the mix for another shot at an Olympic berth. McCarville’s current squad with Lilly, Sippala and Potts competed at the 2017 Roar of the Rings in Ottawa, finishing with a 4-4 record, while in 2009 in Edmonton McCarville made the final three. The team is not ruling out a shot at a trip to Beijing, China in 2022.
“We do think there’s a chance that we could get into the Olympic pre-trials. Curling Canada hasn’t announced the criteria for qualifying yet but based on our CTRS ranking, we have hope,” said Potts.
It should be noted that if McCarville were to win the Canadian women’s Olympic berth for 2022 they would have a conflict competing at the Scotties in Thunder Bay.
MAJOR LEAGUE TITLE: McCarville, Sippala and Potts, along with Sarah’s husband, Jordan Potts, had been playing once a week in the Tbaytel Major League of Curling up until this past Christmas. And it was the only competitive curling the team had done this year.
Team McCarville with a 6-3 record when play was suspended were tied for third place with Trevor Bonot and challenging for the league title behind Bryan Burgess at 6-2 and Dylan Johnston at 7-1.
McCarville said “we would love for major league to resume however it doesn’t look that way. However, Potts and Sippala were a bit more optimistic.
“We always felt comfortable given the strict rules on the ice, so it would be great to get back out there,” added Potts.
“If the restrictions get lifted in time then I’m sure we’d be comfortable finishing out the league. It’s been our best year so far so it would be nice to try to win it,” said Sippala.
BONOT, WON WAIT TURN: Two other local curlers — Trevor Bonot and Oye Sem Won — have been intently watching the Scotties from Calgary waiting for their trip to the bubble in mid-March to represent Northern Ontario in the Canadian mixed doubles championships.
However, the duo are not just watching curling but have had the opportunity to get onto the ice and throw rocks at the Fort William Curling Club this week. The Fort William club is the only local rink allowing practice bookings as of last Saturday. Bookings are online with 10 people allowed in the building at one time and two people per sheet practicing physical distancing.
“When we found out we had ice at Fort William, both Trevor and I were so excited. We were starting to look at heading west to Stratton to have access to ice! “It is so nice to be able to stay here and practice,” said Won, referencing Bonot’s hometown.
Stratton is located 60 kilometres west of Fort Frances and has a three-sheet club that is open for play with the Rainy River District in the yellow zone.
The duo booked their first practice Saturday and plan on being in the ice everyday or as much as possible until they leave for Calgary on March 15.
“It already feels so much better being able to throw. This ice time allows us to chat strategy, watch each other throw and work out any kinks,” said Bonot, who played the 2019 mixed doubles in Leduc, Alta., representing Northern Ontario with his friend, Amanda Gates from Sudbury.
Bonot and Won are reigning provincial champs, but have not played together since last March when they won the title in Kenora.
“I have to admit, I was getting a little nervous about heading to a national event with having thrown a rock in over two months,” said Won, who last played a game in the major league back in December as part of the Dylan Johnston rink. Bonot was also skipping his own rink as game prep for the nationals.
UPDATE: The Tbaytel Major League of Curling executive is planning to complete the season if lockdown restrictions can get to the orange or yellow zones. It will then depend on which clubs decided to keep their ice in to complete the season. The league has played its games at the Port Arthur Curling Club and Kakabeka Falls Curling Club, but the league executive are also looking at the Fort William club as option if need be. There are only five draws left to complete round-robin play with one day required to complete the playoffs.
John Cameron’s In the House curling column runs weekly in The Chronicle-Journal.