Bubble bound?

The 2021 Scotties Tournament of Hearts was held in a bubble at the Markin MacPhail Centre in Calgary. 

The extended road for the Scotties Tournament of Hearts to Thunder Bay took another turn on Thursday.

Due to the current Ontario COVID-19 restrictions, Rick Lang, the vice-chair of the host committee, said the Canadian women’s curling championship set to start Jan. 29 will likely be played in an empty arena — or near-empty — at Fort William Gardens with tight bubble rules.

Lang said there’s a possibility plans can change depending on the state of the virus numbers. Either way, the fan experience will be lacking when the first rock is thrown in 22 days.

“The hope is that we have an event with a bubble,” Lang said. “We’ve applied to the health unit for an exemption and that’s pending. The current restrictions don’t allow anyone, of course. The restrictions are set to end three days before the event is starting. We’re hoping that comes. That’s our best-case scenario.”

A chance to delay the event for another year (the Scotties were originally to be played in Thunder Bay in 2021) were officially shot down when Curling Canada announced Thursday that Kamloops, B.C., will be the host city of the championship next year.

Thunder Bay will be a contender to host a proper Scotties with fans in the near future. But many things must fall into place if that were to happen, namely having commitment from all local investors and leaders.

“In the future is what they indicated,” Lang said. “(Curling Canada was) really happy with our ticket sales and corporate sponsorship we had attained. They were really looking forward to a really exciting event. They want to come back to Thunder Bay. A decision would have to be taken by our local committee and the local people such as the economic development council that were putting up the bid fee whether we would want to do it again.”

The council Lang is referring to is the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission (CEDC), which along with the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund, FedNor and cooperation from the City of Thunder Bay, footed close to $1.5 million in improvements to the Gardens, including a digital front marquee, heaters, a score clock and new flooring to put atop the ice surface. The majority of the money comes from the Municipal Accommodation Tax Fund.

Curling Canada and the CEDC will negotiate reimbursement of some of the bid money since the region won’t enjoy the same tourism impact with travelling curling fans refunding their tickets and not coming to the city.

While the committee will still be put to work to ensure this year’s Scotties is run efficiently and safely, Lang said there’s a spark to host another championship in the near future free of restrictions whenever that may be.

“Our funding comes from ticket sales and the 50/50 draw and both of those are going to be significantly reduced,” he said. “It’s a disappointment from that level. On that same level we’ll want to do it again to try and support curling locally.”

Still, the deterioration of the committee’s plans over the last month has been disheartening. As the Omicron COVID-19 variant wreaked havoc across the world, case numbers in Ontario rose at an alarming rate. Ticket sales were halted on Dec. 16. Current restrictions came into effect on Wednesday and will run until Jan. 26 if the curve is flattened.

“It’s terrible. It’s horrible timing for both (years),” Lang admitted. “I honestly thought two months ago we were good to go. Ticket sales had been great. We were almost sold out for the championship weekend and strong sales for the rest of it. We had things in place for huge corporate sponsorship as well. It’s a huge disappointment and a letdown for us, for sure.”

The Northern Ontario women’s championship in Kenora this week was also cancelled, leaving the governing body to name a provincial representative for the Scotties here. On Friday, veteran Thunder Bay skip Krista McCarville and her Fort William club rink of Kendra Lilly, Ashley Sippala and Sarah Potts were named as the host team based on their season points and past reputation as multiple Northern Ontario champions.

Lang, the head coach of Team McCarville (and father of Potts), has been in close communication with his players on keeping focus with whatever happens.

“Honestly you can imagine the anticipation of hopefully having qualified and playing in front of a full crowd and a home crowd. It’s been on our minds for probably three years,” Lang said on Thursday.

“Now the rug has been pulled there. At the same time, they really want to win the Scotties. That’s been their goal ever since the team was put together. So we’re going to look at it as an opportunity — if they’re invited — to go in there and win the Scotties whether the place is empty or full. We’ll do our best to do that.”

Thunder Bay last hosted the Scotties (known as the Scott Tournament of Hearts) in 1996. The last major curling event held in the Lakehead was a Grand Slam tour stop in November 2018.

However, this will be Curling Canada’s first high-profile bonspiel here since the 2006 Canadian Juniors.

Kamloops will be just the fifth city that has hosted all four major Season of Champions events — the Brier, the Tournament of Hearts, the world men’s and women’s championships.