Veteran skip Brad Gushue admits he had a love-hate relationship with curling over the past year.
The sport essentially shut down for most of 2020 owing to the pandemic. It returned last winter with a most unusual setup: a seven-event curling bubble in Calgary.
Gushue said he loved the opportunity to compete again, but being away from family for 3½ months made him “hate curling for about a month” when he returned home.
“I did not want to talk about it, I didn’t want to think about it because it took me away from my family for such a long period of time,” he said.
“Then once I was around my family and they got sick of me, I started to think about curling again,” he added with a laugh. “So now the fact that we’ve been able to play in front of fans again has brought back that love that I have and that excitement.”
The Roaring Game seemed more like itself last month at Canada’s Olympic trials.
A few thousand fans were on hand for most draws in Saskatoon to provide some much-welcomed curling atmosphere.
“It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster to be honest,” Gushue said of the last year. “It went from high to very low to high but that’s the kind of thing you’ve got to expect I guess in a pandemic.”
Gushue won the trials to book his ticket for the Beijing Games in February, marking his first Olympic appearance since he won gold at the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy.
In the bubble, he played in the national men’s championship, won a Canadian mixed doubles title and competed in two Grand Slam events. Travel time and quarantine periods extended his schedule.
Gushue changed things up earlier this fall by playing on a limited basis to be fresh for the trials. It paid off when he topped Brad Jacobs in the final.
Jennifer Jones also booked an Olympic return after posting an extra-end win over Tracy Fleury in the women’s final. The 2014 Sochi Games champion and her five-player team have risen to No. 3 in the world.
“Grateful to be back,” Jones said of her calendar year. “It was great to have the bubble and we got to play a little bit, but it’s so nice to be able to train and practise and have regular ice.”
The bubble at Markin MacPhail Centre provided a respite after a dreary and limited competitive season owing to COVID-19.
Provincial and territorial associations had to navigate the challenges of determining entries for the national championships. Some managed to get playdowns in while others had to get creative.
Curling Canada also changed things up by scrapping the usual play-in game for the Scotties Tournament of Hearts and Tim Hortons Brier. Three wild-card teams were added to each field to create 18-team events for last season only.
Kerri Einarson’s Manitoba-based team won the Scotties final for a second straight year. Brendan Bottcher’s Alberta-based rink took the Brier for the first time in its fourth straight final appearance.
Spectators were not allowed in the bubble and curlers were confined to the arena and their hotel across the highway. Both world championships were also held at the Canada Olympic Park facility.
When the 2021-22 campaign kicked off, fans were welcomed back at major Canadian tour stops for the first time since the Brier in Kingston in March, 2020.
One big domestic event remains in this most unusual curling year.
The mixed doubles trials start Dec. 28 in Portage la Prairie, Man. That competition will determine Canada’s representatives in that discipline at the Beijing Games.
Canada’s Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris won gold when mixed doubles made its Olympic debut at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang.