When play gets under way for the 82nd Tim Hortons Brier in London, Ont., on March 5, the defending champion won't be in the field. Last weekend, Kevin Koe's Edmonton rink was knocked off by 2010 Olympic gold medalist Kevin Martin in the Alberta final.
There's nothing unusual about that; the road to the Brier has always started at the club level, even for the rink whose names were last engraved on the Tankard, and many fail to return. There is no easy way to earn a Purple Heart.
Contrast that with the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, which starts Saturday in Charlottetown. Jennifer Jones and her rink from Winnipeg will wear the Team Canada colours, having received a pass to the national final for being defending champs.
At first, the move for the Canadian women's championship, which started in 1986, was seen as almost sacrilegious for those from the House of Granite. A free pass all the way to the national championship? Preposterous.
But lately, the question isn't so much about whether the Team Canada concept should be quashed at the Scotties but, rather, if it should be added at the Brier.
There is a growing push behind such a move with high-profile players such as Martin backing it.
Those in favour say having the winner return allows organizers to market around a team it knows will be there for a full year rather than a few weeks.
And it adds another high-profile team during the event. With tickets sales waning at big championships over the past few years, a matchup such as Martin versus Koe, two Alberta rinks, might attract a few more spectators.
"We need more sizzle," said Warren Hansen, the Canadian Curling Association's director of events. "Adding one more team to that top-ranked group might help."
To make this happen, most would prefer to see Ontario's two entries folded in to one, eliminating Northern Ontario, as is the case at the women's tournament. That has raised the hackles of all those from Powassan to Kenora who claim history should trump marketing. The second Ontario entry from the north dates back to the start of the Brier in 1927.
"If the CCA believes that it's for the benefit of the Brier to have a Team Canada and get rid of Northern Ontario, then that's their decision," said Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., skip Brad Jacobs, who led his rink to the Northern Ontario crown last weekend and will appear in his second consecutive Brier. "It would be a big blow to tradition. I know Northern Ontario hasn't done that well at Briers for a while but there are a lot of great young curlers here. It would be shame if they took it away."
But, according to Hansen, another possibility exists and is being implemented at the national senior and mixed championships starting next year. This one involves a relegation system where Northern Ontario continues, a Team Canada is added along with separate Yukon and Northwest Territories rinks. The bottom two finishers from the previous year face a relegation challenge just prior to the start of the event, keeping the field at 12.
Hansen said bringing the same system into play at the Brier and the Scotties could happen, but won't be formally discussed for a few years yet and there are no guarantees. But he sees it as necessary, a step that's required in order to keep the championships viable.
However that will still leave two teams on the outside looking in. With the gap in talent between the haves and the have-not teams widening every year, there's the potential for a couple of perennial bottom-feeders to go years without a Brier appearance, which could ultimately hurt the sport in those regions.
The decision, then, must balance tradition with reality, talent with regional representation and expectations with the bottom line. It's not going to be easy.
But with the landscape undergoing considerable change, expect to see Team Canada in the Brier before too long.
Bob Weeks's curling column appears Thursdays.Report Typo/Error
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