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Scotties set to start in unusual Olympic-year setting

The Canadian Press

1/31/2014 5:09:49 PM

MONTREAL -- It isn't often a Quebec rink gets to play at home in the Scotties Tournament of Hearts but that's what skip Allison Ross of Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Que., will experience this week.

A year in which the Canadian curling championship has been pushed forward a week to accommodate the Winter Olympics was deemed the perfect chance to stage the event in Montreal for the first time since 1979.

The opening ceremonies and the first two draws are set for Saturday at the 4,000-seat Maurice Richard Arena, normally the training base for Canada's short-track speedskating team.

"For us it's going to be really fun," Ross said Friday. "We're really a team that likes to have the crowd support.

"We respond well to that. It's a bit more pressure, for sure, a bit more media attention, but we are a team that likes it. We are enjoying every minute of it."

Interest is likely to be lower than usual with the tournament schedule overlapping the Feb. 8 start of the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

But holding it in a city not known as a curling hotbed and far from the sport's heartland in western Canada, is seen as a chance to grow the game. Kruger, which produces Scotties paper products, has its head office in Montreal, also worked in its favour as well.

"This will be a wonderful platform to get (curling message) out here," said tournament director Francine Poisson, who played in three Canadian championships in the late 1980s and early 1990s. "We've had a lot of French media this week, so it's breaking the (notion) of curling being an English sport.

"It's very exiting. The visibility of curling has never been as great as it is now. People are watching. Now it's time to translate eyeballs into people playing in curling clubs."

Next year's tournament will return to curling country in Moose Jaw, Sask.

Facing the likes of defending champion Rachel Homan of Ottawa, the Ross rink won't be among the favourites after going 3-8 at last year's Scotties in Moncton, N.B.

"We are hoping for a better result than last year," said Ross. "Last year we had three games that came down to last rock.

"We could have had six wins instead of three. We take a lot of what we learned last year and come back a lot stronger this year."

It isn't home for Homan, but Ottawa is just a two-hour drive or train ride away and she's also expecting some extra support as she defends her title.

"It's nice for us," said Homan. "We drove here and a lot of friends and family will be coming up to support us and share the experience with us.

"Obviously, there won't be as many fans here as there would be out west, but it's good for our friends and family."

It's an unusual Scotties in many ways, so perhaps there will be surprises on the ice.

For one, Jennifer Jones' rink from Winnipeg won't be around because she'll be in Sochi. Instead, Chelsea Carey will make her Scotties debut for Manitoba.

In 1979 in Montreal, British Columbia won the tournament led by Lindsay Sparkes. This time, B.C. will be led this time by 22-year-old skip Kesa Van Osch of Victoria.

She won't be the youngest skip on the ice. That honour goes to 20-year-old Sarah Koltun of Whitehorse. The Yukon/Territories skip is the youngest ever to compete at the Scotties and the first player to skip at both the Scotties and Canadian junior championship in the same year.

The favourites include Val Sweeting of Alberta, who is in her second Scotties, and Stefanie Lawton of Saskatchewan, who is at her third.

The veterans are skip Heather Strong of Newfoundland, who is in her 11th Scotties, and Kim Dolan of P.E.I., who is in her 10th.

"The transition is certainly happening," said Dolan. "There a lot of young teams and new faces, which is great to see.

"Women's curling is in a great place, so these new young ladies are keen. That only entices other people to play and go after their dreams."

The Ontario team is skipped by Allison Flaxey while Nova Scotia has Heather Smith at the helm and Andrea Crawford will carry New Brunswick's colours.