Best of 2021: Bottcher makes amazing shot to send Alberta to Brier final
The past 12 months in curling won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
Like everything in the world, curling was forced to pivot and acclimate to the ever-changing nature of the pandemic in 2021.
This meant most of the 2020-21 bonspiel season was axed for safety reasons, with the major events on the calendar – including the Canadian and World Championships – all coming to one location over a three-month curling marathon.
From mid-February to early May, Curling Canada, the World Curling Federation, and the Grand Slam Tour hosted seven elite-level events inside the bubble environment at WinSport's Markin MacPhail Centre in Calgary.
Some curlers spent a week while others were there for multiple events. Team Kerri Einarson called the Calgary bubble home for over 40 days all while battling through the exhaustion of playing with strict protocols.
And of course, the Curling on TSN broadcast crew were there for the long haul as well.
At a regular Scotties Tournament of Hearts and Tim Hortons Brier, it’s commonplace to see curlers embrace family and friends following a draw. Fans can even come right down to ice level to get a picture and a quick chat with their favourite player before making the short jaunt to the Patch to mix and mingle with fellow lovers of the granite game.
The sense of community is what makes curling great. However, this year’s Season of Champions inside the bubble had a different feel.
Family and friends weren’t allowed inside the bubble and curlers were forced to isolate in their hotel rooms when not competing or practising. Autograph sessions and Patch visits were replaced by stringent COVID-19 testing and Zoom scrums with the media. Real fans were exchanged for cardboard cutouts as dramatic moments and world-class shots were met with deafly silence.
The season may have had an entirely different feel to it, but fans and curlers alike were grateful to have the sport they love back in the limelight.
After smooth sailing at the Scotties and Brier, the stress levels for the athletes and broadcast crew ratcheted up during the World Women’s and Men’s Curling Championships after positive tests forced the suspension of games and TV broadcasts.
The anxiety that comes with the unpredictability of COVID-19, paired with the pressures of playing in high-level competition, was daunting, as many curlers proclaimed during their time inside the bubble.
"It's mentally draining," Einarson after a tough loss at the women’s worlds in May. "It's a long week."
But curling’s best prevailed and provided memorable moments that helped many get through the tough winter months.
There was the incredible story of Rachel Homan, who at eight months pregnant led her Ontario-based rink to the Scotties Tournament of Hearts final for a third straight year. She was tied with Einarson for the top skip shooting percentage at 83 per cent.
"Can we talk for a second about skipper over here?" third Emma Miskew said after losing to Team Einarson in the final. "Unbelievable you curled that well. It's just amazing."
Homan played the Scotties final on Feb. 28 and then gave birth to daughter Bowyn on March 25. Just three weeks later, the 32-year-old was back in the bubble and captured the Champions Cup title on April 19. It was a truly remarkable feat that surely inspired many individuals around the world.
Then at the Brier, the game between Ontario’s John Epping and Newfoundland and Labrador’s Greg Smith marked the first time two skips who are open members of the LGBTQ community competed against each other at the Canadian men’s championship.
And how can you forget the shot of the season from the St. John’s skipper himself.
Champions were crowned in the bubble as well.
Team Einarson became national champs for a second straight year before Einarson won the mixed double title in her first go at the discipline with partner Brad Gushue.
Team Brendan Bottcher finally broke their Brier burden. In retrospect, that win was even more impressive given the apparent tension within the team over the past year or so as revealed by Darren Moulding after he was cut from the squad earlier this month.
By the time the world championships rolled around, Team Einarson and Team Bottcher had spent weeks inside the Calgary bubble, which may have played a factor in their slow starts against fresher international powerhouses. They made the playoffs and qualified Canada for the Olympics, but both missed the podiums, a telltale sign that Canada will just be one of many teams having a shot to capture gold in Beijing.
The first half of the 2021-22 curling season returned to a bit of normalcy this fall, with tour events taking place across the country every weekend as well as the highly anticipated return of fans to the stands.
“What an incredible crowd,” said Jennifer Jones after the opening draw at the Tim Horton Curling Trials from Saskatoon in November. “Saskatchewan fans are loud and having fun and we haven’t done this for a year and a half. Just an incredible crowd. It’s such a privilege.”
Jones would go on to edge Tracy Fleury in a wild women’s final while Gushue defeated Brad Jacobs in the men’s final as both world-class skips will represent Canada at the Olympics for the second time in their careers in February.
As we enter the New Year, the pandemic persists, and questions remain on how it might affect different aspects of life going forward. One thing is guaranteed though. No matter what curling looks like in 2022, the athletes will deliver a great show. They always do.