The three-month curling journey inside the Calgary bubble has finally crossed the finish line.
Starting in mid-February, Curling Canada, the World Curling Federation, and the Grand Slam of Curling successfully hosted seven events at WinSport's Markin MacPhail Centre as dozens of the best rinks on the planet competed in a fanless environment all while following strict protocols in order to keep everyone safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There were some hiccups along the way, but the events took place, curlers were crowned champions and granite memories were made for a lifetime.
This unprecedented campaign won't be forgotten, but rest assured, both athletes and fans alike don’t have much interest in reliving another season of “bubble curling” anytime soon.
Let’s take a look at some of the most memorable moments and storylines from the Calgary bubble.
Team Einarson’s marathon run
Kerri Einarson and her Gimli, Man., team - as well as the Brier champs led by Brendan Bottcher - spent the most time in the bubble by far.
That’s what happens when you win a lot.
Einarson and company were the best team on the ice all week at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts way back in February, defending their Canadian curling title with a victory over Rachel Homan in the final.
The whole team – Einarson, third Val Sweeting, second Shanna Birchard, lead Briane Meilleur, and alternate Krysten Karwacki – competed at the Canadian Mixed Doubles Curling Championship with their skipper capturing the title alongside partner Brad Gushue.
Team Einarson were back in the bubble for the Grand Slams, winning the Players’ Championship just a few days before the start of LGT World Women’s Curling Championship.
Spending that much time away from family in the bubble environment will take a toll on just about anybody. Mix in the added pressure of wearing the Maple Leaf on the world stage and you’re facing a challenge like you’ve never seen before in competitive curling.
Playing a daunting schedule to begin the women’s worlds, Einarson’s foursome got off to a slow 1-5 start, putting their playoff and Olympic qualification lives in jeopardy.
"It's mentally draining," an emotional Einarson said after a loss to the Americans. "It's a long week."
But Einarson and her team are two-time Scotties champs for a reason. The Canadians won six of their last seven round-robin games to get into the playoffs and qualify Canada for the 2022 Winter Olympics, avoiding the disaster scenario of having to play in a last-chance qualifier in the fall.
They were dispatched in the qualification game by Sweden but were hailed as heroes by Canadian curling fans for their perseverance and determination to battle back after being all but defeated earlier in the week.
Over the 50-plus days spent inside the Calgary curling bubble, Team Einarson experienced a wide range of emotions and are leaving with a wealth of experience that could only help them going forward with the Olympics Trials slated for November.
Easily one of the most inspirational curling stories in some time was Rachel Homan and what she was able to accomplish during the late stages of her pregnancy and then again soon after giving birth.
Homan was eight months pregnant with her second child during the Scotties, leading her Ontario rink to the championship game for a third consecutive season.
"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."
After the Scotties final on Feb. 28, Homan gave birth to daughter Bowyn on March 25 and then amazingly was back on the ice just three weeks later for the start of the Champions Cup.
The 32-year-old went on to defeat eventual world champion Silvana Tirinzoni in the final to capture her 11th career Grand Slam title on April 19. Homan almost made it 12 wins a week later but fell to Einarson in the final of the Players’ Championship.
A truly remarkable run from Homan that surely inspired many from coast to coast and beyond.
Bottcher breaks Brier burden
Last year, Brendan Bottcher became the first skip to lose three consecutive Brier finals.
The undeterred team from Edmonton didn’t lose a step inside the bubble and advanced to their fourth straight national final after their skipper made a pistol to beat Saskatchewan in the semi-final.
Team Bottcher squared off against provincial rival Kevin Koe and his Calgary rink in the final, the team that handed them their second Brier final loss in 2019.
This time, however, the story of Team Bottcher had a different ending. The cerebral skip was in control from the opening rock, shooting a blistering 97 per cent en route to a low-scoring 4-2 victory.
"Losing in this game sucks, for lack of a better word," Bottcher said. "It really sucks. It sucked the first time, it sucked the second time and it sucked just as much the third time.
"We all show it differently but (the win) just means so much to us and I think that was really on display here tonight when we closed it out."
Third Darren Moulding, who was emotional after losing in the final the year prior, shot 93 per cent.
"I don't remember life ever not dreaming and wanting this," Moulding said. "It's my whole life's work. It's kind of overwhelming actually. But this is what I always pictured for sure."
Wayne turns back the clock
Everybody likes a good comeback story. Veteran curler Wayne Middaugh sure gave us one at this year’s Tim Hortons Brier.
The 53-year-old was a late replacement for former teammate and good buddy Glenn Howard after Howard suffered rib injuries in a snowmobile accident just a few weeks before the Brier.
Middaugh, who thought his curling career was long done after brutally breaking his leg in a skiing accident back in 2016, was giddy from the opening draw.
"It's awesome, it's unbelievable," Middaugh said after his opening win over Northwest Territories. "You play your whole life as a kid to get to play in the Brier and here I am. I don't know how I got here but here I am."
It quickly become apparent that the three-time world champion, who now has a titanium rod in his leg, still had plenty left in the tank as the wild card rink advanced to the championship round with a 7-1 record, thanks in part to multiple game winners from their skipper.
Team Middaugh went 1-3 in the championship round and didn’t qualify for the playoffs, but Middaugh’s run in Calgary delivered a satisfying dose of nostalgia at this year’s Brier.
Canada leaves bubble without medal
Canada failed to reach the podium at both the men’s and women’s world championships for the first time in history this year.
Einarson and Bottcher were both eliminated in the qualification round after fighting tooth and nail in order to get into the top six for the playoffs.
Silvana Tirinzoni won her second straight world women’s title which was the sixth in nine years for Switzerland. Meanwhile, Sweden’s Niklas Edin won his third consecutive world championship on the men’s side, the fifth of his Hall-of-Fame career.
Furthermore, Scotland’s Bruce Mouat won both men’s Grand Slams over Canadian teams.
It’s now obvious that after a medal-less Olympic showing four years ago and the most recent world championships, Canada is just one of many curling nations who have a chance to stand atop the podium. The outright favourites? Not anymore.
Canada isn’t getting worse, rather the rest of the world has caught up. Now, the country’s elite curlers will prepare for the Olympic Trials in November where the next rinks to receive both the privilege and pressures of wearing the Maple Leaf will be determined.
The countdown to the 2022 Beijing Games is on.
Breakout star – Laurie St-Georges
Only curling diehards would have known the name Laurie St-Georges entering this year’s Tournament of Hearts.
She left as a curling rock star.
The 23-year-old Scotties rookie skipped Quebec to a 6-2 pool play record, quickly garnering attention for her strong play and lively personality on the ice. Team Quebec as a whole were a pleasure to watch as their love for the game was evident.
Three-time Scotties champ Rachel Homan gave a nice shoutout to her skip counterpart following a close win over Quebec in the championship round.
St-Georges also performed well with boyfriend and teammate Felix Asselin at the Canadian Mixed Doubles Championship.
We’ll have to wait and see what St-Georges has in store for her next appearance at the national championship.
Shot of the bubble - Greg Smith
How can you not be a fan of Greg Smith?
The 24-year-old skip from St. John’s, Nfld., was already a crowd pleaser heading into his second career Tim Hortons Brier this year and easily grew that fan base with this around the horn beauty immediately after making a very honest and relatable remark to his teammates.
Smith coasted to 10 straight 1V1 victories, earning his rightful spot in the Hall of Fame.
Quote of the bubble - Sherry Anderson
“I heard the toilet flush.” – Sherry Anderson, Saskatchewan skip