CALGARY — Kerri Einarson picked up where she left off at the Canadian women's curling championship.

The defending champion kicked off curling bubble play at the Markin MacPhail Centre on Friday night with a comfortable 7-3 victory over wild-card entry Mackenzie Zacharias.

It was Einarson's first competitive appearance in about a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I played a runback on my first (throw). I was just hoping to make contact." she said with a laugh.

With cardboard fan cutouts occupying the first few rows at the spectator-free venue, the preliminary round kicked off with a four-game schedule as elite domestic curling returned after a long absence.

"It feels amazing out there," Einarson said. "It's quiet, that's for sure. I don't think I'll lose my voice this week."

Einarson won the 2020 Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Moose Jaw, Sask., but did not play at the world women's championship last March after it was cancelled due to the pandemic.

Only a handful of bonspiels were completed over the last year. A few provincial/territorial championships were played in recent weeks but many teams were invited to the Hearts by their respective associations.

In other Draw 1 games, Kerry Galusha of the Northwest Territories dropped an 8-7 decision to Krysta Burns of Northern Ontario. Alberta's Laura Walker beat Nova Scotia's Jill Brothers 10-5 and wild-card entry Beth Peterson dumped Yukon's Laura Eby 10-2.

"It felt nice to get our feet underneath us for sure," Peterson said.

The event will be the season debut for several players as travel restrictions, COVID-19 concerns and club closures have stymied the regular calendar.

Modified rules and adjustments were made in parts of the country when the sport returned this season but regular play -- two sweepers could be used, for example -- was in effect Friday night.

Team alternates, coaches and game umpires wore face masks near team benches. Many players wore masks during practice sessions but took them off for game action.

Many curling traditions at this annual event have been eschewed for the 2021 competition. So there was no opening ceremony, no bagpipes and no post-game handshakes.

One noticeable change was that electronic hog-line sensors on the stone handles were not used due to equipment delays as a result of the pandemic. The honour system was in effect and officials can observe the hog line if requested, Curling Canada said.

Curlers will be shuttled between the hotel and venue to maintain the bubble setup. Players have had three recent COVID-19 tests and another round of testing is set for the next few days.

Einarson's Manitoba-based team held the No. 1 spot in the country when the national ranking system was paused at the end of last season.

She was in full control against Zacharias, a 2020 world junior champion, who picked up the second of three wild-card entries in the expanded 18-team field.

Three draws were scheduled for Saturday. Round-robin play will continue within the nine-team pools through Thursday night.

The championship pool begins Feb. 26 and a three-team playoff setup will lead to the final on Feb. 28.

The winner will earn a berth in the Olympic Trials in November and return as Team Canada at the 2022 Hearts.

Normally the champion would also represent Canada at the world women's championship. However, the late March event in Switzerland - which was to serve as the main Olympic qualifier - was recently cancelled.

The World Curling Federation is expected to create a replacement event for early autumn next season. If that's the case, Canadian representatives will be determined at a later date and the national champions would be "factored into" the decision.

The March 5-14 Tim Hortons Brier will be next up in the bubble. In all, six competitions will be held in the hub environment through late April.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 19, 2021.

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