A field heavy with international talent will kick off the Grand Slam of Curling schedule on Tuesday at the HearingLife Tour Challenge in Niagara Falls, Ont.
Reigning world champs Bruce Mouat of Scotland and Silvana Tirinzoni of Switzerland are among the headliners at the Gale Centre. Round-robin play continues through Friday ahead of the weekend playoffs.
In yet another nod to the sport’s improved international depth, this season there are only 12 Canadian teams among the 32 total Tier-1 entries — six in the women’s draw and six in the men’s pool.
Nine different countries are represented in each 16-team draw.
“They’re pushing some of the Canadian teams to be better, which is great for us,” said Brett Gallant, who throws second for Brendan Bottcher’s Alberta-based team. “They’re putting a ton of work in and they’re seeing the results from that.
In recent years, international teams have only strengthened their grip on major curling events like the Winter Olympics and world championships.
Canada hasn’t won a four-player team medal at the Games since 2014. The country’s world championship drought dates back to 2017 for the men (Brad Gushue) and 2018 for the women (Jennifer Jones).
‘No easy games’
The Tour Challenge, meanwhile, had 15 Canadian entries last season, three more than this year.
“There are no easy games,” Gallant said. “Everybody is pushing everybody. It makes for some great games. We’ve got the five-rock rule now and there’s no tick, so you can’t take an end off.
“But I honestly think that’s why we play the game. We love being pushed and we love trying to be the best.”
Norway’s Magnus Ramsfjell, Wouter Gosgens of the Netherlands and American Korey Dropkin are newcomers to the men’s event.
“International depth is actually getting stronger as opposed to the other way around,” said curling commentator Mike Harris, who won Olympic silver for Canada in 1998. “So not great news for the Canadian athletes, but the good news is that our top five or six teams are right there.
“Whereas 10 years ago, maybe you could even double that number, maybe 10 or 12 that you could see at a Slam. I can’t see it ever getting back to that type of Canadian participation in the Slams just because of the nature of the events.”
Changes to format
World ranking positions are used to determine the entries at the combined $400,000 competition.
Bottcher, Gushue, Matt Dunstone and Kevin Koe hold top-10 spots in the men’s world rankings. Jones, Kerri Einarson, Rachel Homan and Kate Cameron are in the women’s top 10.
“Part of it is due to the structure of the other countries,” Harris said. “A lot of them are funded teams and our athletes generally — they get some funding from Curling Canada, of course — but it’s like their own little business.
“They set up their own sponsorship packages and kind of do their own thing.”
Homan and Sweden’s Niklas Edin are the defending Tier-1 champions.
There’s also a Tier-2 competition — with 16 entries for each gender — for teams below the top tier.
“It’s a great stepping stone for a lot of the younger teams that are trying to break their way into the Slams,” Harris said.
There have been some changes to the Grand Slam circuit this season. Pinty’s is out as title sponsor and the season-ending Champions Cup was dropped from the calendar.
Draw to the button statistics will be used instead of tiebreaker games.
The Grand Slam circuit has been owned and operated by Sportsnet since 2012.
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