The 2021 Tim Hortons Brier takes off tonight from the WinSport's Markin MacPhail Centre in Calgary, with an expanded field this year.
18 teams will be competing over four days, with Brad Gushue representing team Canada. He'll be looking for his fourth Brier title, though there are a number of other teams who are just as likely to win including Saskatchewan's Matt Dunstone, Brad Jacobs, Kevin Koe, Mike McEwen, and Brendan Bottcher.
Each team competing must provide a negative COVID-19 test before their departure to Calgary, and then will be tested multiple times over multiple days after arriving.
The 18 teams will be split into two pools of nine, where each will take part in an eight-game round-robin. After that, the top four teams from each pool will play four more games in a championship pool, before the top three teams advance to the playoffs, with the top team of the bunch getting a bye to the finals.
Team Sask’s second, St. Gregor’s Kirk Muyres, took a few minutes to talk about that preparation and what awaits the players as they prepare to hit the ice.
That preparation included a now publicized two-week stopover in Wadena where the curling club provided the wherewithal for the team to quarantine and, more importantly, practice for the first time in months as a unit.
"Small town Saskatchewan, there’s nothing better," said Muyres, "And Wadena sure helped us out a lot. The ice was just meticulous by Scott (Comfort) and Dustin (Mikush), and the local people were dropping off food on the doorstep for us. It was a neat couple of weeks, that’s for sure."
Muyres says that they’ve never been able to have an intensive training camp such as the one in Wadena. That preparation goes a long way to bolstering the confidence going into the competition.
The unusual environment, with no fans and no social engagements that are usually hardwired into a Brier experience, is also on the teams’ minds. Muyres admits he will miss that aspect of connecting with teams and fans, but in the end, it may provide a degree of benefit in the competition.
"To some degree, the lower distractions are going to be a help. There are lots of engagements that you have to do through a normal Brier that is really quite tiring. Obviously, none of those are going to exist this year. We always love those engagements; they're so much fun to be with fans and have fun at the Brier, but that won't be the case this year. That may help us go into the event with some extra energy."
Friday night's draw, set for 7:30, will feature four games, including Team Saskatchewan facing off against Team Nunavut. The other three games will see Newfoundland and Labrador take on Quebec, Team Canada against Ontario, and Nova Scotia play Team Wild Card 2.