SPORTS

New teams will get chance to qualify for Scotties under play-in structure

01/22/2015 05:56 EST | Updated 03/24/2015 05:59 EDT
Northern Ontario's Tracy Horgan will make Canadian women's curling history next month.

Kerry Galusha of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon's Sarah Koltun will too. The three skips will be representing new team entries at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Moose Jaw, Sask.

The addition of a Northern Ontario rink is a first for the annual women's national championship. It was one of several changes instituted by the Canadian Curling Association as part of a plan to allow equal event access to all of its member associations.

In addition, there will no longer be just one team representing the Canadian territories at the Scotties.

The Northwest Territories and the Yukon will now have separate entries. Nunavut could have entered a team as well but declined.

The changes mean Horgan, from Sudbury, Ont., didn't have to win the Ontario playdowns in order to book her ticket for the nationals, like she did in her last Scotties appearance in 2012. The 28-year-old skip, a three-time Northern Ontario junior women's champion, beat Kendra Lilly last weekend to advance.

"Now this is kind of back to what we're used to," Horgan said in a recent interview. "We'll be wearing the green and gold colours and we're comfortable with that."

For Galusha and Koltun, the changes mean they both get to go to Moose Jaw.

The only rub for all three skips is they still have one last hurdle to clear. They'll square off in a three-team round-robin qualifier at Mosaic Place with the winner to reach the 12-team main draw.

The qualifying event begins Feb. 12 and the final play-in game will be held during Draw 1 of main draw competition two days later. The event continues through to the medal games on Feb. 22.

The inclusion of a Northern Ontario rink brings the women's event in line with other national competitions. The Tim Hortons Brier — the men's national championship — is also mirroring a longtime Scotties tradition this year by including a Team Canada entry for the first time.

The changes took root in 2010, when the CCA unveiled its Equitable Opportunity to Access Canadian Championships system. The goal was to create a system that would offer a fair, equal chance for curlers to access national events.

Two years later, the CCA's 14 member associations approved the final implementation phase, which resulted in the adjustments this season.

For 2016, the team that finishes at the bottom of the overall standings at the 2015 Scotties will have to go through the qualification round with this year's round-robin losers and Nunavut, if the territory decides to participate.

"We think the model is now fair, it is now sound, and it will be great to see some of the results on the ice where as I say, every single game is meaningful," said CCA chief executive officer Greg Stremlaw. "Not just for those that want to win and go on to podium excellence and represent Canada worldwide, but for those that don't want to face qualification in years ahead."

The non-traditional setup offers pros and cons for the three teams in the qualifier.

They have the unusual pressure of needing to peak right from the start in order to get a spot in the main draw. The qualifier winner will also have the advantage of two extra days of competition on arena ice, although that could leave them more fatigued by the end of the week.

"I can't even tell you what I'm expecting from it," Galusha said. "I'm just kind of rolling with it right now."

For the round-robin losers, it's a long trip to Moose Jaw for just a few games of action. It's also difficult for the teams to feel like they're actually part of the Scotties until they advance to the main draw.

"If you're looking at the whole Scotties event, that itself is a marathon — but we've got to do the sprint first," Koltun said. "That's what we have to focus on right away, to try to do our best right off the bat.

"So it's definitely a little bit different."

Ottawa's Rachel Homan is back to defend her title. Lauren Mann will skip the Quebec entry and Heather Strong will represent Newfoundland and Labrador.

The other provincial representatives have yet to be finalized.

Notes: The schedule for the 2015 Ford world men's curling championship has been released. Canada will open against either the U.S., or Brazil on March 28 at Scotiabank Centre in Halifax. Medal games will be played April 5. The winner of the Brier, scheduled for Feb. 28-March 8 in Calgary, will be the Canadian representative. ... The Canadian junior championships begin Saturday in Corner Brook, N.L.

———

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

MORE:cpSports