Two unique elements in this year's Tim Hortons Brier are a defending champion wearing Team Canada colours and a three-team, pre-tournament playoff to get into the main draw starting Saturday.
A Team Canada entry — included in the Canadian women's championship since 1985 — generally earned thumbs up from the men during Friday's practice session at Scotiabank Saddledome.
The pre-tournament qualifying round between the Yukon, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island to get into the 12-team main draw? That was less popular.
Two of those teams won't play beyond Saturday. They must return to the qualifier again in 2016 along with the team that finishes last in the main draw this year.
Nova Scotia's Glen MacLeod was the first eliminated Friday with an 11-3 loss to P.E.I.'s Adam Casey. The qualification finale between P.E.I. and Yukon's Bob Smallwood will be played during the first draw of the main round robin Saturday.
Friday evening's game between P.E.I and Nova Scotia was the only game on the four sheets. It was played in front of a smattering of fans in an arena that seats almost 20,000.
"I'm not a big fan of the relegation," said Newfoundland and Labrador skip Brad Gushue. "I think it's a little embarrassing for the teams. The way they're playing out here with nobody watching and no ceremonies or anything, it's not right.
"It's disappointing not to have one of Nova Scotia or P.E.I, who have been in the Brier since I think the '30s. It's a little bit odd."
The Canadian Curling Association, which re-branded itself as Curling Canada on Friday, altered the format of both men's and women's national championships this year to mirror each other as well as be a true national championship with all provinces and territories having the chance to enter a team.
How to manage 14 teams and keep the event a reasonable length, however, is a logistical puzzle.
Curling Canada announced more than two years ago that 2015 would be the year the Brier and the Scotties Tournament of Hearts would radically change.
MacLeod says his team was prepared for this play-in scenario, but his team was eliminated in heartbreaking fashion.
With the three teams tied 1-1, Nova Scotia had scored the worst in a pre-game, draw-the-button contest designed to break ties. In the end, the foursome was eliminated by two centimetres.
"Two centimetres was all it was," MacLeod said. "As far as the game goes, P.E.I. was the better team today.
"The format, I'm not too fussy about. The draw to the button is a little disappointing. It's an easy shot. We had that in our hands."
Quebec skip Jean-Michel Menard, who won a Canadian title in 2006, is concerned that curlers from provinces or territories perennially in the qualifier won't feel motivated to enter their respective playdowns.
He says one option for the Brier is to take on the format of the Canadian junior championships, where a 14-team field is divided into two pools for the round robin.
"At first I wasn't a big fan of the format they're going in the juniors, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense," Menard said.
"You're guaranteed eight, nine or 10 games per team. That would probably be a way of making sure every team that made it to the Brier will be able to stay the whole week."
Neither Gushue nor Alberta's Kevin Koe embraced that idea.
"I think at a national championship, you should have to play each province," said Gushue, the 2006 Olympic gold medallist who's skipping his province at the Brier for a 12th time.
"It has to be a round robin where you play every team in it," Koe stated.
Gushue suggested returning to one entry from the Territories and adding draws to accommodate a 13-team tournament. Koe suggested a 14-team tournament could be managed if there were five sheets operating per draw instead of four.
MacLeod was diplomatic about his team's fate under this format.
"We had already settled into the fact that this was the play-in format and not a big deal to us," MacLeod said. "We were the curling champions, not the policy-advocate champions of Nova Scotia."
The reception for a Team Canada has been more favourable. John Morris and Koe's three former teammates will wear the Maple Leaf when the main draw begins.
Koe won last year's Canadian title, but parted ways with that team to form a new one that won the Alberta playdowns.
"It's kind of cool to see Team Canada here, to see them wearing the jackets and knowing that everyone is going to be playing for that spot," said Northern Ontario's Brad Jacobs, who won the Canadian title two years ago.
Koe himself welcomes the Team Canada despite giving up the chance for an automatic berth.
"I've always been a fan. It's worked well in the ladies championship," he said. "It adds a real good team. It probably makes the field a lot tougher, which you don't always like to see if you're in it, but I like it."
Gushue is less bullish on the defending champion gaining an automatic berth in next year's Brier, but acknowledges the field is strong with a team that won the title the previous year.
"Even if we were Team Canada, I don't think we'd be a fan of it," Gushue said. "I think there's a certain ... I guess tradition that you have to earn your way here.
"Having a team like John Morris here, that is a good thing. It does make the field better for sure."Suggest a correction