04/22/2013 03:39 EDT | Updated 06/22/2013 05:12 EDT

Olympic qualification process will be top of mind for curlers over summer

Gone are the days when just a few curling rinks dominated the competition in this country.

A pair of top young skips won national titles for the first time this season, providing more proof of the parity at the elite level in both the men's and women's games. The rise of the next generation of Canadian curling stars and the continued steadiness of the battle-tested veterans makes it tough to predict who will lead the way next season.

Throw in the drama of the Olympic qualification process ahead of the Sochi Games and the 2013-14 campaign should be one to remember.

Glenn Howard of Coldwater, Ont., made it clear last weekend that he's still in top form, taking the Players' Championship with a 4-3 win over Winnipeg's Mike McEwen. An Olympic title is the one thing missing from Howard's resume and the 50-year-old skip will be in the eight-team field for the Dec. 1-8 trials in Winnipeg.

"The top six or seven teams now are really close," Team Howard second Brent Laing said in a recent interview. "There was a while there was a couple of teams that were ahead. So there's still the parity but the group is bigger I think. So it's motivating to see how good other teams are playing.

"It motivates you to play better and to practise harder."

Howard and fellow veteran skips Kevin Martin of Edmonton and Winnipeg's Jeff Stoughton locked up berths in the trials — the Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings — well before the season-ending Grand Slam in Toronto. Three more spots were given to McEwen, Calgary's Kevin Koe and Toronto's John Epping for their standing in the Canadian Team Ranking System.

Winnipeg's Jennifer Jones, Edmonton's Heather Nedohin and Saskatoon's Stefanie Lawton were the early women's qualifiers. They'll be joined at the trials by 2013 Scotties Tournament of Hearts champion Rachel Homan of Ottawa, Sherry Middaugh of Victoria Harbour, Ont., and Winnipeg's Chelsea Carey.

The complicated qualification process for the trials started a few years ago.

Jones and Martin earned their spots with victories at the 2011 Canada Cup while Stoughton and Lawton qualified with Canada Cup wins in 2012. Howard and Nedohin qualified by leading the 2011-12 CTRS standings.

This season's results came into play for the remaining direct berths. If a pre-qualified skip led one of the categories, the spot went to the skip next in line in the standings.

Koe and Homan picked up the 2012-13 CTRS standings leader spots while McEwen and Middaugh earned berths for total points on the CTRS list over the last two seasons.

The runner-up spots for the two-year list went to Epping and Carey, with results at the Players' Championship finalizing their entries.

Some big names just missed the cut, including 2013 Tim Hortons Brier champion Brad Jacobs of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., 2006 Olympic champion Brad Gushue of St. John's, N.L., and Shannon Kleibrink of Calgary, who won bronze at the Turin Games.

All three skips will likely compete at the Nov. 5-10 Capital One Road to the Roar Pre-Trials in Kitchener, Ont. There will be a 12-team men's draw and a 12-team women's draw at that competition.

The final list of entries for the pre-trials will be officially released May 1. The top two rinks from each draw will secure the final berths at the Olympic trials.

Martin defeated Norway's Thomas Ulsrud in the gold-medal game at the 2010 Vancouver Games. Sweden's Anette Norberg beat Canada's Cheryl Bernard for the women's title.

Bernard, from Calgary, is expected to get one of the spots for the pre-trials.