Kerry Galusha has played at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts 11 times over her career.
Her next appearance will be unlike any other.
Galusha, representing the Northwest Territories, will skip one of three teams in the new round-robin qualifier that begins Thursday night at Mosaic Place. The format is being used at the women's national curling championship for the first time this year.
The changes are part of an effort by the Canadian Curling Association to make the Scotties and the men's competition — the Tim Hortons Brier — true national championships by including all 14 member associations.
Northern Ontario's Tracy Horgan and Sarah Koltun of the Yukon will also play in the qualifier. Up for grabs is the final berth in the 12-team competition beginning Saturday.
Normally a Scotties berth provides full participation in the main round robin with a chance to make the playoffs on the final weekend. But under the new setup, the two teams who don't make the cut in the qualifier will be going home just as the tournament is really beginning.
"It's kind of weird because we're going to the Scotties and everybody is congratulating us because we're going to the Scotties," Galusha said in a recent interview. "But we're not really in the Scotties yet. So it's a bit of a different mindset."
This is the first time that Northern Ontario will have its own team at the women's event. Territorial rinks will also have separate entries although Nunavut declined to participate this year.
The top two teams in the qualifier will advance to the play-in game Saturday afternoon. Draw 1 of the main Scotties round robin will begin at the same time.
It's quite a change for teams who are used to the traditional routine on the eve of the tournament. The Friday schedule usually includes some practice time, a skills competition and then an evening banquet.
"We don't get to experience that — none of it," Galusha said. "We'll be playing our pre-qualifying games while everyone else is doing all that stuff. So it's different. Like I said, that's why we're just going in thinking this is just another playdown to get into the Scotties because we're not in yet.
"We're there but we're really not in yet. That's our mindset."
The team that does advance will have some high-pressure games on tournament ice under its belt. However, that advantage could be minimized later in the round robin since that rink may become more fatigued than the others.
There could also be an interesting scenario if all three teams finish the round robin with 1-1 records. In that case, the tiebreaker would be pre-game draws.
"So you could be in or out of the Scotties just based on a draw to the button," Galusha said. "So that throws a whole other wrench into it. It's going to be really high pressure on those draws and winning games. And I think it's just going to (come down to) whoever is able to handle the pressure better."
Ottawa skip Rachel Homan is back to defend her title as the Team Canada entry. She likes that all provinces and territories get a chance to play.
"You're going to have good competition playing against other provinces," she said. "So it's never a bad thing to get some good games in and to get some experience for that province that might be fighting for it again next year."
Jennifer Jones of Manitoba is back after winning the Olympic title a year ago in Sochi, Russia. Alberta's Val Sweeting, Stefanie Lawton of Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia's Mary-Anne Arsenault are some other big names in the field.
"My initial reaction is no, I don't love it," Jones said of the new qualifier setup. "These teams come a long way and they may be going home after two days. So it just seems to take away a little bit from the event itself.
"But I guess this is the first year so we'll see how it goes."
Northern Ontario faces the Northwest Territories in the opener Thursday night. The Yukon will play its first game against Northern Ontario on Friday morning before taking on the Northwest Territories later in the day.
"Those three games — you have to play well," Galusha said. "They're all sudden-death games. You lose one game and you could be out. It'll be interesting, it'll be stressful I'm sure.
"But we all live to play this game for shots like this. We'll see what happens."
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