OSHAWA, Ont. — The upcoming Wall Green Mixed Doubles Classic offers an entry list unlike most curling competitions. There are husband and wife teams, first-time duos, and teammates from the traditional four-player game will become opponents.
The event is part of an effort to grow the discipline in Canada now that mixed doubles is on the program for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
"It's a learning curve for everyone for sure," said Curling Canada mixed doubles program manager Jeff Stoughton. "But I think they're all very excited about the challenge of how different it is."
The 20-team field for the two-day competition at the Oshawa Curling Club is loaded with elite curlers. Mixed doubles is not the top priority for most and there are significant differences between the two disciplines.
Mixed doubles is a faster game that requires different strategies, heightened fitness levels and quicker decision-making. The change of pace and variety of shot options are also appealing differences for many curlers who have primarily focused on the traditional game.
There are six stones — with one pre-positioned on the centre line at the start of an end — instead of the usual eight. Games are eight ends long with a 22-minute shot clock rather than the usual 10 ends and 38 minutes.
Most top curlers have at least a little experience with the doubles game and are starting to take it more seriously this season for the first time.
Stoughton, a two-time world champ who retired earlier this year, was directly involved at the inaugural Canad Inns Mixed Doubles Classic last month, which essentially served as a test event. It was sandwiched between regular men's and women's events at the Portage Curling Club in Manitoba.
"The teams that played were excited to play, they were enthused," he said in a recent interview. "They thought it was really great to be part of something different from what they usually play. I think that was the biggest thrill for them, if you want to call it that, that they were excited to play and try something new.
"So the feedback was wonderful."
Most players are already in Oshawa this week for The National, the latest stop on the Grand Slam of Curling schedule. The mixed doubles competition will begin Monday.
Pool A features teams like Rachel Homan and John Morris — who were victorious in Portage la Prairie — along with Dawn and Mike McEwen, and Lisa Weagle and Mike Epping.
"I just find that it's more stimulating," Morris said this week. "It's easy for me to get really engaged and into it and that's when I play my best."
Jennifer Jones will team with partner Brent Laing in Pool B, which also includes Emma Miskew and Ryan Fry and 2014 Canadian mixed doubles champs Kim and Wayne Tuck.
Kaitlyn Lawes and Marc Kennedy headline Pool C with Joanne Courtney and Reid Carruthers while Pool D boasts reigning national champions Charley Thomas and Kalynn Park along with Val Sweeting and Brad Gushue.
"You've got world champions, Olympic champions, Canadian champions, Canada Cup champions," Stoughton said. "It's a fantastic field."
It's all part of the buildup to the Mar. 31-Apr. 3 Canadian mixed doubles trials in Saskatoon and the world championships Apr. 16-23 in Karlstad, Sweden. With an eye on qualification for the Pyeongchang Games, Canada needs to start building the program to have a shot at the podium success it has enjoyed in traditional curling.
It's hoped the curlers will become more engaged in mixed doubles and help it grow across the country. If television networks and sponsors get on board down the road, that would give the effort a boost as well.
"We're all training for it and putting in some time to get better at it," Fry said. "I think just the sheer shotmaking ability of the top players will help elevate us to the top of that (discipline) as well."
Sweden, Hungary and Switzerland are the current powerhouses in mixed doubles. Many European curlers focus on mixed doubles instead of the traditional game while in Canada, it's the opposite.
The players' skills are already top-shelf — now the priority is to get more games in and play in more tournaments.
"It's sort of a tightrope to walk of how much you want to push these guys to participate in mixed doubles and not sacrifice what they've built on for the last one to six years trying to go to the Olympics in their traditional games," Stoughton said.
Players that win the Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings — the 2018 Olympic qualifier — won't be able to play mixed doubles as well, so the new discipline presents another chance to get an Olympic spot that wasn't available in the past.
"It's a pretty big carrot," Morris said. "It's another way to get to the Olympics and represent your country."
The next two world mixed doubles championships will serve as Olympic qualifiers. Only seven countries will join host South Korea in the mixed doubles field at the Games.
Canada currently holds the No. 6 position in the world rankings.
"That's the urgency here is that we need to post good results in these next two years in order to get ourselves to that dance," said Curling Canada high-performance director Gerry Peckham. "We can't imagine not being at that dance."
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press