In most any other year, for the past couple of decades or so, the Lilly and Burns' families would have set aside some time, over the holidays, to convene locally, sharing stories, memories and wonderful friendships alike.
This year, quite obviously, the gathering will not take place.
All of which is at least a tad unfortunate. Given how closely their interconnectivity runs in relation to the 2021 Scotties Tournament of Hearts, the get-together would have undoubtedly featured a heavier dose than usual of laughs and tears, largely centered on the sport of curling.
Less than a week ago, the Krista McCarville rink, which has featured local vice-skip Kendra Lilly since 2015, announced that they had decided to pass on their berth at the 2021 Scotties in Calgary, after the NOCA (Northern Ontario Curling Association) elected to send the defending provincial champions to nationals, given that hosting a Northern Ontario bonspiel was simply unmanageable during a pandemic.
Just a few days later, the Krysta Burns skipped Idylwylde rink (Megan Smith, Sara Guy, Amanda Gates) accepted the offer to go in their stead, having fallen to Team McCarville 6-5 at the 2020 NOCA final in New Liskeard.
It has been a whirlwind week of curling news in Sudbury, to say the least.
"It really came down to family," noted Lilly, who in a non-pandemic year was set to curl with McCarville, Ashley Sippala and Sarah Potts, all from Thunder Bay. "A lot of our families have high risk people, and then with those with young kids as well, it just didn't seem to be the smartest move, given the state of the world."
"It was hard because it was our first year back together, with all four of us, and we were all really excited for that. We didn't really want to go unless it was the four of us. We know that we have something special."
In recent years, both Potts and Sippala have welcomed new additions to their respective families. At the 2020 Scotties in Moose Jaw, Jen Gates stepped in to replace Sarah Potts as Team McCarville posted a record of 8-3 before falling to the Rachel Homan rink (9-5) in the page 3 vs 4 matchup.
A year earlier, Gates joined the crew in Sydney (Nova Scotia), this time in lieu of Sippala, as Northern Ontario again finished at 8-3, and again lost to Homan in what amounts to a QF match. In total, McCarville has attended no less than eight such national championships, with Lilly already halfway to that total.
All of which, one might think, would make it easier to step aside this one time.
"In a sense, it almost made it harder that we had been there before, because we know special it is and how much we love being there," said Lilly. "That is absolutely our favourite time of year. Every time we step on the ice, all year, that's what we're playing for."
If she does have to take a pass this year, however, Lilly could not ask for a better replacement.
"I've known Krysta since she was crawling," she said with a laugh. "To see those three get to a national championship at the women's level is amazing. I have full confidence in them - and I couldn't be more excited for them."
While Amanda Gates can proudly claim three Hearts to her credit (2012, 2015, and 2018), each time as a member of the Tracy (Horgan) Fleury rink, Burns, Guy and Smith will all be enjoying the experience for the very first time.
"We really had not planned on playing at all, because of everything that was going on," said Burns. "Some of us have been playing in weekly leagues; some of us haven't been playing much at all."
If the start of young families has thrown a wrench into Team McCarville plans in recent years, then school and job demands have done likewise for this very accomplished quartet, all of whom boast no lack of national championship experience - just not at the Scotties, save for Gates.
Burns is currently enrolled in a Genetics Technology program at the prestigious Michener Institute in Toronto, while Smith is busy completing her pursuit of a Teacher's College degree at Wilfrid Laurier University. Guy is a registered nurse, working locally, while Gates is part of the team at Cambrian Insurance.
"We all wanted to say yes, but we all had to individually go to our own people, be it teachers or bosses, to make sure that we could actually go," said Burns. "We were all lucky enough to be in positions where we were able to make arrangements. We all feel safe about going, based on where we are."
And while some might not know exactly what to make of the expectations that should accompany Team Burns at their first Scotties, there are certainly reasons for optimism.
"I think it's a good thing that a lot of other teams will be going in very similar to us," said Burns. "Not a lot of people have been able to play much at all this year. And we proved to ourselves last year that it doesn't take curling 24 hours a day, seven days a week for us to be able to play with some really good teams."
"My whole reason for curling for my whole life is to have a good time and play with people that I enjoy - and that's exactly what we're doing."