Northern Ontario AAA Hockey League
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First ever Scotties leads to intriguing choices ahead for Team Burns

Team Burns returned from their first trip to the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, fully convinced that they are absolutely capable of being more than competitive with the very best female curlers in the country.

The more interesting question, moving forward, is likely to what extent the Idylwylde Golf & Country Club grouping that included Krysta Burns (skip), Megan Smith (vice), Sara Guy (second), Amanda Gates (lead) and Kira Brunton (fifth) is willing to invest the time and effort that is required to strive for that upper echelon.

Quite honestly, it's entirely possible that the answer to that question might not be universal.

"I think we still have a foot in both camps," suggested Burns, currently 24 years of age and enrolled in the Genetics Technology program at the reknown Michener Institute in Toronto. "We all have other career stuff going on, at the moment."

"But being here, even with the low level of preparedness, we still had chances in games," she added. "We just weren't able to capitalize on them. We know that if we really want to put in the effort, one day, we could play with all of these teams."

Sure, it might be easy for casual Scotties fans to view lopsided losses to the likes of Laura Walker, Kerri Einarson and Rachel Homan and imply that the NOCA representatives were very simply in over their heads.

That, however, would acknowledge a very poor understanding of the context in which the locals came to represent Northern Ontario, a set of circumstances that runs much deeper than simply suggesting that all teams which competed had to deal with the effects of a global pandemic.

First, a step back.

It is true that when Burns, Smith, Guy and Gates assembled for the 2019-2020 season - Brunton was still curling in the junior ranks at the time - their goal was to find a way to incorporate some element of the competitiveness they had all experienced in combining for multiple runs at previous junior nationals, all while balancing off with the realities of their post-secondary studies or budding work careers.

The results were better than expected as the foursome not only advanced to the provincial women's open final, last February, but actually dropped a 6-5 decision to the Krista McCarville rink that would go on to advance to the playoffs at the 2020 Scotties, posting a record of 8-3 in Moose Jaw.

But by the time last September rolled around, COVID-19 had made the decision easy for Team Burns. With very little indication that bonspiels and provincials would be hosted in Ontario and certainly no guarantee that the 2021 Scotties would take place, the ladies could fully and completely devote themselves to their non-curling pursuits.

No guilt required - just step away from the game for a season that looked to be a complete write-off anyways, and revisit those tough decisions twelve months down the road. All of which was fine until a) Curling Canada found a way to bubble the Scotties in Calgary and b) Team McCarville, for very good family reasons, opted to take a pass on representing the NOCA out west.

And so it was that a collection of curling talent who would likely need to jump in, full tilt, for a year or two in order to maintain serious playoff aspirations at an event that draws the type of field they faced this week would agree to step to the plate, knowing they were likely to take it on the chin in at least a few games.

The team was adament that they did not want to set a specific goal, in terms of wins, before leaving Sudbury a couple of weeks ago. Still, it's unlikely a final mark of 2-6 came as a shock.

In a year where competitive curlers across the country found it difficult to find suitable game and practice opportunities, Krysta Burns and company were far more challenged than most.

"Coming in, we knew that every team we would play would be tough to beat," she said. "We knew that our level of preparedness was very low, and a lot lower than some of the other teams. Many of those teams have had access to ice, in some cases, even playdowns."

By contrast, the weeks just before the Scotties would be the first time the rink that expected to be on hiatus in 2020-2021 first gathered together. "Instead of coming in with the pressure of winning this many games, our goal was to have fun and learn a lot," said Burns.

"And that's exactly what we did. I'm walking away from this as a total success."

While Burns was attending school in Toronto, Megan Smith was doing the same at Wilfrid Laurier University in Kitchener-Waterloo. A teacher to be, she is likely to follow the job market, to some extent, in the fall.

Both Sara Guy (registered nurse) and Amanda Gates (commercial account manager - Cambrian Insurance) work in Sudbury, though the former has hinted strongly that her first priority, post-pandemic, is to integrate some world-wide travel that has been put on hold due to the pandemic.

Gates, the elder spokesman of the crew at age 34, was making her fourth trip to the Scotties as a player, plus another as a coach. She has travelled the road that lies before her teammates, putting everything she had as part of the highly successful Tracy (Horgan) Fleury rink before that group disbanded a few years back.

Ironically, it's entirely possible that Kira Brunton, invited along as the fifth, in case of emergency, may have curled the most between September and February, having moved to Ottawa last summer to join forces with the Lauren Mann open women's team.

Her week at the Markin MacPhail Centre now means that every single member of Team Mann enjoys Scotties experience. "The biggest thing I am walking away with is just seeing that level of competition and knowing where the bar is, where I have to get to in the next couple of years," said Brunton, the youngest of the bunch, celebrating her 22nd birthday next month.

"If anything, this is motivation for the future."

Brunton had already signalled her intentions to try and take her game to the next level by leaving home. And while 2020-2021 might not have offered a huge step forward in terms of her curling development, simply due to the lack of significant ice-time, she is more than ready to apply the lessons of the Scotties in the nation's capital.

"The biggest thing I want to work on is shot consistency, in the release, in the draw weight, all of the shot related things," said Brunton. "The biggest thing that cost us wasn't strategy errors, it was that we haven't played much this year, not enough to have a really good feel for draw weight."

"For the future, this shows that you have to practice a ton to get that feel, to be super confident with your release going in, knowing that you could put the broom down exactly where you have to in order to make all of your shots - and that you're going to execute them well."

As Kerri Einarson (current Canadian champion) prepares to face Rachel Homan in the Scotties final for a second straight year, Team Burns got a first hand look at exactly what it takes to walk in their shoes.

"She (Homan) did not miss a shot against us - it was unbelievable," said Burns. "She's almost fully term pregnant, and she still has the smoothest slide of anybody out there. She just wasn't going to miss."

All of which brings us back to the million dollar question for Burns, Smith, Guy and Gates: is striving to reach that level, sacrificing the time, committing to the travel and financial demands that are required to battle the best, is it all worth that effort, when very successful work-related careers await?

Time will tell.

Northern Ontario AAA Hockey League