The flavour of the week within high-end curling circles has clearly been the shuffling of rosters, with some of the biggest names in the sport in the country re-jigging their lineups in preparation for the 2022-2023 season and the next Olympic cycle.
That being the case, it likely only stands to reason that local competitive teams preparing for events this weekend and next should be forced to deal with rink makeup that may not have been consistent from start to finish of their curling campaign.
At Laurentian University, the five person men’s team will be without Sudbury product Olivier Bonin-Ducharme as the OUA Curling Championships open in Guelph this weekend, their vice-skip dealing with Covid. That being the case, Derek Leung remains as skip, Sebastien Whissell steps in as vice, with the front-end of Patrik Labrosse (second) and Mark D’Arcangelo (lead) staying put.
One of 15 entries at the tournament broken into three pools of five teams each, the Voyageurs feel they are as readied as this year has allowed. “The season started a bit late, but once we were on the ice, we were practicing once a week and had a league game once a week,” said Leung, now in the second year of his PhD in Sudbury.
“We’re hoping to make the playoffs and once you make the playoffs, anything can happen beyond that. That’s really the goal for us.”
A native of Hong Kong who has actually completed some academic research on the granite composition of curling stones, Leung will make his fourth appearance at university provincials, with D’Arcangelo also having competed before, while Whissell and Labrosse cut their U Sports’ teeth in Guelph.
“I think that it’s great that we have a combination of veteran players and also newer players, a bit of experience with some new input, some new ideas,” noted the 24 year-old skip, just one week shy of the quarter century mark.
As for a style of game they prefer, Leung suggested that mid-game adaptability could well be key, especially in a field where few teams would enjoy a whole lot of familiarity and advance pre-tournament knowledge on their opponents.
“I think in any sport where you need strategy, failing to plan is planning to fail,” said Leung. “It’s always good to have a game plan. But that game plan may change as it goes, and that’s the difference between strategy and tactics.”
While the absence of Bonin-Ducharme was unanticipated, that isn’t the case for the Curl Sudbury NOCA championship U21 rink of Katy Lukowich, Jamie Smith, Lauren Rajala and Katie Shaw. That very same team captured the World Qualifiers in Saskatchewan back in November with an identical roster, with the exception that Isabelle Ladouceur served as skip, in lieu of Lukowich.
Such was the juggling to be done in a year in which moving age deadline targets and what amounted to a pair of national championships only four months apart created the need for some planned amendments to curling rosters.
Still, Lukowich, a native of Winnipeg, did spend the entire first half of this season in Sudbury, working with her new team in anticipation of the roster switch that would come in January.
“I didn’t play much, but I’ve been to every single game that they’ve played,” said Lukowich, who stepped in for P.E.I native Katie Shaw at the team’s first bonspiel in September, and also saw action at the de facto 2021 nationals a few months ago.
“I’ve been sitting with our coach (Steve Acorn), every game, so I learned a lot from him. I think it helped improve my strategy and the way I look at things.”
In fact, the remaining trio, who combined with Lukowich to edge the Bella Croisier crew 7-6 in the Northern Ontario final earlier this month, should be able to make a relatively seamless transition, in spite of the switch at skip.
“I think I’ve adapted more to the way that she (Ladouceur) plays,” said Lukowich, comparing their styles.
After dropping their first game in Sault Ste Marie, losing 7-4 to Team Croisier, the Lukowich rink peeled off four straight wins to earn the trip to nationals, mixed in a nine team pool with Alberta 1 (Serena Gray-Withers), Manitoba 1 (Tansy Tober), New Brunswick (Celia Evans), Newfoundland & Labrador (Mackenzie Mitchell), Northwest Territories (Cassie Rogers), Nova Scotia 2 (Sophie Blades), Prince Edward Island (Rachel MacLean) and Quebec 2 (Jolianne Fortin).
“Dropping our first game at provincials wasn’t ideal,” Lukowich confessed. “But we just kept plugging away and grinding. The ice was tricky in Sault Ste Marie; it was a bit of a battle the whole week.”
As they leave for Stratford next week, the bulk of this team does so with the knowledge that their trip to Sweden in May is already confirmed, with the quartet looking to temporarily shelve that fact that is a given. “I think our mindset going in is that yes, we’ve already done well so far this season, but why not make it another,” opined second Lauren Rajala.
“I also think that because it’s a different team, with Katy skipping, I think it’s important that we go out there and do our best for her as well.”
With a U18 Canadian title and an appearance at Youth Olympics already part of her resume, one might think it hard for Rajala, a second year Forensics Science major at Laurentian, to provide a comparative framework for the year.
“I think that this has been the craziest season by far for me,” she said. “Bringing in girls from all over the place and being able to get so well together has just been crazy. I never expected us to do as well as we have.”
Ironically, the second version of this team might not have even had the chance to make their way to Stratford were it not for the pandemic, with the original dates for the World Championships crossing directly over the scheduled dates for the NOCA provincials. With all of these quirks just part of the mix, small wonder that Lukowich is simply thankful for the season that has been.
“I would have had no regrets, even if I couldn’t have played,” she said. “It’s been great. They are just great teammates; I think I’ve learned stuff from all of them.”
“I’ve just had lots of fun.”