Perhaps more than any other sport, the northern Ontario curling community possesses the ability to work together as one. Sure, the fierceness of some of the rivalries in this part of the province is unquestioned.
But the need to collaborate that is necessitated by numbers alone makes it easy to find far more instances where curlers have reached out well beyond their city borders to piece together a team to tackle the very best from Ontario, and beyond.
Alissa Begin has witnessed both sides of this equation.
Now 33 years of age, the Thunder Bay native was a vice with the Ashley Miharija junior rink that dropped three consecutive NOCA finals to the Tracy (Horgan) Fleury quartet, staging what were some of the most memorable U21 women's battles this country has ever seen.
Shifting her focus somewhat over the years, Begin has now participated in four separate Canadian Mixed Curling Championships, joining forces with skips Craig Kochan (2011), Mike Assad (2012), and current partner Charlie Roberts in both 2014 and 2018.
On Thursday night, Begin was in Sudbury, connecting with a newly formed partnership that sees her serving as vice to a women's team that includes Abby Deschene (skip), Megan St Amand (second) and Kimberley Headley (lead), with the Sault Ste Marie residents (Begin and St Amand) picking up the Sudbury duo (Deschene and Headley) en route to the Part II Bistro Ladies Classic in Wingham.
"Curling with Megan in Tuesday night leagues for a few years now and curling mixed kind of gives you the itch to get back and do competitive," said Begin. It's certainly not as though that desire to be challenged in a high-end female curling environment had ever subsided. But trying to maintain the environment that produces such unbelievable junior curling in these parts is no easy chore, moving forward.
"You get to that point of life changes - I think I was primarily working at the hospital at that time - my priorities kind of changed and the field opened up tremendously," said Begin. In fact, as she entered the open women's market roughly a decade ago, northern Ontario did not even exist as a province participant at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts.
"It was all Ontario at that time," she said. "It was challenging from that aspect, time-wise, the expansion of the field, and the expectations change that you are going just to get that experience. For sure, in my first few years with the women's, I wanted to go after it (Scotties). We still had the same kind of goals as in juniors."
"I don’t know exactly when the goals changed - maybe when I was working more, and getting time off work was more difficult." Either way, Begin is thrilled to be back in this setting, heading to a competitive spiel that will feature several familiar faces, part of a team that has curled together just once, last weekend in the Sault, advancing to the semis of an open event before losing to a rink skipped by Al Harnden.
"We have a lot of similar personalities out there," noted Begin of the new quartet. "Everyone is level-headed, very calm, very easy to get along with, which makes communication easy on the ice as well."
Joining the Deschene rink this weekend, from a Sudbury perspective, is the team of Krysta Burns, Megan Smith, Sara Guy and Amanda Gates, as well as Team Croisier (Bella Croisier, Jamie Smith, Piper Croisier, Lauren Rajala).
Still with the ladies, the Tracy Fleury rink is well positioned for a shot at a top three placing at the Home Hardware Canada Cup of Curling in Leduc (AB), posting a record of 4-1 and with just one round robin match remaining (vs Casey Scheidegger at 5:00 on Friday).
Curling with her team of Selena Njegovan, Liz Fyfe and Kristin MacCuish, the pride of Sudbury dismantled the Robyn Silvernagle rink from North Battleford (SK) 13-3 in their opener, stringing together a run of 3-2-2 between the third and fifth ends. A four-ender in the first set the tone in game two as the Fleury and her defending Manitoba championship team doubled Chelsea Carey of Calgary, 10-5 on Wednesday.
Their only setback would come in the fourth draw, dropping a 10-7 decision to the Rachel Homan rink, but rebounding to knock off both Kerri Einarson (8-3) and Jennifer Jones (7-4). The semi-final (3rd vs 2nd) is set for Saturday evening at 7:00 p.m., with the winner moving on to face the team which finishes first in round robin play Sunday at noon.
Meanwhile, the Thunder Bay crew of Krista McCarville, vice and Sudbury native Kendra Lilly, and the front-end of Ashley Sippala (formerly Miharija) and Sarah Potts are back to defend their crown at the Curl Mesabi Classic in Eveleth, Minnesota.
Play started on Friday, with the event having been more than kind to local folks, with McCarville and Lilly also part of the winning team in 2015, while Tracy Fleury and her rink having captured the bonspiel one year earlier.
And still more of a local presence in Paris (Ontario) this weekend, site of the Brantford Nissan Classic. In addition to the Sudbury-based teams skipped by Jacob Horgan (Scott Mitchell, Mitchell Cortello, Chase Dussesoy) and Sandy MacEwan (Dustin Montpellier, Lee Toner, Luc Ouimet), the event also welcomes Nicholas Bissonnette and his southern Ontario squad, with Evan Lilly playing lead for the John Willsey rink out of Waterloo.