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U18 Curling: The right decision creates some challenging scenarios

No one questions the well-intentioned motives behind the Curling Canada decision to increase the field for the 2021 Canadian Under-18 Boys and Girls Curling Championships in Timmins next February.

The notion of attempting to address the concern for the young curlers, right across the country, who lost their chance to compete at nationals this past March in Sudbury, due to the pandemic, was a path that was followed for all of the right reasons.

Pragmatically speaking, however, this journey might require some top-notch stickhandling in order to come as close as possible to appeasing all that would be affected.

"I was pleasantly surprised," noted long-time local curler Lee Toner, a man who has participated in the Brier, is highly respected within the sport, and who is now helping develop the next generation, coaching Team Toner (Mia Toner, Valerie Ouimet, Justine Toner, Emilie Glabb), a very young U-18 entry, who had received the nod as host team in 2020 based on their second place finish at provincials.

"I had not heard about anything like that and we didn't expect anything like that," added Toner. "I thought it was a classy move by Curling Canada and the NOCA and all of the member organizations, and the Timmins organizing committee as well, to give hope to some of the kids who missed out on the national experience."

Now just for the purpose of clarity, it should be noted that Team Toner has not been guaranteed a spot in the 2021 playdowns.

And to clearly outline the details of the "classy move by Curling Canada", consider the following excerpt from their media release last week: "Thanks to the generosity of donors to the Curling Canada Foundation, many of the teams that had qualified for the 2020 Canadian U-18 Championships, which were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will have the opportunity to compete at the 2021 championships."

The release goes on to state that "the field will be expanded from 14 to 27 teams in each gender for the 2021 event only". While this might seem like a huge undertaking, nearly the doubling the field for a one-off circumstance, NOCA (Northern Ontario Curling Association) Executive Director Leslie Kerr offered the following key information.

"The field was already going to be expanded," she stated earlier this week. "There were going to be 24 teams per gender, anyways, even before the pandemic. The decision had been made to allow more kids the opportunity to experience a national event."

Even as he removes his parental hat in favour of a more generic curling cap, Lee Toner understands the logic behind this pre-pandemic move. "For Curling Canada, I do think it makes sense," he said. "For these young curlers, this is a huge developmental opportunity. They (Curling Canada) have to be looking long-term as well, and they don't want some of these young curlers to miss out on this opportunity."

Yet it should be noted that the initially proposed increase in the field would have involved the qualification process for teams that would be competing in 2020-2021, whereas this one-time decision now gives member associations, such as the NOCA, the ability to allow their 2019-2020 championship teams the option of retaining their berth for one extra year.

We are, however, and perhaps somewhat unfortunately, talking about teams that may have already made plans not to curl together again this upcoming season, dealing in many, many cases with a situation of some curlers aging out of the U-18 bracket. Still other roster shuffles are driven more by the perpetual search to find perfect chemistry within a four-man (or four-woman) unit.

In other words, it is extremely possible that some of the 2020 banner winning teams might re-unite solely for the playdowns in Timmins, with players effectively going their own separate ways for the balance of the 2020-2021 campaign.

Kerr has confirmed that the NOCA has offered one spot, in each gender, to their existing champs: Team Croisier (Bella Croisier, Lauren Rajala, Emilie Lovitt, Piper Croisier) and Team Rajala/Mitchell (Brendan Rajala, Scott Mitchell, Ian Deschene, Jesse Crozier, Duncan Smith).

Neither of these rinks were about to remain intact this fall, in large part due to the inherent age restrictions of U-18 curling. Difficult decisions will need to be made, both by the provincial governing bodies who have now been given the chance to double their standard entries to nationals (for Curling Canada purposes, Northern Ontario is considered the equivalent of a province/territory), as well as by the teams involved.

The guidelines, at this point, stipulate that if a 2020 championship team accepts a berth in the 2021 event, that a minimum of three of the four players that had qualified remain on the roster, allowing for the possibility that a team who has an athlete departing for post-secondary studies halfway across the country, unable to commit to a week in Timmins, could still compete, filling in for the one absentee.

"I imagine that it's going to be awkward for a number of teams who have changed personnel, or who have moved on, deciding to pursue different goals," said coach Toner. "There may be young curlers who have decided to step back and focus on university next year."

As far as the 2020 championship teams go, age restrictions will not apply. A team of four players, all of whom were in their final year of U-18 eligibility this past March, could still compete together at the 2021 event. This is a one-time exemption.

To be clear, I have truly only just scratched the surface of some of the issues in play.

Consider, for a moment, that neither Ontario nor Saskatchewan had even completed their 2020 provincial playdowns prior to the lockdown. Those member associations will still be allowed a second entry at 2021 nationals, with qualifying teams to be decided upon solely based on competitions still to be played.

Some might suggest that Ontario and Saskatchewan effectively dodged a bullet, not having to contemplate the very difficult balancing act between acknowledging a provincial championship team whose dreams fell victim to Covid, against the reality that those teams may have been poised to never, ever hit the ice together again, as a unit.

Seems the pandemic has created yet another intriguing scenario that we will likely never see again.

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