The 2014 Olympics are still a long way off, but an important first step toward reaching that event is being played out in Cranbrook, B.C., this week at the Capital One Canada Cup of Curling.
The cashspiel doubles as the first qualifier for the Canadian Olympic curling trials, slated for 2013 in Winnipeg; the winning men's and women's rinks at the event will get the first of eight spots in that shootout to determine Canada's representative in 2014. It's a clear indication of just how important the Olympics have become in the minds of the top curlers.
"I think it's a great advantage for whoever wins this," said Jeff Stoughton, skip of the reigning Canadian men's champions. "So obviously we'd love to do it and have nothing to worry about for the next two years.
"I think both teams that win, the men's and the women's, will probably have outstanding years because the pressure's off," he added. "They can pick and choose where they want to go, they don't have to play every single weekend in the next year. I think it's a great advantage."
On the other side of the coin is Kevin Martin, the gold medal winner from 2010 who will skip his team through another quadrennial hoping to get back to the top step of the podium.
While in Toronto in November for an appearance at the famed Granite Club, he said that winning a trials spot early through the Canada Cup isn't a bad thing, of course, but it can leave a team listless, and not arriving at the Olympic qualifier on a high.
The remaining spots at the trials will go to next year's Canada Cup winner, four for the top point earners on the Canadian Team Ranking System and two from a 12-team last-chance shoot-out.
As an event, the Canada Cup is a curious one. It's the only cashspiel operated by the Canadian Curling Association, which has traditionally refrained from entering the play-for-pay domain usually reserved for the World Curling Tour. It was born out of the players' Brier boycott of more than a decade ago when the CCA was trying to break the group up by offering big cash for on-ice exploits. Those hard feelings are gone and what remains is one of the top properties in the game.
Still, the Canada Cup has waned over the years in money and field size. This year's purse is $140,000, split equally between the men's and women's divisions, with the winners of each gender taking home $26,000. That's down considerably from the first run when the total purse was $220,000. As well, there are only seven teams in each division, down from 10 a year ago.
While the lineup is good, a number of the best teams in the land are clearly missing. On the women's side, for example, only one of the top five money winners on the World Tour Tour's cash list is in the field with Sherry Middaugh and Cathy Overton-Clapham, Nos. 1 and 2 respectively, glaring absentees.
That's a problem with the qualification process; all the teams in the field received their entries through play from last year. The defending champion, the Brier winner and five teams off the Canadian Team Ranking System from the 2010-11 season get in. It would seem to make sense to leave at least one spot for a rink playing well this season.
The 14 rinks knocking rocks this week will worry only about the current edition of the Canada Cup. The prize of a trials berth is simply too important for distraction.
Special to The Globe and Mail