Perennial curling powerhouse Manitoba will be well represented at next month's Scotties Tournament of Hearts with three teams from the province essentially guaranteed to play at the national playdowns.
The winner of the upcoming provincial championship will wear the buffalo at the Feb. 14-23 Scotties in Moose Jaw, Sask. Since Tracy Fleury, Kerri Einarson and Jennifer Jones are comfortably entrenched in the top three of the Canadian Team Ranking System standings, the play-in game is a virtual lock to be an all-Manitoba affair.
It should make for a doozy of a Manitoba championship next week in the town of Rivers, just outside of Brandon. Top-25 teams skipped by Beth Peterson, Theresa Cannon, Darcy Robertson and Abby Ackland are also in the field of the most stacked women's regional playdown in the country.
"It's honestly going to be anybody's provincials," said Team Fleury coach Jill Officer, who won Olympic gold with Jones in 2014.
The winner of the Manitoba title can breathe easy knowing a spot in the main national round robin is secure. The top two rinks in the CTRS standings who do not win provincial or territorial championships get wild-card game spots.
The play-in game winner is called Team Wild Card and becomes the 16th and final entry in the Scotties field.
Curling Canada will likely make an announcement in early February detailing the official entry list once regional playdowns are complete and the CTRS is formally updated.
However, results from last week's Canadian Open have essentially secured a Manitoba top three with fourth-place Rachel Homan — who missed the playoffs — too far back to catch them. Fleury has a healthy CTRS lead while Jones and Einarson will get a bump thanks to quarterfinal appearances at the Grand Slam event.
The Manitoba dominance puts pressure on other top teams around the country to make sure they get through provincials since fallback wild-card plans are no longer an option.
Calgary's Chelsea Carey doesn't have to worry as she gets the Team Canada entry as defending champion.
But Homan has to get through a challenging field next week in Cornwall. Other top-20 teams in the Ontario playdowns include Jestyn Murphy, Megan Balsdon and Hollie Duncan.
The Alberta championship begins Wednesday with Casey Scheidegger, Kelsey Rocque and Laura Walker serving as headliners.
This is the third season that Curling Canada has used the play-in game format at the national championships. It's also set to be the third straight time that three different Manitoba teams have reached the Scotties.
Jones represented the province at the 2018 event in Penticton, B.C., where Michelle Englot skipped Team Canada and Einarson was Team Wild Card. Jones returned as defending champion last year in Sydney, N.S. Fleury won provincials and Einarson played in the wild-card game.
Officer, meanwhile, served as a fifth for Jones at last year's nationals and was an alternate for Carey at the world championship.
She has stayed active in the sport since stepping away from competitive play almost two years ago. Officer is pursuing her coaching certification and has also been doing some curling broadcasting work.
She filled in on Fleury's team at a couple bonspiels this season — Officer's niece Kristin MacCuish plays lead on the squad — and recently agreed to serve as their coach at the playdowns and possibly some future events too.
Fleury, who won the Masters in October, has risen to No. 2 in the world rankings behind Sweden's Anna Hasselborg.
"I think that they've done a better job at paying attention to some of the smaller details," Officer said of Team Fleury's breakthrough. "I think that's contributing to a little bit more consistency for them."
Scotties regulars Kerry Galusha of the Northwest Territories and Suzanne Birt of Prince Edward Island have already secured their spots for the 2020 competition. Other qualified teams include Erica Curtis of Newfoundland and Labrador, Nunavut's Lori Eddy and Yukon's Hailey Birnie.
The men's national championship — the Tim Hortons Brier — is set for Feb. 28-March 8 in Kingston, Ont. Kevin Koe is the defending champion.
Most men's provincial and territorial championships will be played over the next three weeks. Bryan Cochrane of Prince Edward Island and Nunavut's Jake Higgs have already qualified.
In the Rings, a curling column, is published weekly.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 21, 2020.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press