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Canadian curlers prepare for prospect of a Calgary "bubble"

CALGARY — A potentially lengthy stay in Alberta, and trying to defend a national men's curling championship in front of zero fans, are thoughts circulating in Brad Gushue's mind.

CALGARY — A potentially lengthy stay in Alberta, and trying to defend a national men's curling championship in front of zero fans, are thoughts circulating in Brad Gushue's mind.

The veteran skip from Newfoundland and Labrador feels a mixed bag of emotions about the prospect of curling in the 2021 Tim Hortons Brier in a Calgary "bubble".

"I'm not in a place where I feel I have my head wrapped around it yet to be completely honest," the three-time Canadian champ told The Canadian Press on Wednesday from St. John's.

"Our team is going to have to over the next three months, before we enter the bubble, get our heads around it, how we're going to cope with it, get to a level where we can perform the way we want to and not be distracted by the fact we miss our families."

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced both domestic and international sport to establish competition "bubbles", many without fans, to both operate and prevent the spread of the virus. 

The NHL completed its 2019-20 season in Edmonton with no fans and no reported cases of infection among players and personnel who were walled off from the public.

Adopting a similar model, Curling Canada intends to hold the 2021 men's and women's national championships, the mixed doubles championship and the men's world curling championship in Calgary.

Dates for the domestic events have yet to be confirmed, but Curling Canada indicated staying with the original schedule of Feb. 20-28 for the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, March 6-14 for the Brier with national mixed doubles following the Brier.

"Some people will say 'look, you're not frontline workers. You're sports,'" Curling Canada chief executive officer Katherine Henderson said Wednesday on a conference call. 

"But we're a $600-million-a-year business too. There's a huge sector that depends on curling out there.  So from economic reasons, from health reasons, hope reasons, athlete reasons, contract reasons, broadcast reasons, Canadian reasons, we all thought that this was really important, but I will say that there wasn't a step that we took that wasn't thoroughly thought through."

The World Curling Federation is sticking to the April 3-11 window for the men's world championship in Calgary. The women's championship is March 20-28 in Schaffhausen, Switzerland.

If Gushue's foursome successfully defends its title in Calgary and advances to the world championship in the same city, the skip foresees at least five weeks on the road for himself, third Mark Nichols and second Brett Gallant who live in St. John's.

Atlantic Canada's 14-day quarantine for anyone arriving from outside that region would make it unwieldy to go home and return to Calgary, Gushue said. 

He also expects his entire team will want to participate in mixed doubles following the Brier.

"Everybody's lives have been thrown in such chaos over the last nine or 10 months, this is an opportunity to get back and do something that we love to do, that we missed doing," the skip said.

All provinces and territories, plus the defending champions and Northern Ontario, fill the Hearts and Brier fields. 

Provincial and territorial curling associations have to determine if and how to run them in a pandemic. 

The Saskatchewan Curling Association announced Wednesday the cancellation its men's and women's championships because of rising COVID-19 cases in the province.

For any provincial champion from Atlantic Canada, the combination of competing in the Brier plus quarantine upon returning home will chew up a month of their professional and personal lives.

"I think you'll see in provinces that do have a playdown, there's going to be, especially in Atlantic Canada, a reduced amount of teams, just because there's going to be some that are going to say, 'if we win, we can't do it anyway,'" Gushue said.

The wild-card play-in game on the eve of the main draw will not happen in 2021, although there could still be a Team Wild Card in the field.

"In terms of final formats and what we might do, we're trying to be flexible, because we don't know exactly what all the (member associations) will be able to do and what will all shake out from that," said Nolan Thiessen, Curling Canada's director of broadcast, marketing and event presentation.

All games will be held on the Olympic-sized ice at the Markin MacPhail Centre, which provides both distance between the four sheets and room for TV cameramen, according to event operations director Danny Lamoureux.

How much COVID-19 protocols and restrictions will change the look of the game have to be determined.

"There might be a couple of modifications, but we're hoping to be as close to regular curling that you're used to watching," Thiessen said.

Without spectators, Gushue will miss the buzz that accompanies a delivered stone down the ice and the reaction to the outcome, good or bad.

"The hard part for older guys like myself and Mark that have played in some pretty big situations, to play in Brier in front of no fans and nobody in the venue, that's certainly going to be different," Gushue said. 

"One think I love about playing whether it's a Grand Slam or the Brier is you make a great shot and you hear that roar."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press