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Grand Slam series returns with fans in the building at the Masters in Oakville

OAKVILLE, Ont. — With fans bellowing encouragement, the occasional smattering of applause after a quality shot and even the intermittent ringing of a cowbell, it certainly felt like old times at the curling rink on Wednesday.

OAKVILLE, Ont. — With fans bellowing encouragement, the occasional smattering of applause after a quality shot and even the intermittent ringing of a cowbell, it certainly felt like old times at the curling rink on Wednesday. 

A long-awaited return to a more normal version of the Roaring Game was experienced upon entry at the Sixteen Mile Sports Complex for the season-opening stop on the Grand Slam of Curling circuit. 

The Masters was back with elite teams playing in front of spectators in an arena with some buzz and sporting atmosphere, something that was in short supply when curling slowly resumed last season in near-empty venues due to the pandemic.

"Just that feeling you get of walking out on the ice, having the crowd, just everything about playing in an arena is just really special," said Lisa Weagle of Team Jennifer Jones. "It's something that I never take for granted."

Two Grand Slam events were played last season in the so-called curling bubble in Calgary. The circuit had been paused since March 2020. 

Normally with six competitions in each campaign and a total of $2.1 million in prize money, the Sportsnet-owned property was trimmed to five events this season due to the pandemic.

In July, the network announced that the Masters would be relocated to Oakville, Ont., from Sarnia, Ont., and the Tour Challenge in Grande Prairie, Alta., would be postponed until 2022-23.

The current curling campaign began with some smaller events around the country but the Masters is the first major event of the season. Sixteen of the top men’s teams and 16 of the top women’s teams from around the world are playing in a triple knockout format.

Organizers have implemented enhanced event protocols for all attendees including mandatory proof of double vaccination, daily temperature checks and wellness surveys. Coaches and alternates wore masks while seated on the benches but almost all players did not wear them while on the ice.

The event has a combined prize purse of $300,000 and the winners will earn berths in the season-ending Champions Cup in early May.

"We've been missing this so much," said Shannon Birchard of Team Kerri Einarson. "My parents are here for this week, which is awesome. They haven't watched me play live for two years.

"It's exciting. We love the energy and the crowds. Just seeing all the faces cheering us on, it's awesome."

However, attendance was still underwhelming for the early afternoon draw with only a couple hundred spectators in the 1,500-seat venue. Still, given the dearth of fans at live curling events over the last 18 months, the building felt much busier than it was.

"It feels really nice to be back, (to) have fans in the stands and just have a little bit more normalcy," Weagle said. "Last season it was great to get to curl in the bubble but part of why we love to play is to play in front of fans, and on TV and with crowds. So it's nice to be back."

Television coverage won't begin until Thursday with Draw 10 at 11 a.m. eastern time. The event, which features 17 draws ahead of the weekend playoffs, will conclude Sunday. 

The first couple days of competition are not traditionally broadcast and the Masters is no different. For this event, that means over half of the games before the playoff round would not be televised. 

Meghann Cox, Sportsnet's senior manager of communications, provided a brief reply when asked via email about the reasoning behind the network's TV plans. 

"There are a number of both production and programming considerations that factor into the broadcast scheduling of all our live events, including the Grand Slam series," she said. 

There were several top-shelf matchups on Wednesday, including Team Rachel Homan's 6-5 win over Team Tracy Fleury and Team Anna Hasselborg's 7-5 victory over Team Jennifer Jones.  

In evening play, Team Brad Gushue beat Team John Epping 7-2 and Team Bruce Mouat took a 5-1 victory over Team Matt Dunstone. 

Four more draws were scheduled for Thursday.

Many top Canadian teams in the field are also using the event as a key warmup ahead of next month's Olympic Trials in Saskatoon. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 20, 2021. 

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press