If the first half of the curling season is any indication of what's to come in the following months, then buckle up.
It appears the level of curling is the highest it's ever been. Many of the games are being decided by the smallest of margins as curling continues to evolve and grow. Parity is also at an all-time high. On any given day and on any given sheet, these top teams can find a way to win.
This week the top 16 men's and women's teams from around the world are in North Battleford, Sask., taking part in the Grand Slam of curling's Meridian Canadian Open. It's the fifth stop on the Slam Tour this season, and for the Canadian teams it's the last real tune-up before provincial playdowns to qualify for the men's and women's national championships.
Many of the curlers on the ice this week have raised their intensity level as the pressure continues to build —January marks the sprint to the finish with the big curling prizes creeping into focus.
The Scotties will be played in just over a month in Sydney, N.S. That's followed by the Brier in Brandon, Man., at the beginning of March. The winning teams will then represent Canada at the respective world championships. Teams will use this week as a last chance to tinker with lineups, techniques and strategy before locking it in heading into provincials.
The Canadian Open has a unique format different from most bonspiels fans would be used to watching. Rather than round-robin pool play that puts the top teams into the playoff round, this week it's a triple knockout format.
Essentially teams want to win three games before they lose three games in order to clinch a spot into the playoffs. For instance, if a team wins its first three games, they automatically qualify on the A side and will get a full day of rest.
On the flip side, should a team follow a win-lose-win-lose scenario, the journey to the playoffs gets a lot longer. That final game would then become a do-or-die situation to remain in the tournament.
In total, two A teams (3-0) qualify, three B teams (2-1) qualify and three C teams (3-2) qualify for the playoffs.
The quarter-finals are slated for Saturday morning with the semis being played later that night. The men's championship goes Sunday morning with the women's final being played on Sunday afternoon.
World curling supremacy
Coming into the Slam event the world rankings are extremely close. Kevin Koe and Rachel Homan — Canada's two Olympic representatives one year ago — are the top teams in the world right now.
Following Koe on the men's side are Nik Edin, Bruce Mouat, Brad Jacobs and Brad Gushue to round out the top five. On the women's side, Anna Hassselborg, Jennifer Jones, Kerri Einarson and Silvana Tirinzoni follow Homan.
Teams are also trying to secure valuable Pinty's Cup points this week. Each Slam points are up for grabs and tallied up throughout the season. There is a men's and women's Pinty's Cup champion crowned after the last event of the year with a cash prize of $ 75,000. Gushue and Jones are the defending Pinty's Cup champions.