Thomas Ulsrud of Norway is the 2010 Olympic silver medalist.

Thomas Ulsrud of Norway is the 2010 Olympic silver medalist.

Lure of the rings: Abbotsford’s Grand Slam of Curling event is an Olympic preview

With the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia on the horizon, this year’s Masters Grand Slam takes on added importance.

By Perry Lefko

With the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia on the horizon, this year’s Masters Grand Slam event takes on added importance beyond just the prize money.

The $200,000 cashspiel, which runs Oct. 29 to Nov. 3 at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, features a total of 30 men’s and women’s teams from 13 different nations, some of whom have already been selected by their country’s federation to represent them in the OIympics.

Among the international standouts are reigning men’s world champion Niklas Edin of Sweden; 2010 Olympic silver medalist Thomas Ulsrud; 2013 women’s world champ Eve Muirhead of Scotland; and 2010 Olympic bronze medalist Bingyu Wang of China.

Canada will also be extremely well-represented, as all of the rinks who have pre-qualified for the Canadian Olympic trials Dec. 1-8 in Winnipeg – six men’s and six women’s teams – will be at the Masters.

That group includes 2010 Olympic gold medalist Kevin Martin along with Glenn Howard, Jeff Stoughton, Kevin Koe, Mike McEwen and John Epping on the men’s side, and defending Scotties Tournament of Hearts champ Rachel Homan, Jennifer Jones, Heather Nedohin, Stefanie Lawton, Sherry Middaugh and Chelsea Carey on the women’s side.

“We have absolutely everybody there that’s going to have a chance to go to the Olympics or has already qualified,” noted Pierre Charette, president of the World Competitive Curlers Association. “That’s pretty cool.”

Howard said the format of this year’s Masters is great because of the opportunity to play other countries and their representatives for the Olympics.

“We pretty much know most of them or all of them, but just the fact you get to play them is really neat,” Howard said. “That format is really cool. It’s going to be huge for us to play all those teams and at the same time preparing for the trials in December.”

One team that will be noticeably absent from the Masters is skipped by reigning Canadian men’s champion Brad Jacobs of Sault Ste. Marie. He is playing in the final qualifying event for the Olympic trials, taking place in Kitchener the day after the Masters.

SPORTSNET HAS RAISED GRAND SLAM’S PROFILE

Sportsnet slides into a second season owning and operating the Grand Slam of Curling, a series of four premier cashspiel events that feature the most-lucrative purses and bonus money on the World Curling Tour.

The first event in that series is the Masters.

Through the involvement of Sportsnet and a sub-licensing agreement with the CBC, the Grand Slam events receive blanket television coverage and support on multiple platforms. Sportsnet realized the value of curling as a sport embraced by Canadians of all ages.

When the Slams faced an uncertain future, Rogers entered into a partnership with the World Competitive Curlers Association in August 2012 to own and operate the tournaments and provide a greater commitment, both in terms of money and overall multi-platform production.

“In Abbotsford, all the top teams will be shown at least once during a week,” said Charette. “They might play three or four TV games if they through to the playoffs. A lot of these teams have deals with their sponsors that every time they’re on TV they get a bonus.”

SERIES FORMAT

Following the Masters, the remaining men’s Grand Slam events continue with the Canadian Open (Nov. 13-17 in Medicine Hat, Alta.), the National (March 12-16 in Fort McMurray, Alta.), and the Players’ Championship (April 15-20 in Summerside, PEI).

For the second consecutive year, Sportsnet is offering a $1 million bonus for any men’s team that sweeps all four Slams. If there is no sweep, the team with the most points collects a $50,000 bonus, the runner-up $30,000 and third-place team $20,000.

If a women’s team sweeps the Masters and Players’ Championship they will collect $100,000. If there is no sweep, the top team will collect a $12,500 bonus, the runnerup $7,500 and the third-place finisher $5,000.

WOMEN ON BOARD

Though the Slams began in 2001, it was only last year when Sportsnet came aboard that women were given a chance to play in the Masters.

Ontario’s Sherry Middaugh said it was important for the women to be included in the Masters because it allowed them to gain exposure.

“When you have a Slam event you’re getting the best of the best,” she noted. “It’s not just another bonspiel. You’re playing the top teams in the world.”