The Masters Grand Slam of Curling, which began its six-day run at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre on Tuesday evening, is being billed as an Olympic preview, and for good reason.
The $200,000 cashspiel has attracted 15 men’s and 15 women’s teams from 13 nations. Nine international rinks have already punched their tickets to the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia in February, and all six men’s and six women’s rinks who pre-qualified for the Canadian trials are also in attendance.
But ask defending Olympic men’s gold medalist Kevin Martin if this event gets visions of Sochi dancing in his mind, and he shakes his head. That would be getting ahead of himself. It’s hard enough just to survive the Canadian Olympic trials, which will be contested in Winnipeg Dec. 1-8.
“It’s all about the trials,” said the 47-year-old curling legend, who also owns four Canadian Brier titles, one world championship (2008) and an Olympic silver (2002) in addition to his gold from the 2010 Vancouver Games.
“It’s not really about international (play) yet. That’s for later, and for one team – hopefully us, but who knows?”
Martin faced a stiff test in Tuesday’s opening draw, as Rui Liu’s Chinese Olympic rink edged his Edmonton foursome 7-6 in an extra end. Liu limited Martin to one in the eighth end to keep the score tied at sixes before executing a draw to the button in the extra end to win it.
Curling has been an official Olympic sport since 1998, and the calibre of play internationally has risen dramatically since then.
“The Olympics definitely brought that on,” Martin said. “It’s getting awfully even up at the top, with all the countries . . . It’s not easy anymore.”
Beyond Martin, the depth of curling talent on display at the AESC on Tuesday was simply staggering.
In the other men’s game, Scotland’s David Murdoch – a two-time world champion skip – built a 4-0 lead over Winnipeg’s Mike McEwen and hung on for a 5-4 win.
On the women’s side, Switzerland’s Mirjam Ott edged Eve Muirhead of Scotland in a battle of the last two world championship gold medalists. Ott, the winner in 2012, beat reigning champ Muirhead 7-6 in an extra end.
Sweden’s Margaretha Sigfridsson, a four-time runner-up at the worlds, also needed an extra end in her opener vs. 2012 Scotties Tournament of Heart winner and world bronze medalist Heather Nedohin of Edmonton, winning 5-4.
Jennifer Jones of Winnipeg, a four-time Scotties winner and the 2008 world champ, scored six in the seventh end to pull away from South Korea’s Ji-Sun Kim 11-5.
Martin’s rink is going through a transition this season – longtime third John Morris departed the team in April, and was replaced by David Nedohin, the former fourth on another legendary rink skipped by Randy Ferbey. Ferbey and Nedohin joined forces to win four Briers in five years between 2001 and ’05, along with a trio of world championships.
It’s been going well so far for the new-look Martin rink, Tuesday’s result notwithstanding. They’ve won two of five events this season while making it as far as the finals, semifinals and quarter-finals at the other spiels.
“There are challenges – just not knowing each other, how you throw it, the subtle things that you just have to figure out,” Martin said. “Even tonight, a couple of times I didn’t broom Dave right or he didn’t read my release quite right, because it’s just not enough time yet.
“That’s why it’s great to get on this kind of ice – you can really tell how you’re throwing it in conditions like this.”