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CP NewsAlert: Calgary facility set to become curling hub during pandemic

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CALGARY — Curling Canada wants Calgary's Canada Olympic Park to be a curling hub for the season's top events.

Canada's governing body of curling proposes holding the 2021 national men's, women's and mixed doubles championships, as well as the men's world championship without fans in a condensed schedule at WinSport's Markin MacPhail Centre.

Potential dates have yet to be announced as Curling Canada works with health authorities to set up a "bubble" environment similar to the NHL's model to complete the 2020 playoffs in Edmonton.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced domestic and international sport organizations to establish competition "bubbles" to avoid the spread of the virus to the public.

The Markin MacPhail Centre at Canada Olympic Park features four sheets of ice, over a dozen dressing rooms, convention space and a commercial kitchen.

Thunder Bay, Ont., was originally scheduled to host the Scotties Tournament of Hearts from Feb. 20 to 28, followed March 6-14 by the Tim Hortons Brier in Kelowna, B.C. Curling Canada announced Tuesday that Thunder Bay will host the 2022 Scotties instead.

The men's world championship April 3-11 had been awarded to Ottawa. The women's world championship is scheduled for March 20-28 in Schaffhausen, Switzerland.

Curling Canada has provisional approval for Calgary's hub-city concept from Alberta Health.

"While none of us knows what trajectory the virus will take between now and this event, I’m confident that the organizers, in consultation with medical experts, will take every necessary precaution and adjust, if required, to ensure all events are conducted safely,” Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi said Tuesday in a statement.

The tournaments would be televised on TSN and RDS.

“No one can deny that these are challenging times, and not just for curling, obviously, but we also know how important these events are to the athletes, to our partners and, of course, to our fans," chief executive officer Katherine Henderson said in a statement.

“It is thanks largely to the commitment of our business partners that we are able to have ambitions of holding some of our events, giving the best curling fans in the world something to look forward to in the new year."

WinSport, which operates Canada Olympic Park, is also pursuing international freestyle ski and snowboard hubs for the park in January and March.

All provinces and territories including a Northern Ontario entry and the defending champions are in the national men's and women's championship fields.

Provincial and territorial playdowns generally start in early January, although the path to the Tournament of Hearts and the Brier may not be straightforward in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Formats for all three Canadian championship events will be announced at a later date. 

There wouldn't be a Team Wild Card in the Tournament of Hearts or the Brier, however, as the play-in game on the eve of the main draw won't be part of the format.

Brad Gushue's team from St. John's, N.L., won the 2020 Brier on March 8 in Kingston, Ont., mere days before the advancing COVID-19 shut down the sports world globally.

Neither he nor Kerri Einarson's Manitoba team were able to represent Canada in world championships cancelled because of the pandemic.

Both will return to the national championships as Team Canada.

"It’s been a difficult few months, obviously, so I’m very happy to see these events taking place in a safe environment, and very happy for the fans as they will have something to look forward to,” Einarson said in a statement.

“We understand these are strange times with some accompanying challenges that go beyond sport, but as athletes, we embrace challenges and will do our best to thrive under whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.”

Several competitions have already been cancelled or postponed this season including November's Canada Cup in Fredericton and January's Continental Cup in Oakville, Ont.

The first four World Curling Tour Grand Slams of 2020-21 were scrubbed. 

Two remain on the schedule: the Princess Auto Players’ Championship in Toronto from April 13-18 and the Humpty’s Champions Cup in Olds, Alta., from April 27 to May 2, 2021.

Another COVID-19 complication for Curling Canada is filling the Olympic trials fields later this year when so many qualifying events and bonspiels providing ranking points have been cancelled.

Of 18 berths available in the trials Nov. 27-Dec. 5 in Saskatoon, only four have been filled.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2020. 

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press