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Curling Alberta decision will have ripple effect on potential wild-card teams

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Never has so little curling action created so many headlines ahead of the national championships.

With many teams, clubs and provincial playdowns on ice due to the pandemic, several curling associations have had to get creative in this most unusual season.

Curling Canada is no exception. The national federation added two more wild-card teams to the field at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts and Tim Hortons Brier to create 18-team competitions.

"Unique circumstances call for unique solutions," read the top of last week's release announcing the news. 

The one-time switch will allow a few more highly ranked teams into the mix. Now the big question is who will get in and when can they pack their bags for the so-called bubble in Calgary.

Many associations recently cancelled their championships and declared representatives. Other provinces and territories are planning to hold playdowns over the next few weeks.

The big decision that will have a ripple-down effect on wild-card spots is expected soon. Curling Alberta cancelled its championships Jan. 8 but didn't declare representatives for nationals, pending a "decision by the organization’s board of directors."

Board members were scheduled to meet over the weekend to decide. An announcement will be made no earlier than Monday, executive director Jill Richard said in an email.

Many member associations used last year's championship results to determine their representatives. Others considered recent results, rankings and standings for their picks. 

Normally at the Scotties and Brier, the top two teams in the Canadian rankings not already entered in the draw square off in a play-in game to become Team Wild Card.

Curling Canada scrapped that setup for this season only and will instead give wild-card spots to the teams that would have played in the game, based on the 2019-20 final standings. The third wild-card spot - based on criteria to be determined - will get the final entry and create two even pools of nine teams each.

Here's where it gets interesting and Alberta has a unique hammer.

Brendan Bottcher is the reigning men's provincial champion. Kevin Koe was not in the playdowns last year since he had an automatic Brier berth as Team Canada. Jeremy Harty, meanwhile, has a slight lead on the second-place Koe in the provincial points race. 

Bottcher is ranked fourth in Canada, Koe is sixth and Harty is 15th. If Curling Alberta goes with an under-the-radar Harty pick, it would give the province a worthy representative and allow all three teams to enter rather than just two. 

Manitoba's Mike McEwen can rest easy in the No. 5 spot knowing he's in. 

If Bottcher is Team Alberta, McEwen and Koe are in as wild-card entries and No. 9 Glenn Howard is a potential pick for the third spot.

If Koe wears provincial colours, Bottcher and McEwen would be wild-card entries. Howard would be a good bet for the third but the selection is not necessarily a slam dunk.

If Harty gets the Alberta nod, Bottcher and McEwen would secure wild-card spots and Koe would be a virtual lock for the final berth. Boosting Harty's case was Nova Scotia's recent decision to give Jill Brothers the Scotties spot based on this season's standings.

On the women's side, Laura Walker is the favourite to be named Team Alberta. The reigning provincial champion is ranked seventh in Canada and is second in the provincial standings.

Alberta leader Kelsey Rocque, the Canadian No. 6, only has two returning members from last season, one short of the required minimum. 

The 3-of-4 rule also affects No. 10 Robyn Silvernagle of Saskatchewan, since she has two new players as well. Fifth-ranked Chelsea Carey, also of Alberta, is a free agent.

Manitoba's Tracy Fleury is the only Scotties wild-card lock at No. 2. World junior champion Mackenzie Zacharias is in the mix at No. 11 along with fellow Manitoban Beth Peterson at No. 12. 

Suzanne Birt is a heavy favourite to win the two-team Prince Edward Island championship at the end of the month, but a loss would move her into a wild-card spot at No. 9. 

Like the men's pick, the third spot is a real guessing game, thanks in part to the uncertain criteria. 

A Curling Canada spokesman said the 3-of-4 rule will apply to the first two wild-card teams in each gender, but noted qualifying criteria for the third wild-card team won't be finalized until after all member associations have declared teams.

That would appear to give teams in a 2-of-4 situation at least a little bit of hope. 

The veteran Howard, a four-time Brier champion, could very well get the men's spot. But it's also possible a youngster like No. 14 Tyler Tardi, a world junior champ from B.C., could get the selection.

The third women's spot is also a crapshoot. Several worthy teams could be in the mix from Zacharias and Peterson to No. 19 Casey Scheidegger of Alberta, a perennial contender who has played a limited schedule over the last couple seasons. 

The Scotties is set for Feb. 19-28 at Markin MacPhail Centre. The Brier is scheduled for March 5-14 at the same venue on the grounds of Canada Olympic Park.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 17, 2021. 

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press