I spent the better part of last week at Memorial Gardens in North Bay, Ontario covering the Grand Slam of Curling’s 2019 Masters. I must admit that I made my way to North Bay with a little trepidation as I was concerned that the city and its curling fans would have difficulty living up to the incredible precedent they set when hosting the 2018 World Women’s Curling Championship. To this day, players such as Jennifer Jones, Jill Officer, Anna Hasselborg and Jamie Sinclair speak of the 2018 Worlds as an event they will never forget. Whatever trepidation I had was eased very quickly when over 2000 people showed up on a Tuesday night in October for the opening draw and gave Jennifer Jones and her team a “welcome home” roar that came this close to giving me chills.
Truth be told, many in attendance wanted the women’s event to come down to a rematch of the 2018 World Women’s Championship final between Jennifer Jones and Anna Hasselborg. Alas, there were 13 other teams on hand that had different plans, including a team from Manitoba skipped by a player who lives just down the road from North Bay in Sudbury, Ontario. Tracy Fleury has a long history in Northern Ontario, having represented the region at both the Scotties and the Canadian Juniors on three occasions each, and it was clear very early on that she was playing with confidence and the North Bay crowd was going to support her every step of the way. Fleury met Japan’s Team Yoshimura in the final and was able to win her first Grand Slam title in front of hundreds of friends and family. It was a fitting end to an exciting women’s event.
The Masters marked the first time that the world’s best men’s teams made their way to North Bay and the men certainly did not disappoint. As happens any time the Grand Slam of Curling visits Northern Ontario, Team Jacobs were the crowd favourites. Jacobs was among four teams that finished at 3-1 in the round-robin but lost in the quarterfinal to a team that was on its way to bigger and better things. Team Dunstone are in their 2nd season together and although well-regarded within the curling community, many believed that they needed to be more consistent to win a Grand Slam event. Well, not only did Team Dunstone find consistency in North Bay but, skip Matt Dunstone put on a shot-making display during the week that most people in attendance will not soon forget. Dunstone defeated 11-time grand slam winner Brad Gushue 8-5 in the final.
As seems to happen each time I am on-site to cover a curling event, what stood out to me in North Bay weren’t the greats shots or the surprise victories although those are always fun to witness. What stood out to me were the moments, some of them happening on national TV, most happening away from the cameras. Following are some of the moments from the 2019 Masters in North Bay that will stick with me:
- I have to start with the crowds in North Bay…some 18 months after nearly blowing the roof off Memorial Gardens when Jennifer Jones won the 2018 World Women’s Championship, the people of North Bay welcomed the world’s top men’s and women’s teams with the type of welcome that made this Northerner proud. Hoping this will not be the last time that the curling community makes its way to North Bay for a big event.
- Many in the elite curling community arrived in North Bay with a heavy heart after the news that Saskatchewan curler Aly Jenkins had passed away at the age of 30 from complications after giving birth to her daughter Sydney. I was at ice level when the Grand Slam of Curling held a moment of silence in memory of Jenkins during the afternoon draw on Thursday and one could have heard a pin drop in Memorial Gardens as players and spectators bowed their heads in a moment of respect. It was especially poignant that Rachel Homan, Joanne Courtney and Liz Fyfe, all of them in their early 30’s themselves and all having given birth over the past few months, were on the ice playing for their teams when the moment of silence took place.
- If one looked closely, there were many curling legends at Memorial Gardens throughout the week, many of whom are now coaching or broadcasting. Among the familiar faces that I bumped into during the week in North Bay… Kevin Martin, Jill Officer, Wayne Middaugh, Joan McCusker, Rick Lang, Ian Tetley, David Murdoch, Jeff Stoughton, Maria Prytz and Pierre Charette. Always nice to see the legends of a sport remain involved after retiring and they are always so accommodating with fans and, yes, with media.
- Following the Tuesday evening draw, I had the opportunity to ask Jennifer Jones what emotions she had felt when she first entered Memorial Gardens for her team’s practice session earlier that day. She mentioned to me that North Bay will always have a special place in her heart because she won her second world championship there, because she and her team were so well received by the people of North Bay and, with her voice cracking a little, she told me North Bay will always be special because it was the last big event her father saw her win in person.
- The Japanese women have had success at the international level, including Team Fujisawa’s bronze medal at the 2018 Olympics and their silver medal at the 2016 World Championship. However, entering this season, no Japanese team had ever reached a Tier 1 Grand Slam final. Watching the joy on the faces of Team Yoshimura following their wins over crowd favourites Team Jones in the quarterfinal and the reigning world champions Team Tirinzoni in the semifinals showed how important the Slams have become for the international teams.
- Speaking of Team Yoshimura, when they qualified for the final against Team Fleury it caused an interesting conflict of interest for their coach Connor Njegovan who also happens to be the husband of Selena Njegovan, the 3rd on Team Fleury. No hard feelings though, following the game it was hugs all around.
- Tracy Fleury is the prototypical Northerner; quiet, polite, dedicated, passionate about her sport and extremely competitive when she hits the ice. That she won her first career Slam title in front of so many friends and family about an hour away from the city where she lives provided an exclamation point to what had been a terrific women’s event at the Masters in North Bay.
- To all those who believe that the Grand Slams are little more than a money grab for the world’s top teams, I give you Matt Dunstone. I first interviewed Dunstone some 4 hours after he won the Canadian Juniors for the 2nd time in 2016 and even then, he was looking forward to playing on the men’s tour and one of his goals was to win a Grand Slam early in his career. The emotion you saw from Dunstone on Sunday following his team’s victory in North Bay was genuine and it was the reaction of a player from a generation of curlers that has grown up watching the Slams.
- Finally, I must recognize the team behind the Grand Slam events. I’ve been to several Slam events now and they all seem to run so smoothly. I’m sure that there are always a few technical or organizational issues that come up but it never seems to impact play or the crowd experience and that says a lot about the team behind the scenes. Well done!