It will have a very different look than what teams are used to, but one thing that won’t change when Brad Jacobs and his team representing Northern Ontario step on the ice at the 2021 Tim Hortons Brier in Calgary is the strength of the field.
“Every year we seem to say, ‘This is the best Brier field ever,’” Jacobs said. “I would say that this year tops all of them.”
The Jacobs rink, which includes third Marc Kennedy, second E.J. Harnden, lead Ryan Harnden, and alternate Lee Toner will open action at the 10-day event on Saturday and the 18-team field is as good as ever.
“There’s very stiff competition,” Jacobs added. “You’ve got basically almost all of your best teams in the world with the exception of a few of the regular guys that are from other countries. And you only have three playoff spots, so there’s going to be several great teams that don’t make the playoffs. It’s a star-studded field. It’s going to be tough and there’s no opportunity to take a game off. You have to be sharp every single game.”
“There’s just no opportunity to take a game off,” Jacobs also said. “You need to be sharp every single game. With only three teams making the playoffs and one team going straight to the final, that makes each game extremely important.”
The field was expended this year when COVID-19 forced the cancellation of provincial playdowns across the country.
The cancellations led to Curling Canada adding a pair of wild card teams to round out the field for the tournament, which begins with the first draw on Friday night at the Markin MacPhail Arena in Calgary.
Much like the annual Scotties Tournament of Hearts, which wrapped up last Sunday, the Brier is being played in a bubble.
“Everything is set up really well,” Jacobs said. “Over the course of the past couple of weeks, the Scotties was a good trial run, working out some of the kinks. It seems that Curling Canada, the volunteers, the arena, the icemakers, everyone seems to have a good handle on things. The medical staff as well. It feels really safe. It feels very comforting.”
Strict protocols are in place for the event, which includes regular COVID screening.
“When we leave the hotel and when we arrive at the arena, we have to scan our green zone pass. We have an app that basically says we’ve completed the COVID screening for the day, our temperature is good and we’re healthy and everything is good,” Jacobs said. “Then, we’re allowed to proceed to where we can change and warm up, which is a designated area for the players. We wear masks at all times while together in traveling, in the arena until we enter the field of play and we step on the ice where we can remove our masks and curl as usual.”
With no fans at the event, exactly how is Team Jacobs going to draw energy for games?
“We’re just going to have to do what we can to get the cardboard fans excited,” Jacobs joked.
“It’s certainly going to be a different atmosphere and different environment out there,” Jacobs also said. “We were told that, from the Scotties experience, you can hear the coaches and the fifth players and the timers talking, which you would never hear that stuff when there’s fans in the building. It’s something that we’re all going to have to get used to without having the crowd there, but it is what it is. We’ll make the most of it.”
The seats include cardboard cutouts in place of fans and some of the cutouts include family and friends of players in the event.
“It’s pretty cool actually seeing the way that they’ve set up the arena with the seats being wrapped and some logos on the seats and the cardboard cutouts on the one side,” Jacobs said. “We have a bunch of family, kids, my Nana are up there and other friends, so it’s really cool.”
With fewer games this season due to COVID-19, the Jacobs rink has tried to take advantage of their time over the course of the winter.
“Our motto over the course of the last number of months has been just to stay ready physically, mentally the best we can,” Jacobs said. “We still have been able to practice most of the time a few days a week. The same thing with Marc, although Alberta was shut down a couple of months. We’ve been having regular Zoom calls and staying in touch as much as we can. Ryan, E.J., and myself have been on the ice together quite a bit. We’re just hoping that with the little bit of preparation that we’ve been able to put in that it translates well onto the ice. It’s going to be a new experience, but we’re very grateful to be playing and we’re going to enjoy every moment of it and just stay in the moment, leave it all out there, and just have some fun.”
The 18-team field is split into two nine-team pools.
The Jacobs rink is set to compete in a pool that includes Brendan Bottcher (Alberta), Mike McEwen (Wild Card 1), Jason Gunnlaugson (Manitoba), Glenn Howard (Wild Card 3), Steve Laycock (British Columbia), James Grattan (New Brunswick), Greg Skauge (Northwest Territories), and Dustin Mikkelsen (Yukon).
The event has also seen a change in the playoff format for this season as well.
With the field expanded by a pair of teams, organizers have moved away from the traditional Page Playoff format for the 2021 event. Instead, once Championship Pool play is completed, the top three teams will advance to the playoffs, with the top team earning a bye directly into the tournament final.
For Jacobs, the schedule for the round robin draws is encouraging.
“We have a great schedule,” Jacobs said. “We love our schedule and the way everything is laid out in terms of the times that we play and the opponents that we’re up against. It looks really good. We couldn’t ask for any more. It’s a matter of making sure that we get enough rest, that we’re fired up going into games and the other thing is, if we can get a really good handle on the ice early, that’s going to bode very well for us. A collective effort to ice reading and speeds and paths is going to be a big key to our success.”
With fewer people in the building than a typical Brier, the ice conditions look to be very good for the tournament.
“From what I understand, they should be able to produce ideal conditions without all of the heat in the building and the humidity and people going in and out,” Jacobs said. “They should be able to control the environment a lot better, which means we should have very consistent playing conditions. I watched the Scotties a little bit and the ice looked fantastic. I have no reason to expect anything different.”
The Jacobs rink will open action on Saturday morning at 10:30 a.m. Sault time against Mikkelsen. The Northern Ontario rink will then round out the day in the evening draw against McEwen.
“We really do focus on ourselves and our style of play,” Jacobs said. “We’re going to try to do what we can to control the games if possible and certainly not take anyone lightly. We haven’t played the Yukon (often), we’re not super familiar with their team, but we’ve played against McEwen many times and they’re a great team. Going into every single game, you have to be ready as if you’re playing against the top team in the world because you will be playing against them all week, whether you’ve played against them a lot or not. We expect great battles.”