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Curling Hub? Alternate setting a virtual certainty for Scotties and Brier

Curling Canada will likely have to follow the lead of hockey and basketball by using a fan-less hub city approach in order to salvage showcase events like the Scotties Tournament of Hearts and Tim Hortons Brier this season.

Curling Canada will likely have to follow the lead of hockey and basketball by using a fan-less hub city approach in order to salvage showcase events like the Scotties Tournament of Hearts and Tim Hortons Brier this season.

Original plans to hold the Scotties in Thunder Bay, Ont., in February and the Brier in Kelowna, B.C, in March have been all but dashed due to the pandemic.

Gerry Peckham, Curling Canada's high-performance director, said the federation is "definitely getting into the deep end of the pool" regarding the possibility of a hub city concept. 

"In all honesty, I think that is arguably our final card to play as it relates to our more major events," he said. "So whether that be a Brier, Scotties, worlds, Canadian mixed doubles, Canada Cup, that kind of an array of potential events. 

"But if it's not in a hub city and we can't get all those boxes checked and all those critical elements organized, then I can't imagine that there will be a Season of Champions in some other form."

Curling is slowly starting to return with elite domestic teams primarily turning to regional bonspiels due to travel restrictions. Many clubs have yet to reopen and several high-profile events - including four Grand Slams - were cancelled earlier this year.

The Continental Cup was one of six competitions cancelled last month by Curling Canada due to COVID-19. 

The Canada Cup, originally set for next month in Fredericton, has been postponed indefinitely. The world men's championship, a World Curling Federation event operated by Curling Canada, is still set for early April in Ottawa.

The NHL successfully completed its post-season with fan-less hubs in Toronto and Edmonton while the NBA used a bubble for its games near Orlando. Edmonton will also host the 2021 world junior hockey championship starting this December with no fans in attendance. 

There was no immediate word on which cities Curling Canada may be considering or when the championships might be held. A spokesman said the federation is working on a number of different options and hopes to announce something soon.

A spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada, which was involved in other sport hubs during the pandemic, said that Canadian Heritage was the likely lead on curling. A spokesman for that department did not have specifics available on potential plans.

There are several hurdles to be cleared for a curling hub to work. In addition to firming up things like testing plans, lodging and travel arrangements, it's uncertain whether the traditional qualification route for the national championships will be functional.

Provincial and territorial playdowns to earn berths in the Scotties and Brier are usually held a few weeks before the national championships. Those qualifiers remain on the calendar but their status is uncertain.

Making things more difficult is the limited playing schedule for elite teams over the next few months. 

"We know they're not going to get many reps in and we know that they're not going to get a whole bunch of team-type training in," Peckham said in a phone interview. "(There's) not much elite competition being staged, say in advance of a Brier or Scotties, should they go ahead. So yeah, it's pretty much straight uphill."

Peckham added that officials from other sports have been very forthcoming with information on the unprecedented challenge of hub arrangements and operations.

"Right now when we think in terms of the possibility of hosting a Brier or a Scotties or a world championship, the NHL's model is probably the gold standard," he said. 

"So we've been working very closely with them and the people that they worked with, the expertise that they aligned themselves with, to try and take away the best elements of what the NHL put together and then curl-ify it depending on the realities of what we can establish on the ground."

Host cities for recently cancelled events have agreed to host Curling Canada championships in the future, the federation said last month. It's likely that host cities for remaining events, should they be moved, would likely follow that model if desired. 

The Scotties, Brier and world championships are traditionally well-attended competitions that enjoy a weeklong festival-type atmosphere. A full social calendar is built around the curling schedule with a neighbouring party facility helping to boost already raised hoopla levels around town. 

In other words, expect host cities to get a proper opportunity when things return to normal.

"None of those host cities signed on to hold a marginalized, compromised, non-sellout kind of an event," Peckham said. "So we've already kind of waved the white flag from that perspective."

Specific estimates weren't available, but Peckham said there would be a "substantial" financial repercussion to having a fan-less Season of Champions experience. 

However, the opportunity to maintain a profile and continue strong relations with various partners, sponsors and athletes make the pursuit of other options worth it, he added.

"We've had a long-standing relationship with the television audience and TV itself and we've also collected a fabulous group of sponsors both at the national level and at the local level," Peckham said. "So maintaining those relationships and continuing to work together and continuing to find a way to put the curling product out there is very motivating. 

"So we're looking for ways to make that all happen."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 9, 2020. 

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press