Brad Gushue throws a stone during the first draw of the Meridian Canadian Open in North Battleford, Sask. (Anil Mungal)

8 Ends: Players’ Championship set for special 25th anniversary

April 10, 2017, 2:53 PM

The WestJet Players’ Championship is celebrating a special milestone this season with the prestigious Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling tournament turning 25 years old.

It’s an event that holds a cherished place not only among the series but the whole tour as well. Qualification for the WestJet Players’ Championship is based on the World Curling Tour’s year-to-date rankings giving it a feel like the Stanley Cup playoffs with the best-of-the-best from the season facing off.

Reigning world champs Brad Gushue and Rachel Homan lead the way for the men’s and women’s divisions, respectively, although they’re just two of the 24 teams hitting the ice this week at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre. Formerly known as Maple Leaf Gardens, what was once hockey’s cathedral serves as a fitting venue for the occasion as it is now establishing its own curling legacy hosting the event for the fourth time in five years.

Before Tuesday night’s opening draw, here’s what you need to know:

WestJet Players’ Championship quick links: Buy Tickets | Teams | Draw Schedule | TV Schedule

1st End: A brief history of the Players’ Championship

The Players’ Championship predates the Grand Slam series and started during the inaugural World Curling Tour season of 1992-93. The powerhouse squad of Russ Howard, Glenn Howard, Wayne Middaugh and Peter Corner claimed the first Players’ Championship (then known as the VO Cup) during a banner season that also saw them take Brier and world titles.

When the Grand Slams were formed in 2001-02, the Players’ Championship remained the crown jewel of the group. A women’s division was added in 2006 with Jennifer Jones capturing her first of five Players’ Championship trophies.

John Epping and Stefanie Lawton proved in 2012 that anything can happen at the Players’ Championship as they both started from the bottom as the lowest-ranked seeds and upset the field to win the titles.

Kevin Martin capped his legendary career on a high note at the 2014 edition winning his record 18th career Grand Slam during his final event on tour.

Gushue captured the crown last year to complete a career Grand Slam (win all four majors at least once) and Eve Muirhead earned her third Players’ Championship title in four seasons.

2nd End: Men’s division storylines

They say there ain’t no rest for the wicked, but the same can be said for the world champs. Gushue, who just won gold Sunday night, will be right back on the ice Tuesday evening to kick off the WestJet Players’ Championship (and his title defence) taking on Brendan Bottcher. Gushue was a tad tired from the Brier entering the Princess Auto Elite 10 last month, so he could face fatigue here as well.

Brad Jacobs has been in the final at the Players’ Championship during the past three seasons with a win in 2015. Considering he has a Grand Slam title victory this season from the Boost National plus two runner-up finishes, he should be in the running to reach the championship game here once again.

John Morris edged out Jacobs for the Princess Auto Elite 10 title last month and will look to keep the momentum going down the final stretch of the season especially with points being so critical towards his team’s chances at qualifying for the Olympic Trials.

Mike McEwen is a Players’ Championship title away from completing a career Grand Slam and has made it to the final here twice. Will the third time be the charm?

3rd End: Women’s division storylines

Rachel Homan also needs a Players’ Championship trophy to wrap up a career Grand Slam. Homan came close to pulling off the impossible and sweep all four majors last season, but fell short to Kerri Einarson in the Players’ quarterfinals.

No one has won the Players’ Championship women’s title more times than Jones. The five-time champ came in second place here a year ago.

Muirhead’s three Players’ Championship titles in four years have all come at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre. Is it a coincidence or is there something about Toronto that always brings out the best in Muirhead? The Scottish skip aims for a three-peat, something no men’s or women’s team has accomplished at the Players’ Championship yet.

Silvana Tirinzoni has made it to back-to-back Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling event finals this season with super spare Cathy Overton-Clapham at third. Overton-Clapham won the Players’ last year filling in at third with Team Muirhead and is back in Tirinzoni’s lineup for this one.

4th End: Rogers Grand Slam Cup

The Rogers Grand Slam Cup, awarded to the overall season champions, will also be handed out during the WestJet Players’ Championship.

Sweden’s Niklas Edin, winner of two Pinty’s GSOC titles, leads the standings on the men’s side, but it’s a tight race with Jacobs just behind him by two points and the likes of Gushue, Morris and Reid Carruthers not far behind.

Tirinzoni tops the women’s division with 27 points and also holds a slim margin. Given that nearly double points are up for grabs at the WestJet Players’ Championship — the winner earns 25 points — just about every team is still in it to win it and should make for a thrilling finish.

5th End: Spares

As mentioned during the third end, Team Tirinzoni will have Overton-Clapham for a third consecutive Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling event with Manuela Siegrist still recovering from a knee injury.

Muirhead will also have a spare as former teammate Kelly Schafer returns to fill in for injured lead Lauren Gray.

Morris has brought in Saskatchewan provincial champ Catlin Schneider to spare at lead with Rick Sawatsky out.

Not a spare update but a switch: Meridian Canadian Open champ Casey Scheidegger has a new lead with Kristie Moore replacing Stephanie Enright.

6th End: Down to the wire for Olympic Trials qualification

The 2016-17 calendar is coming to an end, which means the WestJet Players’ Championship is the final shot to score major points towards qualifying for the Canadian Olympic Curling Trials taking place in December in Ottawa.

Homan (2015 Canada Cup) and Jones (2015-16 CTRS points) are the only teams in the Olympic Trials right now on the women’s side. The remaining places are based on one-year and two-year totals on the Canadian Team Ranking System (CTRS) standings. Looking at the latest rankings, Allison Flaxey, Val Sweeting, Casey Scheidegger and Michelle Englot are likely candidates for spots based on one-year totals.

Chelsea Carey, the 2016 Scotties champ, failed to reach the podium at the worlds last year and didn’t earn a direct entry. Carey just missed out on earning an invite to the WestJet Players’ Championship and that could be costly should Tracy Fleury go on an incredible run to pass her on the two-year total.

Kevin Koe, Carruthers and Gushue have clinched spots on the men’s side. Koe took the Canada Cup in 2015 and Carruthers claimed the title in 2016 to book their places. Gushue’s world championship finish earned him his berth, although his team has been crushing it on the tour circuit over the past two seasons and an Olympic Trials spot was never in doubt. Jacobs, McEwen, Morris, John Epping and Steve Laycock look to duke it out for the four CTRS point entries. Jacobs, McEwen and Epping appear to be safe so really it should just come down to either Laycock or Morris battling it out for the final direct spot.

A pre-trials event will be held in Summerside, P.E.I., in November with two men’s teams and two women’s teams advancing to the Olympic Trials to complete the nine-team fields.

7th End: Last call for Humpty’s Champions Cup

The WestJet Players’ Championship is the final chance for teams to qualify for the season-ending Humpty’s Champions Cup running April 25-30 in Calgary.

Brendan Bottcher and Kyle Smith are the only men’s teams at the WestJet Players’ Championship who haven’t qualified yet for the Humpty’s Champions Cup while on the women’s side Fleury, Michelle Englot and Margaretha Sigfridsson need a ticket.

All they have to do is win the WestJet Players’ Championship and they’re in. Sounds easy, right? Of course, that’s what we said last month prior to the Princess Auto Elite 10 with Morris and he went on to win the event so we’re not ruling anything out.

In the event a team that has already qualified for the Humpty’s Champions Cup wins the WestJet Players’ Championship, the 15th and final spot will go to the next highest-ranked tour winner based on strength of field.

8th End: Tickets and TV info

Tickets are still available for the WestJet Players’ Championship, click here to purchase online or call 1-844-389-4754.

Can’t make it to Toronto? Sportsnet and CBC will have you covered starting Thursday. Click here for the full TV schedule.