CALGARY — Canada's top curlers competed in Calgary for over a month without a COVID-19 outbreak among them. The world's most talented men in the sport have now entered the bubble.
The 2021 BK Tires and OK Tires World Men's Curling Championship opens Friday at WinSport's Markin MacPhail Centre following the Canadian men's, women's and mixed doubles championship there.
Brendan Bottcher's Edmonton rink represents the host country starting Friday against Scotland's Bruce Mouat.
After losing the national men's final three straight years and falling a win short of the world championship, Bottcher, third Darren Moulding, second Brad Thiessen and lead Karrick Martin out of the Saville Community Sport Centre get their chance to wear the Maple Leaf on the world stage.
"It's definitely a pretty proud feeling," Bottcher said. "It doesn't matter what sport you play in.
"When you reach the stage where you're putting the Maple Leaf on your back, that's a pretty big accomplishment."
The Albertans may be world championship rookies and light on international experience, but they beat world and Olympic champions such as Brad Gushue, Kevin Koe and Brad Jacobs en route to winning the Tim Hortons Brier on March 14.
And unlike the 13 other participating countries, Bottcher and company are well-versed in the ways of Calgary's curling bubble life.
The world championship is the fourth curling event in five weeks to be held without spectators in Calgary.
Apart from skips' calls, it's like curling in a library in which every breath and utterance is heard on television via the microphones players wear on the ice.
Participants quarantine and are tested upon arrival, and are confined to the arena and their hotel across the Trans-Canada Highway.
"I think our comfort level of just being in the bubble here and knowing the logistics of how that all works, that provides a certain level of comfort we kind of have off the hop," Bottcher said.
Men's curling joins the NHL's playoff bubble last summer and the 2021 world junior men's hockey championship, both in Edmonton, as the only major international sporting events in Canada since the coronavirus pandemic descended upon the world a year ago.
The 2020 men's championship in Glasgow, Scotland, was cancelled and Ottawa was the original host of this year's tournament.
The 2021 women's world championship, originally scheduled for Switzerland in March, has been tacked onto Calgary's bubble in May following a pair of Grand Slam tournaments.
Unlike the junior hockey players who arrived by charter, the international curlers flew commercial. They were required to produce a negative test 72 hours before departing for Calgary.
Players and team personnel then entered a "week-long managed quarantine" upon arrival and underwent four tests during that time to be cleared to play, according to a World Curling Federation spokesman.
The top six teams in Calgary qualify their countries for next year's Winter Olympics in Beijing, so medals aren't the only stakes this year.
Rock handles will be equipped with hog-line sensors for the world championship. Canada's three domestic events operated without them.
Canadian teams have won five gold in the last 10 men's world championships and reached the final in another three.
Gushue's rink from St. John's, N.L., was the last to take the title in 2017 in Edmonton.
"I view it as a responsibility as well," said Moulding. "We have so many great players and such a great history in Canadian curling.
"To be a part of that long line of great people and great curlers who have been able to do this, it is a responsibility to represent our country in a good way and play with excellence like we usually and expect to do."
Bottcher's main rivals for gold figure to be Sweden's Niklas Edin, who defeated Canada's Kevin Koe and Gushue in the 2019 and 2018 world finals respectively, reigning Olympic champion John Shuster of the U.S., Scotland's Mouat, Switzerland's Peter de Cruz and Japan's Yuta Matsumura.
Moulding withdrew from the national mixed doubles championship with a back injury, but declared himself fit to play in the world championship.
As insurance, however, Olympic and world champion Marc Kennedy is Canada's alternate player in Calgary.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2021.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press