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P.E.I.'s Suzanne Birt rink drawing on experience, momentum in its third straight appearance at Scotties Tournament of Hearts

Skip Suzanne Birt releases a shot as lead Michelle McQuaid, left, and second Meaghan Hughes get ready to sweep during the P.E.I. Scotties Tournament of Hearts in O’Leary in January. The Birt rink, which won its third P.E.I. title in a row, will open play at the Canadian women’s curling championship in Calgary on Saturday.
Skip Suzanne Birt releases a shot as lead Michelle McQuaid, left, and second Meaghan Hughes get ready to sweep during the P.E.I. Scotties Tournament of Hearts in O’Leary in January. The Birt rink, which won its third P.E.I. title in a row, will open play at the Canadian women’s curling championship in Calgary on Saturday. - Jason Simmonds
CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. —

The Suzanne Birt-skipped rink is looking to make the most of experience and momentum at this year's Scotties Tournament of Hearts Canadian women’s curling championship.

Birt, third Marie Christianson, second Meaghan Hughes, lead Michelle McQuaid and coach Mitch O’Shea will wear the P.E.I. colours at Canada’s premier women’s curling event for the third year in a row. Kathy O’Rourke is in her first season with the rink as the fifth player.

The 2021 Scotties will take place in Calgary, Feb. 19-28.

“We have been working hard all year, so we are looking forward to getting back there,” said the 39-year-old Birt, who has skipped 11 provincial women’s champions since 2003. “It’s been a challenging year for a lot of people. We are looking forward to competing again.”

Skip Suzanne Birt intently follows her shot during the recent P.E.I. Scotties Tournament of Hearts in O’Leary. - Jason Simmonds
Skip Suzanne Birt intently follows her shot during the recent P.E.I. Scotties Tournament of Hearts in O’Leary. - Jason Simmonds

Team Birt, which curls out of the Cornwall and Montague clubs, earned P.E.I.'s berth at the Scotties by defeating Montague's Darlene London rink 3-0 to win the best-of-five provincial final series in O'Leary.

The Birt rink knew before the first rock of the P.E.I. women's curling championship that they were headed to Calgary regardless.

If they won, they would represent P.E.I., but if Team London came out as provincial champions, the Birt rink had secured one of three wild-card spots for the national Scotties. The Canadian Team Ranking System (CTRS) points standings determined the wild-card teams.

Off to Calgary

Team Birt travelled to Calgary on Monday, where they will enter a bubble in advance of P.E.I.’s first two games on Feb. 20.

This Birt rink has proven it can compete against Canada’s best. It advanced to the championship round the last two years after posting identical 5-2 (won-lost) records in pool play. In 2019, Birt finished with an overall record of 6-5 in Sydney, N.S., and went 5-6 in 2020 in Moose Jaw, Sask.

“We have played together now for a few years,” said McQuaid, 29. “Every experience you get helps, and you bring that forward to the next Scotties.”

Hughes, 35, said every trip to a national championship is a learning experience. She is hoping the Birt rink can draw on that in Calgary.

“Any time you go, you pick up a few tricks and tips, and you build on that every time. We have been gaining momentum the last three years. We will look to keep on the upward trend this year.”

Meaghan Hughes

Two divisions

This year’s field features 18 teams who will compete in two nine-team divisions. The rinks will play a round-robin schedule consisting of eight games, and then the top four in each division will advance to the championship pool. The round-robin records of the advancing teams will carry over to the championship pool.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how everyone performs given COVID and how not everyone was able to practise and prepare for this,” said Christianson, 32. “I have been talking to a few teams and some of them have not been on the ice in a while.”


P.E.I. Schedule


P.E.I.’s round-robin schedule at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts:

Lead Michelle McQuaid makes a shot for the Suzanne Birt rink during play in the recent P.E.I. Scotties Tournament of Hearts. Fifth Kathy O’Rourke, left, and second Meaghan Hughes are the sweepers. - Jason Simmonds • The Guardian
Lead Michelle McQuaid makes a shot for the Suzanne Birt rink during play in the recent P.E.I. Scotties Tournament of Hearts. Fifth Kathy O’Rourke, left, and second Meaghan Hughes are the sweepers. - Jason Simmonds • The Guardian


(All times Atlantic Time)
Saturday, Feb. 20
11:30 a.m. – vs. Saskatchewan.
9:30 p.m. – vs. New Brunswick.
Sunday, Feb. 21
4 p.m. – vs. Quebec.
Monday, Feb. 22
4:30 p.m. –vs. Newfoundland and Labrador.
Tuesday, Feb. 23
9:30 p.m. – vs. Wild Card One.
Wednesday, Feb. 24
4:30 p.m. – vs. Manitoba.
Thursday, Feb. 25
11:30 a.m. – vs. Nunavut.
9:30 p.m. – vs. British Columbia.
End of round-robin play.
Note: TSN will have live coverage of all draws during the Canadian women’s curling championship.


One change this year is that there will be no Page playoff system. At the end of the championship pool, the top three teams will move on to the playoffs.

The first-place team will advance directly to the final, while the second-and third-place rinks will meet in a semifinal game.

“This year is going to be a similar field to last year,” said McQuaid. “We played a lot of the teams (previously).

“You have to go in, stick to your game plan, and you never know what way it is going to go. You have to be patient and focus on your own game plan and see where it takes you.”


Pools

Here are the pools for the 2021 Scotties Tournament of Hearts:
Pool A
Team Canada (Kerri Einarson)
Ontario (Rachel Homan)
Alberta (Laura Walker)
Wild Card Two (Mackenzie Zacharias)
Wild Card Three (Beth Peterson)
Northwest Territories (Kerry Galusha)
Nova Scotia (Jill Brothers)
Northern Ontario (Krysta Burns)
Yukon (Laura Eby)
Pool B
Wild Card One (Tracy Fleury)
Manitoba (Jennifer Jones)
British Columbia (Corryn Brown)
P.E.I. (Suzanne Birt)
Saskatchewan (Sherry Anderson)
Quebec (Laurie St-Georges)
New Brunswick (Melissa Adams)
Nunavut (Lori Eddy)
Newfoundland and Labrador (Sarah Hill).
NOTE: Tracy Fleury is not attending this year’s Scotties and Chelsea Carey will skip the Wild Card One rink.


O’Rourke, who played third stone during the provincial championship as COVID-19 restrictions prevented Christianson from travelling to P.E.I. from Nova Scotia, likes what she has seen from the Birt rink the past couple of seasons.

As the most experienced curler on the team and no stranger to pressure-filled events, O’Rourke said she is looking to help out any way she can. O’Rourke, 56, skipped P.E.I. to a silver-medal performance at the 2010 Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

“They are doing a lot of things right, so (my role is) to be there as a support person more than anything,” said O’Rourke, a member of the P.E.I. Sports Hall of Fame and the P.E.I. Curling Hall of Fame. “When they get in those tight games, if I can add something to it, I am happy to do that.”

Christianson is thrilled to be back with her teammates. She said the team had to be creative in its preparation after the Atlantic bubble burst. She noted there were lots of Zoom calls.

“Mitch sent a lot of practice plans over to me, and I was practising with my dad (Danny Christianson) a lot," said Christianson. "He used to coach me growing up, so he put a lot of time in with me to hold the broom.”

Marie Christianson plays third for the Suzanne Birt rink that will represent P.E.I. at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts Canadian women’s curling championship in Calgary, Feb. 19-28. - Jason Malloy • The Guardian
Marie Christianson plays third for the Suzanne Birt rink that will represent P.E.I. at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts Canadian women’s curling championship in Calgary, Feb. 19-28. - Jason Malloy • The Guardian

Different year

It’s been a year like no other with COVID-19. Hughes said the team members benefit from a strong support team that has been behind the rink all season, including family, sports psychologists, nutritionists, coaches and mentors.

“We are pretty lucky to make it semi-normal,” said Hughes. “The circumstances we are in on P.E.I., we are very fortunate that we can keep playing and practising minus the two weeks in December (for the circuit-breaker).”

Team Birt had entered a couple of events earlier in the season that ended unexpectedly because of outbreaks of COVID-19. Birt said the team wanted to make the best of an unusual situation this year.

“We were still able to practise and play the odd league game, which was good,” said Birt. “We were able to concentrate a lot on the off-ice work – nutrition, strategy, gym, etc. It was good that way. We feel we are ready and feeling good out on the ice.”

Jason Simmonds is The Guardian's sports reporter. He can be reached by email at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @JpsportsJason.

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