Yes, Olympic curling qualification is on the mind. The Swiss are holding a best-of-seven shootout between Peter de Cruz and Yannick Schwaller to see who will join Silvana Tirinzoni in Beijing. That’s underway right now.

The Dutch were recently announced as hosts of the last-gasp Olympic Mixed Doubles qualifier, a first for that fledgling curling nation.

The United States ran a first-of-two qualifying event at Seattle in early September for their (hopeful) Mixed Doubles reps who don’t yet have a spot; the second qualifier goes Sept. 30 to Oct. 3 at Mayfield Curling Club in Ohio.

Japan just finished running mixed doubles and women’s qualifiers—their squads, including their men, will all need to clinch spots in the Olympic draws—and Satsuki Fujisawa won three games in a row (after dropping her first two) to shock Sayaka Yoshimura.

Fujisawa jubilation • JCA

Fujisawa jubilation • JCA

But the real mindbender is now underway in Ottawa, where Canada’s route to declaring the last of their Olympic Trials teams actually includes—wait for it—direct bonspiel qualifiers.

This hasn’t happened since the inaugural (medal status) Trials format of 1996-97 and the next one in 2001. By 2005 it was dying out. I certainly never thought I’d live to see this again … but a global pandemic has a strange way of bringing stuff back to the future.

Ottawa’s RA Curling Centre is playing host to the somewhat hastily-created “Canadian Curling Trials Direct Entry Event” as well as the “Canadian Curling Pre-Trials Direct-Entry Event.” The latter is now underway and will qualify two of eight teams in both men’s and women’s to next month’s Pre-Trials qualifier; and the former starts at 4:00 p.m. eastern time today.

The direct berths are available to three women’s teams and two men’s teams. There are five teams competing in each women’s and men’s division.

The opening women’s matches see Charlottetown’s Suzanne Birt facing Corryn Brown of Kamloops and Edmonton’s Laura Walker against Casey Scheidegger of Lethbridge. The following draw sees Edmonton’s Kelsey Rocque get her first action against Scheidegger.

In men’s opening round play, Winnipeg’s Mike McEwen faces Saskatoon’s Colton Flasch, and ageless Ontarian Glenn Howard battles Winnipeg’s Matt Dunstone. Another Manitoba foursome, skipped by Jason Gunnlaugson, sees his first action the next day against Flasch.

They’re underway in Ottawa • Claudette Bockstael-Curling Canada

They’re underway in Ottawa • Claudette Bockstael-Curling Canada

Both events are being streamed online via Curling Canada’s YouTube page. Production is handled by CurlON’s provincial crew, with play-by-play commentary provided by Curling Canada’s Al Cameron, Kyle Jahns and Andrew Denny. A variety of Ottawa-based talent will sit in the color commentary chair, including Team Homan’s Emma Miskew, fellow women’s competitor Lynn Kreviazuk, world senior champ Bryan Cochrane, former CurlCan governor John Shea and more.

The road to the 1997 Trials was paved with a smorgasbord of qualifying formats. The usual berths were given to Brier and STOH champions but on the men’s side, Wayne Middaugh grabbed a spot for winning the 1995 World Curling Tour championship, while ex-teammate Russ Howard took one for winning in ’97. Kevin Park got one as top 1997 WCT points earner. Kerry Burtnyk defeated Rick Folk in a special playoff between the 1995 and ’94 Brier champions.

Four additional berths went to Mike Harris, Ed Werenich, Dave Smith and Brent MacDonald who all captured World Curling Tour cashspiels—in Ottawa, Halifax, Kelowna, B.C. and Saskatoon. These were enormous events, expanded from the typical 32 men’s teams to a whopping 64 squads.

For those interested in the women’s qualifiers, the usual Scotties winners (it was known as the Scott back then) were joined by Sandra Schmirler, who beat Connie Laliberte in a special playoff between the 1994 and ’95 STOH champs, Cathy Borst and Kelley Law (the top two teams from the 1996-97 Women’s Curling Tour), Laliberte, who made it via a “Women’s High-Performance Program Playoff” win over Brandon’s Maureen Bonar, and two cashspiel qualifiers: Shannon Kleibrink (Autumn Gold in Calgary) and Anne Merklinger (Welton Beauchamp in Ottawa).

That 1997 men’s Trials field was star-studded (the Brier berths went to Jeff Stoughton and Kevin Martin) and you can imagine the squawking that took place when our young and unheralded team, skipped by Harris, went on to win and qualify for the Olympics in Japan. Imagine if Sandra Schmirler had lost the women’s final to a young, then-unheralded and big-haired Kleibrink … Canadian curling would’ve been in an uproar.

Shannon Kleibrink’s big 1997 hair • Michael Burns-Curling Canada

Shannon Kleibrink’s big 1997 hair • Michael Burns-Curling Canada

The 2001 Trials also featured teams that qualified from World Curling Tour stops. Many of the same cashspiels were used as from 1996-97, and served up quality names like Burtnyk, Middaugh, John Morris, Sherry Anderson and Amber Holland.

Four years later, it was almost gone. By then Curling Canada had built the Canadian Team Rankings System (CTRS) and Canada Cup which were both used for direct Trials qualifying. There were just two lowly cashspiels used for direct berths, the Canada Cup East and Canada Cup West, and from those the 2005 Trials field received Gushue—the eventual champ, aided by Russ Howard—as well as Pat Ryan, Kelly Scott and Jo-Ann Rizzo.

(I shall remind everyone that the 2005 format also delivered forth—via the Brier route—a fellow named Jay Peachey.)

And that was that for direct ’spiel qualifying—a vanished breed from 2009 through 2017. But here it is again in 2021, back with a vengeance due to COVID-19.

Sure, I’m biased, but the data clearly shows that powerful curling teams qualified for past Trials through the grass roots cashspiel network. Lord knows that network is struggling these days—it wasn’t doing so well prior to the pandemic, to be honest—so wouldn’t it be great to see the circuit used again, in some fashion, for the 2026 Olympic qualifying process?