Northern Ontario Belongs in Briar

There’s no question all eyes in Rainy River District will be focused squarely on the Labatt Brier in Winnipeg next month given that Fort France native Rob Sinclair Jr. and former Atikokanite Dale Wiersema will be representing Northern Ontario there as members of Bruce Melville’s Port Arthur rink.
Melville, making his first Brier appearance, advanced to the Canadian men’s curling championship by beating former world champ Al Hackner in the final of the Northern Ontario playdowns last week in Espanola.
Much less visible, but certainly of equal importance to area curlers, is what will be going on behind-the-scenes at this year’s Brier–specifically, whether Northern Ontario should be given the boot from future competitions.
Apparently the Canadian Curling Association is toying with the idea of splitting the Yukon/Northwest Territories into two teams. And in order to maintain the 12-team format, that means Northern Ontario is out as a separate entity.
Curling enthusiasts already know there’s no Northern Ontario team at the Scott Tournament of Hearts. The women also use a 12-team format but, instead, include the defending champion rather than split up Ontario (the Yukon/NWT are one team there, too).
Kathie Jackson–who ironically is Rob Sinclair’s sister–probably wishes there was one, having been to the provincial playdowns three times (including earlier this month in Kenora) only to fall short of qualifying for the national championships.
But it’s one thing if the CCA axed Northern Ontario in favour of allowing the defending champ back in. It’s quite another if the reason is to split the Yukon/NWT into two teams.
Yet if it passes, anyone qualifying from Northern Ontario, like the Hackners, Melvilles, Harndens, Nordins, Bonots, and such, would have to go up against a rink like Werenich, Howard, or Harris to advance to the Brier from now on.
This isn’t to say someone from the north couldn’t beat their southern counterparts (Northern Ontario has more than its share of national and world titles). But it does make the job that much tougher.
More important, though, it would mean one quality team is missing from the Brier each year.
Having never been to the Yukon or Northwest Territories, let alone knowing anything about the level of curling in the frozen tundra of the Arctic, it’s still safe to say that it’s harder to get out of Thunder Bay or Sault Ste. Marie than it would be to qualify from the Yukon or NWT.
In fact, the same is probably true even when you combine the two, as is the format now.
On the bright side, the change won’t come without a fight. Not only has the Northern Ontario Curling Inter-association (NOCIA) passed some resolutions calling on the CCA to include the region in future Briers, a Sudbury Star story said the Ontario Curling Association passed a resolution saying it won’t participate in the Brier if Northern Ontario is dropped.
Still, all this doesn’t mean the decision won’t be made, either. And that’s why a lot of attention will be riveted on what happens off the ice next month in Winnipeg as much as to whether a couple of former Rainy River District boys can walk away with the Labatt Brier.
Let’s hope they’re not the last to have that chance.

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