Manitoban Jennifer Briscoe takes aim at Northern Ontario women’s curling crown

Some of northern Ontario’s best curlers are hitting the ice in Kenora this week — and the stakes, to put it mildly, are high.

The Northern Ontario Curling Association (NOCA) men’s and women’s provincial championships run Tuesday through Sunday at the Kenora Recreation Centre.

The prize for the top teams is a big one, with the women vying for a berth at this year’s Scotties Tournament of Hearts (in February in Kamloops, B.C.) and the men for a spot at the Tim Hortons Brier (in March in London, Ont.).

The competition in Kenora, of course, will be tough. In total, 11 men’s teams, including four from Thunder Bay, are playing for that Brier spot.

The women’s side includes seven teams — three of them from Thunder Bay.

“Every year, going into the year, our goal is to win the provincials and make it to the Scotties,” said skip Krista McCarville, whose team — which also includes Kendra Lilly, Ashley Sippala, Sarah Potts and coach Rick Lang — is among the women’s teams playing in Kenora this week.

“Every year we feel like, did we do enough?” said McCarville, who’s skipped in the Scotties several times. “Could we have done more? Could we have practised more?

“But I honestly think, with our life, that we do as much as we possibly can,” she said. “So, feeling good, but also, there’s always nerves. I don’t think that will ever end.”

One of McCarville’s opponents in the playdowns is Nicole Westlund-Stewart, who skips a team that includes Megan Carr, Samantha Morris and Rebecca Carr.

A woman stands next to a window overlooking a curling rink.
The Kenora playdowns will mark the first time Nicole Westlund-Stewart has skipped at a provincial championship bonspiel. (Kris Ketonen/CBC)

In Westlund-Stewart’s case, Kenora is something of a milestone.

“This is my first time skipping at a provincial championship,” she said. “I competed at the Ontario Scotties back in 2015 as lead, finished third there.”

‘The balance is tough’

Westlund-Stewart says focus will be a key if her team is to find a spot on the Scotties schedule.

“Trust all the work that we’ve put in,” she said. “We’ve been building as the year has been going on, and I think we’re starting to peak at the right time.

“I think just falling back on all that work, and that preparation, that we put in, and just enjoy it. I’m really looking forward to competing in a high-level curling event.”

The challenges faced by northern Ontario’s top curlers aren’t limited to the ice, however. There’s also the matter of balance: getting that practice time in while balancing family, jobs and other aspects of their lives.

“The balance is tough,” McCarville said. “I remember thinking years ago, when my kids were young, how tough it is, because I’m a full-time teacher and we try to practise four or five, six days a week leading up to big tournaments like this.

“My children are a lot older and you think it’d be easier, but they’re also into competitive sports as well,” she said. “My daughter actually just won her junior provincials to go to the nationals.”

McCarville’s son, meanwhile, plays hockey, and her husband also curls.

“I mean, I love it and they would never change any of it. But we have a good schedule. We have a lot of juggling, and great parents to help us out with running the kids around when needed.”

And then, there’s distance. That’s something that’s coming into play with Team Briscoe, made up of skip Jennifer Briscoe, third Shana Marchessault, second Corie Adamson and lead Carly Perras.

Briscoe herself lives in Manitoba — the rules allow each team to have one player from outside northern Ontario.

Northern Ontario skip Krista McCarville directs the sweep during the 2022 Scotties Tournament of Hearts at Fort William Gardens in Thunder Bay, Ont. The team is hoping a win at this weekend’s qualifiers will get them back into the tournament. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

“Carly lived up in Thompson back in 2016, so we curled together back then,” Briscoe said. “When, she went back to Ontario, she contacted me about this team and they were looking for a skip.

“I’m obviously in love with this sport, and I really enjoyed curling with Carly, so I jumped for the opportunity to play with her again.”

So far, the full team has played in one bonspiel together in Winnipeg this season. But, Briscoe said, the group is in contact regularly.

“It helps that we’re in contact,” she said. “We talk every day.

“We all practise on our own and the other girls play together,” Briscoe said. “I skip a team here in Thompson, so I definitely get practice as a skip.

“We all have the same goal in mind.”

All games being streamed

While there are a lot of uncertainties going into this week’s big bonspiel, one thing is for sure, said Thunder Bay skip Trevor Bonot: “These are the best teams in our province.

“You know that you’re going to be up against the best of the best, and you have to play well,” he said. “We have to go into it with the idea that we’re in tough.

“We’re taking the tune-up games that we have to learn little things — little strategy things, little ways we can sweep a little better, communicate a little better.

“We’re trying to learn from every game that we get to play, and hopefully that all comes together at the right time,” Bonot said.

But, he said, one of the great things about curling is it can be anybody’s game.

“It could come down to that one shot. Obviously there’s more into it than that, but it is within reach for all of these teams.”

Every game of this year’s NOCA playdowns is also being streamed online through, something Bonot — whose team also includes Mike McCarville, Jordan Potts, and Kurtis Byrd — says is good news for curling fans who can’t make the trip to the Kenora Recreation Centre.

“They’re gonna get some great curling,” he said of those who tune in. “They’re gonna be in for a show.

“We all want to go out there and win. And there’s going to be a lot of intensity and passion. I think that will show through.”