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Teams Homan, Hasselborg earn victories in fans return at Grand Slam of Curling Masters

With fans bellowing encouragement, the occasional smattering of applause after a quality shot and even the intermittent ringing of a cowbell, it certainly felt like old times at the curling rink on Wednesday.

A long-awaited return to a more normal version of the Roaring Game was experienced upon entry at the Sixteen Mile Sports Complex for the season-opening stop on the Grand Slam of Curling circuit.

The Masters was back with elite teams playing in front of spectators in an arena with some buzz and sporting atmosphere, something that was in short supply when curling slowly restarted last season in near-empty venues due to the pandemic.

“Just that feeling you get of walking out on the ice, having the crowd, just everything about playing in an arena is just really special,” said Lisa Weagle of Team Jennifer Jones. “It’s something that I never take for granted.”

Two Grand Slam events were played last season in the so-called curling bubble in Calgary. The circuit had been paused since March 2020.

Normally with six competitions in each campaign and a total of $2.1 million in prize money, the Sportsnet-owned property was trimmed to five events this season due to the pandemic.

In July, the network revealed that the Masters would be relocated to Oakville, Ont., from Sarnia, Ont., and the Tour Challenge in Grande Prairie, Alta., would be postponed until 2022-23.

The current curling campaign started with some smaller events around the country but the Masters is the first major event of the season. Sixteen of the top men’s teams and 16 of the top women’s teams from around the world are playing in a triple knockout format.

Organizers have implemented enhanced event protocols for all attendees involving mandatory proof of double vaccination, daily temperature checks and wellness surveys. Coaches and alternates wore masks while seated on the benches but almost all players did not wear them while on the ice.

The event has a combined prize purse of $300,000 and the winners will earn berths in the season-ending Champions Cup in early May.

“We’ve been missing this so much,” said Shannon Birchard of Team Kerri Einarson. “My parents are here for this week, which is awesome. They haven’t watched me play live for two years. “It’s exciting. We love the energy and the crowds. Just seeing all the faces cheering us on, it’s awesome.”

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