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Lohja (FIN) Worlds Preview
Published in The Curling News - February 2015

Just as Team Canada were about to announce an unchanged squad for the 2015 World Wheelchair Curling Championships, which begin in Loja Finland on February 7, skip Jim Armstrong was hospitalised, awaiting surgery following a heart attack.

"Our concerns for Jim and his medical condition are certainly front and centre of our thoughts," said teammate Sonja Gaudet, a sentiment for the 6-time Brier competitor that will be shared across the curling community.

While Canada has taken five out of five gold medals since 2009 with Armstrong as skip, they have failed to reach the podium at the last three Worlds without him.

"Absolutely we are going to miss him, not only for his shooting skills but as a team mate and a leader." says Coach Joe Rea. "This team however is very prepared and capable and we are excited to have this opportunity to put our planning to work in Finland."

That sentiment was echoed by Gaudet, ever-present since 2006, saying she is "confident that the team is much more prepared than we have been in the past."

Mark Ideson appeared equally unfazed by the prospect of moving from alternate to throwing lead rocks and skipping. "Our line up has changed unexpectedly, but our team has been shuffling positions this season so that we are prepared for any player to come in and out of play at any given time.

"Fortunately, we've got an experienced team and we're mentally and physically ready."

Holding the broom for Ideson will be Ina Forrest, who moves from 2nd to throwing 4th stones. "It will be a new challenge for all of us and we are determined to be prepared for the challenge," she said.

Manitoba's Dennis Thiessen continues at 3rd, Gaudet moves to 2nd and rookie Marie Wright who won her "D card" funding at a selection camp at the end of November is the alternate.

Marie first came to the attention of the coaches when her Saskatchewan team won the Canadian National title in 2012 and her inclusion marks the first time a majority female team has competed at the Worlds.

Though the three year accumulation of qualification points for the 2018 Paralympics begins at this year, Canada's preparation has appeared somewhat low key in contrast to Russia and Scotland, the other two medallists at last year's Paralympics.

"While some scouting and development camps will occur this season, the 2018 Paralympics selection process will commence in earnest next year," said program director Gerry Peckham.

Scot's coach Tony Zummack puts more emphasis on 2015 performance.

"The post-Paralympics year needs to be taken seriously. An early good finish eases pressure later. If the level of consistency continues to improve then (the qualifiers] may need upwards of 15 points. That would mean an average finish of 5th at each of the three events and a good possibility that any team without three chances to accumulate points will need need a top 4 finish in the other two."

Only the top eight teams at the World's are guaranteed a place the following year. The bottom two must compete in an open qualifying event for the remaining places; and as Korea, Japan, Italy and Switzerland and others have discovered, returning to the top 10 is no easy task.

Each of the Sochi Paralympic medallists competed at major North American tournaments this Fall. Russia won the newly named Canadian Open in Richmond BC, beating Scotland in the final with Canada 3rd.

The same two teams played the final of Ottawa's Cathy Kerr Memorial Spiel, the world's largest wheelchair curling event by entries, with Canada forced into the consolation event.

The third leg of Russia and Scotland's tour was the US Open in Utica NY (Canada did not compete) where Collinda Joseph's enterprising Ottawa rink defeated Scotland for gold, with Russia taking bronze.

Scot's skip Aileen Neilson decided to take an additional (and maximum) further two year sabbatical to help Scotland secure the necessary points for the 2018 Paralympics. When her five years are up in 2016 she must choose between returning to her teaching job, or continuing to compete.

It's no accident that the three Paralympic medallists are all fully funded curlers. Sweden's Jalle Jungnell, the sport's most experienced wheelchair curler, says his team all have full time jobs and that it is becoming increasingly difficult to compensate for the ability of top teams to commit all their time and energy to curling.

"It will however be great fun," he says, "and we have as always a great spirit in the team, on and off the ice. You have to have fun to succeed."

His long time 3rd, Glenn Ikonen, has retired, replaced by  Ronny Persson, a former Paralympic downhill medallist from Nagano and Salt Lake.

Jens Jager, who brought his own cheering section to the Vancouver Worlds, returns to skip Team Germany after political disputes over who was actually running the sport led to his temporary departure. Germany's subsequent relegation led to his re-instatement and successful return via last November's Qualifying. Norway took full advantage of home ice to claim the second qualifying slot.

Slovakia has prepared by staying close to home; winning an eight team tournament spread over several weekends, playing Poland, Italy and five domestic Czech teams.

Rookie Steven Emt (Andover CT) joins a USA team still awaiting their first medal. Fans who watched TV coverage of the team's Paralympic performance will hope skip Patrick McDonald muzzles the constant and often contradictory on-ice kibbitzing from his teammates.

China, a playoff team the past three years with two bronze medals, have pedigree but no current track record. Hosts Finland on the other hand will hope home ice advantage will keep them out of next November's Qualifying, from which they are unlikely to re-emerge.

Who will win? Probably a Sochi medallist, but perhaps this year for the first time since 2008, Canada are not clear favourites. Despite Coach Rea's endorsement of Armstrong's shooting, it is not exceptional. What he brought was decades of ice reading and game management experience. Even if Canada play well without him, other teams will find it easier to believe they can win.


Eric Eales has been writing about wheelchair curling since 2004, and publishes the wheelchaircurling.com website.