Ah, tiebreaker scenarios: everyone’s favorite chaotic twist to a championship run. Baseball loved them so much, it went ahead and built it into the schedule. Yet some of the wildest tiebreaking calculus of the year occurred, out of all places, in the peaceful province of Prince Edward Island this weekend. Nothing in Anne of Green Gables would prepare you for the madness.
Summerside, PEI hosted this year’s Road to the Roar, a curling event designed to get two women’s and two men’s Canadian teams to qualify for the Roar of the Rings, the grueling nine-team (per gender) tournament, the winner of which represents Canada at the Olympics. Eight men’s and eight women’s teams had prequalified, so 14 teams each would curl it out for their respective final two spots in the RTTR. To compare the depth, this week’s U.S. curling trials are underway (available on the NBCSN app!), featuring five men’s and three women’s teams.
This year, Curling Canada went with a different format than 2013’s triple-knockout tournament: They broke the teams up into pools of seven and held a single round-robin, then seeded the top three teams per pool into a modified page playoff, which gave the top two teams, rather than a bye, a double-elimination.
Going in, four wins likely meant a playoff spot and four losses meant a team’s Olympic dreams were smashed. In one of the women’s pools, however, something odd happened; most teams just went 1-1, then 2-2, and finally 3-3. Nobody was getting to four wins.
Here were the standings prior to the final game of the round robin in the women’s Pool A:
Thankfully—or unfortunately, depending on your level of nihilism—Julie Tippin’s team defeated Tracy Fleury’s squad in the final women’s round robin game, avoiding the ultimate entropy: seven teams all at 3-3. Still, that left five teams for two playoff spots. Head-to-head records gave Kelsey Rocque the No. 2 seed outright, and the other four teams were stuck into a four-team bracket, with games starting at 11:30 p.m. local time on Friday. As CBC’s Devin Heroux chronicled, the arena blared “Rock You Like A Hurricane” as teams warmed up in front of virtually empty stands, because it’s a small town in PEI and they just wanted to get some sleep. The last tiebreaker game ended at 2:48 a.m. local time, according to Heroux, with Shannon Birchard beating former Olympic bronze medallist Shannon Kleibrink in an extra end. Of course, none of those tiebreaker teams had enough energy to advance to the ROTR. The entire scenario was downright Sisyphean.
The men’s side was barely less chaotic. Seven teams finished 3-3 and had to be shuffled into four playoff spots. Tiebreakers saved the back bacon of two of those teams: 2010 gold medalist John Morris and defending Alberta champion Brendan Bottcher avoided any tiebreaking games and advanced to the men’s ROTR. (Oh, and Glenn Howard, who also curled 10 games, was eliminated and no longer has a schedule conflict.)
There’s usually a point in round robins where it feels like a slew of teams will finish with the same record, but it has a funny way of working itself out with minimal tiebreakers. Like an inexperienced skip, Canada’s national curling body may have overthought this one. Back in May, Curling Canada originally announced the event as having 12 teams per gender, but two women’s teams (skipped by Briane Meilleur and Karla Thompson) were mathematically tied in the rankings, setting up a play-in to the play-in. A few weeks later, the governing sports body had a change of heart: “Because the race was so tight for the final available berths into the Pre-Trials, rather than force teams into tiebreaker scenarios, the decision was made to add teams to the field.”
All the expansion did, in retrospect, was give the the field enough rope to hang themselves. The even number of games created the opportunity for a glut of 3-3 teams. There was also nothing wrong with the triple knockout format they used the last Olympic cycle, but Curling Canada just wanted to see more curling. Okay, nobody can blame them for that. The problem was that the experience of playing for Olympic glory seemed more than anything else a war of attrition, as a potential tiebreaker team would have had to play 11 games in seven days just to qualify through. For comparison, teams who medal at the Olympics will usually play 11 games over 11 days.
Team Tippin, who didn’t even get caught in the tiebreaker maelstrom, still got their money’s worth by curling 10 games (94 ends in all) and locking up one of the spots to the Roar of the Rings, as did the 2016 Scotties Tournament of Hearts runners-up skipped by Krista McCarville. All the qualifying teams will be sizable underdogs in next month’s Roar of the Rings. But win or lose at the trials, all these teams did something few can brag about: They stayed up late and played sports in Prince Edward Island.
Correction: The original version of this article stated that the Roar of the Rings is a 10-team (per gender) tournament, when it is actually nine.
Matt Sussman is a sort-of-competitive curler from Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter at @suss2hyphens.