There's a box of priceless treasure awaiting Kerri Einarson and the rest of her teammates when they arrive in Prince George next week to begin their quest for World Women's Curling Championship.
It's the bounty they earned for winning the Scotties Tournament of Hearts two weekends ago in Moose Jaw. Inside that box is the Team Canada gear they'll be wearing on the ice at CN Centre for a nine-day tournament which could be the culmination of their collective curling dreams.
"I am most looking to receiving our Canada jackets, I really can't wait to put that maple leaf on our back," said Einarson. "It feels really amazing and I think it's finally starting to sink in."
As Manitoba champions, Einarson and her team of third Val Sweeting, second Shannon Birchard, lead Briane Meilleur and alternate Jennifer Clark-Rouire won the right to represent Canada and their home club in Gimli when they beat Rachel's Homan's Ontario rink 8-7 in the Scotties final, Feb. 23.
After going 9-2 in the round-robin and beating wild-card skip Jennifer Jones in the 1-versus-2 playoff, the Manitoba skip gave up a 7-3 lead in the eighth end of the final and missed a draw in the 10th which allowed Homan to tie it. But Einarson found the perfect weight on her final draw in the 11th to touch of the celebration.
"Even putting the Manitoba jersey on for the Scotties was super-exciting for us, so it's going to the be same thing with the maple leaf, even more exciting, and I just get goosebumps thinking about it now," said Meilleur. "I know we can't wait to get those uniforms and put them on for the first time and really let it sink in. It's going to be a really surreal feeling."
Canada will take on Eve Muirhead of Scotland in the first game for both teams Saturday, March 14 at 7 p.m. Einarson doesn't think she will feel any added pressure when she's on the ice calling the shots for the host team.
"I don't think so, I think we're just going to thrive off of that crowd and we're going to feel the support behind us so I think that will be a good thing," said Einarson.
The Scotties win was sweet vindication for the 32-year-old Einarson, who lost to Jennifer Jones in the national final in 2018 in Penticton, after finishing fourth in Canada in 2016.
Sweeting was a Scotties finalist as the Alberta skip in 2014 and 2015 and never lost faith she would get another chance.
"You never know for sure but we worked really hard and were having a good week and that's all you can do is put yourself into those finals and one day it'll pay off," Sweeting said. "The team just played really well. We got a couple breaks early and just ran with it. In that tough of a competition, that's all you can do."
Sweeting has never been to Prince George but heard positive reviews from curlers who attended the 2009 Road to the Roar Olympic trials qualifier at CN Centre in November 2009.
"They said it was just an excellent time and a really great venue and such a great host city," said Sweeting, who lived with her family in Manitoba until she was 13, before moving to Saskatchewan and eventually Vegreville, Alta. "I'm looking forward to getting there and getting settled in and playing in front of that great crowd."
All four starters on the Einarson team are former skips. Last year, in their first season together, they finished fourth at the Scotties.
"I think I just needed a fresh new start," said Einarson. "We've worked really hard, all of us, and the girls being in different positions, everyone has taken on those roles and it's been a really exciting couple of years. Every time you play together (team chemistry) improves all the time, so going into our second year we knew exactly what we needed and just going into pressure games, we're always improving."
Birchard and Meilleur grew up as skips and have had to take on the primary sweeping duties on the front end since they hooked up with Einarson and Sweeting. With that came a commitment to step up their off-ice conditioning.
"The biggest thing we both did was really upped our fitness level to come in and compete against the Joanne Courtneys and Dawn McEwens of the world," said Birchard. "We knew we had to be in the best physical shape that we could be and that we had to learn a lot more about the game than we had been used to. The biggest thing we struggled with coming into our positions was the judging of rocks. Now it's almost the two-year mark and we're feeling super-comfortable with that.
"We no longer feel like prior skips, we're definitely front-enders."
Birchard joined the Jones rink that beat Einarson in 2018 as a replacement for vice-skip Kaitlyn Lawes, who went to the Olympics in Pyeonchang for the mixed doubles tournament. Birchard also helped Jones win the world championship that year in North Bay, Ont. In the final they beat Sweden's Anna Hasselborg, who is among the 13 qualifiers for Prince George.
"I think I trust the experience my teammates already have, we've played in enough big tournaments that we know we can come together and play strong," said Birchard. "My only advice is to really drink in the experience and enjoy every moment and be really grateful for the opportunity we have to be there. There's nothing different we have to do as a team, just stick to what we know and we should have success with that."
Einarson has played some of the international teams on the World Curling Tour and knows how hard it will be to bring the title back to Canada, which has won the title in just two of the past 11 years.
"Looking at the field, it's all extremely tough and we know we'll have to play extremely well like we did in Moose Jaw," said Einarson. "I think every game is going to be tough and we're going to have to go in and bring our A-game every time."
Einarson's coach, Patti Wuthrich (nee Vandekerckhove) has Olympic pedigree as the alternate for Linda Moore in 1988. They won Olympic gold in Calgary when curling was a demonstration sport.
Einarson's entourage of family and friends coming to Prince George will include her uncle, Greg MacAulay, who skipped B.C. to the 2000 Brier title in Saskatoon and won the world championship that year in Glasgow, Scotland.
"I'm super-excited to see him, he's going to be coming out to watch and it will be nice to have him and his family there," she said. "I've been texting back and forth to get some advice from him."
Einarson was 12 when MacAulay won the world championship and she was watching on TV.
"That was so amazing, I remember sitting on our couch wearing my B.C. hoodie, just jumping up and down," said Einarson. "I will never forget that."