Laura Walker has felt quite comfortable in a substitute role on the Manitoba-based team skipped by Kaitlyn Lawes this season.
It made her a good fit to join the Lawes' lineup as Team Wild Card One at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts. With vice Selena Njegovan being granted a pregnancy leave by Curling Canada, Walker will again fill in at third at the Feb. 17-26 event in Kamloops, B.C.
"They've just really welcomed me with open arms and made me feel like I was a part of the team from Day 1 and not just a spare or a fill-in," Walker said. "I've been on Team Lawes and that makes it really easy for me and makes it a lot of fun for me too."
Wild-card positions were finalized Tuesday after the national rankings were updated with results from recent provincial and territorial championships. The berths went to the three highest-ranked teams not already qualified.
Lawes took the first nod at No. 4. Wild Card Two went to No. 6 Casey Scheidegger of Alberta and Wild Card Three was taken by No. 7 Meghan Walter of Manitoba.
Defending national champion Kerri Einarson of Manitoba holds the No. 1 spot ahead of Ontario champion Rachel Homan and Manitoba champion Jennifer Jones.
British Columbia champion Clancy Grandy is ranked fifth. Walter — a rink previously known as Team Abby Ackland, who now throws third — was ranked well ahead of No. 8 Isabelle Ladouceur of Ontario.
Walker, who's focusing on mixed doubles play this quadrennial, filled in for Lawes at a few events last fall as the skip's due date approached. Njegovan moved to fourth with Jocelyn Peterman and lead Kristin MacCuish on the front end.
"Honestly they are four of just the best people you will ever meet," Walker said from Edmonton. "They make it easy to mesh into their team and I say that completely genuinely.
"I've had a ton of fun and we've had a lot of laughs."
Lawes threw fourth at the Manitoba playdowns last week and Jill Officer subbed in for Njegovan. The team reached the semifinals before falling to Walter.
Another player who's focusing on mixed doubles this season, Lisa Weagle, will serve as coach for Team Lawes at the Scotties. Weagle, Lawes and Peterman were members of the Jones-skipped team that represented Canada at the Beijing Games last year.
Most elite teams in Canada juggled their lineups in the off-season. Team Lawes won a pair of tour events this season and has a 47-20 record overall.
"They're a fantastic team," Weagle said from Wood Buffalo, Alta. "Everyone in the lineup is excellent at their position.
"It's really great to see Kaitlyn stepping into that skip role and taking on that leadership role on the team."
The Hearts field will be split into two pools of nine teams for round-robin play. The top three teams in each pool advance to the playoffs.
Einarson, Lawes and Grandy are in Pool A with Nova Scotia's Christina Black, Alberta's Kayla Skrlik, Prince Edward Island's Suzanne Birt, Saskatchewan's Robyn Silvernagle, Quebec's Laurie St-Georges and Nunavut's Brigitte MacPhail.
Pool B includes Homan, Jones, Scheidegger, Walter, New Brunswick's Andrea Kelly, Kerry Galusha of the Northwest Territories, Northern Ontario's Krista McCarville, Yukon's Hailey Birnie and Stacie Curtis of Newfoundland and Labrador.
"It looks like a really great field," Weagle said. "All the teams that you'd expect to be there are there. I think that the addition of the wild-card spots really strengthens the field.
"You have all the teams that you'd want to have competing at your national championship."
The winning team will represent Canada at the March 18-26 world championship in Sandviken, Sweden.
Several provincial playdowns remain on the men's calendar ahead of the March 3-12 Tim Hortons Brier in London, Ont. Brad Gushue of St. John's, N.L., is the defending champion.
Other qualified teams include Nova Scotia's Matthew Manuel, Ontario's Mike McEwen, B.C.'s Jacques Gauthier, Yukon's Thomas Scoffin, Nunavut's Jake Higgs, Northern Ontario's Tanner Horgan, Quebec's Felix Asselin, P.E.I.'s Tyler Smith and Nathan Young of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Brier will use the same three-team wild-card setup for its 18-team field.
Alberta's Brendan Bottcher has a slight lead on No. 2 Matt Dunstone of Manitoba in the latest rankings. Gushue is third ahead of Alberta's Kevin Koe and Manitoba's Reid Carruthers.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 31, 2023.
Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.
Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press