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Njegovan will be able to support Team Lawes at Scotties while on pregnancy leave

Wild Card 1 skip Selena Njegovan delivers a rock as they play Wild Card 2 at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts at Fort William Gardens in Thunder Bay, Ont. on Tuesday, Feb.1, 2022. Njegovan will be able to serve in a support role at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts after all despite initially being told she'd have limited access on site while on pregnancy leave. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Team Lawes vice Selena Njegovan will be able to serve in a support role at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts after all despite initially being told she'd have limited access on site while on pregnancy leave.

The change, confirmed Tuesday by Curling Canada's Nolan Thiessen, will likely put an end to a weeklong series of developments stemming from the organization's unveiling of a pregnancy exemption eligibility policy ahead of the national championship.

That policy was walked back twice last week to allow all teams — not just the top five in the national rankings — to apply for this year's event. 

But the Njegovan situation — in particular her desire to support her team while on leave — didn't change until Tuesday afternoon.

"There was a bit of uncharted waters going through this and there was a little bit of a miscommunication with everybody on that," Thiessen told The Canadian Press.

Thiessen, the organization's executive director of marketing and fan experience, said he recently spoke to Team Lawes to clarify options for the Feb. 17-26 competition. 

He confirmed that Njegovan, who's due in late March but has clearance to travel, will now be allowed to sit beside coach Lisa Weagle at ice level, assist during timeouts and help her teammates as necessary.

She'll essentially have regular access to the field of play but can't physically step on the ice surface, he said. 

"She's allowed to be on the bench, she's allowed to talk to the team and all that type of thing," Thiessen said from Edmonton. "There was just a bit of a miscommunication in terms of what they were asking for and we've cleared all that up. We're ready to go for the nationals."

Thiessen said part of the confusion stemmed from the fact there hadn't been a non-playing alternate option for team rosters. An alternate player — also called a fifth — may see occasional game action but generally focuses on team support.

Once an athlete steps on the ice in a game or practice setting, Thiessen said, that is considered an alternate's duties and Njegovan would be ineligible for that role while on leave.

After learning last week that her access would be limited, Njegovan said she was undecided on whether she'd make the trip. A message requesting comment after Tuesday's developments was not immediately returned.

The Scotties champion will represent Canada at the March 18-26 women's world championship in Sandviken, Sweden. The fourth-ranked Team Lawes will be Team Wild Card One at the 18-team national championship. 

"It's a really big event and it matters so much, you want as much support as possible," said Thiessen, a three-time national men's champion. 

"Selena is still a member of Team Lawes and wants to support her teammates."

Curling Canada made changes to its pregnancy exemption policy last week. A limit on the number of teams that could apply for an out-of-province player to replace a curler on pregnancy leave was removed. 

When Njegovan was granted a leave, her Winnipeg-based rink was allowed to bring in Edmonton-based Laura Walker as a replacement. 

In a Twitter post last week, Team Lawes said it planned to have Njegovan on site at the Sandman Centre to support the team. 

But a day later, Curling Canada unveiled its Scotties draw and schedule in a news release that said while Njegovan had been granted a leave, she "is not expected to travel to Kamloops."

That was news to Njegovan, who hoped to join the team in a non-playing capacity.

Later in the week, Curling Canada said Njegovan would be provided with general venue accreditation if she decided to attend and that she could participate in off-ice activities.

Several prominent Canadian curlers — including Olympian Dawn McEwen, Mike McEwen, Felix Asselin and Beth Peterson — were critical of the limitations stemming from the exemption policy. 

Curling Canada's first walkback on that issue came in a statement that said all teams could apply, but only starting in 2024. A day later, the organization opened things up to all teams for the 2023 playdowns too.

Team Horgan lead Colin Hodgson, a member of the AthletesCAN diversity and equity advisory committee, described the developments over the last week as being "transformative" for the sport.

"I'm really proud to see all the other athletes stepping in and maybe some players that weren't as vocal (too)," he said. "It empowers everybody else. You feel on an island sometimes until somebody steps up and says, 'Hey I agree with that.'

"The more we can do that, the more we're actually going to have effective change."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 7, 2023. 

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press

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