Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Innate skill separates Winnipeg's Stoughton from mere legends

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EDMONTON -- Veteran curling broadcaster Ray Turnbull thinks it's Jeff Stoughton's uncanny ability with the micro-carve -- the way he always seems to find the exposed sliver of an opponents' rock -- that has set the Winnipeg skip apart the past couple of decades.

"Nobody -- and I mean nobody -- is better at picking out a rock than Jeff," says Turnbull.

Veteran Alberta skip, Kevin Martin, on the other hand, thinks it's Stoughton's knack for the impossibly delicate board-weight hit-and-roll that has been the single most important source of his success over the years.

"His board-weight hits -- that's something Jeff has always been great at. Board-y weight, hit and roll, hit-and-roll double, stick around -- that's been his shot since we started playing each other in '91," Martin said between games this week at the 2013 Tim Hortons Brier.

Both those things are true -- in isolation. Sure, show Stoughton an eighth of a rock, just peaking out from inside a pile of his own stones, and odds are Stoughton will slice it out like a malignant tumor and put a 5 up on the board.

And yeah, leave Stoughton a chance to hit and bury with his last rock and the odds are you are going to need to draw the pin with your last if you're going to avoid that steal.

But those two elements of Stoughton's game are simply tiny snapshots hidden within a much bigger picture -- the one depicting a man who is the undisputed most successful men's curler in the history of Manitoba; the one who sets provincial records everytime he sets foot on the ice at the Canadian men's curling championship; the one who is competing this week in his 10th Brier.

And when you step back and look at that bigger picture, the secret to Stoughton's success over the years has had very little to do with how he actually throws a rock and everything to do with one simple fact about Stoughton that remains as true today at age 49 as it ever was:

The guy just never grew up.

"I think he's never lost that little kid's spirit," says longtime Stoughton third Jon Mead, who probably knows Stoughton better as a man and a curler than anyone else. "I wouldn't say he's childish, but he's childlike. He doesn't see the danger, he always sees the reward.

"It's like golfers -- they say when you're a kid, you never see the bunkers, you never see the water. And then as you get older, you start getting the yips -- you start seeing everything except for the target.

"And with Jeff, I think the bigger the moment, the less he worries about the downside of things. It's that childlike spirit that the rest of us just aren't blessed with."

In a game in which the actual physical mechanics of the sport are uncommonly simple -- just hit the broom with the right weight every time and you're the next Olympic gold medallist in curling -- Mead describes a man in Stoughton whose mental makeup gives him an edge over his competition, a man for whom anxiety works differently than for most us.

"He has his moments where he can lose his composure," says Mead, "but the funny thing is it usually only happens in the Toaster Spiels, as opposed to something like this, like the Brier. The bigger it gets, he just calms right down and focusses. And it's what gets his competitive juices flowing -- we always play better at big events like this than some small thing in a club somewhere. He just can't get interested at those little events. And if you talk to guys like Glenn Howard or Kevin Martin, they'll say the same thing.

"And at something like this? He just calms right down and you totally trust him. I just look at him and I know -- just stay out of his way."

Of course, none of this is to suggest that Stoughton is infallible at big events -- just look at how he lost back-to-back games on Thursday night and Friday morning to put his back to the wall heading into the final round-robin draw Friday night.

Indeed, when you pick apart the minutiae of their legacies, the fact is Stoughton has been vastly less consistent at Canadian championships than Manitoba's other once-in-a-lifetime curler -- Jennifer Jones.

Consider:

In nine previous Briers, Stoughton made the playoffs in six, losing the 3-4 game once, the semifinal once, the final once and winning three championships.

Compare that with Jones, who has made the playoffs in all 10 of her appearances at the Scotties, never doing worse than the 3 vs. 4 game and advancing to an incredible seven finals, four of which she won.

Compared to Jones's numbers, in other words, Stoughton is a slacker at Canadian championships.

Now, in Stoughton's defence, he has had to compete with comparatively much more difficult fields than Jones, including two of the game's all-time greatest skips ever in Martin and Howard.

In contrast, Jones has mostly had her way with the women at the Scotties and was clearly -- head and shoulders -- much the best skip in Canada women's game for most of the past decade, until perhaps this year and the meteoric rise of Ontario's Rachel Homan.

There are other areas, however, of more commonality between Manitoba's top two skips -- and they both turn on the Olympics. For all the success both Jones and Stoughton have had on the national stage, neither has yet taken down the only bonspiel that truly matters anymore -- the Winter Olympics.

Stoughton, of course, came within a 10th-end measure in 2005 of advancing to represent Canada in Torino, while Jones has never even been close at a Trials event that has been her boulevard of broken dreams.

But -- and here's where it gets interesting -- both will get a chance to finally add that missing link to their resumes on home ice this December at the Canadian Curling Trials at the MTS Centre.

And that gets us to that other area of commonality between Jones and Stoughton -- neither has ever really enjoyed the monstrous advantage that is home ice at a major curling event.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Pretty good

YearResult

19916-5, DNQ

19969-2, Won 1-2 game, Won Final

19998-3, Won 1-2 game, Won Final

20008-3, Won Tiebreaker, Lost 3-4

20066-5, DNQ

20078-3, Won 3-4, Lost Semifinal20097-4, Won Tiebreaker, Won 3-4, Won Semifinal, Lost Final

20107-4, DNQ

20119-2, Won 1-2 game, Won Final

20138-3

Jeff Stoughton's Overall Record at the Brier (Through Friday morning's draw)

Round Robin75-32

Playoffs11-3

Stoughton at the Brier

By the numbers

-- In-turns -- 81 per cent

-- Out-turns -- 83 per cent

-- Draws -- 80 per cent

-- Takeouts -- 84 per cent

-- Best Performance by percentage -- 2000 (87 per cent)

-- Worst Performance by percentage -- 2010 (77 per cent)

-- This year by percentage (through Thursday) -- 85 per cent

-- Lifetime shooting percentage -- 82 per cent

-- Lifetime shooting percentage for Glenn Howard -- 84 per cent

-- Lifetime shooting percentage for Kevin Martin -- 82 per cent

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2013 C7

History

Updated on Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 9:58 AM CST: changes headline, replaces photo

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