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Into the fire

Stoughton faces Martin, Howard on first two days of Brier

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EDMONTON -- Jeff Stoughton says he's ready to go.

He'd better be.

Stoughton and the rest of Team Manitoba -- third Jon Mead, second Reid Carruthers and lead Mark Nichols -- have by far the toughest early schedule when the Canadian men's curling championship opens at Rexall Place this afternoon.

Stoughton plays just one game today in his 10th Brier appearance -- but it's a doozy, as Manitoba opens their 2013 Tim Hortons Brier against a little Alberta outfit called Kevin Martin.

Martin, of course, is nothing less than a four-time Brier champion and reigning Olympic gold medallist, who will also have the added advantage this week -- as if he needed one -- of being the hometown favourite.

And no sooner is Stoughton done with Martin than he will have to face Ontario's Glenn Howard on Sunday night. Howard, of course, is also a four-time Brier champion, who has a little reign of his own going -- as the reigning world champion.

Throw in a game Sunday morning against a Nova Scotia team that isn't exactly a doormat and it wouldn't be hard to envision a set of circumstances where Stoughton wakes up Monday morning at 1-2, or worse. Of course, the alternative is Stoughton heads into Monday at 2-1 -- or better -- and the two toughest teams already behind him.

All of which is to say that Stoughton would do well to catch on to the ice quickly and get on an early roll as he seeks to join Martin and Howard next weekend in the ranks of four-time Brier champion skips.

"That first game is a big game, playing Alberta like that," Stoughton said Friday afternoon after taking part in the pre-event skills competition. "I'm sure the crowd is going to be right into it and ready to roll."

But Stoughton is also aware of his team's tough early schedule and says he's determined to keep things in perspective, no matter what happens this weekend. "We're going to have to play those guys sooner or later, no matter what. We could play Kevin or Glenn when we're 4-2, lose and go to 4-3. Or we can play one of them the first game and go 0-1.

"Whatever -- if we lose, it's not the end of the world. It's just one game and I don't think either team is going to put much emphasis into it."

The good news is that if early indications are reliable, Stoughton third Jon Mead appears to have caught on to ice conditions quickly. Mead shot a 26 in the skills competition on Friday -- the second-highest score of the day -- and has qualified for this morning's quarter-final round.

Here's how I break down the field:

Hometown Favourite -- Alberta's Kevin Martin (8-5)

Home-ice advantage counts in curling -- just ask Rachel Homan, who got a big lift from a partisan Ontario crowd in Kingston last weekend en route to a pair of playoff victories over Manitoba's Jennifer Jones and Homan's first Canadian women's title.

Or just ask Martin and his powerhouse foursome -- third John Morris, second Marc Kennedy and lead Ben Hebert -- who won the 2009 Canadian Curling Trials here at Rexall Place en route to taking down gold in Vancouver.

While ticket sales have not been as lively for this event as previous national curling events in the Alberta capital, the joint will be jumping if Martin is playing in the final come next Sunday. Anyone who saw Randy Ferbey win a Brier final in this building in 2005 will tell you a full house on your side is worth at least a point on the board for Alberta before the game even begins.

The Other Ones -- Manitoba's Jeff Stoughton, Ontario's Glenn Howard (2-1)

Stoughton is in the midst of a dominating season that's seen him take down titles at the Canada Cup (which earned him a Trials spot) and a Grand Slam event in Nova Scotia, as well as putting on a clinic in winning the Manitoba provincials in Neepawa last month.

The addition of 2006 Olympic gold medallist Nichols at lead seems to have given the Stoughton squad new life and they feel that they can now match up position-by-position against any team in the world. That's certainly true at the skip, third and lead positions. But after a shaky provincials, second Reid Carruthers needs to prove here that he can still hold his own against the likes of Alberta's Marc Kennedy and Ontario's Brent Laing.

Howard is the defending champion -- and reigning world champion -- and appeared to find new life and a whole new gear with the addition of Wayne Middaugh at third last season.

They haven't had a particularly inspiring cash season, but they haven't really needed one either, having already earned their Trials spot last year.

At an event where there promises to be a lot of attention on the Manitoba-Alberta/Stoughton-Martin rivalry, Howard might be the biggest beneficiary. While he's certainly not going to fly under the radar -- he is the defending world champion, after all -- he's also probably not going to have the same big target on his back as the defending champs usually have either.

The Challengers -- Northern Ontario's Brad Jacobs, Saskatchewan's Brock Virtue, Newfoundland's Brad Gushue (15-1)

Jacobs is skipping at his fourth consecutive Brier and the addition this season at third of Winnipeg native Ryan Fry -- who's also represented Newfoundland and Manitoba at this event -- should help things along for a squad that played in a semifinal in 2010 but has missed the playoffs in each of the last two years.

Virtue's squad has all kinds of flakes and are best known for having a player -- second Chris Schille -- kicked out of this year's Saskatchewan provincials for mouthing off to an official. It's an interesting sideshow, but Virtue's no circus act, having won a 2007 world junior title and, more impressive, finishing as the runner-up to Kevin Koe in the 2012 Alberta men's provincials. If they can stay focused -- and that's a big "if" for a young squad -- Saskatchewan curling fans might get treated to a rarity -- a team to cheer for on the second weekend of the Brier.

Gushue's the 2006 Olympic gold medallist and is good enough all by himself, but will be hampered by a young and inexperienced team.

The Pack -- Northwest Territories' Jamie Koe, Nova Scotia's Paul Flemming, Quebec's Jean-Michel Menard (25-1)

Koe defied all expectations last year when he made it all the way to the Page playoff 3 vs. 4 game before bowing to brother Kevin, who was skipping Alberta's entry last year. It says here that performance was a fluke and Koe puts in a more typical N.W.T. effort this year.

Flemming was third for Shawn Adams and played in the Brier final in 2005 -- the last time the Canadian men's curling championship was held in Edmonton. Nova Scotia lead Kelly Mittelstadt was also on that 2005 team, but the Nova Scotia second and third this year -- Ian Fitzner-LeBlanc and Graham Breckon -- are raw Brier rookies and it's tough to envision a repeat of that 2005 performance over the coming week.

Menard -- and second Eric Sylvain -- won the 2006 Brier, but haven't come close to recapturing that glory in the intervening seven years.

Also-ran -- P.E.I.'s Eddie MacKenzie, New Brunswick's James Grattan, B.C.'s Andrew Bilesky (50-1)

Final prediction: Alberta 7 Manitoba 5

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 2, 2013 C5

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