Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A new and worthy champion

Fowler team deserves the crown

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DAUPHIN -- Someone other than Jeff Stoughton won the Manitoba men's curling championship on Sunday.


That's big news all by itself, considering Stoughton had won five of the last six, including the last three in a row.

But what's even bigger news is the identity of the other team that did the winning -- Brandon's Rob Fowler.

In an event where the dominant narrative all last week was whether Stoughton was going to win his 10th Manitoba title or Mike McEwen was finally going to win his first, it was Fowler and the rest of his blue-collar foursome who were trying Manitoba jackets on for size when the dust finally settled late Sunday afternoon.

Fowler and company -- third Allan Lyburn, second Richard Daneault and lead Derek Samagalski -- surprised everyone but themselves with a 10-6 victory over a heavily favoured and previously undefeated McEwen foursome.

To put the scope of the upset in perspective, just consider: The last time a Brandon team won the Manitoba men's championship was 1987 when Fowler's father, Brian, did it.

But was it a fluke? Not a chance. If you're thinking this is like the time Swan River's Brent Scales stunned Stoughton in the 2004 Manitoba final, think again.

The best team won on Sunday afternoon and they did it in the most impressive of fashions, displaying a poise that was absent in both Stoughton and McEwen at this event.

After losing their first game of the playoff round on Friday night, Fowler and company calmly peeled off five sudden-death victories in a row to capture the title, including a 6-5 win over Deer Lodge's Willie Lyburn in Sunday morning's semifinal. And they did it with the kind of high-drama and clutch shotmaking we more commonly associate with Manitoba's women's champion Jennifer Jones than with our men's teams.

The whole team was exceptional on the final weekend. Daneault and Samagalski made big shots to set up ends and were workhorses on the brooms. And Lyburn was named all-star third for a reason.

But it was Fowler who stood out on the final weekend -- and not simply because he is the skip.

Called upon in end after end, game after game, to make the big shot, Fowler answered the call on every occasion. Placed under extreme duress -- first by Stoughton in Saturday night's Page playoff 2 vs. 2 game and then by McEwen in the final -- Fowler answered back every time.

And never more so than in the second end Sunday afternoon against McEwen. Already trailing 2-0, Fowler was facing two McEwen counters buried behind cover when he went to throw his last shot -- an exceptionally difficult double-raise double takeout.

Miss it and McEwen goes up 4-0 and the story you are reading right now is all about how McEwen finally got his coming out party after losing the last two provincial finals.

But Fowler made it good enough to take a single, cut McEwen's lead to 2-1 and give his teammates a chance to take a collective deep breath and start actually curling.

And that's precisely what they did, putting the screws to McEwen in the third end to escape with a steal and set up what proved to be a decisive fourth end.

Fowler socked two counters behind cover in the house and McEwen needed nothing less than a bite of the button to score just a single when he went to throw his last. But on a day when McEwen wasn't his best, he missed badly, crashed on a guard out front and surrendered a steal of two.

There would be some back and forth after that for another six ends, but really the game ended there. Teams who give up three points in steals don't win Manitoba championships and this one was no different.

And skips who bang their brooms after an opponent makes a shot also don't win, as McEwen -- who did just that in the ninth end to a cascade of boos -- also found out.

"Life sucks sometimes," McEwen said afterward. "It's not fair. There's no one who works harder than us. But it didn't work out. And all the credit to them. They played better than we did today."

How's this for a cruel irony: In a game where McEwen was looking to join the list of great Manitoba men's champions such as Stoughton, Vic Peters and Kerry Burtnyk, he instead joined another illustrious list -- curlers who have lost three Manitoba men's finals in a row.

The good news is he's in good company -- Burtnyk was the last skip to do it, losing the 1997 final to Peters, the 1998 final to Dale Duguid and the 1999 final to Stoughton.

Even worse, not only did McEwen lose the final, but he may also have now lost a spot in the 2013 Canadian Curling Trials. With McEwen's loss and a win by Glenn Howard in Ontario on Sunday, Howard is expected to take over the points lead from McEwen in the tight race for the Trials berth that will be awarded to the top points-getter in men's curling this winter.

So yeah, this loss hurt. A lot. "It's unbelievable," said McEwen lead Denni Neufeld. "I can't even begin to tell you how much this hurts."

But so if this wasn't the day for McEwen's coming out party, was it Fowler's? Can a 36-year-old man who'd already won three Manitoba titles -- albeit as a second for Stoughton -- still even have a coming out party?

"Well obviously that's just huge," said Fowler, "so yeah, I'd be pretty comfortable with you calling it that."

With Sunday's win -- and especially the manner in which he won, the poise he displayed and the difficulty of the shots he made -- there is a legitimate question to be asked -- whether Fowler, with his fourth Manitoba men's title, now deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Burtnyk, Stoughton and Peters.

Fowler, who played on teams under both Stoughton and Burtnyk, wanted nothing to do with that conversation on Sunday. "I'm not really looking to put myself in any class," he said. "I think that's up to you guys and the fans to decide where we belong along with everyone else."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 13, 2012 C1

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