No surprise that Jeff Stoughton and Mike McEwen will share the marquee for next week's 2012 Safeway Championship.
Stoughton's Charleswood rink was named the top seed for the 32-team men's provincial championship at Credit Union Place in Dauphin next week, while McEwen and his Assiniboine Memorial squad is slotted in at No. 2. Both teams have rock-solid arguments to back up their position at the top of the table, but neither side was feeling overconfident at the announcement.
This is Manitoba, they say. Good teams and good players are everywhere.
"We have to remember that there are another 30 teams there and there are certainly some capable teams and players in the field," McEwen said after the seeding for the 88th Manitoba men's provincial championship was revealed at the Heather Curling Club Tuesday.
"I'd love it to be us versus Jeff in the final, but we're both going to have to play well to get to that situation."
As expected, this was the same message coming out of the defending champion's camp: Don't take anything for granted in Dauphin.
"Just like last year, we're going to have to play at our best if we want to defend," said Reid Carruthers, who throws second stones for the Stoughton rink.
If Stoughton is the team to beat -- he's gunning for his fourth straight provincial title and 10th overall, so it says here he is -- then McEwen figures to be the guy who knocks him off. The 31-year-old, ranked No. 1 on the World Curling Tour, looked focused and ready to start throwing rocks Tuesday, grimacing through answers about losing the last two provincial finals to Stoughton.
"I don't know if you want to go through that too many times. It's not a feeling you want to get used to," said McEwen. "You know, being on the other side of the line and watching the presentation, it kind of makes you want it more. You get pretty thirsty to not have that happen again."
McEwen said he found some extra motivation for the men's championship at the Scotties in Portage la Prairie last week. While on hand to see his fiancée Dawn Askin (who throws lead stones for Jennifer Jones) win the women's title, he couldn't help but notice the disappointment on the Chelsea Carey team, who fell just short once again.
It served as a reminder of just how difficult it is to win in this province. "I know exactly how they feel," he said. "You put everything on the table and the closer you get to winning, the harder it is."
To that end, the McEwen rink has sought the guidance of noted sports psychologist Cal Botterill to help smooth out any of the emotional wrinkles that come up as a result of the stressful moments on the ice. Botterill was brought in last summer to help the McEwen rink address the negative tendencies each member may show when the chips are down, and the results are obviously paying off.
McEwen has been a cash-spiel monster in the WCT this season, earning just under $120,000 in prize money. A big chunk of that success can be traced back to the mental work put in, he believes.
"He's kind of changed a little bit of our thinking in how we work as a team," McEwen said. "Not necessarily off the ice but on the ice to keep the good vibes going. We have trouble sometimes in stressful situations interacting as a team in a positive manner."
For Team Stoughton, the appearance of a hangover from the world championship is evident, but not entirely accurate. Carruthers admits they haven't been as sharp as they've needed to be at times this winter, but quickly draws parallels between this season and last.
The rink had a slow start a year ago, he said, winning just a berth bonspiel before catching fire at the Safeway Championship and burning right through to the worlds. This year, Carruthers is banking on some similar heat.
"We peaked at the right time. We're hoping we can do the same thing (now)."
The winner of the 2012 Safeway Championship goes on to represent Manitoba at the 2012 Tim Horton's Brier, March 3-11 in Saskatoon.
Top two will be tough to beat
Bits and bites heading into the 2012 Safeway Championship at Credit Union Place in Dauphin, Feb. 8-12:
The seeds: Jeff Stoughton, Charleswood (1); Mike McEwen, Assiniboine (2); Rob Fowler, Brandon (3); William Lyburn, Deer Lodge (4); Daley Peters, West Kildonan (5); Sean Grassie, Deer Lodge (6); Dean Dunstone, Rossmere (7); Jason Gunnlaugson, Assiniboine (8); Terry McNamee, Brandon (9); Dave Elias, West Kildonan (10).
Three (or four) teams to watch: Stoughton and McEwen -- These two often get clumped together in the conversation of elite Manitoba curlers, so why stop now? McEwen has put together a tremendous year, ruling the World Curling Tour roost this season. Stoughton is looking for his fourth straight provincial title and his sixth in seven years. Can Manitoba send two teams to the Brier?
Sean Grassie -- The sixth seed, his team is riding some momentum thanks to a finals appearance at the MCA Bonspiel last month. Grassie found more overall success last winter, but has had stronger finishes in bigger events this season. As good as any to assume the darkhorse moniker.
Jason Gunnlaugson -- Is Gunnlaugson still an up-and-comer in the Manitoba curling scene? It's hard to knock a guy in the Top 10, so the answer is yes. Consistency has been an issue, however. A strong showing in Dauphin would do wonders in silencing the doubters.
If you can't make it to Dauphin: Curl Manitoba and Shaw Cable will broadcast a handful of games, including the entire championship round. The broadcast schedule: Live action at 12:15 p.m. Feb. 8-9 (rebroadcast at 7 p.m.); live action Feb. 10 (7:45 p.m.); Feb. 11 (6:30 p.m.); Feb. 12 (9 a.m.) and the final at 1:30 p.m. The games will also be streamed live at safewaychampionship.ca.
The games are on TV? Wait a second... Why wasn't last weekend's Scotties championship on TV? Simply put: Money. Curl Manitoba executive director Shane Ray said broadcasting the women's event is subject to an annual budget review and this year, organizers couldn't find enough sponsorship money to cover the TV costs. Part of the title agreement with the Safeway Championship includes broadcast dough, which is why the men's event is on TV every year.