Winnipeg has long been home to the best men's curlers in Manitoba -- and many of the best in the world. Yet it has been 19 years since a Manitoba men's curling champion was actually crowned in Winnipeg.
Kerry Burntyk won the 1995 championship at Winnipeg Arena, the last time the event was held inside city limits. Since then, this iconic Manitoba winter tradition has shuffled its way across rural Manitoba -- from Brandon to Beausejour, Neepawa to Thompson, Portage la Prairie to Steinbach and beyond.
Until this week. The team that will represent Manitoba at the Brier this March will be determined at the MTS Iceplex, where this year's Safeway Championship is being held today through Sunday.
It's the first major curling event to be held at the Iceplex, which is better known as a hockey facility -- and best known as the Winnipeg Jets' practice facility. And it's a bit of a gamble for everyone involved.
"It's more than a bit of a risk," event chairman Resby Coutts said Tuesday as the players got their first look at the ice conditions during a practice session. "And staging it in the same winter as the (Olympic) trials were held in Winnipeg adds to that risk.
"But in all honesty we really didn't have a good rural alternative this year. Quite frankly, we've used up the rural market. We've been to all these Manitoba towns many times now, and so there was an urgency on the part of CurlManitoba to try Winnipeg again. And the people here at the Iceplex really felt now was the time to see if a major curling event can work in this building."
The hope is if this week's event works at the Iceplex, it could become the site of other future major curling events, including big cash events such as a Grand Slam or even CCA events such as a Canada Cup.
But if it's a bust? Winnipeg curling fans will have no one to blame but themselves should the sound of crickets return to the Winnipeg curling scene.
"It's nice to come back to the city because there are a lot of curling fans in Winnipeg," said defending champion Jeff Stoughton. "Hopefully they prove them right in bringing it back and get some people in here. And I think that's going to tell the tale of whether this is a success or not: Do people come out and watch.
"And if they don't, it doesn't need to come back to Winnipeg. It can go to a small community like Steinbach or Neepawa or Portage where the whole community supports it."
It was the consistently poor crowds that turned out to Winnipeg Arena for the Manitoba men's provincials in the first place that led to a nearly two-decade hiatus from Winnipeg for this event.
By moving the event into smaller towns, the men's championship became a big fish in a small pond in a way it never was in Winnipeg and the result was boffo box office and big profits for CurlManitoba and local organizers.
Well, with the move back to Winnipeg this week, that big fish is suddenly a very small fish and it's swimming once again in the much larger pond, competing against all the city's myriad other entertainment options, up to and including a little outfit called the Jets.
So, what kind of crowds are they going to get at the Iceplex this week? Organizers concede pre-event ticket sales have been slow, although they're not entirely surprised. Unlike small towns where farmers would buy full event packages and watch the entire five-day event from start to finish, the thinking this week is Winnipeggers are going to pick and choose the draws they want to see.
The Iceplex will hold about 1,300 for curling inside the arena, plus there's an attached indoor lounge that seats another 400 or so and provides a good view of the ice. The joint will be jumping -- but only if Winnipeg curling fans who long demanded CurlManitoba bring this event back to Winnipeg actually put their money where their mouths were and turn out.
Here's how I see the 32-team Safeway Championship field this week:
- The Pick: Jeff Stoughton (3-2) -- Stoughton has been on fire all month, taking down the TSN Skins Game and shooting lights out at the recent Continental Cup in Las Vegas. If he shoots even half as good this week as he has been, it won't even matter what anyone else does, including his own teammates.
- The Contender: Mike McEwen (3-1) -- McEwen has lost three finals and a semifinal in the last four years. Two ways of looking at that: a) he's due; or b) he's what's known in the horse-racing game as a 'hanger,' that maddening kind of horse that's always a stride behind the leader come the finish line.
- The Other Ones: Rob Fowler, Sean Grassie (6-1) -- Fowler stunned everyone but himself by beating McEwen in the 2012 Manitoba final to win his first trip to the Brier as a skip. Grassie went undefeated through last year's Manitoba provincials, only to lose the only game that mattered -- the final to Stoughton.
- Dark Horse: William Kuran (10-1) -- Kuran won the 2013 Manitoba Curling Tour championship to qualify for this event. Every year, there's one blue-collar team that comes out of nowhere at this event to make some noise; it says here this year's candidate is Kuran.
- The Pack: William Lyburn, Steen Sigurdson, David Kraichy, Randy Dutiaume (15-1) -- Dutiaume's a former champion, Lyburn lost a semifinal two years ago, Sigurdson looked great at this event last year and Kraichy skips a talented young team looking to make the next step.
- The Rest: Doug Hamblin, Ryan Hyde, Geoff Trimble, Brent Scales, Greg Todoruk, Justin Richter, Jared Kolomaya, Grant Brown, Wayne Ewasko, Richard Muntain, Steve Irwin, Kelly Robertson, Graham Freeman, Randy Neufeld, Justin Stanus, Dave Johnson, Scott Ramsay, Bob Sigurdson, Glenn Parrott, Richard Daneault, Don Nelson, Mark Lukowich, Trevor Loreth.
- Prediction: Jeff Stoughton wins his 11th Manitoba men's curling championship.
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