CALGARY -- Manitoba curling has gotten a bad rap in these parts in recent years, with Alberta claiming that it is them -- not us -- who are the "centre of the curling universe."
Albertans base their claim on two things -- their utter dominance of Canadian men's curling for the past decade, with Randy Ferbey and Kevin Martin. And they also point to the massive curling events they have held here and in Edmonton in recent years.
And it is true the 2009 Tim Hortons Brier, which begins at the Saddledome this afternoon, will be another massive event, with a total crowd of at least 240,000 expected -- 80,000 more than attended in Winnipeg last year. And that doesn't take into account the spectator bump they will surely get if Martin gets to the final, which almost everyone is expecting.
So, yeah, they do have a point here in Alberta. But so does Manitoba -- and this is the year to make that point.
Of the four major Canadian curling championships staged so far this year, Manitoba teams have won three of them -- women's, junior women's and mixed. The only one Manitoba didn't win was junior men's, which P.E.I.'s Brett Gallant won.
For those of you keeping track at home, that's 0-for-Alberta this year, here in the self-christened centre of the curling universe. That stings -- but it would be nothing like the sting Albertans will feel next Sunday if Martin, a clear Brier favourite who will play with the benefit of huge partisan crowds, is not the last man standing at this event. And nobody knows that more than Manitoba's representative, Jeff Stoughton. Stoughton doesn't normally watch women's curling -- many competitive men's curlers scoff at the women's game -- but he said yesterday that he watched lots of Jennifer Jones's remarkable run at the Scotties in Victoria last week. And he was inspired by what he saw. "It was really exciting watching her last week," said Stoughton. "It was a big motivation and it makes us want to be in that position.
"Manitoba hasn't been as big and tough as we used to be. We have to earn that and get it back. We've had a great year as a province so far and we're hoping we can keep that rolling here."
Stoughton is going to be hard-pressed to win the 2009 Brier in what is a remarkable field. He is just one of six former Brier champion skips competing and an astounding total of 199 Purple Hearts will be on the ice.
Here's how we see it breaking down:
ONES TO BEAT: Alberta, Ontario
Alberta's Kevin Martin is the 2008 world champion and a curling icon in this country. Ontario's Glenn Howard is the 2007 world champion and a curling icon in this country. You could probably just slot them into Sunday's final right now, but the rules say the games must be played first.
THE NEXT ONES: Manitoba, Newfoundland
Stoughton doesn't miss the playoffs at the Brier, but he hasn't won it all in three trips here since 1999 and it's hard to think this will be the trip that snaps that drought. Gushue has an Olympic gold medal that every skip in this field would trade all their Brier titles for -- except for New Brunswick's Russ Howard, who also has Olympic gold. But you can't trade for a Brier title, you have to win it. And that's going to be tough in this field.
THE PACK: Saskatchewan, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia
Saskatchewan's Joel Jordison has been a competitive cashspieler and will make some waves in his first Brier. Quebec's Jean-Michel Ménard won it all in 2006, but it would take an upset of even greater magnitude than that one to win in 2009. New Brunswick's Russ Howard, curling with his son, Steven, is still good enough to win some games on his own, but it's questionable whether he has the horses to go deep. Nova Scotia's Mark Dacey won the Brier in 2004, but has been unable to replicate that success since.
THE ALSO-RANS: B.C., Yukon/N.W.T., P.E.I., Northern Ontario
B.C.'s Sean Geall has a 2000 world champion on his team in third Brent Pierce, but that's only going to take him so far. Yukon/N.W.T.'s Jamie Koe is legitimate and will do better than most northern teams, but that's not saying much. Northern Ontario's Mike Jakubo and P.E.I.'s Rod Macdonald will battle for the basement.
PREDICTION: I correctly picked Jennifer Jones at the Scotties and I'm going with the favourite again. Alberta 8 Ontario 5.