PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE -- In the pub above the Portage Curling Club ice, a pair of old curling hands looked down at the trim figures sweeping the sheets and laughed.
"Lot of curlers working out these days," one said. "In my day, the only thing we worked out was the beer."
Perhaps Manitoban skip Mike McEwen could empathize with that, except that he's one of those curlers who hit the gym something fierce this summer. He sort of had to: at 33, McEwen is a model now, featured in nary but his skivvies on the cover of the new Men of Curling 2014 calendar.
He still blushes a little when asked about it, so no surprise he was hesitant when The Curling News first approached him in June to be among the 12 athletes featured in the charity effort. But one by one, he saw other guys signing on to pose -- from Canadian champion Brad Jacobs to Olympic silver medalist Thomas Ulsrud, the models are a men's curling who's who -- and peer pressure kicked in.
Besides, curling season was coming up, and McEwen is freshly married to fellow star curler Dawn McEwen, nee Askin, so there were other reasons to get into prime shape.
"I figured, OK, I got a month with a personal trainer," McEwen said, after winning his first match of the Prairie Classic on Friday. "Anything I do in curling, I want to do it well. So I worked my butt off for 30 days."
Not just the "beach muscles," he added -- though he quipped that might have been his preference -- but also core and arms and legs.
The result is a taut and killer shot, taken over an hour-long session in Winnipeg, of McEwen poised on concrete blocks in a mimicry of rock delivery. It's striking, it's fun, it's kinda sexy -- the sort of image to which men's curling, er, hasn't always laid claim.
But that's the direction it's moving, these days: a little younger, a little sleeker.
"The Olympics has done that to our sport," McEwen said. "We're all realizing that the difference between winning is so small, and we're all kind of looking for that little extra bit to define ourselves against the opposition... I think guys never realized how tired they get by the end of the week. We realize it now."
Whatever it takes to win, to be ready to make that perfect shot. McEwen had to make one of those in his first Prairie Classic draw on Friday afternoon, when a crowd of yellow rocks left by Thunder Bay's Brian Adams Jr. threatened to force extra ends. But in the eighth, McEwen took the hammer and nailed it in. Two points to breathe a little easier, two points for the handshakes and the win.
It was a curious one, that match between Team McEwen -- which includes third B.J. Neufeld, second Matt Wozniak and lead Denni Neufeld -- and Thunder Bay's Team Adams Jr. The Winnipeg squad had a 5-2 lead going into the sixth end, but stumbled into trouble then, and were down 6-5 going into the final frame. At any rate, when the game was on the line, McEwen pushed off the hack, made the shot, and claimed a pair of points to win 7-6.
"Seeing as we kind of blew the last couple ends there to let them back in it, it was nice just to have a shot to win," McEwen said, heading for a rest before facing fellow Manitoban skip Sean Grassie's team on Friday night. "We were a bit fortunate. He wasn't far off from making it, so it was nice to have the chance."
Oh, and for those who want a chance to check out McEwen and other top skips in the Men of Curling 2014 calendar, they're selling copies at the Prairie Classic, or online at MenOfCurling.com. Proceeds go to a variety of charities, depending on where the calendar is bought, including curling facilities.