Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Give the man some R-E-S-P-E-C-T

He beat the best, but Brier betting isn't on Brandon's Fowler

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SASKATOON -- They eliminated Jeff Stoughton, the defending world champion, in a sudden-death playoff game.

Then they knocked off Mike McEwen, the No. 1-ranked team on the planet, in the final of the Manitoba men's curling championship last month in Dauphin.

So you could argue that Brandon's Rob Fowler already beat the two toughest opponents he will face this winter long before he arrived here this week for today's start of the 2012 Tim Hortons Brier.

Why, then, is no one -- at least not among the pundits -- giving Fowler any chance to win it all here in the Brier final next Sunday?

Yes, Glenn Howard's Ontario foursome is quite a juggernaut, but they are ranked second in the world this winter behind McEwen. And yes, Alberta's Kevin Koe is the 2010 world champion, only one year removed from the 2011 world title Stoughton won.

So again, how come Fowler can't get any respect?

"It's a role we're very familiar with, for sure," Fowler smiled Friday afternoon after getting his first look at the ice Gimli's Hans Wuthrich has installed at Credit Union Place.

"Of course, there were two heavy favourites at our provincials too, and we proved that with our best game, we can be there at the end.

"And I think we'll take the same approach this week. We obviously need to get off to a strong start and make it to the second weekend, and then we'll see what happens from there."

Fowler's right about the need for a strong start. Manitoba plays on four of the first five Brier draws this weekend. Fowler takes on Quebec's Robert Desjardins on the opening draw this afternoon (TSN's feature game at 1:30 p.m.) and then New Brunswick's Terry Odishaw tonight.

On Sunday, Manitoba gets its first tough test against Newfoundland's Brad Gushue in the morning draw, then returns to the ice Sunday night against P.E.I.'s Mike Gaudet.

Put it all together and Fowler will want to be at least 3-1 after opening weekend if he's planning on making a playoff push.

Although he's never skipped a team at the Brier before, Fowler has skipped on the elite Grand Slam circuit and is well- regarded by his competitors. "I think they're one of the favourites here," Koe said. "They're a really good team."

Fowler also has all kinds of other Brier experience, having played second for Stoughton at three previous Briers and losing the 2009 final to Alberta's Kevin Martin.

Manitoba second Richard Daneault also has Brier experience as second for Kerry Burtnyk at the 2008 Brier. But third Allan Lyburn and lead Derek Samagalski are Brier rookies and their reaction here during the next week is the one big unknown.

"The big crowds will be the one big thing that will be different for me," Lyburn said. "But I'm a pretty laid-back guy, and I think if we can get off to a good start, it should be a good week."

On the surface, it wasn't much of a start for Manitoba Friday, as all four team members missed today's playoff round in the pre-event individual skills competition. But with so much curling to do over the next two days, Fowler said he was quite content that his team doesn't have to do any extra curling on top of it.

Here's how I break down the field this week:

The Favourite -- Ontario's Glenn Howard (2-1)

There are two things you need to know about Howard.

First, you should bet on him to make the Brier final. In 13 lifetime appearances at the Brier, he has played in the final an astonishing 10 times.

Second, you should bet against him to win it. Howard has won just three of those 10 Brier finals -- and his winning percentage has been even more anemic in recent years, with one win and four seconds in the past six years.

The Next One -- Alberta's Kevin Koe (3-1)

One of those Brier finals that Howard lost was the 2010 edition, when Koe upset him in an extra end after Howard went a perfect 12-0 through the week only to lose his only game in the final.

Koe went on to win the world championship that year, establishing that provincial rival Kevin Martin -- who didn't take part in the Alberta provincials that year because he represented Canada at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver -- isn't the only elite men's team in Alberta. And Koe staked his claim even further last month when he won his second Alberta men's title, this time in an event where Martin did compete.

The Dark Horses (8-1) -- Manitoba's Rob Fowler, Northern Ontario's Brad Jacobs

No one took Fowler seriously in a Manitoba provincials that was supposed to be the Jeff Stoughton and Mike McEwen show. No one took him seriously when he eliminated Stoughton in the 2 vs. 2 game. No one took him seriously when he won the semifinal over Willie Lyburn.

Even after beating McEwen in the final, no one took him seriously.

 

Next weekend, one of two things is going to happen: The Fowler doubters are going to finally be proven right, or Rob Fowler's going to win a Brier.

Jacobs has already won. Just by showing up here this weekend, his team -- who are ferocious gym rats and sport the kind of physiques more common in a football locker-room than in a curling dressing room -- are the buffest team in the field.

But these fellows are more than the sum of their six-packs. Folks forget that three-quarters of this team -- only the lead, Scott Seabrook, is new -- went 8-3 in the 2010 Brier round-robin and looked like they might challenge on Sunday, only to promptly go bang-bang in the 1-2 game and semi-final.

And they got off to a good start on Friday, with both third E.J. Harnden and second Ryan Harnden advancing to the quarter-finals of the pre-event individual skills competition.

The Gold Medallist (10-1) -- Newfoundland's Brad Gushue

Gushue won the biggest bonspiel of them all in 2006, taking down Olympic gold in Torino.

But what he's never won, despite eight previous trips, is the Brier, and you'd be hard-pressed to make a case that this is the team that puts him over the top in his ninth attempt.

He's got a brand-new front end this winter in lead Geoff Walker (a 2006 world junior champion curling out of Alberta) and second Adam Casey (a Canadian junior champion in 2009 curling out of P.E.I.). And he no longer has Mark Nicholls with him at third after Nicholls, one of the game's premier players, decided to step aside after last season.

Winnipeg native Ryan Fry, who's been second for Gushue at the last three Briers, moves up to third, a position he also played at the 2007 Brier with Manitoba's Stoughton.

The Long Shots (25-1) -- Northwest Territories/Yukon's Jamie Koe, B.C.'s Jim Cotter

There are some folks who think Koe is a better curler than his world-champion brother Kevin from Alberta, but has simply not had the same opportunities because he lives in the North. The whole team has lots of national experience and are better than we've come to expect from the northern entries at this event.

Three-quarters of this Cotter team also curled at last year's Brier -- and finished 4-7. They should only improve on that, but it's still a steep climb from there to playoffs.

The Local Favourites (30-1) -- Saskatchewan's Scott Manners

If you've never heard of Manners, you're not the only one. The Regina Leader-Post is curling's bible in this province, and the very first time Manners appeared in those venerable pages was last month, when he came out of nowhere to defeat former Saskatchewan men's champion Bruce Korte in the final.

That's not good. And the support of the locals here during the next eight days could cut both ways for the rookie skip -- giving him a much-needed psychological boost or just adding to what will already be an unprecedented amount of pressure.

Also-rans (40-1) -- New Brunswick's Terry Odishaw, Prince Edward Island's Mike Gaudet, Quebec's Robert Desjardins, Nova Scotia's Jamie Murphy

Prediction: The easy pick for the final would be a replay of the 2010 Brier final between Alberta's Koe and Ontario's Howard. But things rarely unfold entirely according to form at the Brier, and I don't think this year is any different.

Howard 8 Fowler 3

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 3, 2012 C1

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