KAMLOOPS, B.C. -- Of all the truly remarkable things Jeff Stoughton has done in curling over the years -- his three Briers, his two worlds, his record 11 Manitoba men's titles -- he may yet write the most remarkable chapter of all here in the Thompson Valley over the next eight days.
In a province where retired Canadians go to die, the 50-year-old Stoughton has a chance -- a really good chance -- over the next week to prove his curling career is still very much alive with what would be his fourth Brier title should he win next Sunday.
You know who else has skipped four Brier champions? Randy Ferbey, Ernie Richardson and Kevin Martin. Three Canadian curling legends -- and that's it. And Ferbey was still a relatively youthful 45 when he won his last Brier, while Martin was 42 and Richardson was just 31.
It is a monument to the eternal fountain of youth that is Winnipeg's Stoughton that he is widely considered the heavy favourite to once again win this year's Brier despite having now hit an age at which he could be curling seniors if he chose to do so.
Now, there have been older skips to win the Brier -- Dauphin's Ab Gowanlock is the oldest to ever skip a Brier champion, winning his second title in 1953 at age 53. But what's most remarkable about Stoughton right now is that there is compelling evidence to suggest that he is actually curling better these last few years then he ever has.
Consider: Stoughton has played in two of the last three Brier finals, winning in 2011 en route to his second world championship and losing last year to Brad Jacobs, who went on to win gold in Sochi last week.
So how can that be? How can a guy who has already authored a hall of fame career curling on the national stage in four different decades actually be getting better?
Because, silly, Jeff Stoughton doesn't age like the rest of us.
"You'd never know he was 50 -- not by looking at him, not by talking to him. There's not a single thing about him that is what you think of when you think of 50," longtime teammate Jon Mead said Friday as Team Manitoba got its first look at the Interior Savings Centre in advance of this afternoon's opening draw of the 2014 Tim Hortons Brier.
"It's a testament to how he lives and how much he cares about things like this. He has good habits and he works hard. He doesn't drink, he goes to bed at a good time, he eats relatively well. You get out of life what you put into it and he does more than most in that regard. That's why he's such a young 50.
"Plus, when there's one thing in the world that you're really good at -- and that's curling for Jeff -- you have to keep doing it. Otherwise, I don't know what he'd do with himself."
There have been, of course, disappointments along the way for Stoughton. A loss in the 2005 Canadian Curling Trials to Brad Gushue on a last-rock measure still stings. And so too does a poor 3-4 performance earlier this winter at the Roar of the Rings at MTS Centre, an event that seemed to set up perfectly for Stoughton to finally fill the one and only hole remaining on his curling resume -- representing Canada at the Winter Olympics.
But instead of throwing in the towel this winter after squandering what, by his own admission, was almost certainly his last chance to become an Olympian, Stoughton has only dug deeper. In a field full of teams on their way to Sochi at January's Continental Cup of Curling in Las Vegas, Stoughton was, by far, the single best curler on the ice -- and the undisputed fan favourite.
And then he followed up that performance with an undefeated 7-0 run at the Manitoba provincials last month to get his team back to the national stage this week.
He says this one feels special: Because of the way his team responded to the disappointment at the MTS Centre; because for the first time this year's Brier champion, due to a format change, gets an automatic berth into next year's Brier as Team Canada; and, yes, because he's 50, for goodness sake.
"It's just another number, yeah, but it's a special number," says Stoughton. "And at 50, you know, it's hard not to think that it's getting close to the time where I'm going to have to say, 'That's enough.' But it's hard -- really hard -- to give it up when you're still competing at the top level with all these guys.
"And that's the bottom line -- I'm a fierce competitor. And as long as we're still winning, I want to keep on competing."
And when that day comes that he decides to walk away? Stoughton says he has one more treat in store for Manitoba curling fans -- he has promised longtime former lead Steve Gould that he will curl one year of seniors with him. And it will be a Stoughton like we've never before seen him.
"I promised Steve a long time ago," Stoughton says, "that I would play lead for him for a year when we were both seniors."
You have to love the symmetry of that idea -- a guy who's led the nation in playing last ends it all by leading first.
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