DAUPHIN -- Jeff Stoughton is the defending world men's curling champion and a record nine-time Manitoba men's champion.
Stoughton has won everything there is to win in curling, with the lone exception of an Olympic medal.
And there's a good chance when he finally does retire, Stoughton's Manitoba curling records will join the ranks of other unbreakable sports records like Billy Mosienko's 21-second hat trick and Joe Dimaggio's 56-game hitting streak.
Indeed, it is precisely because he has won the Manitoba men's title so often -- and with such efficiency -- that Stoughton is, once again, the top seed at the Safeway Championship that begins here this morning and crowns a winner Sunday.
And yet there was Stoughton following practice at Credit Union Place Tuesday afternoon talking about how nothing -- nothing -- gets him chewing his nails like playing in the provincials.
"I'm more nervous playing in this thing than anything else," Stoughton said. "I'm not nervous playing in tour games or skins games or Canada Cup or Continental Cup or anything else.
"This is the event that gets me the most nervous. Because this is the event that means the most to me. It's a chance to represent your province at the Brier and a chance to maybe get to another world championship.
"And that's probably why it brings out our best. Because that's what it takes to bring out your best; you've got to be nervous and excited about it and really want it."
Of course, if that's all it took -- nerves, excitement and desire -- then Stoughton's principal rival in Manitoba the past few years wouldn't still be looking for his first Manitoba men's title.
"We've all been dreaming about this since we were kids," Winnipeg skip Mike McEwen said here Tuesday. "It's a big validation for us. We have this great ranking in the world of curling, but at the end of the day, a lot of fans don't know us."
And the reason for that is despite McEwen's No. 1 ranking on the cash tour the past two winters, he has proven unable to beat Stoughton in the provincials, losing the last two Manitoba men's finals -- and the national stage at the Brier that goes to the winner -- to Stoughton.
McEwen says those same nerves that Stoughton seems to thrive on have been his team's undoing at the provincials, and particularly last year.
"We were tight last year," McEwen reflected. "It became pretty evident early on that we were a team leaking oil through that whole event."
So in response, McEwen says his team this year has worked even harder, practised even more and enlisted the help of a sports psychologist in a bid to get over the Stoughton hump.
"Hopefully we can overcome his advantage by doing some other things," McEwen says.
"And we'd love nothing more than to make our Brier debut as one of the favourites. We'd love to get validation this weekend for all that hard work. I don't want to lose any more finals. Not for a while, anyway."
Here's how I see the field breaking down this week:
-- THE FAVOURITES (3-2) -- JEFF STOUGHTON, MIKE MCEWEN
Stoughton is the defending world champion and is attempting this week to win his sixth Manitoba men's title in seven years and 10th overall. He loves this event and has owned it like no other man before him. Plus, he's been almost unbeatable when he makes the final, winning nine of the ten Manitoba men's finals he has played in over the years.
But he comes into the week off a very average performance this winter on the men's cash tour and his fellow competitors say the skip and his team -- third Jon Mead, second Reid Carruthers and lead Steve Gould -- have been something less than sharp and have even appeared disinterested at times.
McEwen, on the other hand, owned the cash tour this winter, racking up $119,969 -- over $40,000 more than the second-place team on the money list, Ontario's Glenn Howard, and almost triple Stoughton's $43,008.
But it don't mean a thing if you can't win this thing and McEwen knows it. Stoughton denied him in the final each of the last two years and the big question coming into this week is whether McEwen has learned from those experiences or will continue to be haunted by them.
-- THE DARK HORSE (10-1) -- JASON GUNNLAUGSON
When last we heard from Gunnlaugson, he was a bit of a laughingstock after what proved to be a brief, bizarre and ultimately disastrous attempt to represent Russia at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
But this flame-thrower can still curl and he's looked great this winter since hooking up with the Bohn twins -- David and Dennis -- midway through the season on the recommendation of his former teammate, current Jeff Stoughton second Carruthers.
The Bohns lost the 2008 provincial final to Kerry Burtnyk, while Gunnlaugson and Carruthers lost the 2006 final to Stoughton.
Put those three together on this team, throw in an experienced lead in Andrew Irving, and you just might have something here.
-- THE OTHER ONES (12-1) -- TERRY MCNAMEE, ROB FOWLER
McNamee was the all-star skip at this event last year, carrying his team all the way to the 1 vs. 1 game before they finally went bang-bang in successive losses to the eventual finalists, Stoughton andMcEwen
Fowler is a three-time Manitoba men's champion as the former second for Stoughton and had an impressive run going at last year's provincials until he lost a pair of qualifying games, including one in which a junior-calibre piece of strategy late in the game sent him packing. He won't make that mistake again.
-- THE SENTIMENTAL FAVOURITE (15-1) -- VIC PETERS
His team could finish last on the ice this week, but Peters will still be first in everyone's hearts.
The three-time Manitoba and former Brier champion has been battling cancer since last summer and only recently completed another round of radiation therapy. But he's a warrior and with a talented team in vice-skip Daley Peters, second Brendan Taylor and lead Kyle Werenich, Peters proved at this event last year he can still curl with the very best of them, taking McEwen to an extra end in the 3 vs. 4 game in Beausejour.
-- THE OTHER ONES (20-1) -- DAVE ELIAS, WILLIE LYBURN, SEAN GRASSIE, DEAN DUNSTONE
Elias won Manitoba titles with Mark Lukowich in 2002 and Randy Dutiaume in 2005, suggesting he can win when people least expect it. Lyburn has had a good run on the cash tour and is highly regarded by the elite curlers who ply that trade every weekend. Grassie is a former Canadian mixed champion who comes into this week off an appearance in the final of the MCA Bonspiel last month. Dunstone is a former provincial men's finalist who has 1996 world champion Ken Tresoor as his third and always seems to make waves at this event.
-- THE PACK (50-1) -- CARL GERMAN, TREVOR LORETH, DAVE JOHNSON, ROB VAN KOMMER, SCOTT RAMSAY, KELLY SKINNER, KELLY ROBERTSON, DAVID HAMBLIN
German's a former Canadian Seniors champ, Hamblin is a former world junior champ and the rest have either made waves at this event in the past or have something else going for them that slightly sets them apart from the next category.
-- THE ALSO-RANS (100-1) -- DEAN NORTH, RICHARD MUNTAIN, ROB ATKINS, MURRAY WOODWARD, JARED KOLOMAYA, GLEN TOEWS, RAE KUJANPAA, RAE HAINSTOCK, BRAD HYRICH, JIM COLEMAN, KYLE FOSTER, JERRY CHUDLEY, CURTIS MCCANNELL, BRUCE JONES
When people talk about trimming the number of teams at the Safeway Championship from 32 teams to 16 or even less, it's these sorts of teams that would most likely end up on the chopping block.
-- PREDICTION -- My years covering horse racing for this newspaper taught me past performance is the most reliable indicator of future performance. And if that's the gauge, there's absolutely no reason to expect anything other than yet another provincial final between Stoughton and McEwen.
So the real question, then, isn't who will be in Sunday's final, but rather who will win it. Stoughton has beaten McEwen in each of the last two provincial finals and the latter is in danger of being labelled as what racing types call a 'hanger' -- a thoroughbred who has plenty of second-place finishes but cannot seem to find that little extra to get up for first.
The thing about past performance sheets, however, is that even the finest horses begin to regress at some point -- and that's precisely what I see in Stoughton's middling cash tour this year.
McEwen, on the other hand, seems to have gotten only stronger in the past season and I think he has matured and learned important lessons from the debacles of the last two provincials.
Sooner or later, someone is going to dethrone Stoughton. I say that time has finally come. McEwen 7 Stoughton 5.