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Master can still school pupil

Stoughton takes down Gunnlaugson at trials

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EDMONTON -- Side by side they stood, now competitors, now peers, now chasing the same Olympic dream.

Funny thing is, it was round about 12 to 13 years ago, circa 1996, when one was the master, the other the bug-eyed pupil eager to soak up as much knowledge as he possibly could.

It would have made for an interesting snapshot, then, to see Jeff Stoughton and Jason Gunnlaugson shoulder to shoulder at the Canadian Olympic Curling Trials at Rexall Place Wednesday afternoon, given the road the two have travelled to get to this point.

After all Gunnlaugson, some 21 years Stoughton's junior, idolized his opponent from the first moment he stepped into the hack himself.

"I knew him before he even started to curl," Stoughton recalled, just after an 8-4 victory that helped keep his playoff hopes alive at the Roar of the Rings Olympic Trials. "His dad (Darryl) curled with me in '94-95 and his uncle Gary (Vandenberghe) curled with me for 15 years and won a world championship.

"And I don't know how old he was then, but he came out and spared with us at the Charleswood Curling Club when he was probably 10 or 12 years old.

"He just loved the game right from the get-go and just loved being around the rink and being around his dad. He's got a good pedigree with his grandfather (Lloyd Gunnlaugson), who won multiple senior Canadian championships.

"It's kinda neat that he's grown up around us and it's an honour that he says he watched us and wanted to emulate us. That's pretty special."

Gunnlaugson remembers sparing for one of his curling idols, although don't ask him to try to remember when it all started -- "Oh, God, you're not going to get me to do the math on this, are you?" But one of his most vivid early memories was from an event dubbed The Battle of the Champions, featuring Stoughton and Kerry Burtnyk back in '97 after the two had won back-to-back world championships.

"They played off and there were a bunch of junior curlers who played in the first half of the game, played two and two with them (two juniors, two from the Stoughton/Burtnyk squads), and then in the second half of the game, the teams went at it," Gunnlaugson recalled.

"We have some old videos of that. We might have to get that up there... Jeff with some long hair and having a good time."

Ah yes, they can kid about it now as rivals -- even if Stoughton's resumé is stacked with considerably more accomplishments right now.

But it wasn't too long ago when Gunnlaugson was doing the kung fu thing with Stoughton ("'When you can take the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave") and graduated from pupil to peer.

The rookie skip has now met Stoughton five times this season, with the master holding a 3-2 advantage after the win Wednesday. Their long kinship was small consolation for the young skip in the immediate aftermath of the loss, but it didn't take much prodding to bring out his respect for Stoughton's crew, either.

"I've just always been close to that team and learned just a ton from them," Gunnlaugson said. "I can remember getting to play in the club with them once in awhile as a spare because I lived just five minutes away. I'd just hop down and play with them.

"I've just always been really close to that team and have emulated a lot of the stuff we do now after them. It's fun to play them in a big event... not so fun to play like we did today, though."


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 10, 2009 C4

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