Three times now Mike McEwen has led his rink to the provincial curling final, and three times they have fallen just one game short of a ticket to the Brier.
So it goes in a province that produces so many champions. There is always a titan to take down, if one wants to join the Brier club.
Stoughton, there is always Jeff Stoughton, who twice knocked McEwen out in the final, and in the semifinal last year. In 2012, the obstacle was Brandon skip Rob Fowler, who claimed the Manitoba jacket. So now, coming into the Safeway Championship as second seed -- Stoughton is ranked above, Fowler just below -- the McEwen team is hungry. "We're starving right now, I guess," McEwen said, at a press conference on Friday. "There's a lot of commitment and desire to win this."
The door is always open for a new champion, though it takes a little luck as well as work: Earlier this month, Manitoba crowned a new women's champion, when Chelsea Carey surged out of a provincial Scotties that was without Jennifer Jones. Jones is headed to Sochi, of course, where McEwen will fly out just three days after the Safeway Championship to watch his wife, Jones lead Dawn McEwen, throw for gold.
But whether McEwen, third B.J. Neufeld, second Matt Wozniak and lead Denni Neufeld -- or a dark horse team, perhaps -- can author a similar first-timer story next week, well, time will tell.
"I don't see why not," McEwen said, and smiled. "I've probably said that most years. But I feel really good with collectively what we've done in the last few weeks... I think we all feel really good about our chances."
Chances, everyone has chances. The 2014 Safeway Championship seeds, unveiled on Friday, shook out how any Manitoba curling fan would've guessed, with Stoughton, McEwen and Fowler sitting one-two-three above the rest, Sean Grassie coming in fourth and William Lyburn as the fifth seed. But 32 teams will vie to wear Manitoba's jacket, and Stoughton third Jon Mead has seen enough surprises in his curling career, he's come to expect it.
Really, that's one argument in favour of keeping the championship's big 32-team, double-knockout spread: There's always someone pushing their way up. "Every year, you get a team out of that bottom 24 that gets going, makes the playoffs and gets close," Mead said. "I don't know who it's going to be this week, but there will be somebody in the top eight you didn't expect to be there."
This is the first time the MTS Iceplex has hosted a major curling event, and also the first time in memory Curl Manitoba has worked with a privately owned arena to host its premier men's curling event. It's been almost 20 years since the men's provincials were held in Winnipeg due to a lack of suitable venues. So organizers are anxious to pack the Iceplex's 1,300 seats, and the restaurant overlooking the rink, and show that curling works.
"This is a venue that can host Grand Slams, it can host future curling events," said championship chairman Resby Coutts.
"But this is a trial run. The response to this run will determine whether these folks want to do it again. If they see there's an incentive to do curling, they're going to build it into their business model. And if there isn't, it'll be a challenge to find a curling venue in Winnipeg again for more years."
To help bring in the crowds, Curl Manitoba also announced its single-draw ticket prices on Friday, with a plus for parents of young fans: Kids age 15 or younger can get in to every draw for $5.
For adults, the first two draws of each weekday are $10, while the second two draws are $20. The weekend draw tickets will also go for $20.
There is also a brand-new award this year, named for longtime Manitoba curling competitor Pat Spiring, who died of cancer in 2011. During the Safeway Championship, competing curlers will be asked to vote for one of their own who best represents the curling skill, competitive spirit and respect for the sport that Spiring held so dear. The award will be handed out during the championship final weekend.