PORTAGE la PRAIRIE -- After a perfect run, a rock-solid plan and a little bit of luck, Mike McEwen can call himself Prairie Classic champ again.
On Monday night, the Winnipeg skip and his team -- third B.J. Neufeld, second Matt Wozniak and lead Denni Neufeld -- triumphed over Ontario curling statesman Glenn Howard and his rink, turning in a convincing 6-2 win at Portage Curling Club to claim the Canad Inns Prairie Classic crown. It's the third time McEwen has earned the title in the last four years, a streak broken only by Alberta's Kevin Koe last year.
The win capped off Team McEwen's unbeaten run through the four-day tournament, which included a Sunday morning quarter-final victory over fellow elite 'Peggers Team Jeff Stoughton.
"I guess we've just been thriving at this spiel and under these conditions, so it feels pretty good to play well," McEwen said, after accepting the trophy.
The game was from the start a battle of worthy champions, of two elite teams that know each other all too well. See, Howard wrested the Players Championship from McEwen back in April, and beat the Manitoban rink again in the ultimate match of the StuSells Toronto Tankard just a week ago.
So after securing his ticket to the Prairie Classic final with a wacky win over rising Saskatchewan skip Brock Virtue on Monday afternoon McEwen quipped his team was due to deal out a little payback.
In the end, he got it, though at first the final game looked to play out tight. McEwen opened the scoring in the first end with a single point. Howard blanked the second, then collected two in the third to leapfrog ahead. Team McEwen replied with a deuce of their own in the fourth to take a 3-2 lead, then watched as Howard used his final rock in the fifth to wipe the house clean and carry the hammer into the next end.
But in the sixth frame, everything changed. McEwen and his team filled up the house, laying three yellow rocks on the inside of a lonely blue stone, then threw up a wall of guards to choke off Howard's options. With few shots and no open lanes, Howard looked to throw a tricky draw around traffic to try and take the single point. But the shot came in light, and slowed to halt before the button.
With that miss, the McEwen rink stole three, good enough to grab a 6-2 lead with only two frames left to play. But those ends weren't needed: in the seventh, when Howard knew he was out of rocks to win, the skip offered McEwen his hand. Hey, they had to fall to the Manitobans sooner or later, right?
"They're a great team, and we always have some great battles against Mike," Howard said, still smiling in the wake of the loss.
"It was a terrific game up until the sixth end... We had a horrible end from the get go. It just didn't pan out very well. But those things happen. No worries, we're really pleased with the way the boys played all weekend, and we're pleased with the results."
With the win, Team McEwen became the first rink to have their names inscribed on the graceful new David Elias trophy, named after the Winnipeg curler and Prairie Classic veteran who died earlier this year. The silver trophy, which will stay in residence at Portage Curling Club, was presented to Team McEwen by Elias's father Art, wife Sue, daughter Mackenzie and son Nicholas.
McEwen didn't know Elias well, though he definitely remembers the late curler's feisty on-ice disposition and friendly post-game demeanour. But perhaps it's fitting that the first trophy winner was a homegrown rink. The tournament capped off a big preparation test for the top Canadian curlers in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics. Of the teams in the playoff berths, only Brock Virtue's team won't be at either the Olympic pre-trials next month or the Roar of the Rings Olympic trials at the MTS Centre in December. With so many of the country's top curlers at the Prairie Classic, it was a prime chance to build some possible Olympic momentum.
"Anytime you win anything, it definitely gives you confidence, and beating any of the trials teams gives you a little bit of a boost," said McEwen, who will battle for an Olympic shot at the Roar of the Rings. "At the same time, maybe you put a question mark into your opposition. As many wins as you can against these teams leading into the trials, it's not going to hurt."