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New leading man

Carruthers, Nichols switch roles in Stoughton's Brier drama

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Jeff Stoughton, Jon Mead, Reid Carruthers and Mark Nichols at the Safeway  Manitoba men's curling championship, which they won early this month.

JOHN WOODS / FREE PRESS FILE Enlarge Image

Jeff Stoughton, Jon Mead, Reid Carruthers and Mark Nichols at the Safeway Manitoba men's curling championship, which they won early this month.

Just about everything that could happen in Canadian curling has already happened in Canadian curling.

So undoubtedly, somewhere along the way in the 85-year history of the Brier, some skip has surely already done what Winnipeg's Jeff Stoughton will do this morning at the Interior Savings Centre in Kamloops, B.C. -- unveil a new team, or at least a newly configured one, for the very first time at the Brier.

If it's happened before, it has been very, very rare. And for obvious reasons -- if your team is playing at the Brier, that means you have just finished winning the provincials a few weeks earlier. And if you've just won your provincials, why would you want to fix something that isn't broken?

Yet that is what Stoughton has done since going undefeated at the MTS Iceplex earlier this month to win his 11th Manitoba men's curling championship -- switching his front-end positions so longtime second (and a 2011 world champion at the position) Reid Carruthers is playing lead for the first time since juniors and former lead Mark Nichols is now playing second.

Stoughton announced the changes a couple weeks ago and the team has been quietly practising at their new positions.

The transition has had its bumps -- and its humour, judging by a tweet Nichols sent from his personal account earlier this week.

"Been practising this second thing the past few weeks. Need some help," Nichols tweeted. "What does 'Nice' weight mean? #Stoughtytalk #curling #brier."

Newly minted Olympic gold medallist and former Stoughton third Ryan Fry quickly tweeted back at Nichols. "If you make the shot," Fry explained, "it's the right weight. You miss -- your fault for throwing the wrong weight #stoughtyworld #killit."

The curling world will get its first glimpse of the new Stoughton team this morning in Kamloops when they take to the ice for a pre-Brier practice session and individual skills competition.

Ready or not, here they come, and the new configuration will be tested early. After opening against P.E.I.'s Eddie MacKenzie Saturday afternoon, Stoughton and company will play 2006 Olympic gold medallist Brad Gushue of Newfoundland Saturday night.

Nichols played third for Gushue on that Torino team, and it's the skill set and remarkable hitting ability he showed in Italy that Stoughton is hoping will make him better suited to the second position than lead, where most of Nichols' shots since joining the Stoughton team in 2012 have been draws.

Conversely, Carruthers is a former skip, which the team hopes will make him better suited to all those draws that leads throw.

Stoughton says he's hoping the move will translate into a "couple of extra percentage points" at the Brier, a slim margin, but big enough that it could be the difference between winning and losing over the next week in Kamloops.

While the move seems to make sense on paper, it is much harder to understand why it is taking place so late in the team's second season together -- and so soon after they were literally unbeatable in taking yet another Manitoba crown.

The men in the middle say they understand the public's confusion -- and they understand this could all blow up in their faces.

"Yeah, there's always that possibility," Nichols said with a laugh this week. "But you also can't keep doing the same thing and expect different results. There was definitely room for improvement."

Not much room, however. In their first year together as a team, the Stoughton foursome made it all the way to the final of the 2013 Brier before losing to the same Brad Jacobs team that just won Olympic gold in Sochi last week. And Nichols and Carruthers both finished third in shooting percentage at their position at last year's Brier, suggesting they were doing a lot more good than harm at their previous positions.

But after a disappointing performance at December's Roar of the Rings, Nichols thinks the position switch is logical right now. "It's probably not something other teams have done before, but at the end of the day, if we're trying to get the most out of our team, then let's exploit everyone's strengths."

The loser in this -- at least on paper -- would appear to be Carruthers, whose move up the lineup many will see as a demotion of sorts. No one would blame Carruthers if he was bitter about it, particularly since he won a world championship just three years ago as a Stoughton second.

But Carruthers insists -- and he seems genuine in his insistence -- he has no problem with the move and is looking forward to the unique challenge of playing a brand-new position in the most high-profile event on the curling calendar.

"I'm getting the same paycheque -- or lack thereof," Carruthers joked. "And it's a new opportunity. I'm a front-ender, and being a front-ender is about getting the job done. Mark brings a pretty unique skill set in that he's an amazing hitter and I feel like I'm a pretty good drawer back to my skipping days.

"So I've been practising my tick shots and my guards and I really am excited about it... I don't see it as a demotion at all. Being a lead is a very important job -- just look what Dawn McEwen did for the Jennifer Jones team at the Olympics. They were set up every end because of her."

Carruthers insists there's no swallowing of pride here, if only because there's no pride to swallow when you make a living pounding rocks on the front end of a curling team.

"It'd be one thing if I was a skip and someone else was taking charge of the team," Carruthers said. "But I'm a front-ender, where it's just about completing my task and then helping the other guys be the best they can at making their shots.

"I know I can do that, so it's just a matter of digging out another skill set that I possess."

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2014 C7

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