KAMLOOPS, B.C. -- The 85th renewal of the Canadian men's curling championship begins this afternoon at the Interior Savings Centre.
Free Press curling writer Paul Wiecek handicaps the field:
The Favourite (Manitoba -- 2-1)
Winnipeg's Jeff Stoughton returns to the same building in which he defeated Alberta's Kevin Martin in the 1996 final to win his first of three Brier titles.
There will be no Martin at the Brier this time, however. Or Glenn Howard out of Ontario, for that matter. And those two conspicuous absences should make Stoughton's path to a fourth Brier title considerably smoother.
Stoughton has played in two of the last three Brier finals, winning the 2011edition en route to his second world championship and losing last year's finale to the same Brad Jacobs foursome that won gold in Sochi last week.
It's hard to envision a path where Stoughton isn't one of the two teams still standing next Sunday night, although the uncertainty brought on by a newly configured front end that has seen Mark Nichols and Reid Carruthers swap positions does introduce an unknown.
The Other Ones (B.C., Alberta -- 4-1)
B.C.'s John Morris comes into this week off a surprising appearance in the final of December's Roar of the Rings, where he was denied a second straight trip to the Winter Olympics with a loss to Jacobs. Plus, Morris vice-skip Jim Cotter is from Kamloops and the team should have whatever home advantage there will be at Interior Savings Centre this week. Alberta's Kevin Koe -- the 2010 world champion -- beat Martin in the Alberta final last month, which is no small feat and suggests that whatever was ailing the Koe team in posting a 2-5 record at the Roar of the Rings at the MTS Centre in December is now behind them.
The Pack (Ontario, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland, Quebec -- 6-1)
Ontario's Greg Balsdon defeated perennial Ontario representative Glenn Howard on a 10th-end steal in the provincial final when, depending on who you ask, Howard's last rock picked up some debris (according to Howard) or Howard simply came up light (according to everyone else). Whatever the case, Balsdon, who's well known on the cash spiel circuit but making his rookie appearance at the Brier, will have his national coming-out party here this week.
Saskatchewan's Steve Laycock is making his fourth appearance at the Brier, but his first since 2011 and his first ever as a skip. He's got some chops -- he's a 2003 world junior champion -- but it's been 34 years and counting since a Saskatchewan team last won the Brier and that's a whole lot of history to overcome.
Newfoundland's Brad Gushue was the 2006 Olympic gold medallist in curling and he has both the privilege of curling in Newfoundland -- he's making his 11th Brier appearance at the age of 33 -- and the curse of curling in Newfoundland -- he is effectively the only elite curler in the province and has yet to win in 10 previous Brier trips.
Quebec's Jean-Michel Menard is playing in his ninth Brier -- and second in a row -- and earns his way into this company by virtue of the fact he stunned everyone, including himself, in winning this event in 2006. If it happened once, it could presumably happen again, but it would be a surprise again.
Dark Horse (N.W.T. -- 8-1)
Jamie Koe is good enough all by himself to compete in this company and there are more than a few observers who think he might actually be the better of the two Koe brothers skipping in this field. He stunned everyone in 2012 when he became the first team from The North to make the Brier playoffs since the playoff system was introduced in 1980 and three-quarters of that team is back for another go-around this year.
The Rest (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, P.E.I., Northern Ontario -- 20-1)
Northern Ontario's Jeff Currie will make his rookie Brier appearance, largely because Sault Ste. Marie's Brad Jacobs sat out this year's provincial playdowns to compete in something called the Olympics.
Nova Scotia's Jamie Murphy is skipping his second Brier entry -- he went 4-7 in his first appearance in 2012.
P.E.I.'s Eddie MacKenzie is 5-28 in three previous trips to the Brier -- as a third in 1994 and as a skip in 2011 and 2013.
New Brunswick's James Grattan is curling in his 11th Brier -- and skipping New Brunswick for the fourth time in the last five years. He's a combined 12-21 in his last three trips to the national stage but it's worth noting his record improved each time.
Prediction: Manitoba's Jeff Stoughton defeats B.C.'s John Morris in the final.