NEEPAWA -- Mike McEwen says he and his team are determined here this week to do something they've never done before at a Manitoba men's provincial curling championship -- actually have some fun.
"I don't think I've felt like this before going to provincials -- I'm excited to play. (This is) the first time I haven't felt that fear and anxiety," McEwen said Tuesday at the Yellowhead Centre, which will host this year's Safeway Championship beginning today.
"We're more relaxed than we've ever been for a provincials. I'm willing to accept whatever happens."
What's happened to McEwen at the last three of these little affairs, of course, was that his team made it all the way to the final only to lose -- to Jeff Stoughton in 2010 and 2011 and then to Rob Fowler here last year.
Each mounting loss ate a little more at the ferociously competitive McEwen and his squad -- third BJ Neufeld, second Matt Wozniak and lead Denni Neufeld -- and the general consensus in curling circles is McEwen's greatest opponent here this week is probably himself.
McEwen didn't disagree. "We've put mountains in front of ourselves of our own doing. And they're getting pretty tough to climb. You get tired at the end."
And so in a bid to neutralize his greatest enemy, McEwen says his squad has a different focus at this event. "We still want to win bad. But it's kind of turned into a 'want to win' instead of a 'have to.' And that feels a little better."
The dialing down of expectations has been made possible after another strong cashspiel season that saw the McEwen team all but a clinch a points-based berth into next December's Canadian Curling Trials at the MTS Centre, regardless of what the team does this week.
"That was a big weight off our shoulders," says McEwen.
Of course, McEwen's biggest obstacle will also be without that added weight. Stoughton also now has his Trials berth after a win at the Canada Cup last December and he says he, too, feels no pressure coming into an event he has dominated like no other over the years.
"We feel really good right now. We've had a good year and we just want to continue," Stoughton said. "Everything we do from here on in is preparing for those Trials."
There'd be no better preparation, of course, than winning on Sunday and advancing to represent Manitoba at next month's Brier in Edmonton, where many of the same teams that will be at the Trials next winter will also likely be competing.
Here's how I break down this week:
The favourite -- Jeff Stoughton (2-1)
STOUGHTON is attempting to win his 10th Manitoba men's title -- and sixth in the last eight years. He holds every meaningful record there is at this event and, at the ripe old age of 49, you could make the case he comes into this week curling better than he ever has after a sparkling cashspiel season that saw him win both the Canada Cup and the most recent Grand Slam event.
He can be beaten, of course, but you're ill-advised as an opponent to wait until the final, where Stoughton is 9-1 over the years.
The next one -- Mike McEwen (3-1)
THEY'RE smart, dedicated and a nice bunch of guys. And they have quite wisely chosen to try and lower the temperature for themselves at an event at which they have known only pain and heartbreak. The question now is whether a new attitude leads to a new result here this weekend.
The defending champ -- Rob Fowler (5-1)
WITH everyone focused last year on the rivalry between Stoughton and McEwen, Fowler and his Brandon foursome flew under the radar all the way to a Manitoba championship that no one saw coming with the exception of themselves.
They haven't had much of a cashspiel season, but they got hot at the last Grand Slam event and made it to the playoff round, suggesting right now they're curling the best they have all season.
The dark horse -- Willie Lyburn (7-1)
LYBURN advanced all the way to last year's semifinal before Fowler finally eliminated him. Whether that was a fluke or the first sign of something much bigger to come for this team remains to be seen, but it's worth noting they come into this week after a run all the way to the final at last month's MCA Bonspiel.
The darker horse -- Sean Grassie (10-1)
GRASSIE might just be the best curler in Manitoba most people have never heard of. A former Manitoba junior champion and a Canadian Mixed champion, he knows how to win and has the right personality type to handle the hot lights if he ever got that far.
The pack (25-1)
Terry McNamee, Trevor Loreth, Scott Ramsay, Daley Peters, David Kraichy, Mark Lukowich, Dave Elias, Dennis Bohn, Bob Sigurdson, Jared Kolomaya
MCNAMEE'S played before at the playoffs at this event over the years; Peters is good enough all by himself; Lukowich just won the MCA Bonspiel; Bohn lost a provincial final; Sigurdson has had some pretty good runs at this thing over the years; and the others have all stood out from the crowd at one time or another. It could happen -- but it's very, very unlikely.
Also ran (50-1)
Rob Van Kommer, Steen Sigurdson, Jerry Chudley, Wayne Ewasko, Brendan Taylor, Blair Goethals, Kelly Robertson, Graham Freeman, Bruce Jones, Scott Madams, Rae Kujanpaa, Greg Todoruk, Rae Hainstock, Travis Graham, Shawn Magnusson, Geoff Trimble, Rene Kolly
MANY people feel the 32 teams that compete at this event should be cut at least in half. These are the sorts of teams who'd most likely be on the outside looking in if that ever happened.
REMEMBER how when Mariano Rivera was at his very best, the New York Yankees basically had the luxury of only really needing to play eight innings because they knew Rivera would close it out for them in the ninth? It was a huge advantage and Stoughton is like that at this event -- as long as he gets to the final, he wins it, almost without exception.
McEwen is going to win a lot of Manitoba men's titles. Just not yet.
Stoughton 7 McEwen 6.