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Seeking the gold

Canada's top curling rinks gunning for Oly berth

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Manitobans have bathed themselves in curling glory over the years in every way but one -- no Manitoba team has ever represented Canada at the Winter Olympics.

While two Manitoba men's teams have lost Olympic Trials finals over the years -- Kerry Burtnyk in 2001 and Jeff Stoughton in 2005, that remains the closest Manitoba has ever gotten to the biggest bonspiel of them all.

If ever that is going to change, however, it might be this winter. The 2013 Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings -- which will determine Canada's mens and women's curling representatives to Sochi -- is being held at Winnipeg's MTS Centre, Dec. 1-8.

It's the second time Manitoba has hosted the Olympic qualifier -- Brandon hosted the first one in 1997. And the four Manitoba teams participating this time around -- two men's and two women's teams, representing 25 per cent of the 16-team field -- are hoping that home ice advantage makes the difference.

WOMEN'S FIELD

It has been 15 long years now since the last Canadian women's skip won gold at the Winter Olympics.

In addition to all the other records she held in her remarkable -- and tragically truncated -- curling career, the late Sandra Schmirler also remains to this day the only Canadian women's skip to have brought home from the Olympics the gold medal this country expects our curlers to win every time they step on international ice.

Bronze medals for Kelley Law in 2002 and Shannon Kleibrink in 2006 and a silver for Cheryl Bernard in 2010 simply did not shine as bright as the gold Schmirler won in Nagano in 1998.

And so against that backdrop, it would seem fair to say that the work will be just beginning for whichever women's team wins the right to represent Canada in Sochi at the Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings, Dec. 1-8 at the MTS Centre.

Which is not to say, mind you, that winning the Trials is going to be easy. While you could argue the eight-team women's field that will assemble in Winnipeg could be stronger -- former world champion Kelly Scott, among others, will be conspicuous by her absence -- there is also no doubt that whoever wins the final on Dec. 7 will head to Russia battle-tested.

Just qualifying for this event was a gruelling four-year process, made all the more difficult because the number of teams competing at this year's Trials is, at just eight teams, the fewest ever.

But now that they've made it this far, the real work begins at a Trials event that will earn for one team that most hallowed of descriptors in all of sport -- 'Olympian.'

"We've worked really hard for it and to me we've done everything we wanted to do," says Winnipeg's Jennifer Jones. "And hopefully it's enough. And if it's not, then it's not. But at this point, you just want to know -- you just want to get going and see if all that work is going to pay off."

Winnipeg's Chelsea Carey says she is feeling a range of emotions right now as an event she waited her life for draws near. "Excited, nervous, all that kind of stuff," said Carey. "I'd like it to get started, but at the same time I know once it starts it's going to be a 'blink' and then it's over. And I don't want that either. I'd like to live in that week for a long time."

Alas, all good things come to an end. Here's how we see the field breaking down:

 

THE FAVOURITES (2-1)

Winnipeg's Jennifer Jones

Ottawa's Rachel Homan

Jones is a four-time Canadian champion and former world champion and -- by universal acclamation -- the most talented women's curler never to play in a Winter Olympics. It is all that remains for the future hall-of-famer and she will head into the MTS Centre on a roll, having won two of three Grand Slam events on the World Curling Tour this fall and leading the women's money list.

The only Slam event Jones hasn't won this season was won by Homan, who also has the distinction of having beaten Jones in the final of last February's Canadian women's championship. That victory was the biggest of Homan's young career and laid to rest any doubts about the 24-year-old's ability to perform in the biggest moments and under the hottest lights.

 

THE NEXT ONE (9-2)

Edmonton's Heather Nedohin

 

Nedohin won the final of the 2012 Canadian women's curling championship and then proved she wasn't a one-year fluke by advancing again all the way to the semifinal of last winter's national Scotties, only to lose to Jones. Nedohin third Beth Iskiw is one of the very best and Nedohin, while unpredictable at times, can take over a game all on her own.

 

THE PACK (8-1)

Winnipeg's Chelsea Carey Saskatoon's Stefanie Lawton

Coldwater's Sherry Middaugh

 

Carey is among the very best cashspielers in the business but has struggled this year and will head into MTS Centre having won just $6,000 on tour this fall and holding down 29th place on the World Curling Tour money list. There are also questions about her team's ability to take the next step after back-to-back losses in the 2011 and 2012 provincial finals. On the plus side, a partisan crowd will only help a team that's always worn its emotions on their sleeve.

Lawton is a crack cashspieler and has won multiple provincial championships. But the break-through at the national level has been elusive for her and a win at this event would require the kind of performance under pressure that has mostly been lacking from her curling resume thus far. She finished third at the 2005 Trials and the presence this time around of third Sherry Anderson, who skipped the 2001 Trials runner-up, will help.

Middaugh is a seven-time Ontario representative at the Canadian women's curling championship but has never finished better than third at the nationals. This will be her fourth appearance at the Trials -- the most by any skip in the field. Her previous best was a 6-4 record and a tiebreaker game in 2005.

 

LONGSHOTS (15-1)

Grande Prairie's Renee Sonnenberg

Edmonton's Val Sweeting

 

Sonnenberg and Sweeting have the misfortune of curling in what has lately been the toughest province in all of Canada to get out of as a women's curler, with the likes of Kleibrink, Bernard and Nedohin all standing in the way of upstarts trying to break out of Alberta and establish a national presence.

Both women are more than capable cash-spielers and both are not entirely without national experience -- Sonnenberg skipped Alberta champions at the Scotties in 1999 (5-6) and 2001 (4-7), while Sweeting skipped Alberta at the 2010 Scotties (4-7).

If momentum counts at this event -- and it has, historically -- these two might have some working in their favour, having earned their Trials boths most recently in a pre-Trials event in Kitchener, Ont., earlier this month.

MEN'S FIELD

 

The eight-team men's field that will assemble for the Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings at MTS Centre, Dec. 1-8, is arguably the strongest ever assembled for a Canadian Olympic qualifier.

With five former world men's champions among the eight skips -- not to mention Kevin Martin, who doubles as the reigning Olympic gold medallist -- trying to pick the winner of the right to represent Canada in men's curling in Sochi is a fool's errand.

And Winnipeg's Jeff Stoughton -- one of those five former world champions -- ain't no fool. After infamously declaring in 2005 that Brad Gushue had "no chance" to win that year's Trials, only to promptly lose the final to Gushue a couple weeks later, Stoughton says his curling handicapping days are behind him.

And even if they weren't, he says picking a winner for this year's Trials is next to impossible anyway.

"That's the greatest thing about this event -- you look at Kevin Martin and say, 'Yeah, he could win.' You look at Kevin Koe and say, 'Yeah, he could win.' Same thing with Glenn Howard, Mike McEwen, on down the line.

"And I think that's the best thing about this whole event for Canadian curling -- whoever walks away with this thing on Dec. 8 will be the Olympic gold medal favourites."

Here's how we see the field breaking down:

THE FAVOURITES (7-2)

Winnipeg's Jeff Stoughton

Edmonton's Kevin Martin

Coldwater's Glenn Howard

 

Three former world champions, this troika have all shown they can win at the highest levels of the sport. And each brings with them unique advantages to this event.

For Stoughton, the advantage of a loud and partisan crowd on his side should break his way for the entire event, including when he faces fellow Manitoban Mike McEwen during the round-robin. Locals like McEwen, but they love Stoughton, mostly because he's the one who wins on the provincial, national and world stages. And Stoughton thrives in that kind of environment -- the last time he had a crowd so undeniably on his side was in 2011 in Regina and he rode it all the way to a world championship.

Martin is the only Canadian skip to represent Canada twice in curling at the Olympics -- winning silver in 2002 and gold in 2010. Experience counts at a pressure-packed event like the Trials and the fact Martin has already won it twice breaks big in his favour. But even more compelling has been the new life that's been breathed into Martin this season with the addition of four time Canadian champion David Nedohin at third. The new partnership between formerly fierce rivals raised eyebrows when it was announced last summer but the on-ice success was immediate, with the new team winning more on the World Curling Tour this fall than all but one other team.

That other team is Howard, who enters this event as skip of a team that has been undeniably the most consistent in all of men's curling over the last four years. A tweak at third a couple years ago -- Wayne Middaugh replaced Richard Hart -- paid off immediately with a 2012 world championship and the team has arguably only gotten better in the intervening years. There's flashier skips in this field, but none that bring it so consistently game in and game out. And third through lead, they match up with any other team in the world.

 

THE NEXT ONES (5-1)

Winnipeg's Mike McEwen

Edmonton's Kevin Koe

 

McEwen is by universal acclamation the greatest curler to never win a provincial men's title. But he has company in his quest to represent Canada at an Olympic Games before he represents his province at a Brier -- that is exactly what Ontario's Mike Harris did when he came out of relative obscurity to win the 1997 Trials in Brandon en route to an Olympic silver medal at the Nagano Games. Still, it is hard to ignore the fact that for all the winning McEwen has done in the last four years on the cash circuit, he and his team have shown themselves unable to win the events that matter to most curling fans.

Koe had a similar hard-luck tale as McEwen -- a fine cashspieler who was unable to win a provincial title while curling in a province dominated by the likes of Martin and Randy Ferbey. But then Martin went to the Olympics in 2010, leaving Alberta ripe for Koe's picking and the latter took fullest advantage, taking down provincial, national and world titles in a long-awaited breakthrough for the ages. A silver medal performance at the 2012 Brier proved Koe was no fluke and another strong cashspiel season this year suggests he's still very capable.

DARK HORSE -- (6-1)

Sault Ste. Marie's Brad Jacobs

 

Jacobs comes into Winnipeg off a break-out performance last season that saw his Northern Ontario team exceed everyone's expectations, except their own, in winning last year's Brier final over Manitoba's Stoughton. The team went on to win silver at the worlds and then came up big again in Kitchener this month when they went on a run at a pre-Trials event to take down the eighth and final berth into the Roar of the Rings. If momentum counts at the MTS Centre, these guys have some right now.

 

LONGSHOTS (10-1)

Vernon and Kelowna's John Morris

Toronto's John Epping

 

Morris won Olympic gold in 2010 as third for Kevin Martin, but stunned the curling world last spring when he quit the Martin team after what had been a dismal season for the once dominating Edmonton foursome. But Morris then promptly formed a new team with former BC men's champion Jim Cotter and then got red-hot at a pre-Trials event in Kitchener, going undefeated in a 12-team field to take down the first of two final Trials berths that were up for grabs. Like Jacobs, Morris has momentum coming into MTS Centre. Unlike Jacobs, the rest of his team is unproven at the national level.

John Epping is the best men's skip you have in all likelihood never heard of. Playing out of the relative curling backwater of Toronto, Epping has fashioned a reputation as a talented and unflappable skip based almost entirely on his play on the cashspiel circuit, which reached its apex at the end of the 2011-12 season when he and his foursome won The Players Championship, a cash event the teams will tell you has the toughest field every season. If he won The Players, he could win this one too, but it would be a stretch.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2013 C8

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