Jeff Stoughton just doubled the chances of a Manitoba-based curling team representing Canada at the Winter Olympics for the first time.
With a 4-3 win over Ontario's Glenn Howard in the men's final of the Canada Cup of Curling in Moose Jaw on Sunday, Stoughton joined Winnipeg's Jennifer Jones as a qualifier for next December's Canadian Curling Trials at MTS Centre.
With only eight men's teams and eight women's teams competing for the right to represent Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, a Trials berth is for some teams an even bigger prize this winter than a Canadian curling championship.
"Whew, that's a relief," Stoughton said Sunday evening. "Of course we want to go back to the Brier, but (the rest of this season) will be a lot less stressful because we don't have to worry about this Trials spot anymore."
The addition of a popular Winnipeg-based team like Stoughton -- with third Jon Mead, second Reid Carruthers and lead Mark Nichols -- to the roll of teams now qualified for the Trials comes at a perfect time for event organizers, who later this week are holding a news conference to unveil further details on ticket packages and a Christmas sales promotion.
And adding a two-time world champion like Stoughton to the roster of teams that will compete at MTS Centre also substantially increases Manitoba's chances of finally breaking the Olympic curling goose egg.
For all this province's glorious and record-breaking curling history, all eight of the teams that have represented Canada in curling since it became an official Olympic sport in 1998 have come from somewhere else.
Alberta has sent four teams -- Kevin Martin twice, as well as Cheryl Bernard and Shannon Kleibrink. Ontario's Mike Harris, Saskatchewan's Sandra Schmirler, B.C.'s Kelley Law and Newfoundland's Brad Gushue round out Canada's Olympic curling contingent over the years.
Stoughton came as close as you can get to qualifying when he lost the Trials final in 2005 to Gushue on an agonizing last-rock measure and Mead, who was on that team and blamed himself for blowing a line call in the final end, was asked if he and his skip will head to MTS Centre next December with a sense of unfinished business.
"I don't look at it that way. I look at it more as an opportunity," replied Mead. "This is a different team, a different day. Winning it wouldn't make up for the last one. It's different -- it would be about winning it with these guys.
"And I feel lik e we have a legitimate chance."
Ironically, one of the members of the current Stoughton team was also playing in that 2005 final, only Nichols was playing third for Brad Gushue.
Nichols moved across the country this year to replace longtime Stoughton lead Steve Gould. Gould's sacking last spring was a controversial move at the time but the addition of Nichols to the foursome came up cherries on Sunday, particularly in the 10th end when he made two perfect "ticks" -- a shot Gould practically invented -- to keep things open for a game-winning shot.
"On that stage, with so much at stake, it was really cool to make that shot when it counts," said Nichols. "(The Trials berth) is the reason we did all this -- the reason I up and moved from Newfoundland to curl with these guys. That was the one thing I wanted to do, the goal from the start of the year."
After going 5-1 in the round-robin to finish first overall and advance straight to Sunday's final, Stoughton never trailed Howard. After settling for a single with the hammer in the first end, Stoughton made a brilliant shot with his last rock in the second end to bury a stone on the back of the button and set up a steal to take a 2-0 lead.
Howard settled for a single in the third end and then the two teams -- both known for aggressive games -- found it uncharacteristically difficult to generate much offence the rest of the way, blanking four of the final seven ends.
But the game was not without its drama. With Stoughton leading 3-1, the Winnipeg skip pulled the string on a final-rock draw in the seventh end to give Howard an open draw for a game-tying deuce.
But after blanks in the eight and ninth ends, Stoughton needed only an open hit-and-stick with the final rock of the 10th to seal the win and take down not only a Trials berth, but $24,000 in prize money and also a chance to play in the 2014 Continental Cup in Las Vegas.
With the win, Stoughton joins Howard and Alberta's Kevin Martin as the three men's teams already qualified for the Trials. Three more Trials berths will be awarded at the end of this winter to the top teams on the Canadian Team Ranking System who still require berths.
The final two berths will be determined next November at a Pre-Trials bonspiel.