Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

These days, top seeds winning

Upstarts once had chance to take title, but that era gone.

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SELKIRK -- Curling fans love their underdogs.

It is why, maybe more than any one single factor, that the Manitoba men's provincial curling championship, which started Wednesday at the Selkirk Recreation Complex, is annually one of the biggest amateur sporting events in this province.

With an unwieldy field of 32 teams and geographical representation from every region in the province, the makeup of the entire event seems geared to give even the lowliest club curler an opportunity to not only take a bow in the spotlight, but also turn up the heat -- and maybe even beat -- a curling great.

And so it is that the lore of this event is written as much in the names of the most unlikely of champions -- skips like Brent Scales and Duane Edwards, Don Barr and Burke Parker -- as it is in the names of this province's curling greats, world champions like Jeff Stoughton and Kerry Burtnyk, Don Duguid and Orest Meleschuk.

It is that Hollywood notion that on any given day a knee-slider can conquer a world champion that has always given curling generally, and this event in particular, its character and its texture.

But there is a sense this week that maybe, just maybe, that idea -- that all teams are created equal on a sheet of curling ice -- has gone the way of straw brooms and 2-1 games, and that the age when anyone really could win this event is now, more or less, a quaint notion more than it is an actual reality.

It is probably not an accident that the top six seeds all won convincingly on opening day Wednesday. Nor is it an accident that this event has been won in each of the past three years by Burtnyk or Stoughton, the undisputed heavyweights of the Manitoba game for decades and the ones who put the most time, the most money and the most effort, week in and week out, into refining their game.

Though it is still possible for upstarts to win this event -- witness Randy Dutiaume in 2005 and Scales in 2004 -- there is wide agreement here on both ends of the curling spectrum that changes to the game in the past decade have widened the gap between the game's elite teams and everyone else into something that is increasingly resembling a yawning chasm.

The four-rock rule has put more rocks in play and eliminated the bangers; ice conditions are vastly superior today and allow for a refined finesse game that rewards only consistency; and the chase for an Olympics berth, and the points system that is at the heart of it, forces elite teams now to play more than they ever have before.

Put it all together and five-time Manitoba men's champion Kerry Burtnyk says it is infinitely more difficult today to knock off a team like his than it was when he was the upstart winning his first provincial title back in 1981. Whether this is a good thing, Burtnyk says, depends on your perspective.

"I guess it depends on what you're trying to do," says Burtnyk, who will play a mind-boggling schedule of 15 to 16 events this winter. "If you're trying to create a playdown and conditions to get your best team to represent the province, then it's doing that. If you're trying to just give everybody a fair chance and see what happens, then maybe it's not doing that."

Caught up in the backdraft of the changes have been teams like Peter Nicholls. Nicholls, 49, a 1994 Manitoba men's champion with Dave Smith, is a high school vice-principal and father who simply doesn't have the time or inclination to put in the hours Burtnyk devotes to curling.

And so his team, seeded fourth this week, bangs around local bonspiels every winter before turning up here every February.

They are frequently a playoff contender at the provincials and lost the final to Stoughton just two years ago. But Nicholls concedes that getting close to summiting and getting over the top are different matters and it's getting much harder to keep up with the climbers in front of him.

But he says those climbers, the Burtnyks and Stoughtons and, this year, Mike McEwen, have earned their status as the ones to beat this week.

"To be away from your family, away from your job, I don't think people realize how hard they work at it...So you have to admire them, especially Jeff and Kerry because they've been doing it for a long time," he said.



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 19, 2009 C3

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