Jeff Stoughton has one of the most familiar -- and regimented -- pre-delivery routines in all of curling.
You've seen it a million times if you're a curling fan: the Winnipeg skip crouches in the hack; he flips the rock upside down on to its handle; he vigorously cleans the running surface with the side of his corn broom; there is at least one, occasionally two, sweeping arcs of the ice to the front and sides of him, followed immediately by one final, decisive slap of the broom on the ice; rock's away.
Same thing, every time, all the time, for pretty much as long as anyone can remember. In a sport where it's more important to make the easy shots consistently than the hard shots spectacularly, Stoughton's pre-shot routine -- like his entire game -- has always been a model of consistency.
Only this fall, something is very different in Stoughton's view from the hack. "The first few events, I have to admit that it was really strange," said Stoughton on Thursday, "to look up and not see Steve standing on my left, ready to sweep."
Steve, of course, is Steve Gould, who along with Stoughton won six Manitoba men's curling championships -- including five of the last seven; two Canadian men's curling championships; and two world men's curling championships.
The two men were as much a constant for most of the past decade as Stoughton's pre-shot routine and there was a certain comfort level that came with a familiar relationship that, no matter how harried things got at the other end of the ice, Stoughton could always draw on for reassurance when he climbed into the hack.
But that's gone now. Just one year removed from the world championship they won together in 2011, Stoughton shocked everyone last spring -- including Gould -- when he fired his longtime lead following a disappointing performance at the 2012 provincials.
Gould eventually found work as a paid "mentor" this season for Northern Ontario's Brad Jacobs team, while Stoughton found a marquee replacement for Gould in 2006 Olympic gold medallist Mark Nichols, former third for Brad Gushue.
The rest of the Stoughton team has remained the same, with Reid Carruthers at second and Jon Mead at third. And the results on the cash tour this fall have also been at a similarly high level to what we've all grown to expect from Stoughton: While the foursome has won only once in seven events, they've qualified for the playoff round and cashed cheques in every bonspiel they've played in so far.
The team is third overall on the World Curling Tour money list with $47,400 in earnings, behind the Alberta juggernauts of Kevin Koe and Kevin Martin.
And so it would appear that the more things have changed, the more they've stayed exactly the same for Stoughton on the ice. And off the ice? Stoughton says the subtraction of Gould and addition of Nichols has created a whole new team dynamic that is still evolving as the team heads into their biggest event so far together -- next week's Canada Cup in Moose Jaw, Sask., where a berth in the 2013 Canadian Curling Trials at the MTS Centre will be determined.
"Like with any new team, you go through a growing process," Stoughton says. "You go through that part at the beginning where everything is rosy and perfect. And then we struggled too, and got to see how everyone responded to that.
"We feel like we've got through all that and we're ready to go for next week."
Four of the eight berths into the Trials will be determined this winter. Stoughton would obviously like to lock down his next week in Moose Jaw, but three others will be determined at the end of this winter based on points teams have accumulated.
Stoughton is second behind Koe in this winter's points race right now -- and three spots ahead of provincial rival Mike McEwen, who will also compete next week at the Canada Cup. The McEwen foursome haven't been quite as consistent as Stoughton this season, but they're still among the top teams in the world and their rivalry with Stoughton -- who beat McEwen in provincial finals in 2010 and 2011 -- promises only to intensify this winter as both teams chase Trials spots.
Should neither Stoughton or McEwen take down a Trials berth next week in Moose Jaw, it's entirely possible the two could go head-to-head in the Manitoba provincials next February with not only a provincial title at stake, but perhaps also the final points necessary to lock up a Trials berth.
Those would be high stakes and exactly the kind of moment for which Stoughton could always rely in the past on the reassuring sight of Gould standing to his left, poised and ready to make whatever shot Stoughton throws a winning one.
That view from the hack, by his own choice, is different this year. But the only thing that matters now is whether, by season's end, Stoughton still likes what he sees at the other end of the ice.