DAUPHIN -- The hard part, says Jeff Stoughton, wasn't winning nine of them.
No, Manitoba's nine-time men's curling champion says the hardest part was winning the first one.
And in retrospect, Stoughton explained Friday at the 2012 Safeway Manitoba Men's Curling Championship, even that one was only hard because he didn't know how easy it really is.
More hubris from a famously cocky curler? No, just plain talk from a man who believes the formula for the record-breaking success that has him on the cusp this weekend of hitting double digits in provincial men's championships is actually remarkably simple.
I'll let Stoughton explain himself. "When you finally win one, you find out it really wasn't as hard as you thought it would be," Stoughton said Friday.
"What you find out is that you will need a break or two along the way, but basically as long as you've done the work and your guys are all playing their best, you should win. That's the theory, right? It's hard to beat guys when they're playing their best.
"So once you get over that hump, you find out it wasn't that bad. And then you get on a roll and you never want to give it up because who doesn't want to curl in March?
"I want to curl in March, so I've got to win in February."
Small wrinkle. Hours after saying that, Stoughton went out Friday night and lost 8-4 to Deer Lodge's Willie Lyburn in the opening round of the playoffs, bouncing him to the B-side and leaving him needing to win five straight games this weekend if he's going to defend his championship.
It's never easy, in other words. But the fact Stoughton thinks the formula is so simple proves just how exceptional his talents really are.
How exceptional? "For years now," former Brier champion Vic Peters said Friday, "I've thought that I will never see a better player than Stoughton."
Peters -- who has played all the legends of the game and even lost a Brier final in 1997 to the man mostly widely regarded as the premier curler of this generation, Alberta's Kevin Martin -- says what sets Stoughton apart is a balance in his game that even a yoga master would envy.
"He's such a pure thrower -- that's what I always marvelled at," said Peters. "Most guys, you can try to get them to maybe play the in-turn because they shade it a bit. But not Stoutie. Most guys have a turn that's not perfect. But both of Jeff's turns flow out of his hands perfectly.
"There are some guys who also say he can't throw it that hard, but that's BS too. He just doesn't turn it up to that notch much because he barely has to. His team is that good. There's no doubt -- he doesn't have to play that great because his team is so good. But when they need him to be that, to be great -- you've seen what he does. Year after year. He's as pure thrower as I've ever seen. Glenn Howard's close. Kevin Martin always plays with it a bit at the end, but is mentally so good.
"But Stoughton is just phenomenal."
So what does it look like on the rare occasions when Stoughton is lousy?
"Everything still looks the same coming out of his hand," said longtime Stoughton third Jon Mead. "The only difference when he's off is he will struggle with his weight, maybe pull it back a little or give it a little extra."
Beyond his delivery, Mead said there is also a childlike quality Stoughton has retained over the years that continues to set him apart. "I've said for a long time that Jeff really is just a big kid. He's never lost his enthusiasm," said Mead.
"It's like the way they talk about golfers and how when you're young, you see the fairways not the bunkers. And then when you get older, you see all the danger. Jeff never lost that. He never thinks about missing and he's not afraid of the dangers."
He also hasn't gone seeking any extra dangers either -- Stoughton doesn't drink alcohol and never has -- something Peters said has also set Stoughton apart in a sport full of carousing. "That's another reason he's stayed so good... He's stayed out of the bar. Totally. Just look at him -- he's in the same shape physically as he was when he was 19."
Stoughton ventures there's one other reason he's had so much success -- particularly at the the Manitoba provincials. And it's the simplest reason of all.
"This is when I love to play. When I do a practice slide before the start of the game, I'm smiling the whole way down the sheet because I'm happy to be here," says Stoughton.
"Winning breeds winning, that's the whole idea. And it's like some people say, I guess maybe this is my venue, this is my time."
A time like no other. Ever.