December 17, 2018

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Strangers in the house

Major personnel moves remake Manitoba's curling landscape

There appears to be no growing pains this fall for Kerri Einarson’s new-look women’s curling team.

Just a month into the competitive season, Einarson’s foursome of former skips — with Val Sweeting at third, Shannon Birchard at second and Briane Meilleur throwing lead stones — is quickly demonstrating it has found a winning formula. The new crew has won three events on consecutive weekends.

After victories at the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard near Toronto and the Morris SunSpiel (a provincial berth bonspiel) in southern Manitoba, Einarson rattled off eight straight wins at Winnipeg’s venerable Granite to capture the Mother Club Fall Curling Classic, defeating Allison Flaxey’s team from the host club on Sunday.

Though expectations were lofty, the terrific start to the 2018-19 season is something even the ultra-positive Einarson admits she didn’t see coming.

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There appears to be no growing pains this fall for Kerri Einarson’s new-look women’s curling team.

Just a month into the competitive season, Einarson’s foursome of former skips — with Val Sweeting at third, Shannon Birchard at second and Briane Meilleur throwing lead stones — is quickly demonstrating it has found a winning formula. The new crew has won three events on consecutive weekends.

After victories at the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard near Toronto and the Morris SunSpiel (a provincial berth bonspiel) in southern Manitoba, Einarson rattled off eight straight wins at Winnipeg’s venerable Granite to capture the Mother Club Fall Curling Classic, defeating Allison Flaxey’s team from the host club on Sunday.

Though expectations were lofty, the terrific start to the 2018-19 season is something even the ultra-positive Einarson admits she didn’t see coming.

Kerri Einarson's new-look team has won three events on consecutive weekends. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Kerri Einarson's new-look team has won three events on consecutive weekends. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

"We did not expect this so early, but things have been really jelling with us and it all feels so natural," she said Monday. "We’re all great shooters and all great at pressure moments, so it’s been really good."

Just weeks after losing the Canadian final to Jennifer Jones at the Scotties championship in Penticton, B.C., in early February, Einarson parted company with teammates Selena Njegovan, Liz Fyfe and Kristin MacCuish after five seasons together.

Almost immediately, she unveiled a powerhouse lineup that included Sweeting, a three-time Alberta women’s champion who told the Free Press then she was comfortable surrendering skipping duties to play third for one of the game’s deadly accurate shooters.

Sweeting still resides in Edmonton as the team takes advantage of Curling Canada’s import rules that permit one non-resident on a roster, but she made several trips to Manitoba during the summer to get acquainted with her new teammates. They even threw rocks in July in the club in Morris.

"It was important to get together in the off-season and get to know one another. Our personalities really clicked right from the start, and that’s helped us so much on the ice," said Einarson. "Val’s a really smart player. Every time it seems what I’m thinking, she’s thinking it, too.

"Even with the other two (Birchard and Meilleur), as soon as I put the broom down and go down to the other end, I say, ‘You guys like this?’ And they say, "That’s exactly what we were thinking.’ We seem to be all similar players, which makes it easier for my strategy calling."

Birchard proved in Penticton she can excel on the grand stage. When Jones, the 2018 Manitoba champion, needed a fill-in for Olympic-bound, mixed-doubles extraordinaire Kaitlyn Lawes at nationals, Birchard came through with a remarkable week’s work at the third position.

Sweeping changes

Barb Spencer's is one of the top teams on the always-tough Manitoba curling scene. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

Barb Spencer's is one of the top teams on the always-tough Manitoba curling scene. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Major personnel moves were expected right across Canada after the four-year grind to get to the Olympic trials concluded and the '18 Scotties and Brier championships wrapped up.

Einarson’s old squad recruited an out-of-province skip, Tracy Fleury from Sudbury, Ont., to guide them through the next Olympic cycle. Fleury had skipped Northern Ontario in Penticton.

Flaxey, a Winnipegger who’s been living in Ontario for several years, is back curling out of Manitoba and is flanked by Kate Cameron at third and Raunora Westcott at lead, who both said goodbye to the retiring Michelle Englot. Alberta’s Taylor McDonald had been recruited to throw second and has moved to Winnipeg.

Toss in talented teams skipped by veterans (and sisters) Barb Spencer and Darcy Robertson, and up-and-comers such as Laura Burtnyk and Kristy Watling, all in the hunt this season, just making it to Gimli for the Manitoba Scotties and then winning it will take a Herculean effort.

"This province is so tough. There’s so much great talent out of Manitoba, it’s really unbelievable," said Einarson.

Competitors who qualify for the Scotties can take comfort in knowing the Jones quartet is out of the picture. The 2014 Olympic gold medallist bypasses the provincial playdown and receives direct entry to the national Scotties in February in Sydney, N.S., as Team Canada.

They, too, will have a revamped look. Jill Officer stepped away from the team after the worlds in North Bay, Ont., but Jones, Lawes and lead Dawn McEwen added Jocelyn Peterman to the mix.

In its season debut, Team Jones lost in the quarter-finals of the Colonial Square Ladies Classic in Saskatoon earlier this month. Robertson’s crew of Karen Klein, Vanessa Foster and Theresa Cannon eventually earned the title.

They’re gearing up for the first Grand Slam of Curling tour event, the Elite 10, this weekend in Chatham-Kent, Ont. Fleury’s foursome is the only other Manitoba team in the women’s field.

"Jocelyn is a terrific person. Her work ethic is just unreal and we’re having a ton of laughs and she’s fitting in great," said Jones. "We’re really excited to see where we can take this."

That fire to compete still rages on, said the two-time world and six-time Canadian champion.

Former Winnipegger Chelsea Carey has put together a new team in Calgary. (Justin Tang / The Canadian Press files)</p>

Former Winnipegger Chelsea Carey has put together a new team in Calgary. (Justin Tang / The Canadian Press files)

"The one thing we’ve never lost is the surprise of the victory and the exhilaration of it all. It something we always feel is a privilege and an honour," she said. "To win the world championship was a great way to end the year. We had disappointment about not going to the Olympics, so to play well at the Canadians and the world and to come off as champions made the summer a lot better."

Out west, a pair of Manitobans are also getting familiarized with new teams this fall. Chelsea Carey, now of Calgary, is flanked by third Sarah Wilkes, second Dana Ferguson and lead Rachel Brown, while Cathy Overton-Clapham still lives in Winnipeg but will play third for Edmonton’s Laura Walker, along with second Lori Olson-Johns and lead Laine Peters.

Despite crushing disappointment at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Rachel Homan of Ottawa has kept her team intact for another four-year run, making up for unfinished business.

Unique partnership

Manitoba men's teams went through some shakeups during the off-season as well. Most notable was the union of off-ice friends and on-ice rivals, Reid Carruthers and Mike McEwen, who have met in three of the last four provincial finals.

The province's premier skips joined forces, along with two members of Carruthers’ reigning Manitoba men’s championship team, second Derek Samagalski and lead Colin Hodgson. They've committed to play the duration of the four-year Olympic cycle together.

Mike McEwen (from left) has joined his former rivals Reid Carruthers, Derek Samagalski and Colin Hodgson. (Supplied)</p></p>

Mike McEwen (from left) has joined his former rivals Reid Carruthers, Derek Samagalski and Colin Hodgson. (Supplied)

While McEwen is tossing the final brick, Carruthers has the final say.

With just one event played to date — the Shorty Jenkins Classic in Cornwall, Ont., two weeks ago (they missed the playoffs after losing a tiebreaker) — things are now beginning to ramp up for Team Carruthers, set to compete in the men's field in the Elite 10, beginning Thursday, and a heavy World Curling Tour schedule.

Carruthers said the dynamic of meshing a pair of strong personalities has been a challenge, though not at all unexpected.

"It's been good communication. I think because we're both used to being the leader on the ice, there was a times maybe too much dialogue and we're over-thinking things. It's a matter of figuring out what we want to say to each other at certain times and who's going to be in charge at certain times of the end, for sure," he said.

"It was an eye-opener for some things we needed to work on as a team, so we're just starting to make that list. But the biggest thing is we had a lot of fun despite the result. The chemistry is definitely there. On the ice, it's just going to be a matter of figuring each other out, and it's not going to happen overnight."

The new wild-card system was a boon for Manitoba teams last season. Just as Einarson and Jones both participated at the national Scotties, McEwen and Carruthers were both in the Brier field as well. Yet, neither made the playoffs.

After 11 years together, McEwen's team finally split following the tough week in Regina, the capper on an emotional season with a few highs overshadowed by bitter disappointment. The toughest of all was losing the Olympic trials final to Alberta's Kevin Koe in Ottawa.

That week, Carruthers — who had now-departed Braeden Moskowy at third — finished 4-4 and didn't even crack the playoff round.

Redemption is definitely a motivating force, he said.

"For four years, you build to the trials. That was everyone's goal. Mike came very, very close to being the team that was going to the Olympics, right? And then for us, resetting our goals once the trials were over was really hard," said Carruthers. "There definitely is some unfinished business for all of us at the Brier, but for us it's all about the Olympics in 2022 (in Beijing).

"Right now we're still in the infancy stage of this team and there's a lot of growth that needs to happen first. We have our end goal, but there's a million steps we need to take to get there."

The landscape

Jason Gunnlaugson's Winnipeg team has a good chance to win this season's provincials. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

Jason Gunnlaugson's Winnipeg team has a good chance to win this season's provincials. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Carruthers, playing out of West St. Paul, has a free pass to the Viterra provincials in Virden this year and is the odds-on favourite, no matter the strength of the rest of the field.

You'd then have to believe Jason Gunnlaugson's Winnipeg team has the next best shot to win. The addition of McEwen's former second, Denni Neufeld, a perennial all-star and fiery, experienced competitor, will be key for the squad that also has third Alex Forrest and lead Connor Njegovan.

High-calibre local teams include Braden Calvert's Granite foursome — which captured the Icebreaker 'spiel at the Granite in late August — J.T. Ryan's splendid young team from Assiniboine Memorial, and other top Winnipeg teams skipped by William Lyburn, Travis Bale, Sean Grassie and Dennis and Dave Bohn.

Farther afield, Koe has done some major retooling after a collapse at the Olympics, retaining lead Ben Hebert but bringing former McEwen third, B.J. Neufeld, into the fold. Colton Flasch of Saskatoon has come in to play lead for the Calgary-based team.

And Winnipegger Matt Dunstone, a two-time national junior champion, is going back to do what he does best — skip. But he'll stick it out in Saskatchewan with a team that includes Moskowy at third.

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

Read full biography

History

Updated on Monday, September 24, 2018 at 8:14 PM CDT: Fixes cutline

September 25, 2018 at 8:05 PM: Fixes typo

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