WINKLER — Mike McEwen woke up Friday morning in a hospital bed still suffering an extreme bout with chickenpox, while his team forges ahead on a mission to win a third-straight Manitoba men’s curling title.
The 37-year-old Winnipegger escaped the disease as a kid, but is being clobbered now.
He’s been hospitalized since Thursday, while his usual third, B.J. Neufeld, assumes the responsibility of calling games and tossing the final two stones.
The 2017 and ’18 champions have opted to curl as a threesome, with lead Denni Neufeld and second Matt Wozniak delivering three rocks apiece in each end.
The Fort Rouge team has rattled off four straight wins, three without McEwen. Late Friday, B.J. guided them to an 8-2 romp in just six ends over Brandon’s Steve Irwin in the first playoff round as just a quarter of the initial 32-team Viterra field remained in the hunt.
In three other playoff matchups, No. 2-seed Reid Carruthers of West St. Paul defeated Daniel Birchard of Pembina 8-0, Travis Bale of Fort Rouge knocked off David Bohn of Assiniboine Memorial 6-2, while two-time reigning Manitoba junior men’s champion J.T. Ryan of Assiniboine Memorial dumped two-time Brier winner and No. 4 seed Pat Simmons of the Granite 9-5.
McEwen’s team plays Ryan today at 9 a.m., while Bale battles Carruthers in the two championship qualifiers.
There’s no certainty McEwen will be well enough to rejoin the crew, regardless of how deep into the weekend the team goes.
B.J. Neufeld indicated the safe money’s on highly unlikely.
"We still don’t really know for sure exactly what’s happening. If you have to put him on the injury list, he would probably be doubtful, I would say. But you never know," he said. "He’s getting some fluids pumped into him. And if he gets some rest and starts feeling really good, maybe he comes back."
Neufeld was asked if it’s been difficult to remain locked in, with the health of his teammate and buddy top of mind.
"I wouldn’t say it’s hard to focus. The whole championship just takes on a different feel. Maybe we’re a bit more free and easy. It’s that classic case of expectations not really being maybe what they were," Neufeld said. "When a team is feeling like that, sometimes that’s a dangerous team. We’re usually the ones dealing with playing teams that have that feel. It’s not so bad to maybe have the shoe on the other foot.
"In the same sense, we’re capable if we get running here pretty hot, get a feel for how we’re operating. There’s no reason why we can’t be in every game."
The toughest adjustment has been for Denni Neufeld, one of the country’s top leads, who’s peering down at a lot more granite in the house than usual when he settles into the hack for his third shot of an end. He’s also calling the line for his younger brother, B.J.
"It’s not bad for me," said Wozniak. "It’s Denni, whose third shot now is going to be a runback or a peel or something he probably hasn’t practised in 15 years or however long he’s been a lead. That’s probably the biggest difference... but he’s making all his peels and his runbacks."
Indeed, the unusual setup is generating positive results — under trying circumstances — from the world’s fourth-ranked men’s team, based on the World Curling Tour’s order of merit.
B.J. Neufeld made some dandy shots Friday morning as the trio endured a gritty battle with Dave Bohn’s twin brother, Dennis Bohn, of Assiniboine Memorial, but prevailed 7-5 in an A-side qualifying game.
In the other A qualifiers Friday morning, Carruthers of West St. Paul upended Dennis Bohn by a 10-6 count, Bale, a Manitoba junior champion 12 years ago, downed Birchard 6-2, and Simmons beat William Lyburn of Assiniboine Memorial 6-2.
In B qualifiers Friday afternoon, David Bohn rebounded to defeat Terry McNamee of Brandon 8-2, Birchard shook off the earlier defeat to beat Graham Freeman of Virden 7-3, Ryan clobbered Dennis Bohn 9-3, and Irwin slid past Lyburn 8-5.
McEwen was clearly unwell Wednesday after playing his only game. Bundled up, he immediately left the rink after a lopsided victory over Merv Satterthwaite of St. Vital and sought medical attention the next morning. Following a win over Pinawa’s Richard Muntain without him Thursday, the team revealed exactly what was ailing one of the world’s best skips.
"We’ve all had (chickenpox). We’re OK... in the the clear," said B.J Neufeld. "(McEwen’s) having a bit of a rare reaction... I guess they’re just being really thorough, careful. They’re doing some blood tests, just to make sure everything is good. It basically was hell on earth for him for a couple of days."
Fierce competitors on the pebbled surface, it’s no secret how close Carruthers and McEwen are away from the rink. And the battle his friend is currently waging has shaken Carruthers.
"Obviously, it’s awful to hear that. There’s more to life than curling, and when someone’s health is in jeopardy, per se, it’s a little scary for everyone," he said. "You never want to see that for anyone."
McEwen rinkmates had a short visit Friday afternoon with him.
"He looked really good. Aside from the marks on his body, he seemed normal. But I don’t know how he’s feeling," Wozniak said. "Hopefully, as long as everything is OK with the tests he’ll be out (Saturday) sometime. And then we’ll talk about whether or not he feels like he can play."
Wozniak said he’s talked to McEwen’s wife, Dawn, the lead for Jennifer Jones, who’s in Penticton, B.C., at the Scotties national women’s championship. Understandably, she’s very worried.
"We’ve tried to reassure her that he is OK and they’re taking good care of him. Hopefully, that put her mind at ease so she can focus on what she’s doing," he said.
An intriguing element that hangs over the 2018 championship is a ‘second chance’ for a couple of top-ranked teams should they falter in Winkler. It’s that ‘play-in’ wild-card game to be staged on the eve of the Regina Brier — and McEwen’s team is guaranteed a spot in that contest.
"Curling is sort of secondary at this point. His health is the most important thing," said Wozniak. "We’re in that play-in game at the Brier as kind of a second chance if this doesn’t work out for us. At least we’ve got that to think about. So, we’re just trying to stay loose and have some fun, see how far we can go with three, if that’s the case.
"B.J.’s playing really good. And you can ride a guy. You see it every year — you get a hot skip, and that’s usually what it takes."
Mom’s away, but dad’s coming home
Kyle Einarson’s stint at the provincial men’s championship came to an abrupt end Friday afternoon when the Kyle Foster foursome from Arborg fell 7-6 to Ryan on the B side. Einarson, the second on the team, is the husband of Kerri Einarson, who’s having quite a week in Penticton, B.C., at the Scotties national women’s championship.
The couple has twin daughters, Kamryn and Khloe, and the youngsters have been staying with family. Their mother has big things on the go and won’t be home for a few more days.
Kerri’s crew from East St. Paul has been nearly unstoppable since knocking off Calgary’s Chelsea Carey on the eve of the Scotties to earn a late invitation as Team Wild-Card. And they’re a sure-fire playoff squad.
"I’m watching the line scores. It’s pretty exciting," Kyle said. "She’s got a good chance, so hopefully… the momentum they got going now. Beating (Jennifer) Jones was big."
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