The premier curlers on the planet have been on the road for weeks now but slide into Manitoba en masse this week in hot pursuit of valuable experience, big paydays and, in the case of Canadian teams, vital points.
Ten of the top 15 teams on the World Curling Tour's ranking list will participate this weekend in the annual Canad Inns Men's Classic at the Portage Curling Club. The first draw is set for Friday at 10 a.m., and the final begins at 6 p.m. Monday.
Some of the best in the business are from these parts, including the Mike McEwen foursome, currently ranked 13th in the world and fresh off a big WCT victory in South Korea. McEwen's West St. Paul team of third Reid Carruthers, second Derek Samagalski and lead Colin Hodgson won their first event of the 2019-20 season, downing 2018 Olympic champion John Shuster from Chaska, Minn., last Thursday in the final of the Uiseong International Curling Cup.
The reigning provincial men's curling champions won six straight, including a 10-3 triumph in the semifinal over hometown favourite SooHyuk Kim to set up a showdown with Shuster.
"It was a great event for the team, and we had a great time overseas," Carruthers said Wednesday. "It was great to play as a regular foursome again and it went really well."
McEwen underwent knee surgery in May and didn't return to the ice until the end of September, missing the team's first two events of the fall before rejoining the squad for the Mother Club 'spiel at the Granite Club — won by Jason Gunnlaugson of Morris — and the event in South Korea.
Carruthers said they're intent on keeping the roll going at the 28-team bonspiel west of Winnipeg.
"It's a great field, one of the strongest we'll play as far as tour 'spiels all season," he said. "We have tough competition, for sure, but the nice thing is we love playing in Portage. The ice is always fantastic. (Icemaker) Greg Ewasko does a great job and Canad Inns puts on a great show and treats the curlers really well. It's an annual stop for us, and will be for as long as the event keeps running."
McEwen and Carruthers joined forces to begin the 2018-19 season, the start of a new, four-year Olympic cycle, and flip-flopped a couple of times on who would guide the team. They settled on McEwen throwing final stones and calling games and Carruthers playing third — and the team won the Viterra Manitoba title and earned a trip to the Brier in Brandon.
"We were on a learning curve our first year together as a team and I feel like we've done lots of growing as individuals and as a team, and I'm really liking what I'm seeing on and off the ice," Carruthers said. "We've committed to this lineup. This is Team Mike McEwen. We did enough juggling around that first year, I feel like we've come to a strong agreement that this is our best lineup moving forward and we're all excited about the positions we play on this team.
"At this point, we're ramping up. We're trying to gain as many points as we can throughout the season to put ourselves in a good spot to grab a spot (in the Olympic Trials, set for Saskatoon in late November 2021). For our team, we want to be one of the direct-entry spots."
Team McEwen will likely compete in about 15 WCT and Grand Slam of Curling events. It has already qualified for the opening two Slams, the Masters, from Oct. 22-27 in North Bay, Ont., and the Tour Challenge, from Nov. 5-10 in Pictou, N.S.
This is second year of the Olympic cycle, and Canadian men's and women's teams are banking critical points to enhance their standing on the Canadian Tour Ranking System (CTRS).
So, just how robust is the lineup in Portage on the Thanksgiving weekend?
The 2016 and '17 world champions, Edmonton's Kevin Koe and Brad Gushue from St. John's, N.L., respectively, are in the mix, as is Brendan Botcher of Edmonton, who lost the last two Canadian Brier finals. A trio of high-powered Toronto squads, John Epping, Glenn Howard and Scott McDonald, add to the star power of the field, as does former Winnipegger Matt Dunstone, now out of Regina.
Travelling from from far afield are Chang-Min Kim, who competed on home ice at the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, Peter De Cruz of Geneva, Switzerland and Yusuke Morozumi of Japan.
Some terrific local teams are competing as well, including Gunnlaugson, Braden Calvert of Assiniboine Memorial, William Lyburn of the Granite, Tanner Horgan of Winnipeg Beach, Ty Dilello and Riley Smith, both of Fort Rouge, Sean Grassie of Deer Lodge and Kelly Marnoch of the host community.
The Portage Club plays host to a pair of major events on successive weekends. The 32-team Canad Inns Women's Classic is scheduled for Oct. 17-20.
The world-class field for that event includes WCT third-ranked Kerri Einarson, fourth-ranked Jennifer Jones, and seventh-ranked Tracy Fleury, all from Manitoba, No. 2-ranked and reigning world champion Silvana Tirinzoni of Switzerland, No. 1-ranked Ottawa's Rachel Homan, Eve Muirhead of Scotland, and Jamie Sinclair and Nina Roth, both of the U.S.
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).
Updated on Wednesday, October 9, 2019 at 7:20 PM CDT: Updates headline
8:16 PM: Fixes headline.
8:29 PM: Fixes typo.
11:28 PM: Updates photos