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Wednesday, 4 February 2015

It's Tankard-Sipping Time
#Brier2015 Dreams will Become Reality for Some

How fitting is it that Tim Horton's Roll Up The Rim contest starts this week?  Well curling fans across the country will hope to make the perfect out turn on their Tim Horton's cup hoping for a win, some of the finest curling athletes will be hitting the ice looking for a few perfect out turns of their own.  The Road to #Brier2015 will be in full force across the country this week with provincial championships.  The coveted provincial tankard jackets will be up for grabs over the next few days in NWT, BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Northern Ontario, PEI, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland & Labrador.  Some of the boys will be lucky enough to take a sip not from a Timmy's cup but from a much bigger prize...a provincial tankard trophy!

For some provinces, their Brier representative in Calgary has already been determined.  Based on results over the past few weeks, here is who we know will be in #YYC from Feb. 28 - March 8:

Team Canada:  John Morris
Quebec:  Jean-Michel Menard
Yukon:  Robert Smallwood
New Brunswick:  Jeremy Mallais

On quick view, already a few questions arise looking at this list.  For one, the Brier will welcome a Team Canada representative for the first time.  And what a perfect year for this with Calgary being the host, resulting in two Alberta entries this year.  John Morris has taken over the skipping duties for last year's national champions, joining Pat Simmons, Carter Rycroft and Nolan Thiessen.  As many know, last year's winning skip Kevin Koe has a new team this year and is back into the Alberta provincial territory dog yard (more on that below).  Also, Yukon will have it's own representative this year....as well as Northwest Territories and Nunavut.  Unfortunately, Nunavut has declined their invite this year but hopefully we will see them in future Brier events.

This is a similar format to the Scotties.  A Team Canada representative returning every year, a Northern Ontario rep (which was always included for the men but a first this year for the women) and separate entries for all Territorial representatives.  As well, the Brier will also feature a pre-qualification tournament.  Based on previous years' results, this year will see reps from Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Yukon and Nunavut (had they participated) compete.  I will leave my thoughts on this for future Scotties/Brier preview blog posts though.  Let's get to the provincial previews.

For the Scotties provincial blog post (found HERE for anyone interested), I started out west.  For the Brier, I will start my preview out east.

PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND

The top 6 teams on the island will convey in Alberton to crown their Brier representative.  The PEI Tankard follows a similar format to the PEI Scotties, with a triple knockout.  If one team can win the A, B and C events, the tankard is theirs.  Win two of the three, and you need to be knocked off twice in the championship round.  If we see three separate winners, B plays C in a semi-final with the winner playing the A winner.  Got it?  Good!

Without a doubt the favorite is the Adam Casey rink.  They enter the event almost as a lock to win.  Very few people are giving any of the other teams a realistic chance.  Casey should enter as the favorite though after the outstanding season on tour this year.  Casey has had a few runner-up finishes, notably at Shorty Jenkins and Cookstown.  They have participated in two Grand Slams (National, Canadian Open) and even though they failed to qualify, they were still competitive with the best teams.  Let's also remember, Casey himself has been to the past 3 Brier's as second for Brad Gushue's Newfoundland champions.

Casey may not just cake walk through the competition and could be challenged by last year's PEI tankard finalist Jamie Newson and previous champion Robert Campbell.  As well, Tyler MacKenzie, second on last year's PEI representative Eddie MacKenzie team, moves to skip this year and is joined with last year's teammate Sean Ledgerwood at lead.

PEI Championship:  Team Casey over Team Newson

NEWFOUNDLAND & LABRADOR

So does anyone really expect Brad Gushue to lose in Labrador City this week?  Gushue has represented the Rock at the past 8 Brier events and 11 overall.  Yes, often this has been with a new team and this year will be no exception.  Gushue is back with vice Mark Nichols and have nothing short of success.  Other than red hot McEwen (whom Gushue has beaten a few times this year) "The Goo" has been on fire this season picking up 2 Grand Slam titles.  Let's just give this one to Gushue now!  I think the bigger news on this front is how only 1 team entered the event to challenge Team Gushue....1 TEAM!!  Much respect to Gary Wensman for at least attempting to knock off the champ.  They will compete in a best-of-5 format to determine The Rock Champ.  I think Gushue still steamrolls to this but the bigger concern is what does this mean for the future of curling in this province?  This is a HUGE concern...

NEWFOUNDLAND & LABRADOR Championship:  Team Gushue over Team Wensman

NOVA SCOTIA

Oh our bluenose friends from Nova Scotia.  This is an interesting year for, what has normally been, a successful and competitive province on the national level.  We only need to look back to 2004 when Mark Dacey pulled off the HUGE win in the final over the heavily favored Ferby Foursome from Alberta.  The next year, 2005, Shawn Adams made the final, losing oddly enough to the same Ferby team.  This province has more Brier wins (3) than Quebec (2), Newfoundland & Labrador (1) and the still winless provinces/territories of New Brunswick, PEI, Yukon and NWT.  Unfortunately, after the debacle of 2014 when Jamie Murphy's foursome went 0-11, this year's Nova Scotia team finds itself in the pre-qualification event. 

Murphy will be back in Halifax to defend his provincial title, albeit with a different front end.  Mark Dacey also returns looking for revenge perhaps for losing last year's final to Murphy.  Dacey has assembled the same team as last year and should be considered the favorite.  There are also a few other familiar names looking for stake claim on the Molson Coors Tankard: Ian Fitzner-Leblanc, Chad Stevens and Tommy Sullivan.  Interesting to note, Sullivan added former 6-time Nova Scotia Champ, the tree-standing-esque vice Paul Flemming to his team this year.  This addition could be a huge plus for this team and I would consider Sullivan the dark horse pick to knock off the favorites.  The 8 teams in Halifax will play a round robin format with the top 4 advancing to a page playoff to determine the Nova Scotia Champion.

NOVA SCOTIA Championship:  Team Dacey over Team Sullivan

NORTHERN ONTARIO

Hmmm, we may be seeing a theme here so far with this blog post.  Similar to the 1st two picks above, can we just hand this one over to Team Brad Jacobs.  The 2014 Olympic Champions enter playdowns after missing last year....you know only to compete on the grandest sports stage of them all, the Olympic Games!  And we saw how well that worked out for them...GOLDEN!  We could go on and on about the Jacobs resume but I think you all know it by now.

Can they face some challenges this week though?  Defending champ Jeff Currie returns.  And what abou the Ice Man himself Al Hackner returning to take a run at a Brier berth.  The regular's of Mike Jakubo and Bryan Burgess could also present small roadblocks on the Road to Calgary for Team Jacobs.  8 teams will enter the round robin-style event.  The top three teams advance to the championship round, with top place getting a bye into the finals (Jacobs) and 2nd playing 3rd for a chance to claim runner-up rights....I mean play in the championship.

NORTHERN ONTARIO Championship:  Team Jacobs over Team Hackner (I like an upset)

ONTARIO

Well now we hit some upsets...most notably Glenn Howard not participating in this event.  The 15-time provincial champion, 4-time world champion failed to qualify.  This leaves this event wide open.  Defending champion Greg Balsdon returns.  His path to a back-to-back championship will not be any easier even without Glenn.  John Epping and team head into this event as, I would say, huge favorites to grab his 1st provincial tankard.  Epping has had an outstanding year on tour, currently sitting number 10 on the Order of Merit standings.

While Glenn may not be in Thames Centre, Ontario, the Howard family name will still be represented.  Scott Howard, Glenn's son, has joined forces with Mark Kean this year and will be looking to return to the Brier, this time as a player and not an alternate.  Howard played 5th man for Glenn's winning team in 2012.

And what about Peter Corner?  Corner partnered up with former Howard vice and world champion Wayne Middaugh to qualify out of the challenger round.  They enter wearing the dark horse role.  Middaugh may be absent for the event but Corner will still have experience on his side being joined by Graeme McCarrel.  Don't overlook Rob Rumfeldt or Joe Frans either.  And looking for a young up and coming dark horse to watch?  Pay attention to Aaron Squires team at this event.

The Ontario Tankard event is a long and grueling one.  The 11 teams competing have to survive a round robin format just to make the playoffs.  Taking on the other 10 teams in the field can get tiring.  Not to mention the risk of getting sick, as we have often seen at Brier and Scotties events with a long round robin.  A team can really only afford 3, maybe 4, losses at most to have a realistic shot at the playoffs.  Unlike the Brier, there is no page playoff.  The first place team receives the bye to the final while second and third place battle in a semi-final.  This event started on Monday and wraps up on Championship Sunday.  If you want to get into Brier mode though, this format will send its champion ready.

ONTARIO Championship:  Team Epping over Team Kean

MANITOBA

If Ontario is considered a grueling format, the Safeway Championship taking place in Brandon, Manitoba this week has to be considered a Gauntlet Match right out of American Gladiators...and just as confusing to some.  32 teams....yes 32...in comparison to 2 in Newfoundland...will make the trip to Brandon for the Safeway Select.  Interesting name considering it appears Manitoba will select almost everyone to compete for a Buffalo.  On top of a large field, the format is equally as interesting.  They use an A and B qualification format.  4 teams will advance from the A side.  Think of this in a similar fashion to the NCAA March Madness bracket where teams are placed into pods with the top 4 overall seeds potentially winning their pod and qualifying for the next round.  Once you lose in A, you drop down to a B pod, again where 4 teams will qualify.  From here, we see our Final 8 Championship round.  Previous records are wiped clean as this round is a double knockout, again with an A and B side.  Your two A qualifiers advance to play one another in the AvsA page playoff game while the two B qualifiers advance to play one another.  Once we have our Final 4 (A1, A2, B1, B2), it is a simple page playoff system to determine the champion.  Got all that?  Good!!  If not, simply head over to CurlingZone and check out the bracket (probably easier than understanding my explanation).

Similar to most of the provincial tankard events mentioned above, this one also has a HUGE favorite: Team Mike McEwen.  They are the top ranked team in the world and on tour.  No team has looked as determined as them this year (except maybe Gushue).  This is the big one for Mikey and the boys though.  Having lost 4 provincial finals (2010-2012, 2014) and a semi-final in 2013, you cannot help but want to see these guys finally win a Buffalo.  They are without a doubt the best team in the world to never play in a Brier, let alone win one.  This seems like their season; however, we have seen this script before.  McEwen enters playdowns as the top seed, looking like this is his year only to run into Stoughton and suffer another loss (2011).  Will the red pants make a lucky appearance come championship weekend in Brandon and help these boys find that elusive title?  They have won basically everything else there is to win on tour.

Of course, it won't be easy as 31 other teams are waiting to knock them off.  The thorn in Mike's side, Jeff Stoughton, will return for another run.  Yes, he has a new team.  Yes, he hasn't looked like the Jeff of old throughout the season.  But NEVER count out a past national and world champion.  Jeff elevates his game like no other at provincials and I would expect nothing less this year.  Besides, how great of a motivator would it be for Stoughton to enter with a new team and bring home the same result over heavily favored McEwen?  How is that for motivation?  But wait...what about Team Reid Carruthers?  Ah the Rama Rollercoaster as I affectionately called them during the season.  Don't get me wrong, I really like Reid.  I think he has been curling the best he ever has.  I like vice Braeden Moskowy as well.  I was a huge fan of his when he curled out of Saskatchewan.  In fact, at the Brier in Edmonton, Moskowy was kind enough to give me tickets to a draw and a playoff game.  How can you not love the guy?  This Carruthers team is too good to be a dark horse but too new to be a favorite, if that makes sense?  They have excelled on tour and in the slams but have also had some head scratching results.  I think those are in the past now.  This team seems dialed in to make a run at the top dogs.  Many would argue, myself included, that Reid should have been given the #2 seed at this event, given how they have played this season.  If you combine the Brier experience of Reidarama, Moskowy and second Derek Samagalski, this team is the most experienced team in the field.  All three of these men have been there before so nothing will surprise them.  They will be prepared and focused...all you need to do is follow Samagalski on Twitter to know that: see #BuffaloHunting

Besides the top three, who else can perhaps be a dark horse?  Well I would be looking at current 2-time Canadian Junior Champion Team Braden Calvert.  Calvert and company are coming off a repeat performing win in Corner Brook to keep their Cdn Jr. title.  They enter on a hot streak and will not be shy playing the big boys.  Plus Calvert finds himself in the pod with #4 seed William Lyburn, a easier draw to the playoffs for sure.  Lyburn cannot be completing dismissed though as they have put together a solid year on the Manitoba tour and are always a threat come provincials.  I'd would keep on eye on Daley Peters, Jared Kolomaya and Richard Muntain.  Team Dunstone, being skipped by the speedy and hard throwing Jason Gunnlaugson, could surprise as well.  Dunstone is over in Spain representing Canada in the World University Games but Gunnlaugson is no slouch to skipping.  Just Youtube his name and see how fast and how hard he can throw (4 second peel)!  We haven't seen him in awhile since the infamous move to Russia but he is back in Manitoba and I would guess ready to make a statement!  Brandon is really in for a full week of action.

MANITOBA Championship:  Team McEwen over Team Carruthers

SASKATCHEWAN

Ah the home province.  I may not live in Saskatchewan but I was born and raised and this is the province where I truly started my love for the sport of curling.  Once considered a regular threat to win the Brier every year, Saskatchewan is suffering through a huge drought.  #TeamGreen has not seen a Brier champ since Rick Folk in 1980.  Oddly enough the year I was born...maybe I brought a curse to this province?  In fact, the last time Saskatchewan was even a finalist was in 1995 with Brad Heidt (who had Mark Dacey as his vice).  Rick Folk won another Brier in 1994 with BC and, as mentioned above, Dacey found success in 2004.  So the province is still turning out champions, they just happen to wear other provincial colors apparently.

This year, Team Laycock enters the event in Melville as a huge favorite.  Team Laycock just missed out on a playoff spot at last year's Brier in Kamloops, finishing with a 6-5 record.  The boys have found success on tour this season and are coming off an amazing run at the Canadian Open Grand Slam in hometown Yorkton (losing the final to Gushue) and, more recently, won the US Open of Curling in Blaine, MN to start 2015 (beating Carruthers in the final).  But don't just hand over the SaskTel Tankard to the boys quite yet.  Yes, last year finalist Brock Virtue left for Alberta after his team disbanded but there will still be many threats to Laycock.  Most notably in the name of Heidt.  Nope not dad Brad but son Josh.  Josh Heidt has had a very successful run on the SK Tour this season and enters the tankard with a serious shot at making his first Brier.  Josh isn't the only Heidt trying to continue the success of the family name.  Drew and Mitch Heidt will also be in Melville playing with Shaun Meachem.  Not a favorite but perhaps a dark horse.  Other big name challengers should come from last year's playoff teams Jeff Hartung and Kevin Marsh.  A few past champions are also in the field with Randy Bryden, Joel Jordison, Scott Bitz and Jamie Schneider looking to turn back the clock and land another Green Jacket.

The SaskTel Tankard will see 16 teams compete in a triple knockout format.  The four qualifiers (A, B, C1, C2) will advance to a page playoff format to determine the 2015 #TeamGreen.  Expect to see Laycock in that A position but there are at least 6 or 7 teams who have a realistic shot at nabbing the remaining 3 playoff spots.

SASKATCHEWAN Championship:  Team Laycock over Team J. Heidt

ALBERTA

Oh Waiwright, AB will be rocking this week with the Boston Pizza Cup taking place.  It is an interesting time to be in Alberta as well.  There have been numerous changes to the top teams, with Kevin Martin retiring, Kevin Koe leaving his 2014 Brier-winning team and joining up with past Martin players Marc Kennedy and Ben Hebert and the return of Brock Virtue.  The remainder of the previous edition of the Koe Clan will still be going to Calgary as Team Canada though, skipped by past champ John Morris.

Koe will enter the event as a favorite to repeat.  Yes, he has a new team and perhaps they have struggled a bit on tour this season, but this is a very experienced line-up.  The addition of Brent Laing at second only gives this team added championship experience.  They will be tough to beat.  But they can be beat....

Enter Brendan Bottcher!  The past CIS and World Junior Champion Bottcher has been on a tear this season on tour and is ready to step up and play with the big boys.  Bottcher is coming off back-to-back semifinal appearances at the most Grand Slam events (The National, Canadian Open) as well as a huge international victory at the German Masters.  Bottcher was disappointed with how his team played in Lacombe last year but, with a small line-up shake over the off season, this team is ready to roll.

Welcome back to Alberta Brock Virtue.  The former Alberta-based skip, turned Saskatchewan Brier representative is now back home in Calgary.  And what a foursome he has assembled.  He is joined by vice Charley Thomas, himself a two-time Canadian and World Junior champion.  Thomas skipped his own team to a 4th place finish last year in Lacombe.  The addition of Brandon Klassen and D.J. Kidby at front end should help make this team a formidable one this week. 

A few other keys names to watch out for include Matthew Blandford's team.  Blandford surprised many in Lacombe last year winning the B-event and finishing 3rd overall.  This team will not catch anyone by surprise this year though and should be a playoff threat once again.  Interesting fact on skip Blandford (besides being a Patriots fan and hoping to ride Patriots luck this week), he is the last man to beat Gushue at the Newfoundland & Labrador Championships, oddly enough on this exact day Feb. 4 back in 2010.  Gushue hasn't lost since!  Team Jamie King should also be considered a threat at this event.  Disappointed with the result last year, a slight line-up shake and this team appears ready to challenge for the BP Cup once again.  Looking for a dark horse?  Perhaps look no further than Aaron Sluchinski.  Although, if you ask Jessi Wilkinson, he may offer up a much DIFFERENT opinion.

The Boston Pizza Cup uses a similar triple knockout format we see in other provincial championships.  The 4 qualifiers advance to a page playoff system to crown the new Alberta Champ.  For a look back at the 2014 Boston Pizza Cup, from my own personal fan/volunteer experience with CurlingZone, visit my blog post HERE.

ALBERTA CHAMPIONSHIP:  Team Bottcher over Team Koe

BRITISH COLUMBIA 

Vernon, B.C. will welcome 16 of the top curling teams within the province looking to lay claim to the CDI BC Mens Championship.  Defending champion Jim Cotter is back, without John Morris though of course.  Cotter will have his regular line-up though with the addition of Ryan Kuhn at vice.  Cotter rolled through this competition last year and, even without Morris, should be a good bet to qualify for the page playoffs.  This is still the core team who finished runner-up at the Roar of the Rings and Tim Horton's Brier last year.  The experience factor coupled with being so close to winning the biggest events of the year should only help propel this team this week.

Unlike last year however, I expect Cotter to run into numerous challenges in his effort to reclaim the title.  Last year's finalist Jason Montgomery returns to the field as well as fellow page playoff team Brent Pierce and Tom Buchy, both with new line-ups though.  Sean Geall split from Pierce and joined forces with Andrew Bilesky and seems to have found a winning combination on the BC Tour this season.  The Geall-Bilesky back end combo could be dangerous for their opponents.  Remember, Bilesky participated in the 2013 Brier and I am sure he would like to get back to big stage and reverse his record (1-10).  Grant Dezura also returns after a disappointing finish in last year's event.  They have also found success on the BC Tour and should be considered a team to possibly knock off the defending champs.

And welcome back Dean Joanisse.  Joanisse is a former Canadian Junior Champion and two-time Brier participant (2001, 2007).  We have not seen him back on the BC stage for a few years though so he is a welcome addition to the field.  With a young team, experience could be a factor working against them.  However, Dean has the skipping experience on the big stage to lead this team.  They should be considered a dark horse to win this provincial title.  The win at the Vancouver Island Shoutout in November showed this team can run the table and pull out the victory.

BRITISH COLUMBIA Championship:  Team Geall over Team Cotter

NORTHWEST TERRITORIES

Polar Power is in full force this week in Inuvik, NWT.  For the first time ever, we have a NWT Championship where the winner advances straight to the Brier.  In the past the NWT Championship would send two teams to the Yukon/NWT Territorial Championship to find the Territories rep.  Not this year!  And not only will NWT have their inaugural Brier representative, they also avoided participating in the pre-qualification event due to the outstanding results of Jamie Koe over the past few years.

Koe will of course be back and ready to lay claim to the inaugural NWT Champ title.  He will be very hard to beat.  In the past, his stiffest competition has generally come from a Yukon representative.  On the positive side of things, the new format actually sees 6 teams competing for this title.  That is more than a few other provinces (*cough* Newfoundland *cough*).  Stephen Moss has been to the Brier before and should be the biggest challenge to Koe.  Nick Saturnino could be a dark horse as well. 

NORTHWEST TERRITORIES Championship:  Team Koe over Team Saturnino

So there you have it.  10 provincial/territorial championship events taking place this week, 10 champions soon to be crowned to complete the Tim Horton's Brier field in Calgary.  As usual, please feel free to share your comments, whether you agree or disagree.

If you live in or around any of the venues, try to head down and cheer on all these teams.  Remember, many of these guys have given up a lot to pursue this dream, from family time to career aspirations to friendships/relationships.  They have devoted a lot of time towards the sport they love and are passionate about.  I am sure they would love nothing more than to curl in front of motivated fans.  Cheer on the teams, pick your favorites and, if given the chance, meet up with them after the draws for a nice beverage and let them know you enjoyed watching them curl.  They are just guys after all...we all enjoy a good drink, good conversation and meeting people who all share the same love for the sport.

Remember:  Today Is Going To Rock!!
My new coffee mug from my parents this Christmas