8 Ends: McEwen’s chickenpox game highlights provincial takeaways

Michael Jordan has his flu game as a feat of mythical sports proportions and now another Mike has his chickenpox game.

A quick primer: Jordan came down with the flu prior to Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals but managed to score a team-high 38 points and power the Chicago Bulls to a critical 90-88 victory over the Utah Jazz to take a 3-2 series lead. The Bulls shut it down the following game to claim their second consecutive NBA championship and fifth title in seven seasons.

Winnipeg skip Mike McEwen’s story doesn’t share the same ending but Sunday’s Viterra Championship final will still go down as one of the most unbelievable sets of circumstances in curling lore.

The two-time Manitoba champion McEwen spent three nights in a hospital with a serious case of chickenpox while his team carried on through the men’s provincial championship as a trio. Vice B.J. Neufeld moved up to skip, earning tournament all-star honours at the position, while second Matt Wozniak and lead Denni Neufeld threw three rocks each.

They could have opted for a substitution from the spare pool but chemistry is huge, especially when they’ve been together for 11 seasons now, and the double knockout preliminary round doesn’t exactly leave a lot of room for error while you’re getting used to a new player. Team McEwen, minus McEwen, won four consecutive games before falling to Reid Carruthers in Saturday’s Page 1-2 playoff and B.J. Neufeld was still in charge for their 6-2 victory over J.T. Ryan in Sunday morning’s semifinal.

McEwen was discharged from the hospital and like a storyline out of pro wrestling, not only did he make it to the arena in Winkler, he was also back in the lineup for the championship rematch against Carruthers. McEwen called the game while throwing third with B.J. Neufeld remaining at fourth.

It was a valiant effort for the weakened McEwen, who was still covered in pox marks, against one of the top teams in the world and he managed to push Carruthers to the limit stealing in the ninth to tie it up and requiring a last-rock hit from his opponent to secure the championship in the 7-6 decision.

McEwen’s sixth loss in a provincial final probably doesn’t hurt as much as the previous ones. Although it hasn’t been made official, his team is the clear No. 1 on the Canadian Team Ranking System and is all but assured a spot in the brand new wildcard play-in game for another opportunity to qualify for the Tim Hortons Brier.

Here are some other takeaways from Sunday’s provincial playdowns in Eight Ends.


1st End: Kudos to Carruthers

Full credit to Team Carruthers, who went undefeated 7-0 through quite possibly the toughest provincial tournament in the country.

The West St. Paul club typically starts slow out of the gate on the season but once they get rolling they’re a powerhouse. Even their 4-4 record at the Roar of the Rings isn’t indicative of how they played with lead Colin Hodgson and second Derek Samagalski topping the percentages at their respective positions while third Braeden Moskowy and skip Carruthers were both in third place. It just so happened the ones they did miss came at the worst possible times.

Carruthers, now a five-time Manitoba champion, will look to improve upon his disappointing 4-7 run at the Brier in 2015 and may not be the only Manitoba team in the hunt depending on who emerges as the wildcard.


2nd End: Epping off to the Brier for 1st time

Toronto’s John Epping is finally heading to the Tim Hortons Brier and what a Dairy Farmers of Ontario Tankard final it was.

The three-time Grand Slam champion entered provincials 10 times previously and came up short including two runner-up finishes. Of course, when all-time great Glenn Howard is in control that’s a hard obstacle to overcome.

Even this year in Huntsville, Epping lost to Howard twice, once in the A event final of the triple knockout and again in the Page 1-2 playoff game. The third time (or 11th time depending on how you look at it) was the charm.

Howard opened with the hammer but played a defensive game blanking six consecutive ends (that’s a lot of bagels on the board). However, it was Epping who scored first stealing two in the seventh. The 17-time champion Howard was forced to a single in eight and Epping, holding the hammer for the first time in the game, added three more points in the ninth to close out the 5-1 victory.

Like McEwen before him, Epping had been tagged as the best skip to have never played in a Brier yet. The key qualifier there was always “yet” and Epping will now get his chance.


3rd End: Bottcher makes it back-to-back with a beauty

Edmonton’s Brendan Bottcher captured the Alberta Boston Pizza Cup for a second consecutive year and ran the table once more with an unblemished 5-0 record.

Bottcher closed it out big time with a 9-3 victory over Karsten Sturmay in Sunday’s final in Spruce Grove.

There was no epic celly from third Darren Moulding this time — he charged down the ice to bearhug Bottcher a year ago — and there were just normal handshakes from a team that acted like they had been there before (well, they had).

While Team Bottcher’s end-game celebration was muted, it’s probably because they spent it all jumping for joy after this shot in the sixth end. Bottcher’s in-off eliminated Sturmay’s stone and scored four to take control 7-2.

That sure beats just drawing for a single, eh?


4th end: Young guns firing

Speaking of Sturmay, the 21-year-old from Edmonton became the youngest ever to skip in the Boston Pizza Cup. Sturmay, a three-time Alberta junior champion, guides the University of Alberta Golden Bears squad as well. It speaks volumes to the strength of the U of A program with alumnus Bottcher also in the final while another grad, Thomas Scoffin, skipping Team Yukon at the Brier.

Sturmay didn’t give up after the deflating four-score in the sixth and even went for a crazy quadruple takeout attempt in the ninth end. It didn’t quite work out and allowed Bottcher to draw for a deuce and ice the game.

Meanwhile, Canadian junior bronze medallist J.T. Ryan also made waves reaching the Manitoba semifinals before falling to the Team McEwen tripod. Really it was one bad end that put Ryan behind the 8-ball when an opportunity to score a point in the second and close the gap 2-1 turned into a double steal and a 4-0 hole.

The 20-year-old Ryan, who still has another year of eligibility in juniors, has left his mark in an already deep province where heavy favourites Jason Gunnlaugson and William Lyburn didn’t even make it out of the opening double knockout stage while Pat Simmons fell in the group of eight and missed the Page playoffs.

5th End: Laycock avoids heartbreak to rep the home team

Saskatoon’s Steve Laycock has been featured in promotional material for the Tim Hortons Brier in Regina, so it’s a good thing he’s actually going to be there.

Laycock will represent the host province after defeating former teammate Colton Flasch 9-7 in Sunday’s SaskTel Tankard final in Estevan.

It was Flasch’s replacement, Matt Dunstone, who delivered the final blow. Laycock scored five in the fifth to lead 6-2, but Flasch chipped away at the deficit and narrowed the gap to 8-7 in the ninth when Dunstone, who moved up from second to fourth stones in December, faced three on his last and hit and rolled too far to give up two. Dunstone didn’t mess up again looking another trio in the 10th and made the hit to secure the title.

Laycock, who is now a seven-time Saskatchewan champion, fell to the C event of the triple knockout and needed to win four straight games to capture the trophy again.


6th End: New champion for Newfoundland

Greg Smith emerged as the Newfoundland and Labrador Tankard champion with 14-time winner Brad Gushue already heading to the Brier in the Team Canada auto-berth spot.

Smith defeated Andrew Symonds 9-6 in Sunday’s final in St. John’s and just watch his celly after capturing the title.

If you’re wondering who Smith is: The 21-year-old is a two-time provincial junior champion and has already made his Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling debut. Smith was one of the regional teams selected for the inaugural Tour Challenge Tier 2 held in Paradise, N.L.


7th End: Geall tops Cotter in B.C.

Sean Geall ended Jim Cotter’s reign winning the belairdirect B.C. men’s championship 9-7 in an extra end Sunday in Parksville.

Geall and third Jeff Richard had claimed provincial titles previously, in 2009 and 2010 respectively, before Cotter’s rise to dominance capturing six B.C. championships in seven years including four straight (either as skip or vice with John Morris).

Cotter was back in the skip’s seat with Morris already in South Korea for the Winter Olympics and was cruising along until the final where he sustained his lone defeat of the week.

That likely brings an end to Team Cotter’s season, they entered the week down in 45th on the World Curling Tour’s year-to-date, and it’ll be interesting to see what the members of the Vernon club have planned for next season.


8th End: Brier lineup almost complete

The Tim Hortons Brier field is not quite set with another round of provincial playdowns still to come this weekend for New Brunswick, Northern Ontario, Northwest Territories and Quebec.

Plus don’t forget the wildcard play-in game on the eve of the Brier between the top two teams on the CTRS who have yet to qualify.

McEwen is pretty much a lock for one spot while his opponent could be fellow Winnipegger Jason Gunnlaugson or Brad Jacobs of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Jacobs still has his playdowns and could catch Gunnlaugson with only a five-point gap should he not win Northern Ontario. Gunnlaugson will most likely be rooting for Jacobs, who has captured seven Northern Ontario titles in the past eight years, to claim it once more.

Team Skip/Playdown Dates
Canada Brad Gushue
Alberta Brendan Bottcher
B.C. Sean Geall
Manitoba Reid Carruthers
New Brunswick Feb. 7-11
Newfoundland & Labrador Greg Smith
Northern Ontario Feb. 7-11
Northwest Territories Feb. 7-11
Nova Scotia Jamie Murphy
Nunavut Dave St. Louis
Ontario John Epping
P.E.I. Eddie MacKenzie
Quebec Feb. 4-11
Saskatchewan Steve Laycock
Yukon Thomas Scoffin
Wildcard March 2