Olympic Trials finals preview: Who will be crowned Team Canada?

Faizal Khamisa, Joan McCusker and Mike Harris preview the final of the men’s side at the Roar of the Rings on Sunday.

OTTAWA — For two curling teams, their Olympic dreams will come to fruition Sunday at Canadian Tire Centre. For two others, it’ll be heartbreak and back to the drawing board for another four years.

Team Koe clashes with Team McEwen in the Roar of the Rings men’s final Sunday while Team Homan faces Team Carey on the women’s side in a battle of the past two Scotties Tournament of Hearts champions for a chance to wear the Maple Leaf on the grandest sporting stage of them all.

“We all know what’s at stake tomorrow,” skip Rachel Homan said following her 6-3 semifinal win Saturday over Team Jones. “We know it’s on the line but we know we’ve best prepared ourselves and there’s nothing we would change coming into this week and going into tomorrow. So we’re really exactly where we need to be.”

How did the teams get here and who has the edge? Let’s break it all down.


TEAM KOE

Roster: Kevin Koe, Marc Kennedy, Brent Laing, Ben Hebert

Hometown: Calgary

Road to the final: 7-1 round-robin record, first place, bye to final

Team Koe has been building for this momentum right from the start when they assembled their super squadron at the start of the Olympic cycle. All four members have deep resumes earning every possible title there is with their previous outfits. Grand Slams? Check. Brier? Check. World championship? Check. You get the picture.

Kennedy and Hebert have been here before and also won the Olympic gold medal with all-time great Kevin Martin at skip on home ice at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. It doesn’t get any more intense than that, my friends. These guys have nerves of steel and can deliver under any situation.

Meanwhile, Laing has been close in the past during his days with Glenn Howard falling in the 2009 trials final to Martin. He was also in the stands in Sochi, Russia, when his wife Jennifer Jones claimed the 2014 Olympic gold medal.

Their first season together was a bit of a disappointment but they nailed it in year two right from the start of the 2015-16 campaign winning the inaugural Tour Challenge Tier 1 title in Paradise, N.L. (defeating Brad Gushue in the final in his backyard). They won the Brier right here in Ottawa (again beating Gushue in the final) and captured the world men’s championship, the first time Canada did so since 2012, coincidentally when Laing was playing with Howard.

The Koe crew returned to the Brier the following year in St. John’s, N.L., with the Team Canada auto-berth but the storybook ending for Gushue came to be in the final rematch.

Koe had some lucky breaks earlier this week, none bigger than against Brad Jacobs when the reigning Olympic gold medallist threw his last rock right through the rings in the extra end to give up the steal. They’ve been firing on all cylinders since and look like the Team Koe that won those Brier and world championships. Don’t put too much stock in their loss to Gushue to wrap up the round-robin Friday as both teams had their seedings already secure and were playing a lot looser.

Koe, who beat McEwen 6-5 during round-robin play, is an ace who has come through in the clutch time and time again. His team will start with the hammer and have rock colour choice, both of which will be key to a good start.

And if you believe in coincidences check this out: Canada’s men’s team has alternated back and forth from guys throwing the last rock named Kevin and Brad for the past few cycles with Martin in 2002, Gushue in 2006, Martin again in 2010 and Jacobs in 2014. If that trend holds up then it’s time for a Kevin to win it again … or maybe we’re due for another Mike since we haven’t had one of those since Harris in 1998.


TEAM MCEWEN

Roster: Mike McEwen, B.J. Neufeld, Matt Wozniak, Denni Neufeld

Hometown: Winnipeg

Road to final: 5-3 round-robin record, third place, defeated Gushue 6-4 in semifinal

McEwen got as close to Olympic curling without actually curling in the Olympics. The skip attended the 2014 Sochi Winter Games with his wife Dawn McEwen claiming the gold medal while playing lead for Canada’s Team Jones. Is it now Mike’s turn to strike and win the trials?

“I hope so,” McEwen said with a smile. “It ‘s been a long time coming since we’ve played for a Maple Leaf and it’s finally going to be here tomorrow. I just hope this is our time.

“We’ve done everything we’ve wanted to do as far as ticking the boxes to get ready here; everything that we’ve thought we needed to do. So with that in mind, I think we can go out there and play free a little bit. It’s not like there’s anything more we could have done. We’ve just got to go out there and play the shots and the outcome will be what the outcome will be.”

McEwen skipped Canada to gold at the 2003 Winter Universiade (Denni Neufeld was part of that team and Kennedy was the alternate) and finished runner-up to Gushue at the 2001 Canadian junior championship, so it has been a while since wearing red and white has been in the conversation for him.

While McEwen lacks the international experience, they’ve been money on tour. Rewind back to the beginning of this quadrennial and McEwen was on fire out of the gate winning four consecutive tournaments to start 2014-15 and finished the season with a total of eight titles including two in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling. They’ve captured a total of six championships altogether in the series.

Representing Manitoba at the Brier had eluded McEwen for years but he’s shaken that off recently earning the Bison patch the past two seasons. McEwen reached the Canadian men’s championship playoffs both times finishing fourth in 2016 and winning bronze earlier this year.

McEwen said he has learned from his mistakes losing to Koe in the Brier semifinal game.

“I wasn’t patient. I was feeling a lot tense that game,” McEwen said. “I didn’t feel like I had quite the touch that I wanted and there were some shot calls that were sort of forcing the issue that cost us, for sure, to have maybe an easier shot to win. Yeah, for sure, there were lessons learned from that game. You can’t make those mistakes against a guy like that because if he’s on, he’ll make you pay.”

Not having the hammer in the semifinal against Gushue was no problem for McEwen, who pulled it off to score the 6-4 victory. McEwen was laser-focused and you’d have to be to oust the reigning world champion. Can he beat the odds again and do the same against Koe?

“Absolutely we can replicate that,” said McEwen, whose team shot 87 percent. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so comfortable. Well, it’s not perfectly comfortable but being able to handle whatever anxiety was there, I never felt better in this arena under that pressure.

“I think that kind of calmness and support that my teammates have, not just for me but for everyone out there, we’re going to need that tomorrow because when Kevin’s on we might have to play exactly like that to beat him. If guys are off a little bit maybe it won’t take quite that performance but we have to be prepared to play 90-plus as a team, I’m not sure what we were today as a team, but probably had to be in that area to beat Gushue.”

TEAM CAREY

Roster: Chelsea Carey, Cathy Overton-Clapham, Jocelyn Peterman, Laine Peters

Hometown: Calgary

Road to the final: 8-0 round-robin record, first place, bye to the final

Team Carey won eight straight games to get to the final but can they win the one that matters the most?

All four have played with the Maple Leaf on their backs before. Carey, Peterman, Peters and third Amy Nixon won the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in 2016 during their first season with the Winnipeg-born skip at the helm. They just missed the podium at the world championship falling to Russia’s Anna Sidorova in the bronze-medal match.

Carey took the bronze at last season’s Scotties Tournament of Hearts and Nixon announced her retirement immediately after. Enter Overton-Clapham, who has done everything in curling except play for Canada at the Olympics during her illustrious Hall of Fame career. Overton-Clapham, from Winnipeg, has one world championship, five Canadian titles plus five Grand Slams.

Team Carey did sneak away with a big one in the round-robin against Julie Tippin wiping out a four-point deficit with a deuce in nine and a steal of three in the 10th to come from behind for that victory. Otherwise, they have been playing outstanding this week — you don’t clear the table against a field of this calibre otherwise — and Carey has never played better.

Starting with the hammer and having rock colour choice are keys here as Carey can dictate the flow of the game and cannot afford to let Homan wrestle that away by stealing or forcing to start.

Homan sure likes to hit and Carey will have to set up some bait to try and force her opponent into making tricky shots that could result in steals if she’s an inch or two off the target.

TEAM HOMAN

Roster: Rachel Homan, Emma Miskew, Joanne Courtney, Lisa Weagle

Hometown: Ottawa

Road to the final: 7-1 round-robin record, second place, defeated Team Jones 6-3 in semifinal

If anyone is prepared to take on the rest of the world, it’s Team Homan. The Ottawa-based club has won a medal of every colour at the world championship capturing gold last season in China where they went undefeated 13-0.

Having the home-crowd advantage is something they enjoy, just see how that worked out for them in the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in St. Catharines, Ont., last season. It also played into Jones’s favour during the 2013 trials in her hometown of Winnipeg and it’s having the same effect on Homan here.

Chants of “Let’s go, Homan” (followed by thunderous claps) erupted during the semifinal against Jones, a game Homan controlled right from the start. The Team Homan train is running at full steam ahead with the skip shooting a phenomenal 93 percent in the semifinal. That’s the dominant Homan we saw a couple year ago who won three consecutive Grand Slam championships.

They were slow to start this season missing the playoffs at the first couple Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling tournaments — tricky ice conditions were a factor, too — but they were planning on ramping it up to peak for this moment. As Miskew would be quick to say (as she has to this reporter in the past): “You don’t win Olympic gold medals in September and October.”

Homan and Carey faced off in the first round-robin draw here with the latter winning 8-4, but that was over a week ago with not a whole lot on the line (well, compared to now that is) but turned out to be the difference-maker in deciding the bye, hammer and rock colour choice.

“I’m sure they’re going to bring their absolute A-game,” Homan said. “Everyone wants to be in this position and we’re fortunate enough to be in this position in our hometown in front of the crowd. [I’m] just going to enjoy every moment tomorrow and really relish that we’re the hometown team.”