8 Ends: Lucky 13th GSOC title special for Team Epping’s Savill

Watch as Kevin Koe has some bad luck with his final rock allowing John Epping to pick up his fourth career championship in the Grand Slam of Curling.

TRURO, N.S. — The first major test for teams in the new Olympic cycle is in the books following the conclusion of the Canadian Beef Masters.

Two revamped rosters met in the men’s final with Toronto’s Team John Epping holding on to edge Calgary’s Team Kevin Koe 7-4. It was Epping’s fourth different major title victory in the series, his third as a skip, but his first with veteran second Brent Laing and lead Craig Savill, who joined him and third Mat Camm this season.

Meanwhile, two teams that decided to keep their rosters intact clashed once more for the women’s championship. Three-time Masters champions Team Rachel Homan of Ottawa and their quest for a quad came to a halt against Sweden’s Team Anna Hasselborg, who scored a game-winning three-ender in the final frame to win 8-7. It was Hasselborg’s second title in the series and second straight to start the 2018-19 campaign.

Here are some takeaways from the Canadian Beef Masters:

1st End: This is 40

Savill turned 40 years old during the event and what a way to celebrate with his 13th career Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling title.

What makes this one extra special is it comes five years since his last — which also happened to be at the Masters while playing alongside Laing on Team Glenn Howard — but also comes early into his full-time comeback to competitive curling.

Savill was forced to step back from the game in late 2015 when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After earning a clean bill of health the following year, Savill bounced around joining Edmonton’s Team Charley Thomas for part of the 2016-17 season and then linked up with Winnipeg’s Team Reid Carruthers at alternate heading into the Olympic Trials.

Now back on tour for good and rejoining his best friend has made this victory sweeter.

“This one feels really good getting back on playing full-time again,” Savill said. “These Slams are really tough to win so any time you get an opportunity to be in a final and have a chance of winning is always good. Proud of the boys with how they played this week and happy for John because that gets his career Slam.”

Savill and Laing, who have now won a record seven Masters men’s championships, actually denied his current skip an opportunity at winning the event once when Team Howard topped Team Epping in the 2011 final.

“It was kind of funny, we joked that this one is the easy one because we won it six times,” Savill said. “It’s nice for Johnny and it’s nice for us because as a new team you want to start playing well and we put in a good week together.”

Laing said it’s a back-end game before reneging and admitting you need a good lead for this one.

“I can’t win this one without him,” said Laing, who won two GSOC titles, but not the Masters, during the previous quadrennial with Team Koe. “I guess this is a lead’s spiel. This Slam you need the best lead. This is the only one that’s proven.”

Savill added: “It’s pretty cool playing with Brent again, obviously. He’s one of my best friends in the game and to be able to come back and just compete and play with three great guys, just play with this team, it’s a lot of fun. We have a lot of fun on tour and travelling and stuff, it makes it easy.”

2nd End: Hasselborg re-asserts status as best in the world

As they say, once you clear the hurdle of winning one, the rest will come in bunches.

Team Hasselborg earned their second Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling title just shy of a month of winning their first at late September’s Princess Auto Elite 10. Sandwiched between their GSOC wins was another championship victory on home ice at the Stockholm Ladies Curling Cup.

“When we won the first one, I felt like now we can do it, we know how to do it,” Hasselborg said. “A really good feeling coming into this final and we kept the patience going all the way.”

Hasselborg, who was already No. 1 on the World Curling Tour’s Order of Merit, also reclaimed the top spot on the year-to-date standings from Team Kerri Einarson as well.

While Hasselborg hammered through the Princess Auto Elite 10 with an unblemished 6-0 record, this run was a different story finishing round-robin play at 2-2 and needing to climb out of a tiebreaker against Einarson no less. Hasselborg then topped reigning world champions Team Jennifer Jones during the quarterfinals in an 8-4 fierce finish taking two in the seventh and stealing two in the eighth. A win over Team Casey Scheidegger in the semis set the matchup against Homan and another chapter in their rivalry that has been sizzling since juniors.

Really it came down to one misfire from Homan landing on a guard that opened the door for Hasselborg to hit for the win.

“For sure it’s really nice,” third Sara McManus said. “Now we’ve won three in a row and I can honestly say sometimes you need to maybe lose some games just to get back in and refocus and try to just work on the details that you want to work on. It’s never a bad thing to lose, it sucks obviously, but I think it was a good thing for us this week. We played great after our second loss.”

There will be no three-peat for Team Hasselborg though as they’ll miss next week’s Tour Challenge while they prepare for the European Championships and focus on winning that premier event for the first time. The target is firmly on their backs but the team welcomes the competition.

“We have the confidence in the team now, so we can build on other stuff like … focusing on the details and especially communication,” McManus said. “I hope that we will have a good run at the Euros. Now every team wants to beat us but we kind of like that so it will be a lot of fun, I think.”

3rd End: Future is now for Team K. Jones

Reigning world junior champions Team Kaitlyn Jones of Halifax received the sponsor’s exemption to enter the event and proved they were a worthy addition. Jones went 3-1 through round-robin play to qualify for the playoffs with victories over Team Silvana Tirinzoni, Einarson and Homan.

Although their run came to an end against Team Chelsea Carey during the quarterfinals, it was a valuable experience for the young squad and they proved they could hang with the world’s best.

“We really enjoyed it overall,” said Jones, who made her Pinty’s GSOC debut at last season’s Humpty’s Champions Cup. “We definitely came here to play and we definitely showed these teams we can play with them. We also just had fun while we were doing it and knowing that we were playing in another Grand Slam is always exciting. We hope to be back.”

Jones’s local fans packed the stands for their games and the team thrived on the energy they provided.

“Having the crowd on our side was definitely helpful because everyone was so animated and electric and you just feed off of that,” she said. “I think that is part of why we did so well is because having those people here, cheering loud for you and cheering for made shots just gives us that much more motivation to do well.”

4th End: Jet-lagged Jones, Gushue gone in quarterfinals

It would have been understandable had Team Jennifer Jones and Team Brad Gushue not seemed like themselves this week. Both defending champions had arrived at the Canadian Beef Masters straight from competing on the other side of the world in China.

Jones and Gushue saw their title defences end in the quarterfinals. While Jones was in good spirits all week, Gushue was completely honest about feeling out of sorts.

“I’m kind of glad it’s over, to be honest,” said Gushue, who was eliminated by Sweden’s Team Niklas Edin. “I think we all felt some level of fogginess or jet lag, I guess, even right up to the last game but it did get better as the week went on. Certainly, with how we felt in the first game, I think if you told us we’d make the playoffs and lose in the quarters we’d might have said OK we’ll take it. Especially with how that first game went, we were pretty fortunate to win it.

“Overall, it was a fun event, a good event, and definitely worth it, the whole experience last week and this week. I just wish we could have felt a little bit better.”

Gushue said the plan when his team finally returns home to St. John’s, N.L., is to rest up and then prepare for next week’s Tour Challenge and yet another title defence (these guys sure win a lot, eh?)

“Really the next few days is getting over the last two weeks. That’s going to be priority No. 1,” he said. “I would imagine when we get home, get in our own beds, that’ll be three or four days and then probably leading into the weekend some heavy practice and iron out some of the kinks that have developed over the last couple weeks.

“I certainly expect us, come next Tuesday night when it starts in Thunder Bay, that we’re ready to go and that we’re back to peak game.”

5th End: Broadcast booth is now Jill’s house

There was a new voice for CBC’s coverage of the women’s quarterfinals and men’s final: Jill Officer.

The nine-time Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling title winner at second for Team Jennifer Jones made the natural transition from the ice to the booth after stepping back from competitive curling earlier this year.

Officer said it was good although she was a little nervous as expected.

“It’s obviously a totally different side for me to look at curling,” she said. “I do have a broadcasting background; I went to school for journalism and worked in TV for a few years, so that part of it I’m comfortable with. It’s just actually sitting up there and analyzing my peers was a little bit different from normal. I seem to be getting some positive feedback at this point, I’ll just keep going in there and doing my best.”

As fate would have it, Officer’s first game featured Team Jones taking on Team Hasselborg in the quarterfinals. Talk about an awkward start but also perhaps fitting, too.

“It was certainly different to be calling their game as opposed to being part of it, so it was a little bit weird,” she said. “It almost seemed like it was supposed to happen that way to some degree. I was comfortable in one sense that I could talk about them because I’m familiar with them but it was uncomfortable in a sense because they’re my teammates and I’m still respecting all the stuff we’ve done as a team and the secrets we keep.”

Officer is still with Team Jones as their alternate and re-joined them for their trip overseas to China playing lead while Dawn McEwen stayed home. She really enjoyed the experience, especially getting to know new second Jocelyn Peterman.

“It’s a different world over there, the culture is so different and the food is different. There are adjustments with that but that was to be expected,” she said. “I really just enjoyed actually getting on the ice again. As much as I’ve stepped away from full-time play, it’s not that I didn’t want to be on the ice at all. I just knew I couldn’t keep the same schedule for four years and I needed to get away. It was October before I was even on the ice this year, that’s very abnormal and that was just in preparation for China.

“I was excited to be back with the girls and spend some time with them. I got a great opportunity to spend some time with Jocelyn and get to know her because I’m still involved with the team to a certain extent and being a fifth player, I think that was an important relationship to have. It was just nice to be out there again and feel the competition.”

6th End: Plys has big shoes to fill

Reigning Olympic gold medallists Team John Shuster, from Duluth, Minn., welcomed Chris Plys at third this season after Tyler George decided to hang up the broom and his worn-out curling shoes.

Plys, who previously played with Heath McCormick, is having fun already with his new squad and sporting some much cleaner kicks.

“It’s been an enjoyable experience so far,” he said. “I’m still just trying to figure out what exactly the guys need from me and what I need from the guys but every tournament has been getting a little bit easier and easier to deal with that way.”

Part of the reason Plys has been able to blend in easily is his connection to second Matt Hamilton. The pair won back-to-back U.S. junior curling titles in 2008 and 2009 and captured gold and bronze medals on the world junior stage as well.

“Chris has been one of my best friends since I had started curling with him in juniors in 2007,” Hamilton said. “We had talked about joining forces again for like years and it never worked out. It was either the (High Performance) Program, or he got on a team and I didn’t, so it was one of those ‘finally’ kind of moments. I’ve got to be honest, even just the off-ice things that we do, it’s great to have one of your best friends out on the ice with you.”

Plys concurred it’s been a blast both on and off of the ice side-by-side with Hamilton again.

“It’s fun playing with Matt,” he said. “I’m sure we drive each other crazy sometimes but it’s nice to, outside of the curling even, be able to hang out as buddies and get to travel together and stuff.”

7th End: Sickest shot of the week

How many times do we have to say it: You can never count out Koe. It’s no secret Koe likes to use as much of his allotted 33 minutes of thinking time as possible and has had some moments when it’s come down to the wire with the clock about to tick to zero.

Still, Koe is one cool customer and can get the job done under pressure as we saw during the men’s semifinals against Team Bruce Mouat. Koe trailed by two points and had only a handful of seconds left when he fired a pistol buzzer-beater right on target to get the double takeout and score three points to win 6-5.

We might already have our shot of the year and it’s only the second event.

It was like the time crunch didn’t even faze Koe as he was able to excellently execute the perfect shot. No wonder former third Marc Kennedy once called Koe a “cold-blooded assassin.”

8th End: Home for a rest

The Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling will be back next week for the Tour Challenge, which starts next Tuesday night at Tournament Centre in Thunder Bay, Ont.

It’s the largest event in the series with 60 teams split into Tier 1 and Tier 2 groups. Both game schedules are now available, check them out by clicking here.

Broadcast coverage begins Thursday, Nov. 8, at 11:30 a.m. ET on Sportsnet with online streaming available via Sportsnet NOW (Canada) and Yare (international). The broadcast schedule can be found by clicking here.

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