Brier notebook: John Epping, Ryan Fry allies on and off the ice

Team Ontario skip John Epping, right, looks to the scoreboard with second third Ryan Fry as they play Team Prince Edward Island at the Brier. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Ontario skip John Epping and third Ryan Fry both know they have each other's support whether they're curling together or not.

When Epping's Toronto-based team faced Newfoundland and Labrador's Greg Smith on Tuesday in the Tim Hortons Brier at Calgary's WinSport Arena, it marked the first time two members of the 2SLGBTQIA community skipped against each other in the Canadian men's curling championship.

Epping, who is openly gay, and Smith, who identifies as bisexual, posed for a photo with the Pride rainbow flag after the game, which was posted on social media and Fry was right there to shut down any negative comments.

“In my opinion, there’s no room to discriminate against anyone for any shape or form,” Fry told sportsnet.ca Thursday in a phone interview. “People are who they are and you respect who they are as long as they have good intentions and as long as everything is a positive influence, I don’t see a problem with anything. It has nothing to do with John being gay, it has to do with the fact that’s John a great person who has never done anything to hurt anybody in the world and for somebody to cast judgment on any minority or any group for being something that they’re not, to be quite honest, it’s absolutely gross to me.”

Epping also spoke to sportsnet.ca Thursday and called Fry the most loyal guy saying he “probably gets angrier about people coming at me than I do myself.”

“He’s somebody that has your back and protects you,” Epping said. “I’m kind of like the goalie in hockey as a skip, he’s going to protect me and the same with his wife, Jess. She’s on there too protecting me. We’re so lucky, [my husband] Tom and I, to have them in our lives that they -- she along with Ryan -- would protect and look after me and they don’t want anybody to hurt me but it is what it is.”

The two have been friends for over a decade towards the end of the aughts when Epping was playing second for Wayne Middaugh and rising up the ranks on tour while Fry was playing second for skip Brad Gushue. With identical front-end roles, they naturally struck up conversations while waiting near the hog lines in-between shots and from there it grew to chats in hotel lobbies or hanging out in the lounge for a post-game drink.

“I was a newer guy on tour, he was always good to me, fun to be around and loved to joke around with me,” Epping said. “There was kind of this instant bond with him and it lasted over the years even though we never played together. It lasted throughout our teams and at one point when he was playing with Team [Brad] Jacobs he moved to Toronto. We hung out as friends and met, at the time, his fiancée Jess and Tom and myself and the four of us really hit it off and became even closer than before.”

That friendship continued to grow as Epping emerged as one of the top players in the sport winning three Grand Slams as a skip (plus one while playing second with Middaugh) while Fry captured Olympic and Brier gold medals with skip Team Jacobs and a total of five Grand Slams. Even when Fry moved to Calgary for a bit, Epping happened to land a job in Cowtown, too, and they were still able to hang out.

“John and I always kind of gravitated towards one other when we were on opposite teams, so when I was curling I was always keeping an eye on him,” Fry said. “He’s a super nice, genuine guy and it had nothing to do with curling at the time.”

There had been rumblings about the two of them teaming up one day and it was something they even pondered. Nothing serious took shape until Fry parted ways with Team Jacobs in 2019.

“Teams have shelf lives and for Team Jacobs they had a great run, were together a long time and I just think for him it was probably the right point to leave,” Epping said. “For us, Ryan obviously knew we already had a team together but Ryan offering that up to come and play was something I didn’t want to turn down.”

There’s typically caution when mixing business and friendship in any walk of life but neither had any doubts. Epping explained he’s not the type of person to think like that or think ahead too much and said “honestly, it never crossed my mind” it wouldn’t work out.

“Knowing our personalities too, if we were different on the ice we would make sure that we would adapt or have those conversations,” Epping said. “Ryan’s a straightforward, straight-shooting guy, doesn’t beat around the bush and I love that. I’m the kind of guy that doesn’t like fluff. ... I knew that’s probably what I was getting from our friendship side of it so to me no. If it wasn’t, we’d sit down and talk about it and figure it out to a point where it would be working but we definitely haven’t had to have that conversation just because it’s been going great so far.”

Fry knows they’re not argumentative people -- although in his case it’s not a concern about starting arguments, he just doesn’t back down when provoked -- and echoed Epping’s comments about it not being a concern. Instead, he was focused on performing to the level he can.

“More than anything when you start a new team you’re concerned with: Can I bring the same talent that I brought in my past teams?” Fry said. “I think every top player deals with that every single year when you step on the ice. You’re like ... am I as good as I was last year or do I still have it? I know every curler out there has that thought. Then you get playing again and things start rolling and you start making shots. It’s no secret on how you win at curling: You have to have high-performing athletes make a large percentage of their shots. When we do that we win quite a bit and sometimes when you’re not doing it as much your buddy helps you get over that hump of not playing well. It’ll give you that little extra kick in the ass that helps you win games.”

The partnership has lived up to both of their expectations and the results on the ice speak to that. The retooled Team Epping won back-to-back events to start the 2019-20 season at the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard and Shorty Jenkins Classic, captured the Canada Cup to clinch an Olympic trials spot and finished runner-up at the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling’s Meridian Canadian Open. Even with this season condensed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Epping landed in the winner's circle at the Stu Sells Toronto Tankard in October.

“It’s a lot of fun and you can just see the friendship is there,” Epping said. “There wasn’t even really, people call it that honeymoon stage when you play together, but you know each other for so long you can act how you want to and there are no feelings about it. I’ve known him for so long so I know what I’m getting, I know the kind of person that he is. I don’t want him to change just because we’re on the ice together. I want him to be exactly the same as I know him off the ice and I think that goes a long way. We can be honest with each other. We can laugh a lot but if we’re mad at each other, that’s common, and if we weren’t it would be weird. It’s super easy and obviously going well so far.”

For Fry, it’s a much different atmosphere than how it was when he was playing with Team Jacobs.

“The way I spent seven years before coming to John, it was a very high intensity, very beat your chest type mentality and killer spirit and [stuff] that goes around with that,” Fry said. “It was way too intense and with John, there’s a little bit more ... it’s hard to explain. There’s more ease, you don’t have that fear of letting people down because it’s a lot more accepting of the person you are and the type of personality. I think just as I was growing up trying to get out of some of my old tendencies and old mindsets, he was just the perfect guy to help bring that along and it’s worked out great.”

Epping received flack online for bringing Fry on board as it meant shuffling third Mat Camm and second Brent Laing down spots in the lineup and leaving lead Craig Savill as the odd man out. Laing broke the news to his longtime friend Savill with Epping following up shortly thereafter, however, that didn’t stop the keyboard warriors from expressing their displeasure. Fry was right there throwing himself into the online fire to defend his skip from all the negative comments.

“That’s the way I go through my life,” Fry said. “I’m a pretty loyal guy. As long as it’s a good situation, I’m going to support that person to the bitter end and John’s the same way for me. ... That’s the one thing with me is curling with guys you’re really good friends with is extremely important. You can’t get through anything. You can’t be in a marriage or have really good friends unless you support one another and that means supporting one another to the absolute bitter end. If John ever needs me, he knows I’m going to be there and that goes both ways.”

Epping said it’s also nice their results on the ice helped silence the critics and naysayers, too.

“That proved it right there and I don’t know how I could’ve said no when one of the best players -- not just even one of the best thirds but one of the best players in the world -- is asking you to come and play,” he said. “It’s just not an opportunity I could pass up and I don’t think the team could have at that time.”

Wednesday night’s game against Wild Card Two, skipped by Kevin Koe, was a perfect example of things going the other way. Fry struggled shooting 63 per cent but Epping relied on his vice skip to hold the brush in the right spot for his own shots and came through big time in the sixth end. Although Ontario was up by two points, Koe held the hammer and was like a shark sensing blood in the water threatening to score big. Epping, who fired at an outstanding 92 per cent pace, was able to deliver back-to-back beauties and Ontario managed to steal two points to extend their lead. Ontario continued the pressure and stole additional points in the seventh and eighth ends to win 9-3 and hand Koe his first loss of the tournament.

“Sometimes a team’s going to struggle but if I have a great game we’re going to come back,” Epping said. “But it’s also gone the other way where he’s played absolutely fantastic and I’m hanging on for dear life but because he’s played so well we’re still able to win the game. That’s curling and that’s the way it is. We’re all trying our hardest. When you struggle you hopefully make up for it and he made a couple of unbelievable line calls [Wednesday] night. So he might have struggled on the ice but he comes through and makes a couple of huge line calls for us that were obviously critical on my shots.”

Fry added: “The one thing with back-ends is when one guy is struggling, the other guy picks him up and that was a perfect instance. I don’t have bad games that often but when I do it always seems John’s there to back me up and that’s exactly who you want behind you if you’re on the back end.”

Quick hits

- The Tim Hortons Brier has crossed the first cut with the field down to eight teams for the start of Friday's Championship Pool. The usual suspects are all there -- defending champion Gushue, Jacobs, Koe, Epping, Saskatchewan's Matt Dunstone, Alberta's Brendan Bottcher and Manitoba's Jason Gunnlaugson -- however, Wild Card Three with Middaugh calling the shots not only made it through but also topped Pool A with a remarkable 7-1 record. Middaugh has been a human highlight reel shooting the lights out at an 85 per cent pace, good for a tie for third overall among all skips. For those wanting a "traditional" Brier, imagine how things would have looked if Curling Canada hadn't added a second and third wild card.

- Middaugh is a shoe-in for a mid-event MVP even with Gushue leading all skips at a sparkingly 92 per cent including two perfect games. Wild Card Two third B.J. Neufeld (88 per cent), Alberta second Brad Thiessen (90 per cent) and Quebec lead Jean-Francois Trépanier (94 per cent) top their respective positions.

- Considering the pandemic wiped out most of the season and practice ice has been hard to come by for most, it’s a surprise there weren’t any tiebreakers to throw another wrench into the plans. New Brunswick's James Grattan, who went 4-4, came close but fell one win short following an upset loss to Northwest Territories late Thursday.

- Wild Card One's Mike McEwen also finished with a 4-4 record to miss the Championship Pool. McEwen finished strong Thursday with a 10-3 win over Northwest Territories and a 14-2 rout over Yukon but it was too little, too late.

- It’s no secret starting with the hammer is a huge advantage. We saw at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts teams with the last rock in the first end went on to win over 70 per cent of games. Through the Brier preliminary round, the team that started with the hammer won 48 out of 72 times or 66.67 per cent. What’s interesting is if you only look at games featuring teams that eventually moved onto the Championship Pool, it’s nine out of 12 or 75 per cent. Middaugh (7-1 in pool play) was 6-0 when starting with the hammer, Bottcher (6-2) was 5-0 and Koe (7-1) was 4-0. Holding the hammer in pool play is determined by a draw-to-the-button shootout and the best in that regard was Gushue, who won the shootout in seven out of eight games. It's something to keep an eye on during the Championship Pool and through the playoffs.

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