Eight Ends: Carruthers carrying on with McEwen on the mend

Mike McEwen (left) and Reid Carruthers (right) discuss strategy during the 2018 Princess Auto Elite 10 in Chatham-Kent, Ont. (Anil Mungal)

Eight Ends is your weekly source for news, notes, insight, and analysis from around the curling world. This edition features takeaways from the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard in Oakville, Ont.

1st End: They’ve committed to Mike McEwen as their leader and renamed the team, but for the interim Reid Carruthers is calling the shots again for the Winnipeg club with their skip on the IR.

McEwen is recuperating from off-season knee surgery and targeting a late-September return. He missed his team’s opening event and will be out of the lineup next weekend as well for the Shorty Jenkins Classic in Cornwall, Ont.

Daley Peters is subbing at third as the team is taking a cautious approach and not rushing McEwen into the season to avoid the risk of re-injury.

“I know it’s killing him not to be out here with us,” Carruthers said. “We very much would like him to be here. We’re really happy to have Daley here sparing for us but the big picture is not September for Mike. The longevity, he’s like me he’s had on and off knee issues but he is on the mend and only time will heal his injury up fully so that he’s able to play the whole season pain-free.”

McEwen said he had surgery on his left knee in late May and is basically at the tail end of rehab.

“Another couple of weeks, I should be ready to get things going,” McEwen said over the phone Thursday. “I have been on the ice, I was on the ice yesterday for the first time. I’m not competition-ready by any means. … I’m just not quite comfortable yet to head out into the thick of battle.”

Team McEwen missed the playoffs at the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard with a 1-3 round-robin record.

“We were definitely a little rusty,” Carruthers said. “I felt like there were some throws that I would have wanted back but it was our first time out on the ice. I obviously had expectations of us doing well but in reality, we haven’t thrown as much as we should have as a team. We’re going to use this time before Cornwall to our advantage and try and get some practice throws in.”

Team McEwen is currently ranked 15th on the World Curling Tour and on the bubble for qualification into the Masters with the cutoff for the first Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling event happening next week.

“That would be a big disappointment if we weren’t in the Slams,” Carruthers said. “It’s been a while since Mike’s team or my team didn’t qualify for one. We have our work cut out for us. We have another weekend, at least we have one more weekend, to grab some points and then see where that puts us.”

2nd End: News flash: John Epping and Ryan Fry have been friends for years. It wasn’t a surprise when the two linked up on the ice this season.

Epping said it’s been awesome and an easy fit with Fry now at third on his Toronto-based team.

“Ryan and I have been great friends for a long time and we’ve both been excited to start this new partnership,” said Epping, who defeated Matt Dunstone 7-3 in Sunday’s final to win the Oakville Tankard. “We’re both really jacked about this. It’s really great.”

Fry added it’s a different dynamic on Team Epping but something he’s really excited to be a part of now.

“It’s a way different feel than the teams I’ve played with in the past,” Fry said. “To have guys that are that professional and very easy-going, just being friends with John on top of that, makes it great.”

Bringing in Fry at third meant Epping had to shuffle his lineup moving Mat Camm over to second and Brent Laing to lead (the team parted ways with Craig Savill). Although Epping enjoyed his years with Camm as vice skip in the house, he said the adjustment to second has been easy.

“He’s such a great hitter and throws the rock so straight and so hard. His feel and touch game has really developed over the last couple of years,” Epping said. “Last year, to me, was just such a breakout season for him. He was so awesome. He played so solid, kind of the star of our team last year.

“It’s funny, he’s kind of the last guy I talk to before I throw. Now when I’m in the hack and looking up, he’s the guy. He knows how to handle me when I’m sitting in the hack and as does Lainger already too. Fry is starting to figure it out and it’s been awesome so far.”

3rd End: Anna Hasselborg was super excited to get the season underway. That enthusiasm carried over as her Swedish squad captured the women’s Oakville Tankard posting a perfect 8-0 record including a gruelling five wins in 24 hours.

“We had a really good off-season and summer break and feel recharged,” said Hasselborg, who beat Anna Sidorova 5-2 in the final. “We like the season planning that we have ahead, so it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

4th End: It’s a new team and a new look for Thomas Ulsrud. The Norwegian skip, famous for wearing colourful Loudmouth pants on the ice, has taken the reins for Steffen Walstad’s club.

“They’re younger guys, I can play lighter weight and they’ll sweep it a heck of a long time,” Ulsrud said. “So far, so good.”

The 47-year-old Ulsrud, who earned silver at the 2010 Winter Olympics, might look different sporting normal black pants on the ice but it’s the same colourful personality.

“Before I used to be an average curler with some funny pants, everybody knew, so I now I have to try and win some games actually,” Ulsrud said with a laugh.

5th End: Tyler Tardi closed the book on his junior career with one year of eligibility still remaining. Considering the B.C. skip won back-to-back world junior titles though, he had nothing left to prove.

“It’s obviously hard to let that go with it being such a big part of my success so far but opening up a new chapter of my life, it’s really exciting,” Tardi said. “I’m really excited to see where it takes me.”

Team Tardi went 3-1 in round-robin play to qualify and lost 4-3 to Kirk Muyres’ squad from Saskatoon in the first playoff round. Tardi said his team hadn’t played since early August and believes they performed pretty well overall.

“It was nice to qualify in our first real big men’s spiel of our careers,” Tardi said. “It was a good start to the season and it’s nice to know we can definitely hang in with some of the big teams, even fight back when we’re in a big deficit. It was a nice start to the season and I’m excited to see what’s coming up.”

6th End: Kelsey Rocque’s team arrived in Oakville two weeks ago ranked 26th in the world and now head home to Edmonton having stormed the charts into 15th thanks to consecutive semifinal finishes.

“We had some really good weeks, lots of experience playing some of the best teams in the world and learning a lot as a team,” Rocque said. “I’m really glad we came out to Ontario and had a couple of pretty productive weekends for sure.”

Since they weren’t that far from Toronto and Niagara Falls, Team Rocque spent their downtime between the Oakville Fall Classic and Stu Sells Oakville Tankard playing the role of tacky tourists.

“We did Niagara Falls and the aquarium and the CN Tower and everything, so that was awesome,” Rocque said. “This is our second year together so we’re all really close, spent a lot of quality time together in the 10 days.”

7th End: Winnipeg skip Jason Gunnlaugson figured if he was going to bring in new second Adam Casey from Charlottetown, they might as well get their mileage worth and start their season in Japan.

“It’s like P.E.I. is a million miles from everywhere,” Gunnlaugson said. “It’s been fun and it’s cool having Adam, who has played remotely a little bit, so he knows what he’s got to do but it’s still tough when you don’t have ice. It’s nice that we have gotten enough ice time early in the year for him.”

Gunnlaugson had a lot of fun visiting Japan, running curling clinics and interacting with the local players as well as getting some quality ice time for his team.

“For the team, we got a lot of time on the ice, which we had no other way of doing,” he said. “With Adam being from P.E.I., it’s tough for the Maritime guys to get early ice and that helped facilitate some of that.”

8th End: American skip Korey Dropkin was inspired watching compatriot John Shuster capture Olympic gold at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games. Dropkin’s team is part of the U.S. High-Performance Program based in Chaska, Minn., and the self-proclaimed Young Bucks are looking to follow in Shuster’s wake.

“It’s definitely really neat to see John and those guys go out there, win gold, show that path and lead the way,” said Dropkin, who is originally from Southborough, Mass. “They did a really phenomenal job and it’s very inspiring to all of us. It marks a spot on our ticket, hopefully, in the future.”

Dropkin has also seen how Shuster’s victory has helped raise curling’s profile in the U.S. and said the growth has been “really tremendous.”

“There’s been an increase in interest and it’s been really cool to see everyone have the reaction towards the Olympic gold, have the interest in the sport and wanting to get out on the ice and try it out,” Dropkin said. “I think it’s almost challenging for the U.S. to be able to come up with enough ice and enough clubs to support the amount of interest that we have. I think we’re all hoping that it continues to lead towards growth all over the U.S.”

Although being dubbed the Young Bucks may imply they’re the future, the 24-year-old Dropkin is looking to close the gap and make sure his time is now.

“We work really hard on and off the ice,” he said. “We’ve had a little bit of a difficult start so far but we’re improving most every game and continue to look forward and do what we can to improve in even just the smallest ways. It’s definitely a difficult task but we’re looking forward to the season and the next few years the cycle has to offer.”

Extra End: Who would have thought Glenn Howard would retire as a store manager of The Beer Store before he’d step back from competitive curling? The 57-year-old Ontario skip, who quit his day job in May, is really excited to play another year, especially with his son Scott Howard at third.

Considering Howard’s team is ranked 12th in the world currently, who could blame him?

“I think last year we had a terrific year,” Howard said. “We were sixth or something in the country and 10th or 11th in the world. We’re building a little bit. …

“I know myself, I’m going to have a lot less stress in my life because I don’t have to be working, I can actually practise more, which is kind of cool. I love playing with the kids, obviously, my son Scotty on the team. I’m really excited about the year and I’m really looking forward to it. I want to keep playing and I’m having fun.”

Howard is still working with The Beer Store on a contractual basis in a spokesperson/media relations role and was featured in their advertising campaign against the provincial government’s proposal to allow the sale of alcohol in convenience stores and gas stations.

The Beer Store is also now one of Team Howard’s major sponsors on their jerseys that resulted from a chat between Howard and president Ted Moroz, who expressed an interest in being part of the team.

“I appreciate that from Ted because it’s not something they do a lot of,” Howard said. “We have some great charities in the business but we don’t do a lot of sponsorships for events and teams or this sort of thing, so for him to break outside the mold is really cool. I really appreciate his support and The Beer Store’s support.”

Double Extra End: The reports of the death of 10 ends were greatly exaggerated. The World Curling Federation held its congress and annual general assembly in the great curling city of Cancun, Mexico, last week with the discussion of shortening 10-end events to eight ends among the topics. Fans of 10 ends can breathe a sigh of relief (for now) as the WCF opted to defer the motion.

It’ll continue to be a pressing issue as talking to players in Oakville, the popular opinion among them is eight ends across the board is the way to go. We’ll check in with more players this upcoming weekend at the Shorty Jenkins Classic in Cornwall, Ont., to gather their thoughts for a future article.

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