Eight Ends: Change at third key to Bottcher’s breakout

Curling analyst Mike Harris joins Brad Fay to break down both the Manitoba and Alberta Brier qualifying finals, where Mike McEwen and Brendan Bottcher prevailed.

Provincial playdowns have come to an end in Canada with the fields now complete for both the women’s Scotties Tournament of Hearts and the men’s Tim Hortons Brier.

Some familiar faces (and others in new places) are making return trips to the national championships, but it’s a first-timer who garners our attention and kicks off this week’s Eight Ends.

1st End: Change at third did Bottcher good

Brendan Bottcher doesn’t need to fake it anymore now that he’s made it.

Bottcher captured his first career provincial title Sunday with a 6-5 extra-end victory over Ted Appelman in the Alberta Boston Pizza Cup final.

The 25-year-old from Edmonton is heading to the Tim Hortons Brier for the first time to represent the province at the national championship next month in St. John’s, N.L.

Third Darren Moulding was instrumental in setting up the winner with a house-cleaning shot that de-cluttered the rings and set it up so Bottcher only needed to make a nice-and-easy open hit and stick with the last rock of the game to clinch to title.

If you thought Moulding was fired up after making that shot, check out his reaction when Bottcher pulled off the game-winner.

Given that Moulding just joined the team a few weeks ago, it’s remarkable how he’s been able to gel with the group in such a short period of time.

Bottcher, second Bradley Thiessen and lead Karrick Martin have been together since their days at the University of Alberta. It’s been finding that right vice skip that has been, well, their vice.

Mick Lizmore was dropped from the role in 2014 with Tom Appelman coming on board. After two seasons, another change loomed and with a prized free agent hitting the open market: Pat Simmons. Bottcher scooped up the two-time Brier champion and at the time cited Simmons’s experience as key to aiding him in his quest to finally make it on the national stage.

“You can always fake it until you make it but having someone on your team who’s actually been there and can articulate that and just knows what it takes and knows how to keep everyone in check, that’s something you can’t do everyday,” Bottcher said. “It’s something that very few people have done.”

Things didn’t quite click though and Bottcher and Simmons split over the Christmas break. While a mid-season shift might spell trouble for a team, that’s when Moulding entered the picture and so far has proven to be the missing ingredient for Bottcher’s squad.

2nd End: Team Canada berth opened door for Bottcher’s breakout

Bottcher’s biggest hurdle at provincials in the past has been the fact that three skips have had a stranglehold on the title since Y2K. The last time someone not named Kevin Koe, Kevin Martin or Randy Ferbey won the Alberta Boston Pizza Cup was way back in 1999 (Ken Hunka for you trivia buffs).

Ferbey and Martin are both retired (Martin serves as Team Bottcher’s coach) while Koe captured the Tim Hortons Brier last season to earn the auto-berth back as Team Canada. That guaranteed a new champion would be crowned in Alberta and Bottcher benefited greatly with his top rival out of the picture.

Still, it wasn’t an easy road by any means having to go the distance against Appelman plus Charley Thomas looming as a threat to win. Bottcher was up for the challenge and went undefeated en route to the title posting a 3-0 record in the triple knockout to qualify through the A side and dispatched Thomas 8-3 in the Page A-B playoffs.

3rd End: Double vision

While Bottcher is a new name among the Tim Hortons Brier field, it’s déjà vu elsewhere with defending champions back for another round. Given how we described last year’s Brier as stacked, that’s not necessarily a bad thing as we could be in for another classic.

Northern Ontario’s Brad Jacobs, Manitoba’s Mike McEwen and Mike Kennedy of New Brunswick successfully retained their provincial titles Sunday. Add an asterisk for B.C. where Jim Cotter returns, but with John Morris skipping. Morris competed in the past two Brier tournaments with Team Canada and reunited with Cotter’s crew this season. The Morris-Cotter stable was successful in their prior season together finishing runner-up at the Brier in 2014.

Other repeat winners include Brad Gushue of Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec’s Jean-Michel Menard, Nova Scotia’s Jamie Murphy, Ontario’s Glenn Howard and Jamie Koe of Northwest Territories.

Adam Casey is back as well, but representing a different province. After the P.E.I. native’s team split up following last year’s Brier appearance, Casey joined Team Meachem in Saskatchewan. Casey initially threw second stones before moving up to fourth and skipping the team to its first SaskTel Tankard.

Casey’s former lead Robbie Doherty throws the first stones for Eddie MacKenzie now so there is so overlap for Team P.E.I. as well.

Here’s a comparison of the Brier fields:

Team 2016 2017
Canada Pat Simmons Kevin Koe
Alberta Kevin Koe Brendan Bottcher
B.C. Jim Cotter John Morris
Manitoba Mike McEwen Mike McEwen
New Brunswick Mike Kennedy Mike Kennedy
Newfoundland & Labrador Brad Gushue Brad Gushue
Northern Ontario Brad Jacobs Brad Jacobs
Nova Scotia Jamie Murphy Jamie Murphy
Ontario Glenn Howard Glenn Howard
P.E.I. Adam Casey Eddie MacKenzie
Quebec Jean-Michel Menard Jean-Michel Menard
Saskatchewan Steve Laycock Adam Casey
Northwest Territories Jamie Koe Jamie Koe
Nunavut Wade Kingdon Jim Nix
Yukon Bob Smallwood Craig Kochan

Note: Nova Scotia, Nunavut, P.E.I. and Yukon will play in a pre-qualifying tournament.

4th End: McEwen makes it back to the Brier

It took Mike McEwen six trips to the provincial final before he won his first Manitoba Viterra Championship a year ago. Now he’s the back-to-back champ and turning into a regular at the Tim Hortons Brier.

McEwen slipped past Reid Carruthers 8-7 in Sunday’s heavyweight bout for the Manitoba title featuring two of the top teams in the world.

Having been down this road before certainly helped McEwen, who was sharp all week with the lone blemish to his 7-1 record coming in the Page 1-2 playoff. An unfortunate pick late in the game handed Carruthers a steal of two and a two-point lead that McEwen wasn’t able to recover from.

Carruthers wasn’t able to capitalize with the hammer advantage to start the final, giving up a steal in the first, but kept things tight until a heavy freeze attempt in the eighth end allowed McEwen to make a routine double takeout and score four to grab a three-point advantage.

With the Buffalo crest secured, McEwen will look to build upon his fourth-place finish from last year’s Brier.

5th End: U.S. nationals heating up

The U.S. national curling championships are already underway in Everett, Wash. While a win doesn’t necessarily guarantee a trip to the worlds, it does earn them spots to the season-ending Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling event, the Humpty’s Champions Cup.

John Shuster and Craig Brown have jumped to the top of the leaderboard on the men’s side with 3-0 records. Heath McCormick, winner of four tour titles this season, is stuck in the middle of the pack at 1-2, however, it’s only the third day of action and there’s plenty of time for things to shuffle.

The women’s tournament just started Sunday night, but in terms of favourites to watch you have to consider the high performance program teams skipped by Cory Christensen, Nina Roth and Jamie Sinclair. With the retirement of reigning champ Erika Brown, it’s an open chase for a successor.

6th End: Next gen stars set to shine at world juniors

The world junior curling championships are set to start Wednesday in South Korea. Edmonton’s Kristen Streifel and Tyler Tardi of Langley, B.C., skip the Canadian squads looking to make it a double-podium finish for a third consecutive time.

Streifel aims to make it four straight gold medals for the Canadian women’s squad following last year’s champ Mary Fay and Kelsey Rocque’s back-to-back wins in 2014 and 2015. Alternate facts: Karlee Burgess, who played second with Fay, will serve as the team’s alternate while Streifel herself was also the extra player for Rocque in 2015.

On the junior men’s side, it’s completely new territory for Tardi’s team, although Tardi and vice skip Sterling Middleton won gold in mixed curling with Fay and Burgess at the 2016 Youth Winter Olympics. Matt Dunstone earned bronze last year for Canada while Braden Calvert claimed gold in 2015.

The world junior champions also earn berths to the Humpty’s Champions Cup.

Canada tops the all-time table with 62 medals including 29 gold.

7th End: Rocque returns with gold medal

Move over Ryan Smyth, there’s a new Captain Canada in town.

Edmonton’s Kelsey Rocque captured gold at the Winter Universiade last week defeating Russia’s Victoria Moiseeva 8-3 in the final in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Rocque, who also served as Canada’s flag bearer at the event’s opening ceremony, now adds another medal to her expanding trophy case, which also includes back-to-back world junior championships from 2014 and 2015.

Rocque, third Danielle Schmiemann, second Taylor McDonald and lead Taylore Theroux took control of the final early scoring a deuce in the second end and stealing two in the third when Moiseeva came up light on her draw shot. Moiseeva capitalized on a late Rocque miss to score a couple in the seventh to narrow the gap 5-3, but that was as close as it would get from there as Rocque added another point in eight and stole two more in nine to bring out handshakes when Moiseeva was light on the draw again.

Rocque is now a perfect 3-for-3 when wearing the Maple Leaf on the global stage and at this rate those numbers are only going to increase.

8th End: Scotties Tournament of Hearts up next

The Scotties Tournament of Hearts begins Thursday in St. Catharines, Ont., with the pre-qualifier round before the main event gets underway Saturday.

Here’s the full lineup of teams:

Team Skip
Canada Chelsea Carey
Alberta Shannon Kleibrink
B.C. Marla Mallett
Manitoba Michelle Englot
New Brunswick Melissa Adams
Newfoundland & Labrador Stacie Curtis
Northern Ontario Krista McCarville
Nova Scotia Mary Mattatall
Ontario Rachel Homan
P.E.I. Robyn MacPhee
Quebec Eve Belisle
Saskatchewan Penny Barker
Northwest Territories Kerry Galusha
Nunavut Geneva Chislett
Yukon Sarah Koltun

Note: New Brunswick, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon will play in a pre-qualifying tournament Feb. 16-18.

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