Eight Ends: Honeymoon phase continues for new Team Epping

Toronto skip John Epping in action during the 2019 Humpty's Champions Cup in Saskatoon. (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 Shorty Jenkins Classic.

1st End: The “honeymoon phase” continues for John Epping and Ryan Fry and the way it’s going, it’s looking like a permanent vacation. Epping and his new-look Toronto club added their second tour title in as many weeks defeating Team Brad Jacobs 5-3 for the Shorty Jenkins Classic men’s championship Sunday.

Fry’s addition to the team over the off-season, following his departure from Team Jacobs coincidentally, raised more than a few Spockian eyebrows but you can’t argue with the on-ice results to this point, especially this latest title win. The Shorty Jenkins Classic featured a totally stacked 24-team men’s field including nine of the top 10 teams from around the world. (Think you can name the one team missing from the top 10 without checking? Find the answer in our extra end.)

As for the haters, Epping offered this mic-drop worthy quote following the victory.

“It gives us lots of confidence,” Epping said. “Ryan is fitting in so well with this team so far. Still finding our way together and it’s been awesome. If there were any doubters out there that didn’t think this would work, I think we’ve proved already that this team will do quite well.”

2nd End: Speaking of honeymoons, Team Jacobs is also riding high with new third Marc Kennedy. After taking a year off from competitive curling, the 12-time Grand Slam champion Kennedy is back and looking like he hasn’t missed a beat.

It helps Kennedy filled in at third on the Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., crew during the Canada Cup last season and helped them win that event, so the pieces are already there and they’re just looking to continue from there.

“They’re pretty easy guys to get along with,” said Kennedy, who is from St. Albert, Alta. “We’ve had some pretty good chemistry in our event last year at the Canada Cup and have just been building on that. There will still be some growing pains as we go along here but so far it’s a pretty smooth transition.”

Jacobs is also having a lot of fun getting to know his new teammate.

“It seems a little bit too easy,” Jacobs said. “This is our first event, call it a honeymoon event right, but we’re getting along really well. Rooming with him is easy. Being out on the ice, getting to know his tendencies, getting to know Marc a little bit better is a lot of fun. He’s just a spectacular guy and he’s fitting in really well with everyone on the team.”

3rd End: Although the World Curling Tour season started back in June officially with an event in Japan, this past week was the “true” beginning of the 2019-20 campaign with almost all of the elite teams out of the gate either in Cornwall, Ont., for the Shorty Jenkins Classic or in Edmonton for the Booster Juice Shoot-Out women’s tournament.

As mentioned, the Shorty Jenkins Classic is a monster event with no free spaces on the bingo card. So, how is it getting back onto the ice and right into the fire?

“If I had known it was going to be this tough at the start of the season, I think we might have picked a different event,” skip Brad Gushue said with a laugh. “I love the event. Gord (McCrady) does a great job here, Cornwall does a great job and Brockville in the past. I love the event, but certainly, it’s a tough field.

“Usually, when you come here you have a couple of tough games in your pool and a couple of others that if you play well you should end up OK but boy, oh boy, all the pools are really tough. In our pool, we started off with Ulsrud, Calvert, Howard, and Koe. It’s like a Slam. … When you start the season you want to see yourself build some confidence and play maybe some weaker teams. You don’t have that luxury here this week.”

4th End: Shorty, you da best. This was the 22nd running of the Shorty Jenkins Classic bearing the name of the late ice-maker known as the King of Swing who was beloved by all. Cornwall has embraced this as a big-time event with the club packed from morning to night throughout the week. The organizers make sure the players are treated well too and it’s a testament to the job they do just by looking at the field of teams returning every year.

Team Epping second Mat Camm is always the home-crowd favourite as the local boy but Rachel Homan’s squad from nearby Ottawa also had quite the fan support in the audience.

“We always love coming here,” Team Homan third Emma Miskew said. “It sucked last year that we couldn’t come — going to the World Cup, which was also a great experience — but we always miss when we can’t come and play close to home. All of our friends and family can come and watch us, which is lovely. We’re really happy to be back and it’s nice to make the semis in our first event back.”

It was the first time Edmonton skip Brendan Bottcher competed in the event and you can bet it will not be his last.

“It’s an awesome event,” Bottcher said. “They’ve done a really good job with all of the auxiliary stuff and you’ve got pretty much a Slam field here.”

5th End: It was a special week for Jill Officer, who not only subbed at second on Tracy Fleury’s Manitoba team but also had the opportunity to play alongside her niece, lead Kristin MacCuish.

“I was 17 when she was born, I hate to say that, but I think we played one league game together when she was like 12 years old and other than that we’ve never played a game together,” Officer said. “That’s partly why I’m here for them is that opportunity to play with Kristin and maybe help them out a little bit with some of their stuff. It’s pretty cool.”

Officer, who stepped back from competitive curling last year, is most famous as Jennifer Jones’s longtime second and other than a one-time specialty event like the Everest Curling Challenge, it was the first time in a long time she had played with another skip in a competitive tournament.

“I said before I played yesterday I was feeling weird about it because I literally could not remember the last time that I really played with another team,” Officer said. “I mean if I think about the Everest thing or something like that, the one-off thing, but it had been a long time. It was a little bit weird but it worked out pretty good.”

Of course, wouldn’t it be cool if Officer played against Jones? Well, that just so happened in the final. Jones bested Fleury 6-4 to capture the title.

6th End: Super spare, part deux. With everyone practically playing somewhere this week, it seemed like it should have been difficult to find a sub. Team Homan also needed a second with Joanne Courtney on mat leave and the club called upon Lindsay Dubue, who the team knew from the Ottawa curling scene.

“She’s a great junior player,” Miskew said. “Since everyone was in the event as well, we thought we should scoop her up beforehand since there are quite a few spares here. It’s a nice opportunity to get to know her, she’s a great sweeper and a great player and it’s worked out really well.”

Courtney is expected to rejoin Team Homan for their next event at the Colonial Square Ladies Classic.

“Her plan is to come back in Saskatoon in a couple of weeks and play at least in some of the games, so we’ll see how she’s feeling,” Miskew said. “Obviously, her recovery is most important. We want her for the whole season. We’ll make sure that she’s doing well but she seems to be recovering really well, so as long as it keeps going in that direction, we’ll be happy to have her in Saskatoon.”

Miskew said it was a nice summer for the team with a couple of new additions to the family. Courtney welcomed baby Alexander and Homan also gave birth to her first son Ryatt.

“Things are going to look a little different for us in a really fun way this year on the road but it’s going to be probably a transition,” Miskew said. “It doesn’t seem like Rachel is being fazed by it at all, she’s playing great, so we’re looking forward to having Jo back, too. It’s exciting and it’s all part of the family so we’re looking forward to having them both.”

7th End: You couldn’t blame Bottcher if he wanted last season to never end as he finished things off in late April winning a third consecutive Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling title at the Humpty’s Champions Cup.

“It was a lot of fun there at the end but we needed a break,” Bottcher said. “That season was long and this year is going to be long (too) and it just feels like it’s never-ending. As much as I wanted it to keep going I was also looking forward to a bit of summer.”

Bottcher will look to pick up where he left off in about five weeks as he aims for a fourth straight Grand Slam at the Masters taking place during the end of October.

“It would be pretty exciting if we could keep the streak rolling,” Bottcher said. “We’ll certainly give it a good try and I’m excited to get back out there.”

8th End: What it do, Gushue? The 11-time Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling title winner said he’s feeling pretty good actually, both physically and mentally, and certainly a lot better than he did a year ago coming off the last draining and heartbreaking Olympic cycle.

It might be odd to see Team Gushue ranked 10th in the world to start the season but that’s because although they qualified in every event they competed in last year, they struggled to actually win playoff games. Gushue called the quarterfinals their “nemesis.”

“We lost I think six or seven of those and I think we just weren’t as sharp and in the quarterfinals you start to play teams that are playing really well,” he said. “We just weren’t as sharp as what we had been a few years previously.

“We’ve changed our focus a little bit, we’ve changed our training leading into it. We’re trying to go back to some things that we did in the past that were successful for us and that will hopefully get us straightened out.”

Extra End: A couple of quick hits to wrap-up up this week’s blog:

– Even with the tough field, mad props to Braden Calvert’s crew. The 22nd-ranked men’s team from Winnipeg held their own reaching the final four. Team Jacobs ousted them 9-5 in the semis, and their playoff run forced them to dip into their cash winnings to rebook flights home, but the experience of a deep run like that will be invaluable.

– There were tons of great shots made but check out Fleury’s double raise to defeat Homan in the semis. What-a-manoeuvre!

– Although the playoff picture was all clean on the women’s side with zero tiebreakers and the top eight straight in, it was a complete mess in the men’s division with seven teams tied for the final three spots.

Team Koe and Yannick Schwaller’s team advanced following their tiebreaker wins Saturday evening, however, Bruce Mouat’s gang had to hit the ice again following their victory over Team Jaap van Dorp to face Gushue in a second tiebreaker in a super late nightcap. Take two didn’t go as well with Gushue sneaking by.

That also didn’t give those three teams much time to rest up for the quarterfinals the next morning and none of the tiebreaker winners advanced to the semis. Grand Slam of Curling MC Peter Steski offered a solution on Twitter.

– We’ve now reached the cutoff for qualification into the Masters and we’ll have a good idea of what the field should look like once points have been tallied. Invitations go out Tuesday so stay tuned for a roster announcement once 15 men’s teams and 15 women’s teams RSVP.

– Trivia answer: Team Niklas Edin. The Swedish squad, ranked No. 3, was the only top 10 men’s team absent this week.

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