Eight Ends: Takeaways from the GSOC Champions Cup

As Team McEwen is breaking up after 11 seasons together, all four members discuss their favourite moments during their tenure.

The 2017-18 Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling season has come to a close. So too has the quadrennial as we officially end the four-year Olympic cycle and prepare for the next one.

All of the team changes that took place over the previous two months have taken effect and the road to Beijing 2022 is open. Well, maybe after some much-needed R&R first.

What did the final event of the Olympic cycle teach us? Here are our takeaways from the Humpty’s Champions Cup:

1st End: The Gu is good

Four years ago, Brad Gushue had a conundrum on his hands. Long-time friend Mark Nichols was coming home to St. John’s, N.L., following a stint in Winnipeg and inquired about rejoining the fold. There was no way Gushue was going to say no, not after all they had been through from rising up the ranks winning a world junior championship to capturing gold at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. Someone had to be the odd man out though and that ended up being second Adam Casey, ultimately. Brett Gallant shifted from third to second to accommodate Nichols’ return while lead Geoff Walker stayed put.

Right out of the gate the foursome won the first Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling tournament of the new season at the 2014 Masters. Not only was it Gushue’s first Grand Slam title in over four-and-a-half years, after being on the cusp a couple times during the previous season, it opened the floodgates as the first of nine championships they’d capture in the quadrennial.

Even this season alone, Gushue took three winning the Tour Challenge Tier 1 and the Masters back-to-back to start the season and rolling through both events undefeated. The year-ending Humpty’s Champions Cup, which wrapped up this past Sunday, was identical in that regard as once again Gushue posted a perfect 7-0 record en route to the title and the only title left to cross off the list in the series had been struck through.

“When I ask him for advice I know the answers are coming from experience. No disrespect to the other guys that I’ve played with over the last three years but they’re still kind of learning the game whereas Mark and I have been through it and — not saying we know the game in and out — but we have the experience to back up what our answers are going to be. It allows me to lean on him a little bit more and I know his answers are coming from experience.”

That’s what Gushue said after winning the 2014 Masters. Not only has the Gushue-Nichols reunion paid dividends, shifting Gallant over to second and forming a potatoes and meat duo with Walker (get it? Because they’re from P.E.I. and Alberta) has turned them into a formidable front-end.

They’ve only missed the playoffs in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling three times during their tenure (and two of them could be chalked up to burn out following winning the Brier and deflating Olympic trial finishes, respectively) while showing consistency winning titles all throughout the season.

There was a time when Gushue’s lineup was like musical chairs with annual updates but not anymore. This has been the most successful Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling team of the past four years and they’re not slowing down at the rate they’re going either.

2nd End: The reinvention of Rachel Homan

Overcoming the odds had never been a problem for Rachel Homan, mainly because it seems like the odds were always in her favour. Dominating tournaments has been Homan’s calling card since she was a prodigy in bantam. We also saw it during the fall of 2015 when her team won three consecutive Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling majors with a combined 20-1 record.

So, when Homan opened this season missing the playoffs in consecutive Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling tournaments for the first time ever, everyone was perplexed. What the heck happened? Team Homan chalked it up to it being early in the season and not “peaking” just yet.

The unstoppable force reemerged during the Olympic Trials … and then the Pyeongchang Winter Games happened.

Redemption didn’t come at the Players’ Championship where a tired Team Homan came out flat going winless at 0-5. These were uncharted waters and they were sinking. The Humpty’s Champions Cup could have been the same story with Homan slipping to a 1-2 start and on the verge of elimination from then on out. That’s when the fearless Team Homan showed up. A 6-4 victory over Team MacDiarmid levelled their record and kept their title defence alive while a decisive three count in the eighth to edge Team Paetz 8-7 in a tiebreaker pushed them into the playoffs.

The team that had run rampant through these events was now the No. 8 seed and facing undefeated Team Sinclair in the quarterfinals. The tide shifted late, but shift it did with Homan scoring three in the seventh to take the lead and copping a couple in the eighth to eliminate former teammate Jamie Sinclair 6-3.

You want to talk about adversity, look no further than the semifinals with Homan down 5-0 after two ends against Team Muirhead. Homan took three in the third, stole one in the fourth and two in the fifth to jump out of nowhere into a 6-5 lead and in the driver’s seat from there closing things out 9-6.

The final against Team Einarson was tied 5-5 late and Homan tightening the grip in seven sitting multiple counters. Kerri Einarson was unable to score, giving up two, and handing Homan a 7-5 lead coming home. Homan went on the defence with the team trying to limit the damage and accepting the possibility of an extra end if Einarson was able to pull off a double takeout for two. It was there, but Einarson couldn’t execute it to perfection to pull it off.

“In the past, we never really had to win games like that and then when we started to have to, we didn’t know how,” Team Homan third Emma Miskew admitted. “This week it feels great to finally learn how we can win games that we don’t have control of and find a way to win despite how things are going out there. We weren’t perfect all week, we weren’t playing our very best but we stayed in every game and really tried to find a way to win.”

3rd End: An Officer and a gentleman

We said goodbye (but not farewell forever) to two of the all-time greats Saturday night with Jill Officer and Marc Kennedy taking steps back from the sport.

Both are Olympic gold medallists, two-time world champions and have won more Grand Slam titles than you can count on two hands. They’re also two of the nicest people you’ll ever meet and it’ll be different without them around the rink. Although they will not be committing to a full four-year cycle, here’s hoping one or both of them will make a super spare appearance here or there.

4th End: Teams McEwen, Sweeting moving on

Saturday really was filled with sadness with Team McEwen going their separate ways following a heartbreaking loss to Team Mouat in the quarterfinals. Team Sweeting also split after they fell to Team Jones during the morning tiebreakers.

Team McEwen at least had the Princess Auto Elite 10 in their hometown in March as their true last hurrah as they were stuck on six Grand Slam titles for a few years now but ran through the tournament undefeated to claim No. 7 and with their family, friends and fans cheering them on. That daddy-daughter picture with all the members of the team and their kids? Priceless.

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Team McEwen and their daughters celebrate winning the Princess Auto Elite 10 in Winnipeg. (Anil Mungal)

“It was a good run,” said Team McEwen second Matt Wozniak, who has yet to latch on with a new team for next season. “We’re still good friends, our families are pretty tight, I’ll still be cheering for the guys on their teams but it was time. Most teams don’t last 11 years. I think it’s pretty rare for that, so I was pretty proud of what we’ve done and it’s time to move on.”

Sweeting’s journey at the Humpty’s Champions Cup became atypical of the three-time Grand Slam champions as they started out 0-2 and overcame the odds to battle their way into not one but two tiebreakers (and really who expects to run into Team Jones in a tiebreaker?) Team Sweeting had a lot of fun during their tenure and added one more moment during their previous round-robin encounter against Jones with Sweeting scoring a touchdown sliding all the way into the house with her rock.

5th End: Vintage Howard

Glenn Howard silenced his critics (we read your Facebook comments, haters) who questioned why the 55-year-old was returning next season. Howard turned back the clock reaching the Humpty’s Champions Cup final and followed another standout semifinal run at his previous Grand Slam outing at the Princess Auto Elite 10 in March.

The 8-2 final score is misleading as it was a tight contest for five ends, Howard even stole to open the scoring, and it wasn’t until the sixth end when Howard ran out of gas and Gushue broke the game open. Howard missed his last shot to hand Gushue a freebie for three, although even if Howard had made his tricky attempt Gushue still would have had a shot for at least two if not the full three. A Hail Mary in the seventh that was out of desperation tacked a steal of three on the board for Gushue and brought out the handshakes.

You also can’t fault Howard for doing what he loves and getting the opportunity to play with his son, Scott Howard, who moves up from lead to third next season. Team Epping’s Tim March comes on board at lead while David Mathers sticks at second. Super spare Adam Spencer, who was more or less their full-time third this season, will also remain on call when needed.

6th End: Out with the old, in with the new

The end of the season signals free agency in most sports but not in curling where pretty much all of the top teams have their lineups already decided. It is kind of weird when you think about it — imagine if the NHL’s free agency period happened right now during the playoffs — but the off-season is short when you have to plan out four years, sponsorships, etc., and once one team starts making moves, the rest fall like dominoes.

Check out our full tracker by clicking here to get caught up on all of the changes.

The most intriguing change on the women’s side has to be the “all skip” squad captained by Kerri Einarson and featuring Val Sweeting at third, Shannon Birchard at second and Briane Meilleur at lead. Some may see this as a case of too many cooks in the kitchen but as long as everyone knows their role, it’ll work.

The most intriguing switch on the men’s side? Mike McEwen joining good pal Reid Carruthers. McEwen will throw fourth stones with Carruthers sliding to third but still calling the game. Add in the most underrated front-end in this business (second Derek Samagalski and lead Colin Hodgson topped the percentages at their positions during the Olympic Trials) and you’ve got a team built to win.

7th End: Sickest shot of the Humpty’s Champions Cup

Homan looked to be in prime position to score big sitting five stones until Sinclair dealt quad damage with this takeout. Not only did Sinclair clean up the house, she also sat three counters to force Homan to just a single.

8th End: See you in September

So long, 2017-18 season. It’s been a slice but it’s time to take off.

The Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling returns in the fall with the Princess Auto Elite 10 running Sept. 26-30 at St. Clair Campus Arena in Chatham, Ont.

New for next season is the addition of women’s teams to the field as the event was previously a men’s invitational when it was held in March and conflicted with the world women’s curling championship. That isn’t the case now with the event moving to September.

Full tournament passes are already available for purchase, visit Ckelite10.goigniter.com to pick up yours today. We hope you can help us kick off what is sure to be another totally awesome season.

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