Skipping wars: Young guns set to challenge veterans

John Epping has won two Grand Slam titles and currently sits 13th in the world rankings.

He rides by himself on a Toronto streetcar, just a man and his broom, heading out to Maple Leaf Gardens for one of his sport’s most important tournaments.

To those in the know, he is John Epping, one of Earth’s greatest curlers. A young skip, part of a new generation trying to supplant the last, who spends his evenings and weekends standing on ice, tossing 44-lb. slabs of granite into other people’s 44-lb. slabs of granite. But there’s no one in the know on this streetcar, so he goes unnoticed, because even though curling is one of Canada’s most watched sports and Epping one of its rising stars — the 30-year-old foil of the old, bald men who’ve ruled this sport for decades and potential skip of Canada’s men’s Olympic curling team — he’s still just a dude with a broom.

The lack of recognition is what helps the Peterborough, Ont., native keep his many accomplishments — two Grand Slam titles and a current 13th place in the world rankings — in perspective. He knows he’s good enough to beat any skip on any given rink, but he also knows he’s a young man competing in an old(er) man’s sport.

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“Age and experience are an important part of the game,” says Epping. The more years you’ve spent “tossing rocks,” the more attuned you become to the probabilities and formulae at the heart of the sport, the better able to make shots younger skips can neither see nor fathom. Age is a curling virtue, but it’s something Epping and the other young skips on the World Curling Tour aren’t willing to let hold them back.

As the youngest skip with a guaranteed shot at representing Canada at the Winter Olympics, Epping knows this season will be his most competitive to date. He recruited a former Olympian (Collin Mitchell, 1998 silver medallist from Mike Harris’s old rink) last spring and spent his summer searching out ice in order to keep up his form. He did all this because even though curling is still a social game filled with cigarettes and beer, it is an increasingly demanding sport populated by men, like Epping, who see themselves more and more as world-class athletes — not the frozen shuffleboarders we mistook them for in the past.

Say what you will about men dressed in polyester who slide like seals down sheets of pebbled ice, there’s something admirable about a guy who powers up on leafy greens and a salmon fillet then takes to the ice for a six-day televised throwdown. Curling is changing, and guys like Epping are its new face.

Much is at stake in the upcoming Grand Slams, and not just the $200,000 in potential winnings. With the Olympics just five months away, the Masters (Oct. 29–Nov. 3) and the Canadian Open (Nov. 13–17) serve as unofficial warm-ups for the Olympic trials to be held in early December in Winnipeg, as well as the Games themselves.

Eight of the top 10 rinks in the world are from Canada, but only one will compete in Sochi. Six Canadian teams will compete at the Masters; each of them, including Team Epping, has already qualified for the trials. All are looking to test their skills against each other at the slams. Winnipeg-based Jeff Stoughton became the top-ranked skip on the tour after winning the Point Optical Curling Classic in Saskatoon last month. The 50-year-old skip is a two-time world champion with four Grand Slam titles. Kevin Martin, 47, and Glenn Howard, 51, are also confirmed for the Masters. Martin, the 2010 Olympic gold medal skip from Edmonton, is currently ranked eighth in the world, but leads all skips with 17 Grand Slam titles. Behind him is fourth-ranked Howard, 2012 Brier winner and world champion, with 14. Even though the vets are higher ranked than Epping, the actual difference between the teams is relatively small.

In many ways, the Masters offers a more competitive field than the Olympics, with six Canadian rinks in the mix against the teams most likely to represent China, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Norway at the Olympics. Of the international rinks, the highest ranked are last season’s world champions — Niklas Edin and his team from Karlstad, Sweden — and the Norway-based rink of Thomas Ulsrud, which took silver at the 2010 Olympics. The 41-year-old Ulsrud is now in his 30th season as a competitive curler. At 28, Edin is young but commands respect as defending world champ.

Brad Jacobs, the 28-year-old banker from Sault-Ste-Marie, Ont., and winner of last year’s Brier, is currently ranked No. 2, but has pulled his rink from the first two slams in order to concentrate on securing one of the final berths in the trials. Thirty-three-year-old Brad Gushue, the No. 7-ranked skip and 2006 Olympic gold medallist from Newfoundland, will also miss the Masters.

Their absence does little to change the nature of the slams as a contest between, and showcase of, the skips of curling’s past and future.

So maybe it’s time to pay this sport and its stars a bit more mind. Starting, perhaps, with the guy on the streetcar with the broom in his hand.

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