Derek Samagalski (left) and Colin Hodgson (right) sweep a stone during the Boost National in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. (Anil Mungal)

8 Ends: Big 3 lead stacked Viterra Championship field

January 29, 2018, 6:22 PM

Colin Hodgson achieved a boyhood dream when he made his Tim Hortons Brier debut in 2015.

Hodgson, who throws lead stones for Reid Carruthers, said getting the opportunity to play in the Canadian men’s curling championship was a bigger deal to him growing up than even the Winter Olympics.

Team Carruthers now gears up to go “buffalo hunting” again at the Manitoba men’s provincials with the Viterra Championship getting underway Tuesday in Winkler.

“It always seemed that it was the pinnacle of the sport,” Hodgson said. “It’s nice to get a week off here, catch up on work and mentally re-stabilize ourselves going into provincials.”

Wearing the coveted buffalo crest has also been a long-time goal for Connor Njegovan, who is searching for his first men’s provincial championship with Jason Gunnlaugson.

“I was lucky enough to go to a junior national and represent Manitoba there and ever since then you kind of just get hungry to want to be able to do it on the big stage,” said Njegovan, who throws lead stones for Team Gunnlaugson. “To represent Manitoba at the Brier would honestly be like a dream come true for me.”

Winning the Viterra Championship once was hard enough and Hodgson’s biggest takeaway was how naïve he was attempting to return to the Tim Hortons Brier a second time.

“This is one of the stronger fields that Manitoba has probably seen in long time,” Hodgson said. “Jeff Stoughton isn’t here but he has in some form been replaced by some of the really strong, maybe not necessarily household, teams that have made a big splash on the tour this year such as Jason Gunnlaugson and Pat Simmons.

“We’re going to need all of the experience just to grind out a long event because there are so many strong teams and you’ve just got to win the close games to make sure you at least get into the final and give yourself a chance at going to the Brier.”

Thankfully for Hodgson the grind of the season hasn’t worn him down as he’s been going hard since the summer getting in shape for the Men of Curling calendar.

“We took fitness a lot more serious this year in the off-season. Even though we’ve played practically a full season, I still feel better physically at this point than I did going into previous seasons,” Hodgson said. “That was a huge thing. We took a little bit of time this summer especially because I had the curling calendar — I wanted to at least look good for that — so that helped me prepare for the longevity that’s needed for this crazy year.”

1st End: Three-headed monster? Meet Manitoba’s King Ghidorah

Jeff Stoughton, Kerry Burtnyk and Vic Peters were the “Big Three” in Manitoba during the 1990s and a new triple threat has taken over the province.

Mike McEwen, Gunnlaugson and Carruthers are all ranked within the top five on the Canadian Team Ranking System (CTRS). McEwen, last year’s Brier bronze medallist and runner-up at the Olympic Trials, tops the list with Gunnlaugson at No. 4 followed by Carruthers.

Even then there’s Simmons at ninth on the CTRS and No. 12 William Lyburn lurking around as top Manitoba contenders.

“Manitoba just seems to get harder and harder every single year,” Njegovan said. “It’s probably why you see so many Manitoba teams so high on the CTRS because of the depth of talent that we’ve grown up playing against. I think that’s why everybody in Manitoba has such a good chance. Come provincial time, just ask somebody like Mike McEwen. He was No. 1 in the world for a long time but just couldn’t get past Jeff. It is not easy, that’s for sure.”

Njegovan credits Stoughton, a three-time Brier and two-time world champion, for raising the bar and causing a trickle-down effect leading to so many other great teams.

“Jeff was so dominant that everybody had to work so hard just to even be close,” he said. “Now that everybody has worked so hard over the years we’ve got five or six teams that are really, really strong and then if you look at the rest of the 32 teams in the field we’ve got some really good curlers in Manitoba who just don’t travel as much.”

Having such a tough field isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Hodgson believes it’ll only set up the winner in a better position heading into the Tim Hortons Brier.

“The stronger the competition, the higher we’re going to have to play to win,” he said. “If we’re playing at that high level of curling you would probably be the most prepared to be at the Brier and not have a disappointing record like last time. So the better the competition, the better it is for us. I don’t think it’s a negative thing that there are more teams there. It’s just going to make us have to play better. Typically, we play up to the level of teams and we’re comfortable in that situation.”

There’s also the all-new wild-card entry that could see a second Manitoba team make it into the Tim Hortons Brier. The top two teams from the CTRS as of next Monday who haven’t already qualified will face off for the 16th and final spot on the eve of the Canadian men’s curling championship.

With Kevin Koe (No. 2) heading to the Olympics and Brad Gushue (No. 3) already earning the Team Canada auto-berth, it’ll likely be an all-Manitoba battle. While it’s nice to know that’s in the back pocket, winning the province outright is the preferred route of course.

“The dream has always been to represent Manitoba at the Brier so our easiest and fastest way to make sure we do that is to win the provincials,” Njegovan said. “If things go our way then great and if we have to regroup and look towards maybe a CTRS berth then we’ll take it for sure. Right now the focus is all on the Viterra.”

Watch the Viterra Championship live Sunday on Sportsnet and online at Sportsnet NOW starting with the semifinal at 9:30 a.m. ET followed by the final at 4 p.m. ET.

2nd End: Can Bottcher repeat in Alberta?

It’ll be the second year in a row without Koe’s Calgary crew at the Boston Pizza Cup. Koe was absent last year thanks to the Team Canada auto-berth and will miss provincials again while his team gets ready for the Winter Olympics.

Brendan Bottcher was the big winner last year at the Boston Pizza Cup and looks primed to defend the title. Bottcher has captured two titles on tour this season and the Edmonton club reached the quarterfinals recently at the Meridian Canadian Open with Steve Laycock subbing at skip.

Ted Appelman, who finished runner-up last year to Bottcher, will be the local favourite in Spruce Grove. The lineup has changed with Ted’s brother Tom Appelman no longer at third (Tom is already Brier-bound with Team Yukon) and Charley Thomas’s previous third Nathan Connolly in.

Speaking of Thomas, his team is always a threat too and now has former Team Bottcher third Mick Lizmore at vice. What is this, musical chairs? Thomas has also added Don Bartlett at fifth and the 2002 Olympic silver medallist has been busy lately filling in on Team Morris at the Meridian Canadian Open.

The Boston Pizza Cup starts Wednesday. Watch live Sunday on Sportsnet ONE and online at Sportsnet NOW starting with the semifinal at 1 p.m. ET followed by the final at 7 p.m. ET.

3rd End: Epping’s time to finally shine in Ontario?

Could it be this is the year John Epping takes the Ontario Tankard? The three-time Grand Slam champion has finished runner-up at provincials twice and was semifinalist last year when tricky ice led to a downward spiral and steals in the final three ends against Wayne Tuck Jr. Team Epping hasn’t had a spectacular season with zero title wins but they’re the top Ontario club at 12th on the World Curling Tour’s year-to-date standings.

You can never count out the wizard of winter, Glenn Howard. The 17-time provincial winner enters as the double defending champion and 18th on the WCT’s year-to-date.

Tuck and 2015 champion Mark Kean are other possible contenders with both winning titles on the World Curling Tour this season. Codey Maus, who finished runner-up to Brad Gushue at the Stu Sells Toronto Tankard, could be a dark horse here.

The Dairy Farmers of Ontario men’s Tankard starts Tuesday at the Canada Summit Centre in Huntsville, Ont.

4th End: Who will represent the home side at the Brier?

Before Regina plays host to the Tim Hortons Brier, the SaskTel Tankard in Estevan will determine who will have the honour of being the home team.

Speaking of three-headed monsters, Colton Flasch, Steve Laycock and Adam Casey are all sandwiched at No. 26, 27 and 28, respectively on the World Curling Tour’s year-to-date.

Flasch cleaned up at the College Clean Restoration Curling Classic earlier this season on tour.

Six-time winner Laycock has the highest profile although it hasn’t been the best season for his Saskatoon squad. They fell out of the Grand Slam circuit and shuffled the lineup hoping for a spark at the Roar of the Rings with Matt Dunstone moving up to fourth stones and Laycock dropping to third while still calling the game.

Defending champ Casey finished runner-up at the Asham U.S. Open of curling at the start of the month and second Shaun Meachem skipped the squad to the SCT Players Championship title the following week defeating Laycock in the final.

The SaskTel Tankard starts Wednesday.

5th End: Cotter returns to skipping in B.C.

Welcome back, Team Cotter. Skip John Morris is busy preparing for mixed doubles at the Winter Olympics, which means Jim Cotter is calling the shots once again for the Vernon squad at the belairdirect B.C. men’s curling championship in Parksville.

Rick Sawatsky returns to lead position on Team Cotter with Tyrel Griffith shifting back to second and Catlin Schneider throwing third. It’s hard not to pick Cotter given his track record as a seven-time provincial winner and four-time defending champion.

The likely candidates to unseat Cotter are two-time provincial champ Dean Joanisse, who was runner-up a year ago, and 2009 winner Sean Geall, who is ranked 57th on the World Curling Tour’s year-to-date.

If you’re looking for a blast from the past how about Brent Pierce? The 48-year-old from New Westminster earned the 2000 Brier and world titles at third with Greg McAulay and is skipping his own entry here.

The belairdirect B.C. men’s curling championship starts Wednesday.

6th End: Free-for-all on the Rock

With reigning Brier champion Gushue earning the auto-berth, it’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world scramble for the Newfoundland and Labrador Tankard.

Gushue has dominated this dojo winning the provincial title a whopping 14 times in the past 15 years. The lone blemish from that run came in 2006 when Gushue was just a tad preoccupied capturing gold at the Winter Olympics in Turin.

Adam Boland finished runner-up to Gushue last year and should be considered the favourite or at least the closest thing to a favourite. Colin Thomas, a three-time finalist, also has a good chance to emerge although without Gushue around it really is a wide-open field.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Tankard gets underway Monday night in St. John’s.

7th End: How’s the Tim Hortons Brier lineup looking?

Here’s how the men’s side is shaping up for the Tim Hortons Brier, March 3-11 in Regina.

The winner of the Brier will represent Canada at the world championship in Las Vegas running March 31 to April 8.

Team Skip/Playdown Dates
Canada Brad Gushue
Alberta Jan. 31 – Feb. 4
B.C. Jan. 31 – Feb. 4
Manitoba Jan. 30 – Feb. 4
New Brunswick Feb. 7-11
Newfoundland & Labrador Jan. 29 – Feb. 4
Northern Ontario Feb. 7-11
Northwest Territories Feb. 7-12
Nova Scotia Jamie Murphy
Nunavut Dave St. Louis
Ontario Jan. 31 – Feb. 4
P.E.I. Eddie MacKenzie
Quebec Feb. 4-11
Saskatchewan Jan. 31 – Feb. 4
Yukon Thomas Scoffin
Wild-Card March 2

8th End: Who’s jumped out of the gate at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts?

It’s good to be Manitoba at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts with a trio of teams in Penticton, B.C., and all three sporting a pair of wins as of Monday afternoon.

Five-time Scotties champion Jennifer Jones, skipping the real Team Manitoba, and wild-card entry Kerri Einarson top Pool A with 2-0 records.

It’s been clobbering time for Jones defeating Saskatchewan’s Sherry Anderson 12-5 and Yukon’s Chelsea Duncan 14-1. Einarson, who edged Calgary’s Chelsea Carey in Friday’s wild-card game, has scored wins over New Brunswick’s Sylvie Robichaud and Nova Scotia’s Mary-Anne Arsenault.

Manitoba’s Michelle Englot, skipping Team Canada, is at 2-1 in Pool B. Alberta’s Casey Scheidegger tops the division as expected, however, joining her at 3-0 is Stacie Curtis of Newfoundland and Labrador. Curtis has a big test ahead though with Scheidegger and Englot next on the docket.

The top four teams from each pool move onto the championship round. The winner will represent Canada at the world championship running March 17-25 in North Bay, Ont.