Mike McEwen (left) and Reid Carruthers (right) discuss strategy during the team's practice session Wednesday at the Princess Auto Elite 10 in Chatham-Kent, Ont. (Anil Mungal)

McEwen, Carruthers hoping off-ice friendship leads to on-ice success

September 26, 2018, 2:21 PM

Mike McEwen and Reid Carruthers were both relieved to finally drop the “frenemy” tag.

Although McEwen and Carruthers have been good friends off of the ice, they were better enemies at the curling rink as rival skips for two of the top teams on tour.

Their worlds have now collided for the new Olympic cycle with McEwen joining the Winnipeg-based club featuring Carruthers, second Derek Samagalski and lead Colin Hodgson. Although Carruthers is still calling the shots, he has shifted over to third to accommodate McEwen, who will handle vice skip duties and throw fourth.

Carruthers understands there will be a steep learning curve to adjust to their new arrangement, but he’s having a blast so far after finally getting the opportunity to play with his best buddy.

“It’s almost like welcomed growing pains where we’re having a great time off the ice, lots of team bonding, and we got to golf the other day,” Carruthers said earlier this month during the Shorty Jenkins Classic. “It’s fun to be out here curling again after a long summer off.”

“Nothing seems to have changed,” he added. “We’ve picked up right where we left off as far as our friendship goes off the ice. It’s just a matter of trying to figure out what to say to each other to get the most out of each other and trying to use that friendship to our advantage when we’re on the ice.”

Forget about starting a new chapter together when they’re not even on the same page yet and McEwen also acknowledged it’s going to be a slow process meshing their styles of play.

“It’s not like I’m just a player where you’re slotting me in at front end and I’m just going to go into the system the team has already created,” he said. “This is a little different where we’re creating something completely new because I’m the last-rock thrower. Reid and I, he’s skip and I’m vice skip so that’s what the biggest challenge probably going forward is getting that on the same page and getting that to be efficient.”

McEwen added with a laugh: “It’ll have to be otherwise we’ll run out of time.”

The 33-year-old Carruthers doesn’t remember the exact moment they first met, but he’s pretty sure it was during a junior bonspiel McEwen’s dad used to run in Brandon, Man. McEwen, 38, was “the guy to beat” in the provincial junior curling scene at the time.

“When you’re a young junior looking up at the No. 1 seed or the defending provincial champion, he almost has that aura around him,” Carruthers recalled. “I remember it was almost like a little bit of that awestruck at first but it doesn’t feel that way now.”

McEwen is also hazy on their first meeting, however, he’s pretty sure he wasn’t a fan of Carruthers at first.

“He’s younger than me, I don’t think I got to really play him in juniors so I probably didn’t know much about him,” McEwen said. “He was a young gun and did really well early in men’s too so I probably didn’t like him.”

Their friendship was put through a pressure cooker during this past Olympic cycle when the stakes were high. Carruthers returned to skipping his own squad in 2014 after a successful stint apprenticing under the legend Jeff Stoughton and playing front-end roles. McEwen, third B.J. Neufeld, second Matt Wozniak and lead Denni Neufeld continued to make names for themselves on the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling tour but would have to get through Team Carruthers if they wanted to represent Manitoba at the Brier.

Three times in the past four seasons they met in the Manitoba final with Carruthers coming out on top twice and McEwen once.

“To be honest, it would get a little bit awkward playing against him,” Carruthers said. “Our first couple years of playing against each other, we’d talk lots during the games but as our rivalry grew on the ice it started to get quieter and quieter. At the same time, you want to say “Hey, nice try” or “Good shot” if a guy makes a good one but it’s almost like a dagger. I know for both of us it was a little bit awkward so I like this vibe a little bit better.”

McEwen used the same “A” word to describe what it was like playing against Carruthers.

“For sure it was the most awkward,” he said. “Normally we would talk to each other really easy but because we played each other in big situations it was almost awkward to talk because you’re buddies and you don’t want to see that other guy be devastated and things like that.

“It was probably the most awkward competitive moments playing Reid that I’ve had, so it’s kind of nice that’s gone but I’m going to have to play some former teammates that are buddies. It’s not going to completely go away now.”

Their rivalry took a side turn this past season when McEwen came down with a severe case of the chickenpox during provincial playdowns in Winkler, Man. Carruthers remained in touch sending text messages to McEwen and thought about visiting his friend in the hospital even as his own team was in the thick of chasing the Manitoba championship.

“It was very hard,” Carruthers said. “His team did an awesome job picking up the socks because he was obviously very sick and unable to play. We were all very concerned about his personal safety so it became a little bit harder to focus on the big carrot, which is winning your provincials and getting to go to the Brier. Life comes first, curling comes second.”

McEwen appreciated the support he received throughout.

“Obviously everybody wants to win but everybody wants to win in the right way,” McEwen said. “It meant a lot that he reached out to me. Some other buddies on other teams came by, some with full gowns and masks and stuff. I was in quarantine. Everybody wants to beat the best and you want to do it on equal grounds so when someone goes down like that it’s kind of nice to see the perspective that people have.”

Somehow, McEwen was able to return in time for the final against Carruthers and put in a valiant effort despite not being 100 percent and still covered in chickenpox marks.

“I kind of thought he might show up for the provincials, for the final game anyway, so I wasn’t too surprised,” said Carruthers, who held on to win 7-6 in the final. “It showed a lot of courage on his behalf to be out there. He must have felt extremely drained. From what I heard, what he went through is extremely difficult on the body, so to get enough strength to be able to throw peels and have the stamina to throw rocks for a 10-end game is not easy.”

The unnerving feeling of playing against friends will still persist for McEwen as he now will have to face his former teammates on tour. Although Team McEwen had their ups and downs, they formed a tight unit during their 11-year tenure together winning seven Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling titles and coming within one win, one shot really, of representing Canada at the 2018 Winter Games falling to Team Koe in the Olympic Trials final.

Team McEwen parted ways at the end of the cycle. B.J. joined Calgary’s Team Koe while his brother Denni has stayed put in Winnipeg linking up with Team Gunnlaugson to play second. Although Wozniak didn’t latch on with a team full-time for this season, McEwen said he’ll be subbing on Team Carruthers in a couple of tournaments.

“I think he’s going to take this year and see where he’s at but he’s not completely gone from the game,” McEwen explained. “That’s going to be really cool sweeping with him. I’m just going to get out of his way and let him do his thing. I’ll just try to judge the rock as best as I can.”

Speaking of sweeping, that’s another hurdle for McEwen to overcome now although his artistry with the brush has improved thanks to playing mixed doubles with his wife, Dawn.

“I’ve got some new aches and pains that I haven’t had in a long time but I think I’m holding my own,” McEwen said. “I’m going to have a lot more recovery massages and things like that I’m probably going to need but I think I’m holding my own. I’ve been tracking my calories and loving what I’m burning right now. I might be a new, lean version of me not too long.”

Carruthers added: “For him, not being in the house and sweeping, I don’t think he’s done that since one of his first or second years of men’s competition. … We’re learning. We’re learning each other, learning the tendencies of the throws. There have definitely been some line calls where I’ve messed up a little bit for Mike just because I’m trying to read how he throws the stone but we’re having a great time.”