John Epping shoots a stone during the second draw of the Roar of the Rings on Dec. 2, 2017, in Ottawa. (Anil Mungal)

Olympic Trials: Epping steals thunder on opening night

December 3, 2017, 12:48 AM

OTTAWA — While Brad Gushue and Rachel Homan were the clear crowd favourites on the opening day of the Canadian Olympic curling trials, the reigning world champions were not the ones roaring at Canadian Tire Centre.

John Epping stole his way past Gushue 6-4 in round-robin play Saturday while Chelsea Carey took down the hometown hero Homan 8-4 at the Roar of the Rings, the nine-day tournament to determine Canada’s men’s and women’s teams for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

The Toronto native Epping, a three-time Grand Slam champion, is no plucky underdog but was certainly flying under the radar heading into the tournament compared to Gushue, of St. John’s, N.L., who swept his way to the Tour Challenge Tier 1 and Masters titles earlier this season.

“Probably the best start we could have had especially trying to figure out the ice and the rocks and just getting used to the atmosphere,” Epping said. “I’ve got three rookies who have never experienced that and it was pretty neat out there tonight. The atmosphere was pretty electric. For them just to be able to settle in and against Brad was great. If you happen to lose that one it’s OK but obviously a victory is huge for us.”

As Epping alluded to, while it’s not his first rodeo at an Olympic Trials, it is for third Mat Camm, second Patrick Janssen and lead Tim March. Epping offered them some advice but admitted they do have to feel it out themselves as well.

“I can’t tell them exactly how it’s going to feel but a few words of wisdom, be honest with them, embrace it, enjoy it and that’s the biggest thing this week,” he said. “They are nine top teams in the world, there’s only going to be one winner. There are going to be a lot of great teams not going to have winning records. You really have to enjoy this week and that’s what I really wanted them to do.”

After Gushue settled for a single in the second, Epping made a statement hitting for three points in the third to grab the lead. Gushue was limited to another lone point in four and got a lucky break stealing two in five as Epping got greedy but came up light on a tap.

Epping brought things level with one in six and turned the tables stealing in seven. Gushue blanked the eighth and ninth to retain the hammer for the final frame. Although Epping’s last over-curled and failed to plug up the port, Gushue still needed to make a tricky hit for one to force an extra. Gushue connected, but his stone rolled around, up and just an inch too far as Epping swiped another.

A win to start was huge for Epping although he’s well aware it may or may not be a harbinger for the rest of the week.

“Looking at the schedule, that was a great start for us. We’re 1-0 and at the top of the leaderboard,” Epping said. “But I was at the top of the leaderboard last time after game one and then lost six in a row so I know it can change. You’re playing all of the best teams in the world. That’s just how it is.”

Meanwhile, the Calgary native Carey started with hammer against Homan and controlled the pace. After singles and deuces back and forth, Carey counted another couple in five, forced Homan to one in six, added one more pair of points in eight and stole in nine.

Carey was more concerned with getting a handle on the ice than the victory at hand as learning the field of play will dictate how the rest of the week unfolds.

“You come out in the first game and your goal is less about the result and more about just learning the ice,” Carey said. “It’s a long week and winning or losing your first game doesn’t really matter that much. We’ve come through this event and having won it and lost it with basically the same record.

“[We] wanted to do that and kind of focus on that and we’re lucky to pull off a win. That part’s the bonus. We’re really more concerned about figuring the ice out and we felt we’ve learned a lot out there so feeling pretty good going into the next game.”

Krista McCarville is carrying the momentum from the pre-trials.

The Thunder Bay, Ont., native qualified for the Roar of the Rings in the last-chance tournament just last month in Summerside, P.E.I., and defeated Michelle Englot’s Winnipeg-based team 9-4 during the second draw.

It was a new routine that worked out during the pre-trials that helped propel Team McCarville to victory Saturday night.

“At the pre-trials we tried out a new strategy of drawing to the side when we had hammer and drawing to play away from the centre,” Team McCarville third Kendra Lilly explained. “It worked out really well for us there. We didn’t have any big steals or give up any big ends and that’s what we want to continue to do here and I think we did it. We executed well, stuck to that and it worked in our favour.”

Lilly said it was awesome to get her first Olympic Trials game under her belt.

“It was everything that we thought it was going to be,” she said. “We had not nerves but excitement leading up to it, so it was just good to get out there, play and realize it’s just like any other curling game. We tried to just forget about everything else and I think we did pretty well.”

“It is pretty hard, [the arena is] so huge,” Lilly added. “It’s awesome to play in front of a crowd like that especially the first few draws to have that many people there. I think it’s going to be a great week.”

It wasn’t the ideal start for Winnipeg’s Jennifer Jones, but the reigning Olympic gold medallist managed to pull off the 9-6 win against Edmonton’s Val Sweeting.

After giving up a steal of three to start, Jones clawed back until it was tied 5-5 through six ends. The teams alternated singles in seven and eight to keep it close. Jones managed to poach a trio of her own in nine as disaster struck for Sweeting, who was hard and tight on her last rock as it rubbed and rolled away.

“Definitely not routine,” Jones said. “I’d like to have obviously a couple shots back but you’re going to have those games where you talk about where you found a way to win and that’s one of those. We said at the fifth-end break let’s just find a way to win and we did.”

Jones now holds a 15-game winning streak after capturing the Masters and BOOST National titles back to back with unblemished records.

It might not be the Brier or the Tournament of Hearts, where provincial pride takes precedence, but there were still a few Northern Ontario moose calls echoing through Canadian Tire Centre for Team McCarville.

The unmistakable sound emits from a homemade concoction by pulling a rosin or chalk-covered string in a tin can and while unpleasant to some, it’s embraced by all curlers from Northern Ontario.

Lilly said her team heard them loud and clear at ice level, although they’re perplexed as to who’s actually responsible.

“We want to try to figure out who it is because we want to go say thanks for cheering for us,” Lilly said. “It’s good to have some crowd from Northern Ontario here. It’s not too far, so it’s nice.”

It was just a coincidence Brad Jacobs started the Roar of the Rings right where he left off the last one.

The reigning Olympic gold medallist Jacobs, of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., took down John Morris’s team from Vernon, B.C., 5-3 in a repeat of the 2013 Trials final.

Team Jacobs third Ryan Fry said it was a learning process figuring things out in the opening draw.

“When you can get a learning process and get a win that’s the best thing you can get in these first games,” Fry said. “First games are always hard, there’s a little bit of unknowns and the ice changes a little bit from practice. For the most part, we were able to pick up on it, but there were a few mistakes we made in the way we were throwing a little bit sharp but I’m happy obviously with the result and going forward.”

Both skips had to make clutch draws against trio of counters in the first couple ends. The teams alternated singles again in five and six and Morris pulled ahead stealing one in seven when Jacobs was heavy on the draw. Jacobs bounced back taking two in the eighth and stole one back himself when Morris misfired a runback missing the counter in the house completely.

Team Jacobs’s fifth for the Olympic Trials is no stranger to fans of the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling.

Pete Steski, one of the Original 18 skips of the series and current master of ceremonies for the GSOC, is behind the boards with Team Jacobs this week. While it may seem odd as Steski hasn’t played at the competitive level in a number of years, it actually couldn’t be a better dynamic fit for Team Jacobs.

“Pete keeps it loose,” Fry said. “It’s fun having him out there. He’s a good buddy of all of ours and he’s a good shooter. He knows the game. He’s been a part of it for a long time. If there’s anyone that’s going to fit in with the four of us it’s a guy like Pete. We’re lucky to have him.”

Saskatoon’s Team Laycock shuffled the deck leading into the Olympic Trials with (now former) second Matt Dunstone moving up to throw last rocks. Skip Steve Laycock is still calling the game but tossing third stones with previous third Kirk Muyres sliding in at second. Lead Dallan Muyres is the only one who has remained in his regular role.

Kirk Muyres said it was Laycock who actually suggested the switch and they were all in with the decision to mix things up.

“He just thought with the game plan we’re going to employ throughout the week that suited our strengths better,” Muyres said. “Then having me sweep the last four rocks with Dallan, we’ve got a little bit more rapport over the years and just put the strengths in each position. Steve brought it up and we were all on board right away. We thought it was a great idea. When you’ve got a guy like Matt Dunstone throwing the brick you’re never going to be too far out.”

Team Laycock declined an invitation to last month’s BOOST National in order to have an extra week to train and help everyone adjust to the new setup.

“I think it was important for us to get those roles down and kind of how we’re going to go about the week here, get that confidence back up that we needed,” Muyres said.

While it didn’t pay off in their opener against Calgary’s Kevin Koe, who won the set 6-3, Muyres saw some positives emerge.

“We played pretty good today, we didn’t win but we’re on the right track here,” he said. “That extra week off, those three weeks of prep just with the team dynamics was really important for us.”

It just so happened Team Laycock had the option to wear green jerseys and they didn’t hesitate to pass up a familiar Saskatchewan colour.

“Well, we didn’t get first pick but when it came around to us this was the nicest looking one left and who doesn’t like wearing green?” Muyres said. “I don’t know if any other provinces will agree with me but we certainly will.”

You can’t blame Casey Scheidegger for having some early event jitters.

Scheidegger has some big game experience, such as winning the Meridian Canadian Open last season, but she hasn’t played on a platform of this magnitude without any prior Olympic Trials or Scotties Tournament of Hearts experience on her resume.

The Lethbridge, Alta., native wasn’t even familiar with the post-game protocol when she was handed a request slip for media interviews.

For Scheidegger, who scored a 6-5 victory over Toronto’s Allison Flaxey in the first draw, it was as much of a mental crunch treating the Olympic Trials like any other tournament.

“It was a little bit nerve-racking,” Scheidegger said. “You don’t want to try and think this is such a big event but it’s hard not to with it being in a big arena and having so many fans out there for the first draw. I kept trying to think it was just a Slam but then it’s not five-rock rule. That was there too. It’s nice to finally play and get a win under our belt. It was good.”

Scheidegger, who opened with the hammer, gave up two in the fifth end to trail by one and was able to shake it off with singles going steady in six and seven and getting her deuce back in eight. Flaxey was forced to one in nine to knot it up and Scheidegger closed it out with the winner in the 10th end.

“We started off a little bit shaky and then things picked up for us after maybe that fifth or sixth end,” Scheidegger said. “I think we struggled with reading the ice, I struggled with reading the ice and believing what we were seeing because it was a little different than practice. I think that we’re feeling good now and feeling confident with the draw weight and things like that so we’re good to go.”

Mike McEwen stole two in the fifth and added three in the seventh during a 7-3 victory over Reid Carruthers in an all-Winnipeg battle during the second draw.

“The biggest thing was our comfort level with the environment,” Team McEwen second Matt Wozniak said. “It felt really good and that was what we sort of were trying to get out of that first game was to make sure that we’re feeling good and ready for a long week.”

Experience was a factor for Team McEwen to cooly take control and have Carruthers on the run during the second half of the match.

“For us playing in those Briers the last two years it’s a similar feel,” Wozniak said. “The Grand Slam events give us that same arena, big atmosphere feeling, so we’ve had enough exposure to it. We were in the [2013] Trials in Winnipeg, which seemed like a lot more pressure because it was in our hometown and everyone was pulling at us a little bit more there than we’re feeling here. We’re quite happy flying under the radar in this one, get a few wins and see what happens.”