Team Gunnlaugson lead Connor Njegovan shoots a stone during the 2017 Masters in Lloydminster, Sask. (Anil Mungal)

Team Gunnlaugson’s rise still surreal to Njegovan

January 30, 2018, 7:36 PM

It still hasn’t sunk in for Connor Njegovan.

No matter how many times Team Gunnlaugson receives an invitation to play in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling, Njegovan can’t help but feel like his opponents see his squad as the free space on the bingo card.

Considering the Winnipeg club has qualified for the playoffs at three consecutive GSOC major tournaments — and has jumped to sixth on the World Curling Tour’s year-to-date rankings — it’s safe to say no one’s taking them lightly anymore.

“We keep going into the Slams joking around that there are no weak teams so it must be us and every time someone plays us they must be laughing,” said Njegovan, who throws lead stones for the team. “We keep looking at the draws and it gets harder and harder every event.

“It’s surreal, it really is. Even to be invited to play in a Grand Slam is a really big honour and then to be able to qualify is just amazing. It’s really exciting to know this hard work is paying off and we are able to compete with the top teams. When you get that little bit of confidence, the sky’s the limit now for us.”

Njegovan was fortunate enough to play in the series straight out of juniors, making his debut at the 2013 National, when he linked up with veteran skip William Lyburn and the brother duo of Alex and Tyler Forrest that season. It was a reunion for Njegovan and Alex Forrest, who earned the Canadian junior silver medal together in 2010 with Forrest at skip.

The pair stuck together the following year joining the legend himself, Jeff Stoughton. It turned out to be the final season on tour for the two-time world and three-time Brier champion and Njegovan is grateful for the opportunity to play with one of the all-time greats.

“There really is nothing like the Grand Slams as far as competition goes, getting a chance to play on arena ice and just the fact those guys took me under their wings,” Njegovan said. “I played with Willie right out of juniors and was able to make the Slams then I was lucky enough to play with Jeff in his last year. Just the experience those guys have, subtle things, like how they prepare for a Slam, how they get ready for an arena event and the different intricacies of being prepared to play and what it means to be on arena ice makes a big difference.

“I’m lucky enough that I’ve been able to play quite bit and I’m only 25. I’m pretty happy about where I’m at in my curling career so far.”

Of course, one cannot discuss Njegovan’s stint with Stoughton without mentioning “The Part” (apologies to Njegovan’s fiancee, Selena Kaatz, who definitely wasn’t a fan). Njegovan paid tribute to Stoughton during his send-off at the 2015 Players’ Championship by going old school and sporting his retro feathery flow. Hey, it was the style at one point.

“I went to go get the haircut and showed the picture of Jeff. The girl didn’t speak very good English and she kept saying, ‘No! No!’ and I’m like, ‘Yup. Please do it,’” Njegovan said with a laugh. “Selena doesn’t ever let me live that one down very much.”

It was a fresh start (and a fresh haircut) for Njegovan the following season with Forrest at skip, Travis Bale at third and Ian McMillan at second. That lineup lasted only one year when junior sensation Matt Dunstone was ready to move up to men’s play. Dunstone took the reins at skip with Forrest sliding over to third and McMillan and Njegovan remaining in their front-end roles.

Team Dunstone went all-in dedicating themselves to the tour life and playing in events in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and even south in Minnesota and Arizona. Being able to book time off work and travel beyond their provincial borders was a key aspect for their rise up the rankings.

“Having an employer that understands and is supportive of what you’re trying to do is such a hard thing to find,” said Njegovan, who works as an event/development coordinator for Curl Manitoba. “It’s not every day you can go to your employer and ask for 10-plus weeks off and they’re OK with that. The good thing about the four of us is we have great employers that are letting us take the time off.

“Once we get the support from the people around us it makes it easier to get on the ice. We’re on the ice at least every day and we’re on the ice as a team three or four times a week at least. We spend a ton of time on the ice, that’s for sure. We’ve been doing this for a little while, putting some time in, and this is the first year it’s paid off in dividends. It’s really gratifying to know all of the work we’ve put in is starting to pay off for us.”

Dunstone’s time with the team was short though as he parted ways last March to join Team Laycock, a move Njegovan doesn’t harbour any ill will towards.

“Matt is a really good buddy of all of ours, he’s actually in my wedding party,” Njegovan said. “Matt and I have been good buds forever but when you get an opportunity that none of us were going to bug him too much about going after, he took a chance. It just happened really well that Gunner was looking for a team and we were looking for a skip. Gunner actually played eight years with Alex’s brother Tyler, so he knows Alex actually quite well.”

Jason Gunnlaugson had been a bit of a journeyman — or a hired gun, pardon the pun — but the 33-year-old has fit right in with Forrest, McMillan and Njegovan. They opened the 2017-18 season 18th on the World Curling Tour’s Order of Merit and the top-ranked team entering September’s Tour Challenge Tier 2 tournament in Regina. Gunnlaugson went on a red-hot run edging out Lyburn in the men’s final to earn a promotion to the Masters.

Njegovan said it was a pretty natural transition from Dunstone to Gunnlaugson and it’s been seamless since they started.

“The thing about Jason is he loves curling more than anybody I know. He was out on the ice as soon as we got ice in August,” Njegovan said. “I think we really had a jump on some teams because we were on the ice in the middle of August. We’ve played a ton and Jason has practised so much. As soon as we hit that Tier 2 we had already been on the ice for almost a month. I think that gave us a little bit of a leg-up on some people. Ever since then we’ve been getting better and better.”

Njegovan also saw first hand what winning the Tour Challenge Tier 2 did for Kaatz, who plays third for Team Einarson. Her crew claimed the title in 2015 and followed that up by earning the Manitoba Scotties in their breakout season. Einarson slipped in the standings the following year, despite a win at the Boost National, and found themselves back in Tier 2 at the start of 2017-18.

Hours after Njegovan captured his Tier 2 trophy, Kaatz was celebrating as well with Team Einarson defeating Team Carey in the women’s final. Over their nine years together the couple has had their ups and downs in curling with their time in the Grand Slams never overlapping until now.

“If one of us was in the Slams and the other one wasn’t, we didn’t see each other. It’s actually unreal,” Njegovan said. “We see each other more because of the Slams than we do at home. It’s just crazy.”

“She was kind of coming onto the scene with Einarson when I was playing with Jeff and she got to see how much I enjoyed the Slams,” he added. “Then just the year after that when they won their first Tier 2, they got onto the Slams and I was away for a little bit. We were joking around that it was my tour then she took the tour away from me and now we’re both on tour together.”

Njegovan said it is inspiring to see Kaatz’s team prove they belong among the elite as well.

“Anytime you can see somebody like the Einarson team or like Selena where they work so hard and when they start winning games it’s so exciting,” he said. “Curling is very much an amateur sport but it’s turning into more and more professional. We get some of these opportunities in curling these days it’s just so unbelievable. It’s definitely inspiring to see, personally for me and Selena, all of our hard work paying off.”