An off-season game of curling musical chairs has paid off for at least three Canadian men’s teams as the 2019 Brier approaches this weekend.
It was similar to baseball’s free agency frenzy, as a number of teams splintered, a couple of top skips went on a recruiting mission and everyone involved was hoping to find the magic brew that would eventually cook up a berth in the Olympic Curling Trials in 2021.
The race starts March 2 in Brandon, where only about a half dozen of the 16 teams have a legitimate chance to win the Brier, and boost their confidence as they move toward a berth in a select field of nine teams vying for a berth in the Beijing Olympics in 2022.
Kevin Koe’s team from Calgary, ranked No. 1 in the world, did a 50-per-cent remake, picking up second Colton Flasch from Steven Laycock's rink from Saskatoon and BJ Neufeld from Mike McEwen’s foursome, which completely disintegrated. The McEwen crew went in four different directions — McEwen, a perennial Brier contender, joining forces with fellow Manitoban Reid Carruthers; lead Denni Neufeld joining Jason Gunnlaugson’s rink; and second Matt Wozniak taking early retirement. McEwen and Carruthers had met in the two previous Manitoba finals, each winning once, but were tired of beating their heads against each other.
Another free agent of note was Laycock, who made it to the Brier seven times as the Saskatchewan representative, but always came up short. When he got the chance to throw third stones for Jim Cotter of B.C., another Brier non-winning regular, he jumped at it.
So after all the provincial playdowns were finished, how did the musical chairs play out? Koe won in Alberta, bouncing back from a couple of early losses to beat Ted Appelman in the final. McEwen and Carruthers, whose team was in the doldrums most of the year, caught fire at the right time, and won the Manitoba title. And Cotter and Laycock will get an opportunity to finally win a Brier after they captured the B.C. championship.
One remade team that didn’t win a provincial crown was John Epping’s of Ontario, who picked up front enders Brent Laing and Craig Savill, onetime members of Glenn Howard’s unit. Epping lost in the Ontario final to relative unknown Scott McDonald.
Of course, a number of top contenders made no moves whatsoever, and hope the consistency pays off with a trip to the world championships. Defending champion Brad Gushue of Newfoundland and Brier-winner and Olympian Brad Jacobs of Northern Ontario kept their teams intact and will be key performers in a strong field. Epping and Alberta’s Brendan Bottcher, last year’s Brier runner-up, will meet in the wildcard play-in game to add another strong foursome to the competition.
• R.J. Currie of sportsdeke.com, who loves to poke the Blue Bombers: “The upcoming CFL season will be Winnipeg’s 29th without a Grey Cup, the league’s longest championship drought. Maybe those helmets should sport an L instead of a W?”
• Cam Hutchinson of the Saskatoon Express, on the best NHL defensive tandem he ever saw: “Bobby Orr and anybody.”
• Jason Botchford of The Athletic: “Explaining the Canucks goaltending situation is not unlike trying to tell someone the plot to Bird Box. Both include lots of blindfolds and none of it makes much sense.”
• Ryan Whitney on Twitter: “In a crazy sequence of events Matt Kuchar just picked up a quarter Jon Rahm was using to mark his golf ball. When asked to put it back Kuchar threw down a nickel and walked away.”
• Brad Rock of the Deseret News: “A Kansas City woman reportedly makes $40,000 a year as a ‘professional cuddler.’ She offers comfort, understanding and reassurance by hugging people. Sources say the Cavaliers have booked her for the entire month of February.”
• Comedy writer Jim Barach: “A Colorado sports store that boycotted Nike goods because of Colin Kaepernick has gone out of business. A sports store banning Nike is like trying to run a liquor store during Prohibition.”
• Barach again: “A golfer hit into the water six times in making a 17 on one hole in a Web.comevent. If he had gone in the water any more he would have been eligible to play on the tour for webfoot.com.”
• RJ Currie again: “Ex-Manchester United coach Jose Mourinho dropped the ceremonial opening puck at a KHL game, then promptly fell flat on his butt on the ice. ‘Tell us about it,’ said the Anaheim Ducks.”
• Dwight Perry of the Seattle Times: “Police were called when two women, 86 and 79, came to blows over seating arrangements during Bingo night at a retirement home in Rideau Lakes, Ont.. Because it was Canada, both returned to action after serving five minutes for fighting.”