Proving to himself he can still do it

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 9:22 AM ET

SELKIRK -- He's played in so many provincial championships, he's almost lost count. But the one Kerry Burtnyk is playing in right now just might be the most important.

It could also be his last.

The man who's won as many Briers as he has battles with cancer is down to last rock, you might say.

Four Manitoba titles, two Canadian championships and one glorious year as reigning world champ have left the 46-year-old Winnipegger with absolutely nothing to prove.

But you get the feeling this last shot is as important to him as any he's attempted over 30-plus years in the game.

Twice, Burtnyk has played for a spot on Canada's Olympic team. And twice he's come up short. Once, agonizingly so, losing a last-rock final in the 2001 Olympic trials to Alberta's Kevin Martin.

MAKE IT BACK

Can he make it back to the trials a third time next December?

"That was probably my biggest heartbreaking loss of my career, losing that one to Kevin," Burtnyk was saying after mowing down his second straight opponent at the provincials in Selkirk yesterday. "That's just more incentive to want to try to do it again."

Maybe that explains the combined 18-4 count in his first two games here, including yesterday's 10-2 romp over Peter Pruden of Petersfield.

You see, Burtnyk has just two avenues left in his Olympic quest: through the Brier or the Canada Cup, both in March.

If he doesn't get that trials berth, there's probably a better-than-even chance he'll begin to wind down one of the most successful curling careers of our time.

"There's no question ... my career is in the ending stages," Burtnyk said. "We'll take that one step at a time. It's not going to be a tragic event if we don't get our spot. It would be disappointing, for sure, but this is still just a game, and there are a lot of things in life that are a lot more important."

To hear Burtnyk talk, it might be time to start paying more attention to those things.

And travelling to keep his edge on the World Curling Tour makes that impossible.

"I still love to play the game, I still love to compete," he said. "I have fun spending time with the guys. All that's really important, and has sort of kept me going at this stage. But my kids are getting a little older, they're getting a lot more active. I'm starting to miss some of their activities ... at some point I want to spend more time following them around than following this game around."

While he might be close to winding it down, Burtnyk is still as wound up as ever about winning.

"He makes the shots when we need them at events like this," said lead Keith Fenton, Burtnyk's teammate for 11 years. "You can see it in his eyes that he's focused here this week."

And if he happens to reach the Brier, history suggests the rest of the field had better watch out.

"If the chips get bigger, he gets better," second Rob Fowler said. "He breeds good chemistry. He's just a leader."

Fowler, 29, is a relative newcomer to the Burtnyk squad, invited on board three years ago.

If he had any doubts about the impact Burtnyk has had on the game, they were put to rest during the recent MCA bonspiel.

No matter where they played, everybody seemed to be a Burtnyk fan.

Fowler, who's from Brandon, says he hears the same thing in rural Manitoba.

No matter what happens here, the man's place in Manitoba curling history is secure.

It seems one person, though, wants him to prove he can still do it, still play with the best in the world, at 46.

"If I'm going to prove it to anybody," Burtnyk said. "I just want to prove it to myself."


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