Third has magic touch

JIM BENDER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:22 AM ET

SELKIRK -- For years, the best thirds in Manitoba were named Jeff Ryan, Jon Mead, then Ryan Fry.

At this year's Safeway Championship, the two best vice-skips will be former Brier champs Don Walchuk and Kevin Park, who were recruited from Alberta.

But ever-so-quietly, a young man named B.J. Neufeld has emerged as one of the best thirds born in Manitoba.

Assiniboine Memorial's Mike McEwenadmits his team's success started when Neufeld moved up from second with third Matt Wozniak dropping down.

"B.J.'s such a level-headed player," McEwen said on the eve of the men's provincial playdowns, which start at the Selkirk Recreation Complex today. "He's very good at keeping calm and not having ups and downs like some players do -- maybe myself included. And he's got a very good touch for a young player.

"He's only 22, so he's the youngest on the team but he's made it more able for us to play an aggressive game. That's been a big part of helping us play against the best teams in the world."

Because they are capable of beating the best, McEwen, 28, has been seeded No. 3 and given the best chance to knock off Assiniboine Memorial's defending champion Kerry Burtnyk and Charleswood's second-seeded Jeff Stoughton this week.

"I know I get nervous sometimes," said McEwen, who opens against Thompson's Farrol Asham today at 12:15 p.m. "I can feel my heart pounding but I've never seen it in him. He's one of those guys who really holds the team together when he's playing well."

Mead, who now plays third for Ontario's Wayne Middaugh, has seen that steadying influence first-hand.

"I played against him quite a bit this season and he's very calm," Mead said. "He's got a great demeanour. He obviously plays real well. He hits well, he draws well. It's his personality that works really well. He doesn't get too excited. He doesn't get too up and down and he really complements Mike well that way ... I've been very impressed with him."

But Neufeld is no robot.

"Oh, I get nervous," said Neufeld, who has won three junior men's provincial titles. "I guess I hide it really well. But I've been around it so long in nerve-wracking situations that I've learned to deal with it, I guess."

Both B.J. and his older brother, Denni, 27, who plays lead for McEwen, grew up watching their dad, Chris, play in three Canadian championships at second for Vic Peters.

"We've kind of been around this atmosphere our whole lives so we kind of know what we have to do," said B.J., who credited Wozniak for suggesting the switch. "We'll go out and give it our best shot and hopefully, we'll come out on top."

Hoping to come out on top for the second straight year is Burtnyk, who has never defended his title.

"We've had a nice break since we curled last (in the MCA's annual bonspiel) and now it's time to get going again," said Burtnyk, who could tie Stoughton's record of six Manitioba titles with a victory on Sunday.

"We've been working all year towards this event and it's starting to look pretty good," Stoughton said. "Lots of teams out here will be disappointed if they don't win. Mike would be disappointed. We'd be disappointed if we don't win. Kerry would be because he would love to win back-to-back. So, we all think we can win and there are 29 other teams that think they can win as well."

Today's draws are at 8:30 a.m., 12:15, 4 and 8:15 p.m.

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BENDER'S PICKS

1. Kerry Burtnyk, Assiniboine Memorial (2-1) ... The Don sparks defending champ

2. Jeff Stoughton, Charleswood (3-1) ... could win on sheer determination alone

3. Mike McEwen, Assiniboine Memorial (7-1) ... legit threat

4. Pete Nicholls, Deer Lodge (10-1) ... best of rest

5. Dave Smith, St. Vital (15-1) ... the dark horse

6. Reid Carruthers, West Kildonan (20-1) ... still something to prove?

7. Allan Lyburn, Brandon (30-1) ... best of country boys

8. Daley Peters, Beausejour (40-1) ... has the bloodlines

9. David Bohn, Assiniboine Memorial (50-1) ... was last year a fluke?

10. Brendan Taylor, West Kildonan (75-1) ... don't overlook


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