SELKIRK -- The intense pursuit of the Olympic dream has created a divide among Manitoba's top curlers.
Because the top three seeds of this year's Safeway Championship can afford to spend more time to travel and hone their skills in the hunt for at least a Canadian Curling Trials spot, they have a distinct advantage over those whose jobs do not allow them to travel as far or spend as much time honing their skills.
"It's hard for us because the Olympic trials has really widened the gap because they play so much as opposed to those who can't afford or don't choose to," Deer Lodge's fourth-ranked Peter Nicholls said yesterday. "Ten years ago, there were probably eight, 10, 12 teams that could win this thing. Now there's three.
"But as soon as you get to the Final 8, it's different."
The top three seeds here are Assiniboine Memorial's defending champion Kerry Burtnyk, Charleswood's six-time champ Jeff Stoughton and Assiniboine Memorial's Mike McEwen, in that order.
"I admire those guys," said Nicholls, who defeated West St. Paul's Rob Cosens 8-5 at the Selkirk Recreation Complex. "I don't think people realize how much those guys sacrifice and how much hard work they put into the game, especially Jeff and Kerry who have been doing it for a long time. I've never seen two better skips than Jeff and Kerry and I've played for a lot of good skips."
Nicholls had toured extensively with both Vic Peters and Dale Duguid but found it difficult on his marriage, family time and as a vice-principal, work commitments.
Burtnyk concurred with those sentiments, which were once expressed by Stoughton in a different way.
"Over the years, with the rule changes and now, the conditions in the arenas, the so-called elite teams play an awful lot compared to some of the other teams," Burtnyk said after blasting Flin Flon's Brad Hyrich 9-1. "We play on these kinds of conditions all the time and we're used to them and the fact is, on this kind of ice, you're going to have a lot of rocks in play if you want to put them in play. Therefore, it's that much more difficult for some of the teams to beat the better teams as often.
"The gap has gotten much wider. There's still teams capable of winning at any particular time but the likelihood of those teams winning in the end has decreased from what it used to be."
Yet, both Randy Dutiaume (2005) and Brent Scales (2004) have proven others can win the Manitoba title, even with such top-notch competitors in the field.
"We believe we can win it," said Nicholls, a former provincial champ who lost the 2007 final to Stoughton. "You don't come into this for any other reason but to win it."
Nicholls, 49, calls the game and throws third rocks with Dean Dunstone throwing the last brick. Wayne Sigurdson is at lead with James Kirkness, another former Manitoba champ, added at second this season.
"James has brought experience to our team and has really fired us up," Nicholls said. "And I still say people don't realize how good Dean Dunstone is throwing skip's rocks."
In other games of note, St. Vital's Darryl Friesen upset Brandon's seventh-seeded Allan Lyburn 10-1 and Carberry's Richard Muntain upended Brandon's eighth-ranked Terry McNamee 7-2.
Stoughton, McEwen, West Kildonan's fifth-seeded Reid Carruthers and Assiniboine Memorial's David Bohn, No. 6, all opened with victories.
Today's draws are at 8:30 a.m., 12:15, 4 and 8:15 p.m.