Curling rivalries heat up

ADRIANN KENNEKY, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 11:03 AM ET

TORONTO -- In somewhat of a surprise, both of Canada's Olympic rinks fell short at the Canada Cup of Curling in Medicine Hat, Alta., on Sunday.

Cheryl Bernard, silver medalist at the 2010 Vancouver Games, was battered by Saskatoon's Stefanie Lawton, 7-3, in the women's final, while Olympic champion Kevin Martin was outdueled by rival Glenn Howard, 10-7.

Bernard and her Alberta-based foursome are coming off a breakout season, winning the Roar of the Rings, finishing on the podium at the Olympics and closing the season with the Players' Championship title. They looked to be in top form in Medicine Hat, finishing the round robin at 4-1, a record bested only by Calgary rival Shannon Kleibrink, who went 5-0. Bernard then made short work of Kleibrink with a 6-4 win in the Page One playoff match, winning her eighth straight against her provincial foe by stealing a point in both the fourth and sixth ends.

This Alberta rivalry could get interesting at the provincial Scotties in Camrose in January. Kleibrink and her team have constructed a solid season despite their playoff loss at the Canada Cup and their restricted play schedule. The rink decided in the offseason to limit itself to events in Alberta, and amassed an 18-game win streak before the loss to Bernard. Kleibrink and Co. at last year's Olympic Trials. Each skip showed over the weekend that this rivalry will be competitive this year.

Stefanie Lawton tweaked her team in the offseason, and Medicine Hat was buzzing about the results. The Saskatoon skip recruited six-time provincial champion Sherry Anderson to throw third rocks, and the move paid off with a second Canada Cup title. Lawton was a burglar all weekend, stealing 24 points, with three in each of her playoff matches and a crucial four in the final against Bernard. Lawton's new lineup has a honeymoon glow, but if it continues it is not unreasonable to think they also will be in contention at the Scotties in Charlottetown.

One team that was conspicuously absent from the playoffs was Manitoba's Jennifer Jones. It was the first time this season that her team missed the playoffs at an event, but Jones has not shown the same dominance at the Canada Cup -- with just one win in 2007 -- that she has at the Tournament of Hearts. As defending champion, the rink is guaranteed a spot at the national championships as Team Canada, and they will want to improve on this weekend's results.

On the men's side, the big story remained the ongoing battle between Martin's Alberta-based rink and Coldwater, Ontario's Howard, which showed no signs of cooling. After last season's disappointments at the Roar of the Rings and the Brier, Howard looked determined to win Sunday against the man who has bested him again and again. Martin had won the previous four contests between the two and rallied from behind in the final, sending it to the 10th end tied at seven apiece.

The two skips were the class of the field all weekend, both finishing the round robin with 5-0 records. Martin, a three-time Canada Cup champion, made a terrific hit-and-roll shot with his last rock to lie shot stone, but Howard, coming home with the hammer, scored three to get the win and his first Canada Cup title. These two teams have a history -- they have faced off six times at the Brier, including the 2008 final, with the Alberta team winning each of those contests, while Martin and Co. made it to Vancouver by beating Howard's rink in the final at the Olympic Trials. This round went to Howard, but if the weekend was any indication, the competition between the two teams is far from over.

Howard, the first skip from outside Alberta to win the men's final at the Canada Cup, was joined this weekend by long-time friend and former teammate Wayne Middaugh, who filled in for third Richard Hart.

The two, who won a Brier and World Championship together in 1993, will go from being teammates back to competitors. It is an interesting subplot because they are likely to meet in the Ontario Tankard in February for the chance to represent the province at this year's Brier.

Away from the high profile of the Howard and Martin storyline, Mike McEwen stepped up again on the big stage. The young skip, who won his first Grand Slam event earlier in the fall, made a playoff appearance in Medicine Hat. He could be one to watch as the season continues, and will attempt to earn the right to represent Manitoba at the Brier by winning the Safeway Championship in February. Jeff Stoughton has skipped Team Manitoba four times in five years, but McEwen proved this weekend that he is not intimidated by major competition.

The Canada Cup demonstrated the depth of talent in this country, and set the stage for an exciting Season of Champions. While the competition is stiff, the next challenge for Canada's top rinks will be working together -- Martin, Brier champ Kevin Koe, Jones and Bernard will all be headed to St. Albert, Alberta, on Jan. 13 to join Team North American at the Continental Cup.


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