CAMROSE, ALTA. - They are, arguably, the greatest team never to get to a Brier.
Last year they finally said the hell with it.
“We didn’t go last year. We kind of had that ‘Why bother?’ attitude,” said Del Shaughnessy.
That’s the thing about the 12-team Boston Pizza Cup which opens here Wednesday. Why bother?
When you decide to put together a team to get to the provincial playdowns, even if you get here, do you really arrive with any hope of getting to Saskatoon and the Brier?
If you’re in Saskatchewan, sure. Somebody nobody ever heard of before by the name of Scott Manners, curling out of North Battleford, is going to be representing the host province.
It doesn’t work that way in Alberta.
Kevin Martin is 20-0 with five title teams in the last six years. And the year he missed, it was to win the Olympic gold medal for Canada while Kevin Koe stepped up as expected, dominated, as expected, and went on to win not just the bloomin’ Brier but the freakin’ world championship.
What chance do you have if you’re, oh, say, Kurt Balderston, Les Sonnenberg and Shaughnessy?
And why do you keep coming back?
They are back!
This farmer, school teacher and electrician who are skip, third and lead respectively on the Grande Prairie team which also includes newcomer Rob Maksymetz, a 31-year-old “kid” at second, actually discovered they missed this.
Uh huh. The only thing worse than coming here and not winning every year is not coming and not winning.
They represent a dying breed — the group of guys who put together a team from around town, curl in the local leagues, aren’t all sponsored up and don’t play on the World Curling Tour.
In the case of these guys, however, it’s magnified.
The greatest team never to get to a Brier in the history of curling?
Ferbey and Martin think so.
“If they played out of any other province, I think they’d have made it to the Brier two or three times, minimum,” said Ferbey.
“They probably should have got out of this province a couple times. Bad luck, you know. It happens. I tell you one thing, if there’s anybody I’d like to see win, it’s those guys. They’re not just great curlers, they’re nice guys.”
Martin says Balderston has always been a top talent.
“He knows it. He knocked us out of the playoffs one year. It’s too bad they couldn’t put the time in.”
For Balderston, 49, this is his 19th provincials.
It’s his 13th with Sonnenberg and 11th with Shaughnessy.
Shaughnessy is 51. He’s been to 16 provincials in all, three of them in his native Saskatchewan before he moved to Grande Prairie.
For Sonnenberg, 37, it’s his 14th.
Add ’em up, that’s 49 provincials.
That’s a lot of knocking your head against the wall.
Since 1983, Ed Lukowich (4), Pat Ryan (4), Randy Ferbey (5) and Kevin Martin (11) have won the province with all-time teams.
That’s 24 titles out of 29.
It was 1986, right here in Camrose, where Balderston skipped his first team at the provincial finals.
“It was a Lukowich-Ryan final that year. I finished third. It was my first chance to get to a Brier,” said Balderston, who would move on to curl under skip Mike Vavrek for several season of team configuration.
He’s been to the final four times and finished third four times.
Regrets, he has a few.
“Well, one would be never making the final in one of the years Randy or Kevin didn’t win it,” Balderston laughed.
Balderston lost the final to Martin in 1991 and 1992 and to Ferbey in 2002 and 2004.
“To me, 1992 against Kevin and 2004 against Randy were the toughest,” said the skip. “Ah, 2002 was tough, too.
“In 1992 we were one up on Kevin in the seventh end when we gave up two and ...
“In 2002, I had a shot for four on the second end — a routine tap-back. It ticked a guard and ...
“In 2004, though, we were up 3-1 after the fifth against Randy and really thought we were going to win. But we were going against a great team which kept putting the pressure on and ...”
Shaughnessy said 2004 would have been a whale of a story if they’d pulled it off.
“It was in Hinton that year and it was said to be the best field ever. We beat Martin in the round robin and beat him again in the playoffs. And we had Ferbey on the ropes in the final. But ...”
Sonnenberg said ’04 was the one which haunts him the most.
“The two I missed giving Ferbey three on one end turned that game. We were up against the best team in history, at least until Martin’s team at the Vancouver Olympics, but fate kind of kicked into gear and kicked us in the groin again.”
Shaughnessy, unlike the rest of the team, knows what it’s like to be in a Brier. Indeed, if there were any justice, he’d be a Brier champion.
He was third for Eugene Hritzuk out of Saskatchewan and in position to win the final when his skip didn’t get his last shot to the hog line and gave the title to Pat Ryan and his third Ferbey.
He’s taken his lickings but he keeps on ticking.
“He’s 51 and you can put him with any team here and he’d have success,” said Balderston.
But the curling gods really do have it in for them.
Balderston and Shaughnessy made it to the final of the Canadian mixed this year playing with Desiree Owen and Stephanie Malekoff from Owen’s women’s team which Sonnenberg coaches.
“We were up three playing the ninth, gave up two in nine, a steal in 10 and another steal in the extra end,” said Balderston.
In taking the year away last year, they reaffirmed what they already knew. Their regrets are, indeed, too few to mention.
“I admire Randy and Kevin so much for what they’ve put into it,” said Balderston.
“I’d have loved to get a couple Briers in, that would have been pretty cool. But I wouldn’t trade anything,” said the Sexsmith-area farmer and former county councilor.
“We all feel the same way. Family first, career second and curling third,” said Balderston.
“That’s not to suggest we don’t give curling everything we have in every practice and every game we play. And we love to play.”
Shaughnessy says there’s a reality here.
“There’s a lot of professionalism in curling in Alberta. Martin, Koe and Ferbey, aren’t the only teams out there on the tour. We don’t get that kind of competition and we don’t play on arena ice. We go from three feet of curl to six feet of curl. When we get to the provincials, it’s a new universe.
“We’re a team of guys who live up in Grande Prairie, all love it where we are, all have the same values, all get along and are all really good friends. We made a pact to give it all we’ve got and come out with no regrets,” added the lead.
“It’s tough,” said Sonnenberg.
“We’re curling’s small market team. We know if we had the sponsorship and we went out and competed on the tour every week, we’d probably have done well enough.
“We’re not 23 or 24 anymore. We don’t have visions of going and shocking the world. We’ve had some big wins. We’ve beaten Kevin Martin a few times. We never beat Ferbey in 11 tries at provincials, but we once took him to a 12th end.
“We’re going to be in Camrose looking to be the toughest ninth seed in history. We’ve put in the work. Kurt is really curling well. We’re relaxed. We’re happy to be back. There’s no pressure on us. And we’re looking to have fun,” added Sonnenberg.
“I guess, in the end, we were all reminded by not going in it last year how much we enjoyed going to the provincials and playing the best teams in the world which come from our province,” said Balderston.
“We’re going to be in Camrose this week hoping maybe we can play Kevin Koe in the semi-final and Kevin Martin in the final.”
As long as Balderston doesn’t have an accident in the bathroom ...
Until he decided to return for another kick at the can this year, it looked like Balderston’s career at the provincial tankard was going to end up not in the toilet, but right next to it in the bath tub.
“Two years ago I fell in the shower in Olds and tore up my ribs. I’ve never managed to fall on the ice once in my life, but two games in to that one in Olds, I fell in the shower. I was laid up for four months.”