Bison are a bit of an endangered species these days — not so much in the wild, but in the winner’s circle at the Brier. They haven’t been seen there since 1999.
Manitoba has won the most Canadian men’s curling championships, with 26, but Jeff Stoughton’s win 12 years ago in Edmonton was the last one, making this the province’s longest title drought since the Brier started in 1927. He came close in 2009, losing in the final to Alberta’s Kevin Martin in Calgary, and he’ll definitely be in the mix when the 2011 Tim Hortons Brier begins Saturday at the John Labatt Centre.
This will be Stoughton’s ninth Brier — fifth in the last six years — and he said the thrill is still the same.
“It never, ever gets old,” the 47-year-old said Wednesday from Winnipeg. “If it does, I shouldn’t be playing.”
And he admitted getting a team with the buffalo crest on their jackets back atop the podium would ease some of the angst Manitoba fans might be feeling these days.
“We’ve had some close calls. We need to win one. But there’s only one guy to blame and that’s the guy who’s been there the most recently. I only have to look in the mirror,” he said with a slight chuckle.
“Manitoba has certainly dominated in the past. The last decade has been Alberta’s turn; hopefully we can start this decade with another Manitoba win.”
Being the Montreal Canadiens or New York Yankees of Canadian curling brings with it a high level of expectation, from within and without.
“We put a lot of expectations on ourselves,” Stoughton said. “That’s where the pressure comes from. Everyone in Manitoba expects us to be playing on the (final) weekend and we love the support the province gives us. Wearing the buffalo is such an honour.”
Even though he defended his provincial title, it was the man he beat in the final — Mike McEwen — who many expected to represent Manitoba this year, given McEwen’s outstanding year on the World Curling Tour (he’s the leading money-winner with more than $114,000).
“Well, I don’t think so,” Stoughton said, laughing, when asked if his latest provincial title could be considered an upset. “I know everyone wants new blood and we are the ones holding him back because we’re still able to compete at a super-high level. He’ll get his chance eventually, but we’ll hold him off as long as we can.”
With the likes of Martin, Ontario’s Glenn Howard and Brad Gushue of Newfoundland and Labrador also coming to London, Stoughton said this Brier is shaping up to be the most competitive he’s seen. And Stoughton said his rink of third Jon Mead, newcomer Reid Carruthers at second and Steve Gould at lead has just as good a chance.
“Everyone is saying it’s probably one of the best Brier fields ever and I can’t disagree,” he said. “There will be a lot of purple hearts out there. You get out there and you hope for a couple of weak teams, but this time you look and it’s, ‘Nope.’
“Coming in, though, our expectation is we’ll be in the final. Any top team will say that, but we’ve beaten Martin and Howard and pretty much everyone who’s here, so we know we can compete. We want to bring it back to Manitoba, where it belongs.”
Stoughton is well-known for his crowd-pleasing 360-degree delivery, which he’s brought out on occasion.
“The only thing I dislike about it is I usually only do it when we’re getting our asses kicked,” he said with another laugh. “I think I’ve only done it once when the shoe was on the other foot and that’s after I asked the other team if they minded. Hopefully we can do it when we’re six or seven up and the other team doesn’t mind.”
If he wins Manitoba’s 27th crown, it’s doubtful anyone would.