Koe, Howard favoured at Brier

Nolan Thiessen (left to right), Pat Simmons, Kevin Koe and Carter Rycroft celebrate winning the...

Nolan Thiessen (left to right), Pat Simmons, Kevin Koe and Carter Rycroft celebrate winning the Boston Pizza Cup at the Edgeworth arena in Camrose, Alta., Feb. 12, 2012. (AMBER BRACKEN/QMI Agency)

GEORGE KARRYS, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:38 PM ET

TORONTO - The crush of curling action is quite heavy at this time of year. No sooner will the buzz over the weekend’s men’s provincial results die down than the women will start throwing the first of some 11,360 44-lb stones at the nationals in Red Deer, Alta., on Saturday.

Still with the buzz, it’s out with the old — somewhat — and in with the new at the 2012 Brier in Saskatoon in March. Of curling’s big three — Alberta’s Kevin Martin, Manitoba’s Jeff Stoughton and Ontario’s Glenn Howard — only the latter survived his provincial championship and is off to another Brier.

Martin was beaten three times, and he hadn’t lost a game in Alberta since 2006. Two losses came at the hands of one of the young teams he and Randy Ferbey had been pointing to in the future, Brock Virtue’s Calgary outfit. Martin rival Kevin Koe, who won the Alberta, Brier and world titles in 2010 while Martin was focused on the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, beat Virtue in Sunday’s finale in Camrose.

Stoughton lost his first playoff game and was then eliminated by ex-teammate Rob Fowler. The genial Fowler, who has also swept for the retired Kerry Burtnyk, then upset World Curling Tour kingpin Mike McEwen in the final to book his tickets to Saskatoon. That’s three straight buffalo finals the McEwens have lost, and their Twitter feed was (understandably) short and curt on Sunday night.

Howard, however, withstood the winds of change despite two hairy finishes. After steamrolling his opponents over five days, Howard met old foe and friend Peter Corner, his 1993 world champion teammate, in the first playoff. Corner had Howard dead to rights coming home, but the Howard crew wriggled their way out of jail with dramatic steals in both the 10th and 11th ends. In the championship final, Howard held the lead in the 10th with last-rock advantage but his final takeout looked to be hanging wide, right up to the final seconds, before it began a slow waltz toward it’s target.

With Corner screaming for sweeping, his third Graeme McCarrel leapt onto the stone but couldn’t pull it far enough. The Howard gang exploded in joyous relief.

“I really thought something good was going to happen, that the gods of curling were going to be with me today,” Corner told Sun Media.

We feel for Corner, who hasn’t been in The Show since he skipped a team to an 8-3 record and the Brier playoffs back in 2000 (also in Saskatoon). In that time, he’s lost six Ontario finals. Meanwhile, his old buddy Howard — now accompanied by another ex-teammate in Wayne Middaugh — is off to his, count ’em, seventh consecutive Brier.

Other names like Brad Gushue (Newfoundland and Labrador), Terry Odishaw (New Brunswick), Mike Gaudet (P.E.I.), Jim Cotter (B.C.), Brad Jacobs (Northern Ontario) and Jamie Koe (Territories) are familiar. But the curling gods have also shone their light upon the Quebec, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan teams.

Robert Desjardins played third in last year’s Brier, but is a first-time winner as a skip representing Quebec. He is, in a word, eccentric, and great fun to watch. There aren’t many guys who love the game quite like this one.

Jamie Murphy is an unheralded Halifax skip who upset veteran Mark Dacey, the 2004 Brier champion, in the Nova Scotia men’s final. The book on the 30-year-old Murphy, who was born in New Brunswick, is that his squad doesn’t travel much outside of the region but are one of the hardest working teams in Atlantic Canada. They also yell, real loud, on the ice so TV fans should keep a thumb near the “volume” button.

Then there’s the host province, skipped by Scott Manners. I wrote about him and his team’s exploits last week, and all you need to know this week is that they’ve got a publicist (the skip’s sister). It’s game on, folks.

All pundits will immediately declare this the Koe-Howard show, and predict another Alberta vs Ontario championship final. Indeed, the 2010 finale between these teams was a dandy, in which Koe made a lifesaving hit-and-roll on the way to a classic draw to the button for the trophy.

I can’t see it shaping up any other way, either. I like Fowler and perhaps Gushue for the last two playoff spots, but would love to see a mess of tiebreakers along the way — and the chance to see what some of these other guys are made of.

GREAT SCOTTIES

The Tournament of Hearts gets underway at 3:00pm ET on Saturday and my sole prediction will be … which match TSN covers first. I’m going with Quebec’s Marie-France Larouche versus B.C.’s Kelly Scott, by the way.

It’s definitely Jennifer Jones’ tournament to lose. The Manitoba leader played virtually the entire season with a couple of spare players due to Jill Officer’s pregnancy, and still managed lots of wins plus that oh-so-valuable Canada Cup crown, and the first women’s Olympic trials berth. She had to win a bunch of games in a row at her provincial, including in the final, and she did it — as she’s done so many times before. She’s just that darned good.

Her opponents are, historically and recently, all over the place. Defending champion Amber Holland heads into Red Deer in a season-long slump. Ontario’s Tracy Horgan is young and untested under the bright arena lights. Saskatchewan’s Michelle Englot can throw it but hasn’t been in a playoff hunt in years. Larouche’s last appearance at the STOH was a disappointment, as was Scott’s. Teams like NL’s Heather Strong and NB’s Andrea Kelly seem to play great for one game, and poorly the next.

Look for Jones’ biggest challenge to come from Alberta’s Heather Nedohin and Nova Scotia’s Heather Smith-Dacey, who scored bronze last year. These are good teams with strong recent records and Nedohin, in particular, has put together an impressive pair of seasons.

Twitter: @curling

Email: gk@thecurlingnews.com

Web: curlinguru.com


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