SASKATOON — Mike McEwen no longer laments the most searing defeat of his career, preferring, instead, to regard the ordeal as a lesson of tremendous worth.

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SASKATOON — Mike McEwen no longer laments the most searing defeat of his career, preferring, instead, to regard the ordeal as a lesson of tremendous worth.

The Winnipegger lost the biggest final in all of Canadian curling, falling 7-6 to Kevin Koe of Calgary at the Olympic Trials in Ottawa in late 2017. Koe, a two-time world champion, needed a last-rock draw to the four-foot — against two McEwen counters — to squeeze out the monumental victory and book a spot at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Mike McEwen is set to skip a different team at the 2021 Trials beginning Saturday at SaskTel Centre. (Sean Kilpatrick /  Canadian Press files)

Mike McEwen is set to skip a different team at the 2021 Trials beginning Saturday at SaskTel Centre. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press files)

McEwen, set to skip a different team at the 2021 Trials beginning Saturday at SaskTel Centre, says he isn't using that doleful moment as motivation this time around.

"I view it more as an important experience, not that the exact same template applies to this team," he said, earlier this week. "What we did, in terms of our preparation, our experience, our ability to limit distractions and actually go out and enjoy that event — and I believe it's the hardest event to truly enjoy, regardless of outcome — was invaluable for me and the boys that went though it.

"I'll try to apply that in the coming week and try to help my teammates get to a similar place, too, because the pressure is something else... you can feel it in the air when you play in the Olympic Trials. It's quite a different event. Even the fans can sense it."

2021 Canadian Olympic Curling Trials

The Trial schedule for the next week

Saturday, Nov. 20 to Sunday, Nov. 28
SaskTel Centre, Saskatoon

Draw


Saturday

2 p.m.
McCarville vs. Jones
Harrison vs. Homan
Einarson vs. Fleury
Scheidegger vs. Walker
7 p.m.
Bottcher vs. Gushue
Koe vs. Horgan
Dunstone vs. McEwen
Jacobs vs. Epping

Sunday

9 a.m.
Walker vs. Rocque
Einarson vs. Scheidegger
Harrison vs. Jones
Homan vs. McCarville

2 p.m.
Epping vs. Gunnlaugson
Dunstone vs. Jacobs
Koe vs. Gushue
Horgan vs. Bottcher

7 p.m.
Harrison vs. Einarson
Jones vs. Walker
Scheidegger vs. McCarville
Fleury vs. Rocque

Monday

2 p.m.
Koe vs. Dunstone
Gushue vs. Epping
Jacobs vs. Bottcher
McEwen vs. Gunnlaugson

7 p.m.
Jones vs. Scheidegger
McCarville vs. Fleury
Rocque vs. Homan
Walker vs. Einarson

Tuesday

2 p.m.
Gushue vs. Jacobs
Bottcher vs. McEwen
Gunnlaugson vs. Horgan
Epping vs. Dunstone

7 p.m.
Homan vs. Fleury
Scheidegger vs. Rocque
Jones vs. Einarson
McCarville vs. Harrison

Wednesday

9 a.m.
Horgan vs. McEwen
Jacobs vs. Gunnlaugson
Gushue vs. Dunstone
Bottcher vs. Koe

2 p.m.
Einarson vs. McCarville
Fleury vs. Harrison
Homan vs. Walker
Rocque vs. Jones

7 p.m.
Dunstone vs. Bottcher
McEwen vs. Koe
Horgan vs. Epping
Gunnlaugson vs. Gushue

Thursday

9 a.m.
Fleury vs. Walker
Homan vs. Jones
McCarville vs. Rocque
Harrison vs. Scheidegger

2 p.m.
McEwen vs. Epping
Horgan vs. Gushue
Bottcher vs. Gunnlaugson
Koe vs. Jacobs

7 p.m.
Rocque vs. Harrison
Walker vs. McCarville
Fleury vs. Scheidegger
Einarson vs. Homan

Friday

9 a.m.
Gunnlaugson vs. Koe
Epping vs. Bottcher
McEwen vs. Jacobs
Dunstone vs. Horgan

2 p.m.
Scheidegger vs. Homan
Rocque vs. Einarson
Walker vs. Harrison
Jones vs. Fleury

7 p.m.
Jacobs vs. Horgan
Gunnlaugson vs. Dunstone
Epping vs. Koe
Gushue vs. McEwen

Saturday

9 a.m. tiebreakers (if necessary)
2 p.m. women’s semfinal (2 vs. 3)
7 p.m. men’s semifinal (2 vs. 3)

Sunday

11 a.m. women’s final (1 vs. semifinal winner)
7 p.m. men's final (1 vs. semifinal winner)
(All TV coverage provided by TSN)

Indeed, this could be a bonspiel for the ages — a veritable who's who of granite chuckers from the Great White North — played on a surface created by world-renowned ice maker Greg Ewasko of Oakbank.

Finally, after a quadrennial unlike any other (owing to the global COVID-19 pandemic) nine men's and nine women's teams will challenge for the honour of representing the Maple Leaf at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

McEwen joins Jason Gunnlaugson of Morris as Manitoba's prospects in the stacked men's draw.

Tracy Fleury and her crew headlines a potent Manitoba contingent. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press files)

Tracy Fleury and her crew headlines a potent Manitoba contingent. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press files)

Tracy Fleury's crew from East St. Paul, already boasting three event titles this fall, headlines a potent Manitoba contingent in women's play, along with 2014 Olympic champion Jennifer Jones of Winnipeg and two-time reigning national Scotties champion Kerri Einarson of Gimli.

Fleury, with third Selena Njegovan, second Liz Fyfe and lead Kristin MacCuish, is ranked No.1 both nationally and on the world stage. The red-hot team is bracketed with Ontario’s Rachel Homan (who missed the podium at the '18 Olympics), Krista McCarville and Jacqueline Harrison, also of Ontario, and a trio of Alberta lineups — Laura Walker, Kelsey Rocque and Casey Scheidegger.

Koe is back for a chance at redemption after failing to medal in Pyeongchang, while the two golden Brads — Gushue of Newfoundland-Labrador, the 2006 Olympic champion, and Jacobs of Northern Ontario, the 2014 winner — share the spotlight with reigning Brier winner Brendan Bottcher of Alberta, Matt Dunstone, a former Winnipegger now curling out of Saskatchewan, and Ontario's John Epping and Tanner Horgan.

Kate Cameron lives in New Bothwell. (Jonathan Hayward / Canadian Press files)

Kate Cameron lives in New Bothwell. (Jonathan Hayward / Canadian Press files)

There are others in the mix with strong ties to the keystone province. Koe employs the Neufeld brothers, B.J. (third) and Denni (alternate), who both make Winnipeg their home, while second, John Morris, was born in the Manitoba capital. Ryan Fry, third for Epping, is a Winnipeg product, Walker's third, Kate Cameron, lives in New Bothwell, and former Winnipegger Allison Flaxey is the third for Harrison.

In a late development, Colton Lott of Winnipeg Beach will replace Braeden Moskowy at third for Dunstone. The team said Friday afternoon Moskowy stepped away "for personal reasons."

Lott and Dunstone won a pair of national junior titles together.

It's a round-robin format, meaning teams go head to head with each of their eight opponents during the week. The margin for error is negligible this week and just the top three finishers qualify for the playoffs on the final weekend of November.

Here's a closer look at the local challengers:

TEAM MCEWEN

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Skip Mike McEwen hopes to apply the same preparation that got him to within one stone from the last Olympics, when he lost in the trials to Kevin Koe.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Skip Mike McEwen hopes to apply the same preparation that got him to within one stone from the last Olympics, when he lost in the trials to Kevin Koe.

McEwen will compete in his third Olympic Trials, this time with third Reid Carruthers, second Derek Samagalski and lead Colin Hodgson. The West St. Paul foursome, currently ranked ninth in the country, has former world champion Rob Meakin along as coach.

The team's formation occurred in 2018 and has resulted in three Briers appearances, including this past March inside the Calgary bubble, but no championships. McEwen played in six events so far during the 2021-2022 season, including a pair of Grand Slams, but has yet to earn a title. The team went 5-1 at a direct-entry event in late September in Ottawa to earn a Trials berth.

To say the season has been a seesaw ride would be an understatement.

"Honestly, we lost two C qualifiers in the Slams, which were disappointing," McEwen said. "There were times though when we played phenomenal. Our consistency over a long stretch just needs to come up a little bit. When we're playing well, I'm really confident in what we can do. It's just lately we've only had little blips of that."

McEwen plays just once through five draws, opening against Dunstone on Saturday evening and then returning to the ice Monday in an afternoon matchup with Gunnlaugson.

Stumbling from the gate is simply not an option for teams with Beijing aspirations, he said, adding teams are well aware performing at optimal efficiency won't guarantee victories, owing to the potency of the competition.

"I do believe the cream will rise to the top as far as the playoff picture. What's interesting though is, because of the calibre of the field, you can go and play very, very well on any given day, throw up 90 percentiles as a squad and still lose two games in a day," McEwen said. "That is a very real possibility. It's a daunting task. You'll have to play well, and you'll need things to go your way a little bit."

 

TEAM GUNNLAUGSON

Michael Burns Photo</p><p>Skip Jason Gunnlaugson captains the No. 7-ranked team in Canada.</p>

Michael Burns Photo

Skip Jason Gunnlaugson captains the No. 7-ranked team in Canada.

'Gunner' is guiding the seventh-ranked team men's team in the country. This is his fourth taste of the Trials, going winless in 2009 as a skip and then serving as alternate twice (with B.C.'s Jim Cotter in 2013 and Bottcher in 2017).

He's got the well-travelled, highly qualified Adam Casey at third, and a strong front end with second Matt Wozniak and lead Connor Njegovan. Casey, a Charlottetown resident, has been to eight Briers and has sported the jackets of Newfoundland-Labrador, P.E.I., Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Wozniak curled with McEwen when the Manitobans fell to Koe in the '17 Trials final.

Gunnlaugson's crew was one of the final two teams (Horgan was the other) to stake claim to a Trials spot, sliding in after posting a splendid 6-2 record at the pre-Trials tournament in Liverpool, N.S., in late October.

While the team didn't qualify in either of the fall Grand Slams, Gunnlaugson said they can still draw on the momentum generated at the pre-Trials.

"It's a pretty tight turnaround so its happening quickly. The excitement has really been growing every day," he said. "To qualify for this event took a commitment of multiple years, being high-ranked and then winning at the pre-Trials. So, I think we have a lot going for us on the joy side of things. I think we can play well here.

"It's an eight-game round-robin, so you get off to a good start and win five or six, you're not that many wins away from the Olympics. The excitement is going to grow quick here."

Gunnlaugson has the opening Saturday off before colliding with Epping on Sunday's 2 p.m. draw.

 

TEAM FLEURY

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Tracy Fleury (throwing) and her team are on fire this year, and they might be the favourite to take the women's berth.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Tracy Fleury (throwing) and her team are on fire this year, and they might be the favourite to take the women's berth.

Fleury, a Sudbury, Ont., product, guides what might well be the favourite heading into the women's event. Champions at three bonspiels, including the Slam tour's Masters in October in Oakville, Ont., Fleury has won 30 of 35 games to date this season. Two weeks ago, they had a fabulous run in Chestermere, Alta., before losing the Slam's National final to Anna Hasselborg of Sweden.

Fleury faced Einarson four times already this season and made it a clean sweep. It's worth noting Fleury was recruited by the trio — Njegovan, Fyfe and MacCuish — after Einarson split from them in 2018.

Clearly, the moves have worked for both sides. Interestingly, the two sides meet again to begin the Trials in Saturday's marquee matchup at 2 p.m.

It's the first appearance at an Olympic qualifier for the entire Fleury foursome, which exudes a quiet confidence to go with its precise shot-making. It also boasts a world-class support system, with Chelsea Carey as alternate and coach Sherry Middaugh.

"For the four of us, it's the first time we've ever played in the Trials, so we're excited for the opportunity. We're feeling really good and couldn't have asked for a better season going in," said Fleury, who skipped Northern Ontario teams at the 2012, '15 and '18 Scotties. "Anything can happen at the Trials and other teams can get hot as well... there are a lot of strong teams. Every game will be difficult.

"There will be games where you feel you played well enough to win and yet you don't. So, it's a matter of how you respond to that, how you refocus and not let it rattle you."

Fleury did not join her team for the '21 Scotties inside the Calgary bubble, staying home to be with her baby girl, Nina, who was diagnosed with a seizure disorder. She later rejoined them for a Slam event inside the bubble, and really hit her stride with event triumphs in September.

"I've come back with some added perspective. We missed playing together last season (owing to the pandemic), so we're pretty fired up to be reunited and playing so well," she said. "The Olympics used to be kind of a far-fetched goal, but you realize now that maybe it really is achievable."

Fleury will also be paying close attention to her younger brothers, Tanner Horgan, 23, and Jacob Horgan, 21, who will also make their Trials debuts. They squeezed in by way of the pre-Trials, dispatching legendary Glenn Howard of Ontario to seize the final spot.

"So, so proud of them. They've worked so hard and they're still so young," Fleury said. "It's been so impressive the way they've evolved as players. I hope that I can work them a bit in Saskatoon, it'll be a good distraction when we're not playing and to give them that family support."

 

TEAM EINARSON

Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press files</p><p>Two-time Canadian champion Kerri Einarson (left) leads an experienced team of former skips into this year's trials.</p>

Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press files

Two-time Canadian champion Kerri Einarson (left) leads an experienced team of former skips into this year's trials.

It's tough to bet against the two-time reigning Scotties champions, now three years removed from a well-publicized union of dedicated and adept skips. Decorated Alberta curler Val Sweeting was recruited to throw third rocks, while second Shannon Birchard and lead Briane Meilleur dropped down and have since thrived at their positions.

It's the first Trials appearance for Einarson and the front end, while Sweeting played in a pair while curling out of Alberta.

Einarson has piles of success inside the Calgary bubble, successfully defending the Scotties crown and winning the Slam's lucrative Players Championship. But the Interlake squad has dropped to a rank of fifth in the country owing to a shortage of success on the bonspiel circuit this fall. The team, 18-11 on the season, qualified in three of five events but made just one final, losing 6-4 to Fleury in Sherwood Park.

Einarson said both of their elimination games were tightly contested, adding there's be no reason to reach for the panic button.

"We're feeling good. I know we haven't had the start to our season that we'd hoped for, but we've been doing a lot of great things and just haven't been getting any breaks. Hopefully, that will change this week," said Einarson, who has Krysten Karwacki as the alternate. "You don't want to dwell on the past, you want to keep moving forward and trust the process and what we've been doing for just over three years."

Einarson meets Fleury on the first draw and then faces Scheidegger on Sunday morning.

Many that follow curling wondered how the blend of four skips — all used to calling the shots and then carrying the burden of the final brick — might shake out. Juggernaut or failed experiment? Well, the four-star reviews are in.

"Uh, yeah. Way more than I had hoped for," Einarson said, proudly. "It's hard to think beforehand that we'd win the Scotties back to back. It's not easy to do with all the talent in Canada but we did it. We also had this goal of getting to the Trials and to win and go to the Olympics, that's all of our dreams. We're going to keep working hard and giving it our all."

 

TEAM JONES

Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press Files</p><p>Jennifer Jones lives in Ontario with husband, curler Brent Laing, but her team still calls St. Vital Curling Club home.</p>

Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press Files

Jennifer Jones lives in Ontario with husband, curler Brent Laing, but her team still calls St. Vital Curling Club home.

There is no other squad on the women's side that can attest to the magnitude and magic of the Trials. The Jones quartet made a statement at the 2013 event in its home town to earn a trip to the Olympics in Sochi and then ran the table to grab gold.

Jones, a six-time Scotties champion, is still joined by third Kaitlyn Lawes and lead Dawn McEwen, but Jill Officer retired a few years back and was replaced by Jocelyn Peterman. The alternate is Lisa Weagle, who went to the '18 Olympics with Homan but came home without a medal.

She now lives in Ontario with her husband, Brent Laing (the lead for Epping), and the couple has two young daughters, but the Jones team, ranked second in Canada, still calls St. Vital home. They've qualified for the playoffs in five of six events this season are still looking for their first title.

Perhaps the most crucial Canadian triumph of all occurs here.

"It's always fun to play in the Trials. This is as big as it gets," said Jones, embarking on her fifth career Trials. She lost the 2017 semifinal to Homan. "We've been working really hard and feel like we're ready and can't wait to step on the ice. I feel like we're throwing really well and have come together.

"But at the end of the day to win the Olympic Trials you need some breaks and play your best and, hopefully, things align. It's such a tough field but we're feeling pretty confident."

Jones begins her quest for a return to sport's grandest stage Saturday afternoon against McCarville's unit from Thunder Bay.

She led the team to a 7-1 record at the '13 Trials, including a victory over Middaugh in the final, and went 11-0, the first women’s team to go undefeated in Olympic history. Lawes, meanwhile, partnered with John Morris in Sochi to capture the first gold medal awarded in mixed doubles.

Curling in those pressure-packed situations has, indeed, aided their ability to handle the nerves.

"We've all got tons of experience in big games and I think it's just a matter of taking it one game at a time," Jones said. "I know it's cliché but you absolutely have to stay in the moment."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

 

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).