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Trendy ‘Tobans – hottest foursome in curling this season

Kevin Martin says they’re the hottest ticket in curling right now.

Team McEwen (Photo: CCA/Michael Burns Photography)

Jeff Stoughton says they’re the team of the future . . . for the next decade . . . in Manitoba.

“It certainly feels good to hear comments like that from players of that calibre,” says 30-year-old Mike McEwen of Winnipeg.

“If anything, I think it has given us a lot of confidence. I’ve noticed as we’ve been winning ‘spiels this year and our record has been improving, it seems to be getting a lot easier out there. Whether it has to do with the game we’re calling, or just not having to think so hard about things, it seems to becoming a little more automatic.

“It has been one of those rolls where, once we got going, it seemed to be rather simple.”

Well, keeping it simple often proves successful in many an endeavour.

And McEwen’s team of B.J. Neufeld, Matt Wozniak and Denni Neufeld, are runaways in curling’s department of success so far this season.

Let’s see now. Three wins in a row. Four wins in the last five cashspiels. And a position in this morning’s Canada Cup playoffs at the Medicine Hat Arena.

“Winning breeds confidence, and it’s sort of like a waterfall,” says McEwen.

“It just keeps going and going and I hope that we don’t lose that momentum and that swagger. I think if you’re going to be a champion it’s not bad to show your confidence. It’s something you want to portray to your team.”

This native of Brandon has exhibited a meteoric rise in curling stature since swallowing a bitter pill 13 months ago at Prince George in the Olympic Pre-Trials.

A picked rock submerged McEwen in a qualifying final against Moose Jaw’s Pat Simmons. And that left him facing a severe lesson he has since learned.

“It was one of those weekends,” he says with a sigh. “We had that picked rock and, I don’t know, I was so tense after that loss. I just didn’t feel good. We went on to play Jason (Gunnlaugson of Beausejour, Man., in another qualifier) and I saw how he’d got there on a burned rock against (Kerry) Burtnyk and I had this bad feeling before it started that somehow things were going his way.

“It was weird. You’re not supposed to be having those thoughts in your head. Obviously that was a weakness at the time. It would never happen again.

“It was definitely something that had to get better.

I had to learn to shrug off those negativities when you’re go out to play a game. And to believe that you’ve done everything off the ice, in practice, eating and sleeping, everything you could to make it happen for you in the game.”

The loss to the unsung Gunnlaugson, which sent his team to the Trials at Edmonton, was a kick in the teeth McEwen won’t soon forget.

“It was pretty disappointing,” he agrees. “We thought that we deserved to be in the Olympic Trials. Whether we were going to be ranked sixth, seventh or eighth, we knew we’d put in the time and effort. I mean, Jason (Gunnlaugson) is a good player but I think as a team we were heads and tails above what his team was capable of doing, day-in and day-out.”

Those kinds of defeats have been seldom this winter.

McEwen entered Vernon and New Westminster ‘spiels, qualified for both, and lost twice to Kevin Koe who remained on a high from last year’s world championship.

“We gathered ourselves together and went lights out at Portage La Prairie,” McEwen recalls. “We could do no wrong against (Jeff) Stoughton in the final. It was one of those games.

“Then we went to Brooks and, for some reason, we were off. It was one of those events where I wasn’t reading the ice very well. I ripped myself up there because I wasn’t doing the job and I let my team down.

“We had a chat with Robb (Krepps of the Canadian Curling Association coaching program). We said, ‘OK, let’s re-set and go’. And the guys played so good in the Slam at Windsor. Even in our two losses nobody threw it bad. Again, I didn’t ice myself properly on a couple of shots. But we played so well in a tiebreaker and then never looked back.”

They knocked off Martin in the quarters, and, eventually, Stoughton in the final.

“It’s been amazing since,” says McEwen. “The momentum carried through at Brantford. We gave up three to Randy Ferbey in the first end and still won. I don’t think we missed a shot after that. Then, in Charlevois, Quebec, last weekend, we beat Serge Reid in the final.”

The current scuffle is McEwen’s second trip to the arena so far this season.

He first hit the national scene as an 17-year-old in the 1998 Canadian Juniors when he represented Manitoba skipping a Brandon unit and lost the semi-final to John Morris, then of Ottawa. Three years later he lost the Canadian Junior final to Brad Gushue.

“Those guys haven’t gone away,” McEwen cracks.

“I, personally, have probably had to play a little catchup to those guys. Whether they were putting more work in than I was, I don’t know. I’ve had to take my fair share of lumps in catching up.

“I probably didn’t realize the amount of work you have to put in to be good at this game. I probably didn’t do what I needed to do or had a team to do it until the last four years. I don’t think it’s necessarily easy to find four guys that can do that. You might have one or two but you need four guys to put it together.

“Curling isn’t a sport right now where you can say it’s the only thing you’re going to do, it’s your job, there’s nothing else. It’s not at that point yet so . . . you have to have guys with a lot of drive, and guys who really are willing to make sacrifices in order to be successful.

“I beat my head against the wall in Brandon until I was 27. I’ve only been in Winnipeg for the last three-and-a-half years. It really helps to be close to the team because I have done the long-distance bit, driving a couple of hours both ways. I played some mixed, played some mens’, made provincials, never really made a breakthrough, won a mixed title, played in the world university championships with a great team. But nothing like this.”

McEwen grew up around the curling rink. His family was at the curling rink. “It’s really all I’ve known,” he says.

He first discovered a penchant for the ice lanes at 16, his first year of junior competition.

“I found out then that this is what I wanted to do,” he says. “I love this game so much. I have that real passion for the game. But I think there was a time when I didn’t know what I had to do to be better. And maybe that drive did waver a little bit because I wasn’t getting results. Because I probably wasn’t do enough of the right stuff. There was a time, early-on in men’s, when I knew I still wanted to do it but I wasn’t doing the right things.

McEwen earned a bachelor of general studies from Brandon U. In his spare time, which to say non-curling time, he sells real estate in Winnipeg.

“It’s great,” he says. “You need flexibility to curl and this gives it to me. I would think that a lot of the top curlers are probably their own bosses. It’s one of the sacrifices you make, if you can say that.

“We’re a pretty tight team. We golf a lot together. We barbecue a lot together. We decided we needed to get better technically so we went to Edmonton and worked with Robb Krepps. We learned about dedication, the necessity of being healthy and fit. I think, as a result, we’ve found a few extra inches in our game. I still think we need to find more. But I also think we’re a much better team than we were 12 months ago.”

Following this weekend, McEwen’s schedule includes a Slam in Vernon, the Perth Masters in Scotland, a Slam In Ottawa, then the provincial playoffs.

“We probably have some things we need to work on in practice,” he says. “We haven’t practised in a while. We need to look at little things that work themselves into your delivery that weren’t there before.

“I remember Kevin (Martin) saying, somewhere this fall, that his team hadn’t practised enough. You need that when you’re playing a lot because you develop the odd bad habit over time. I think we’re looking forward after this week to refine some things and keep on going.

“We have to be accountable to each other as far as how we’re throwing and working is concerned. We’ve had to rely on ourselves a lot but it’s huge, the opportunities we’ve been given by the national program and the people they’ve provided to help us.

“It’s very hard,” says McEwen, “to do it in this game on your own.”