The trail has been long, arduous, tortuous and consistently uphill all the way.
The old champ from Manitoba hasn’t made it to the apex of the Tim Hortons Brier mountain since 1999 . . . but he’s been climbing back, ever-so determinedly, ever since . . . clawing and scratching over boulders and ice and other wintry obstacles of all shapes and sizes.
And now the payoff may be as close as Sunday night at the John Labatt Centre when 47-year-old Jeff Stoughton of Winnipeg plays in the championship final at 7:30, targeting a goal — his third national curling championship — that has seemed so far distant for so long.
“It’s just an unbelievably great feeling,” said Stoughton, moments after drawing his last stone of an extra end to the button for a 7-6 Page One-Two playoff conquest of Newfoundland ’s Brad Gushue and Co.
“Just unbelievable! The best feeling in the world. We did not want to play tomorrow. We get the day off, throw some rocks, have some fun, and we cannot wait to play Sunday night. It’s just awesome.
“It’s what I’ve been telling everybody from the start. We are only here for one thing — to win this Brier. And we’re in the final, just one more win. We don’t have to think about anything else now except playing for a gold medal.
“We’re not going to be able to sleep, eat, talk to anybody, it’s a long two days away. But we’re pretty loosy-goosy so we’ll probably be OK.”
Three teams remain in the race to play Stoughton on Sunday night. Alberta’s Kevin Martin and Ontario’s Glenn Howard face off his afternoon, the winner plays Gushue at 7:30 p.m. and that winner advances against Stoughton for all the marbles.
The veteran Manitoba skip qualified for the final two years ago but was hammered 10-4 by Martin.
“Do I feel better going into this one? Yes. We’ve got hammer. And I think we’ve got a real good shot at it,” Stoughton said.
“It’s been a long time since 1999. Yeah. I was actually young back then. Now I’m an old fart. It’s great, knowing all the work and commitment we’ve all put in. To get one more opportunity like this is just awesome.”
Gushue, based on his No. 1 playoff ranking, owned the hammer and got off to control with a deuce in the third end. He still grappled with control through the eighth at which time the score was deadlocked 5-5.
But the Newfoundlanders played a horrible ninth end and were fortunate to get away with yielding the steal of one point. A first-rock circus shot by Gushue set up the tying rock in the 10th but Stoughton was left staring at an open four-foot in the 11th with enemy stones stationed on either side of it.
“Hats off to our guys for hanging in there, making every shot, giving them nothing in the 10th for that deuce, and Stevie made the nice ticks there and left me the button. It was all I could ask for,” said Stoughton.
“The guys put it right there. I let it go, I thought it was going to be pretty close, they said it was there, and it was perfect. It’s what you want to be able to do as a skip. I was so glad I was able to throw it and make that shot.
“We finally made better shots, better angles, better placement of the rocks the last three ends. We had them hooped in the 10th and 11th.”
Gushue was disconsolate with his team’s fade in the latter ends.
“We had our opportunity there tonight,” he said.
“Up one with hammer in the sixth end and to come out and play as poorly as we did in the last five ends is pretty disappointing — several ends I didn’t have much of a shot so it was very frustrating. Hopefully we can figure out what happened and maybe fix it tomorrow.”
Gushue was asked about some strategic calls.
“Strategy had nothing to do with it,” he said. “If we’d made a couple of shots the strategy would have been completely fine. You miss six in a row and get yourself in jail it doesn’t matter what shots you’re calling, you’re going to lose.”
His team was off-target on several runbacks in the latter ends with Manitoba threatening.
“We shouldn’t have been playing those runbacks,” he said. “We put rocks in poor positions. And when your playing runbacks at this level and you hit half-a-rock on one side and you’re trying to hit half-a-rock on the other side, it’s poor execution.
“If anybody says anything about strategy they have to look at the game because it was just awful, awful execution. No matter what shot you call, if you miss them as badly as we missed them tonight you’re going to be in jail.
“We’ll try to figure out some technical issues that jumped out there tonight, and be ready to go again tomorrow night. That’s all we can do.”
Stoughton said he’s not concerned about restoring the reputation of Manitoba as a curling force on Sunday, but added . . .
“It would be nice to get Manitoba back on the map for this decade — it would be a great way to start.”