Mike McEwen and his powerhouse curling team from Winnipeg always knew there was a position to be filled on their squad.
It was just a matter of finding the right man to fill it.
Understand, this wasn’t simply a matter of finding someone who would be an upgrade on the existing four players. That would be awfully hard to do considering the historic 2014-15 season McEwen, vice-skip B.J. Neufeld, second Matt Wozniak and lead Denni Neufeld put together — a stunning 73-11 win-loss record that featured seven World Curling Tour victories, another in the Home Hardware Canada Cup, and more than $230,000 in total winnings.
Instead, it was about finding someone who could fill in the gaps on and off the ice — the missing ingredient, as hard as that is to define, that would complete the recipe and push Team McEwen to even greater heights and, yes, at long last put a Tim Hortons Brier Purple Heart on their collective chests.
It appears Team McEwen has found their man — longtime rival, fellow Manitoban and one of the best-liked and most-respected players in the game, Jon Mead.
Now, the issue becomes what sort of title to put on the six-time Manitoba, two-time Brier and 2011 world champion.
“We’re actually looking for good suggestions on his title,” said a chuckling McEwen. “We’ve talked about it — mentor, manager, coach, fifth man, all wrapped up into one.”
(Tweet your suggestions, by the way, to @mcewencurling).
Mead, who won all those provincial, national and world titles throwing third rocks for Jeff Stoughton, is ready for any number of roles, of course, and the opportunity to work with one of the world’s elite curling teams, and provide some insight based on his years of experience
In fact, Mead was preparing for this kind of role after he and Glenn Howard parted ways at the conclusion of the 2014-15 season. He knew he was getting to the end of his competitive days, but also believed he had something still to offer to elite, rising teams. He didn’t, however, see the offer coming from Team McEwen.
“I kind of saw that some young teams out there would look for someone in a role like this, and I had people ask me about a similar role,” said Mead. “But I didn’t expect it from them, partly because Mike and those guys are doing things that I’m not sure too many guys can appreciate with the level they’re playing at. I guess I didn’t expect that they held me in that regard in terms of what they thought I might bring to the table. So it was certainly a humbling phone call.
“What I also like is that I get to continue and evolve in the game, but I’m not going to be grinding every weekend on tour like I have been. It’s hard to see the downside. Unless I just turn out to be horrendous.”
Fat chance of that happening, of course. Exactly what Mead’s duties will be is still to be determined over the course of the summer. But it will not be an insignificant role — neither side wanted that. In fact, with McEwen’s wife Dawn expecting in early September, Mead could be on the ice for the Grand Slam’s first event, the Tour Challenge Elite in Paradise, N.L.
“We’re hoping he can look outside the box and bring a lot of new ideas to the team,” said McEwen. “We’re looking for every little advantage we can possibly get going forward in this Olympic cycle, and hopefully Jon does that for us. We thought it would be crazy not to go after a guy like that.”
“I needed to feel that I could really contribute, that I wasn’t going to invest a lot of time and be a guy who’s just pulling the broom bag,” said Mead. “They’re a serious group of young men who are looking to get as good as they can be, with lofty expectations. What I respect and admire about these guys is how hard they’re willing to work and invest in different ways to continue to improve, which is one of the things that attracted me to the opportunity. What I love about curling is that every year I felt like I had the opportunity to learn and improve, and this is another example. I feel like I’m going to benefit as well.”
It’s not the only significant off-season change for Team McEwen. The team also has enlisted the services of Rock Solid Productions to broaden its appeal with potential sponsors, both in and out of the curling world. Rock Solid also has done work with Team Simmons.
Mead, of course, is one of the game’s most popular players, in addition to being one of the best to ever play. But his appeal went beyond that, said McEwen.
“I think one of the biggest things for us is that we’ve always admired his on-ice abilities and how he conducted himself out there,” said McEwen. “Just pure class. You never knew if he was winning or losing; he just played with the same intensity and supported his teammates in the same way, regardless of the scoreboard. He pays attention to the fine details; you can tell by how hard he works with his mechanics, still trying to improve late into his career.
“With anybody else, I might have said yes, it would have been a tough sell to have him join us. But not with Jon. We did not have to talk ourselves into this at all. As soon as we knew there was a possibility he might not have a full-time playing position, there was no hesitation in us to figure out that he could play an integral role in our continued growth.”
It will be a year to year agreement, with Mead not ruling out a return to competition as a player with a new team for the final year of qualifying for the 2017 Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings.
But that familiar tuck delivery will be dry-docked for the most part this season — unless circumstances dictate otherwise.
“I’m not saying that I’m retired or anything like that,” insisted Mead. “I’m not playing this year, I’ll join these guys, and if Matt at some point suffers a horrendous injury, a Tonya Harding kind of thing, then I’ll be ready to go.”