Rivals on the ice but friends off the ice

April 7, 1997: The Hartford Whalers vs the Buffalo Sabres. Wayne Primeau runs over goalie Sean Burke, and the two start to mix it up, goalie vs player.
Nolan Thiessen, left, and Kevin Koe won a Canadian championship together last March, but this coming season they'll be on different teams, both hoping for a second straight win at the Tim Hortons Brier. (Photo, CCA/Michael Burns)

Nolan Thiessen, left, and Kevin Koe won a Canadian championship together last March, but this coming season they’ll be on different teams, both hoping for a second straight win at the Tim Hortons Brier. (Photo, CCA/Michael Burns)

As Canadians we naturally know what happens next, as we are well-versed in the basic code of conduct in hockey circles — someone from Hartford is coming to aid their goalie. True to form, the Whalers players are on the scene in a hurry and first player to arrive is Wayne’s older (and much bigger) brother Keith Primeau. After pulling each other out of the scrum the two of them decide to start throwing punches like they are playing street hockey in their parents’ driveway and Keith settles the score for his goalie by beating up his little brother. Seems like a strange analogy, but that is the mentality that highly competitive curlers have to use when we go out and compete during the season. The guy advancing in the playoffs across from you may be one of your best friends but he is still trying to take something that you want (a Grand Slam title, a Purple Heart or even a Tim Hortons Brier title) and you need to do what you can to win. Back in my days of junior curling, I know that I had an unwarranted sports hatred of the teams that I played against. I did not like them and assumed that they did not like me. It was a lethal combination of minimal travel to compete against the best teams and a healthy dose of little brother mentality with my team being from small-town Brandon vs. big-city Winnipeg curlers, and we generated a good bit of anger against any of our opponents in juniors. This anger was completely irrational but it was used as motivation each and every game that we played. That is not the case in 2014, especially in the elite tour events. I think of the 12 events that we played in last season (not including the World Championship, in which only one Canadian team participates) Kevin Martin’s team was in nine of the same events, Glenn Howard, Mike McEwen and Jeff Stoughton in eight, Brad Jacobs in six … you get the point. We see and play against these teams almost every weekend that we get out on the road. We get to know each other, we stay in the same hotels, we eat at the same restaurants and we take the same flights. We are around each other constantly and get to be good friends with most of the guys on tour. One of the most frequent questions that I get asked is, “Do you hate anyone on tour?” or “Are there any teams that you hate?” and normally my answer is “No, not really!” I am not naïve and assume that every guy I play against likes me, but I consider most of these guys friends. We are peers and all respect each other and their ability on the ice, but when it is time to compete and the stakes are at their highest, we all put that aside and try to bash each other into submission. One great example of this was last year at the Alberta men’s provincials. We won the semifinal and proceeded to head back to the hotel to get our gear and check out before the final. As we were checking out so was Kevin Martin’s entire team — our competition for the Purple Heart. We got in our cars and drove to the rink and parked at the same time and walked into the rink together. Now, Ben Hebert and Marc Kennedy, then the lead and second for Team Martin, were in my wedding party; I consider them among my best friends. The three of us along with our third Pat Simmons were walking into the rink and joking about how this was the third provincial final in four years against each other and a rematch of the 2013 epic battle that we had. We never allow each other the easy road to the title. But as we were about to head to our dressing-rooms, Ben looked at me and said, “Well, talk to you in two weeks!” And with that we were off. We would continue to be friends but not for the rest of that day — we were enemies and we both wanted the same thing with the other guy standing in the way. We were both there for that trip to the Tim Hortons Brier and luckily we were the victors that day. A week and a half later I broke the tension with a text to Ben about our kids, and life went on. People watch on TV and see guys get heated out there, like Richard Hart and Ben at the 2009 Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings and they assume that there is carry-over effect and those teams or players get a good hatred on forever. That is not the case at all; probably every time they have seen each other on tour since then, Ben and Rich will have talked and joked around. No hard feelings; just trying to win. I can already envision what next year is going to look like for our team with John Morris at the helm any time we line up against Kevin Koe’s new squad. It will make for great fodder and talk on TV when we lock up, and the fans will be excited to see how it all shakes out, assuming there will be tension. People will want to see us chirp each other and maybe even start the first-ever on-ice line brawl (now, THAT is an interesting blog idea: the tale of the tape between our teams!) but in reality what will be unfolding is two world-class teams that are great friends off the ice and want to beat each other on the ice. Friends in the Brier patch, not friends on the pebbled ice. May the best team win. (Nolan Thiessen is a two-time Canadian champion who plays lead for Team John Morris, who will be competing in the 2014 Canada Cup of Curling, presented by Meridian Manufacturing, Dec. 3-7 in Camrose, Alta.; the 2015 World Financial Group Continental Cup, presented by SecurTek, Jan. 8-11 in Calgary; and the 2015 Tim Hortons Brier, presented by SecurTek, Feb. 28-March 8 in Calgary).