No men’s curling team has had as much recent success at Westoba Place in Brandon as Reid Carruthers and his squad from West St. Paul.
Carruthers, Derek Samagalski and Colin Hodgson, along with first-year teammate and skip Mike McEwen, will get another chance to shine at the home of the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings when they don the buffalo as Manitoba’s representatives at the Tim Hortons Brier, which runs from March 1 to 10.
Carruthers and company — with Braeden Moskowy on the team — claimed the 2016 Home Hardware Canada Cup of Curling championship with an 8-6 victory over Brad Gushue’s team (Gushue missed the event due to injury, so Mark Nichols skipped), less than two years after winning the 2015 Safeway Championship (now the Viterra Championship) with a 5-3 win over McEwen for a berth into the national championship in Calgary.
“It’s hard to quantify how much you want to get to the Brier because every year I think it means everything to me,” the 34-year-old Carruthers told The Selkirk Journal. “It’ll be extra special for sure playing in that venue, but anywhere in Manitoba for a Brier is an unbelievable feeling. I got to do it as a fifth man for Burtnyk in Winnipeg (in 2008) and I thought that was pretty neat.
“Now to get to actually play in it is going to be a pretty cool feeling.”
And as the home team, Carruthers knows there is going to more pressure.
“I’d be silly to say there isn’t going to be a little added pressure being that it’s almost going to feel like there is 5,000 people on the ice, rather than just the four of us,” he added. “It’ll be a different feeling, but I’m embracing it and I’m looking forward to it.”
Earlier this month, the West St. Paul team earned their spot in the Wheat City by reeling off seven straight wins — following a 9-5 loss to Brandonite Terry McNamee in an A-side semifinal — at men’s provincials in Virden. They prevailed 5-3 over William Lyburn, who features East St. Paul products Brendan Bilawka and Kyle Doering, in the Viterra final.
It’ll be a homecoming for McEwen and Samagalski, the former having grown up in Brandon and the latter now living there. And you can expect the crowd will be pro-Manitoba for the province’s first Brier in 11 years.
“It’s not very often an opportunity like this happens where you get to play in front of the home crowd, and there’s two things that can happen. You can get distracted by it and almost feel the pressure of that and have it almost be a distraction, or you can embrace it, enjoy it and live it up a little bit,” Carruthers said. “I think for us, we are going to try and feed off the crowd, get the crowd going. If we enjoy the moment and just focus on making eight throws an end, I think our chances are going to be pretty good of making it nice and loud in that building.”
The team has had several highs — they won three events — and a handful of lows, including going winless at the Canada Cup in Estevan, Sask. Carruthers started the season skipping, but he’s since dropped to the third position as McEwen calls the game.
“Teams go through peaks and valleys, and we had a pretty big valley at one point this year, so to be up on the other side of it I feel like this could be our peak moment. The mentality is to be in the right frame of mind for this national championship with the crowd behind you, and I think it gives you an extra gear,” Hodgson said. “I think it’s going to be easier to perform in that atmosphere when we have thousands of people cheering for us. I certainly think we can win this thing and we are going to take what we can from the crowd to do that.”
This will be the third Brier appearance for Hodgson, the fourth for Samagalski and McEwen, and the seventh for Carruthers, who played second for Jeff Stoughton when he won the 2011 Brier in London, Ont., and later the world championship in Regina.
Last year in Regina, Carruthers and company missed the playoffs with a 5-6 record, as did McEwen (7-4) leading Team Wild Card.
“I think just the experience of being there a few times and failing and not doing as well as we wanted to certainly put it into perspective that we have to prepare a little differently than we have in the past,” Hodgson said. “I think this is the time to be more professional and just look at it different and bring the two strengths our team has had together.”
Manitoba is grouped with Newfoundland and Labrador (Andrew Symonds), Prince Edward Island (John Likely), Saskatchewan (Kirk Muyers), Yukon (Jon Solberg), Quebec (Martin Crête), Northern Ontario (Brad Jacobs) and Team Wild Card (Brendan Bottcher or John Epping) in pool play. The top four teams will advance to the championship and play the top four teams from the other pool, which is highlighted by two-time defending champion Gushue’s Team Canada squad, with the top four reaching the playoffs.
It’s been eight years since Manitoba’s last Brier victory, and to do so at home would be an “electric” feeling, said Carruthers.
“I don’t really know what else to say to describe it,” he said. “I’m very fortunate to have felt that experience once, but I did that in Ontario and not in Manitoba, so it would be pretty wild.”