Welcome to the historic Maple Leaf Gardens, previous home to the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs and, for this week, home of the final Grand Slam of Curling event for 2015. An even bigger story, could this be the final event for one of the most popular and well-known curlers around the world, Jeff Stoughton?
Stoughton announced in February his intention to retire from professional curling. Stoughton is a three-time Brier champion. A two-time world champion. And has already completed the career grand slam of curling. Besides the Olympics, there is not much left for Jeff to accomplish in his storied curling career. It will be a sad draw when Stoughton's last rock comes to a stop...the question is when will that happen?
Stoughton's team grabbed the final spot in this week's Players' Championship. For those unfamiliar with the format, the top 12 teams from the world curling tour have been invited to participate. They will be split into two pools of 6 where they will compete in a round robin format against their fellow pool members. At the conclusion of the round robin, the top 6 teams will advance to the playoffs with the top two teams receiving a bye to the semi-finals.
This event has been dominated by teams from Alberta and Ontario...and should we be really surprised by this? Since it's inception in 1993, Alberta teams have won a record 11 Players' Championship titles. Leading the pack? The one and only (and defending champion) Kevin Martin. Of course Mr. Martin will not be defending his title this year as he announced his retirement last season. Ontario is close behind with 9 titles, Glenn Howard leading the charge with 4 (2 as a skip and 2 as third for brother Russ). The only other champions outside of the these two dominant provinces is Saskatchewan (1995, Murray McEachern) and Manitoba (2003, Jeff Stoughton). Interesting to note, international teams have been invited to participate but have never won, with the best result being Nik Edin's runner-up finish to Kevin Martin in 2011.
So based on history and stats, we should just assume two things:
- An Alberta or Ontario team should win
- All international teams will fail
However, based on recent results on tour this season and taking into consideration the newly crowned world champion will be competing, it might be time to re-write the history books and throw the stats out the window. Let's take a closer look at the pools:
Team McEwen (WCT Ranking: 1) - The hottest team on tour all season (8 wins) and arguably the favorite entering the event. Mikey and the boys will be looking to complete a career grand slam and, given how they have played this season, is there any reason to doubt them? Ok sure, the Manitoba final was a hiccup and blah blah blah....but these guys are still focused on winning. Remember they are coming off a win at the Elite 10 in Ft. McMurray at the last grand slam event, their second slam of the season (National). I would count them in for weekend action.
Team Gushue (3) - Already a two-time grand slam winner this season (Masters, Canadian Open), Gushue is ready to bring another slam home to the Rock. What has to be considered a mild Brier disappointment missing the podium will need to be put in the past to focus on success this week in Toronto. The deadly combo of Gushue - Nichols will also be looking to complete the career grand slam this week. Gushue has made it to the championship game at this event twice in the past (2005, 2010) and come up short. Notice a trend in those years though? 2005, 2010....2015?
Team Koe (6) - So Kennedy and Hebert are back to defend the title they won last season but with fresh teammates Kevin Koe in the house and Brent Laing at second. A disappointment Brier performance left a few people wondering how motivated this team would be to end the season. Enter the Elite 10 and erase all doubt. Koe looked focused and ready to take home another slam. They completed a nice run to the semi-finals only to come up short against eventual champs McEwen. They have a tough pool here in Toronto so time will tell how they fare to close out the season.
Team Edin (7) - The Champs Are Here!! Team Edin/Sweden just wrapped up a world championship on Sunday in Halifax and quickly hopped on a plane to be in Toronto to compete here. They were red hot in Halifax and looked unstoppable in playoff wins over Finland, Canada and Norway. The only question here might be coming down from the high effect of reclaiming a world championship (Edin was the 2013 world champion). Can they carry the momentum and high energy from Halifax into Toronto or will the full schedule of games coupled with some travel in between events cause a playoff layoff effect? I'd lean more towards the first option.
Team Michel (10) - The 2014 European bronze medalists enter this event waving the underdog flag, as well as the Swiss red and white. They are going to be in tough with this pool. Of course there are no easy games when playing at this level, especially in a grand slam event, but Michel might be at an even larger disadvantage. In comparison, their season has not been as strong as their competitors. However, sometimes flying under the radar can be a positive. If a team gets caught looking ahead to a big match-up with say McEwen or Edin, Michel could come out of nowhere and steal a win. They open the event with McEwen as well so, in theory, they get rid of the hottest team on tour right away. Win the opening game and watch out. Lose, nothing lost really. Still have 4 more games to focus on making the playoffs.
Team Bottcher (11) - Looking for the wild card team to hitch your betting horse too? Perhaps look no further than Bottcher's rink from Edmonton. The 2012 world junior champion has surpassed many fans expectations, and perhaps even their own, this season with their results on tour. A semi-final appearance at the National followed the stunner at the Canadian Open when they upset heavily favored McEwen in the quarterfinals. This team has two semi-final grand slam appearances under their belt already...could they get the trifecta? Or maybe go one better?
Team Jacobs (2) - Last year's finalists are back and looking to go one step further this week in Toronto. Having to put the disappointing Brier final loss behind them, this Jacobs team you know has been hitting the gym (#DrinkThePink) and working extra hard to end this season on a high. Jacobs took some negative press at the Brier and it was weird to sit in the Saddledome and see our recent Olympic Champions be cheered against in the final. Yes, they were playing an Alberta team so I get it but it felt like more than that. This is still one of the best teams in Canada and these are still the same great guys all us Canadian curling fans fell in love with during the Sochi Olympic Games. I think the friendly confines of Toronto will provide a warmer welcome for the Soo boys. Expect to see them fight hard every game with the same grit, fist pumping, high energy emotion we are used to.
Team Laycock (4) - Ah #TeamOranje! Considered by some to be surprise bronze medal winners at the Brier (worth nothing #TwineTime totally expected a podium finish for these boys), Laycock and his Saskatchewan boys will be out looking to once again prove the doubters wrong. No this team isn't flashy (even with a guy named Colton Flash throwing second stones). No this team does not display a ton of emotion on the ice. No this team is not going to jump up and down when they make a huge shot. But yes, they can and will make huge shots that will get the crowd going. And yes, these boys can compete with any team in the world. They are currently ranked #4 for a reason. A runner-up finish at the Canadian Open this year proved a best grand slam result for Laycock, can he go one better and lay claim to his first grand slam?
Team Carruthers (5) - Looking for a new team this season to keep an eye out for over the next few years? Welcome Winnipeg's Reid Carruthers team. Reid jumped out of Jeff's shadow this season by returning to the skip position and made a huge impact on tour. They have competed in three grand slam events this season and have qualified for the playoffs each time. Is there any reason to not expect another playoff run this week? Yes, the Brier was a disappointment for the Manitoba team finishing with a 4-7 record but they rebounded quite nicely at the Elite 10, reaching another grand slam quarterfinal. Can this team finally get over the playoff hump at the grand slam though and make a deep run?
Team Epping (8) - Last event of the season...so of course why not ice a new team? Epping will welcome their new addition to the team, Mat Camm, at vice this week. Camm recently competed at the Brier representing Ontario with Team Mark Kean. In a shocking move, Camm decided to leave Kean and answer the call of Epping to join his team. Can a new back end have quick success at this stage of the season against this caliber of a field? Odds would say not likely...
Team Howard (9) - Ok, how weird is it to see Howard and a #9 ranking next to his name? It seems like we haven't really much from Glenn recently, with his ouster in Ontario playdowns a long history lesson ago. Of course, Glenn was in Calgary cheering on his son Scott and Team Ontario but it was different seeing him in the stands. I had the chance to sit very close to Glenn most of the week though and he seemed to be having a great time...minus the stress of cheering on a child at a massive event. This will be the final event for this line-up of Team Howard. Glenn will be welcoming his son Scott to his team next year, joining Middaugh and Hart.
Team Stoughton (12) - Can Stoughton replicate the retirement plan of Kevin Martin from a year ago? Last grand slam event, an announced retirement around the corner, you shock the field and win the entire thing! Ok, it may be a bit more difficult for Jeff as the 12 seed entering the event but anything can happen. All eyes will be on Jeff this week as the curling world says it's goodbye to a top-notch, all-class champion. Or do we?
McEwen: 4 - 1
Edin: 3 - 2
Gushue: 3 - 2
Koe: 3 -2
Bottcher: 2 - 3
Michel: 0 - 5
Jacobs: 5 - 0
Laycock: 3 - 2
Carruthers: 2 - 3
Stoughton: 2 - 3
Howard: 2 - 3
Epping: 1 - 4
Quarterfinals: Edin def. Koe
Laycock def. Gushue
Semi-finals: McEwen def. Laycock
Jacobs def. Edin
Players' Championship Final: Team Mike McEwen def. Team Brad Jacobs - The Brier final many across the country expected to see months ago will become the perfect cap to a terrific curling season. Team McEwen will once again prove this week why they have been the best team in the world this season and put the finishing touches on an *almost* perfect season by completing the career grand slam. The red pants will be out in full force!
If you are in the Toronto area, I highly recommend heading down and watching some of the draws live. There really is no better experience than living it live! Of course, for those who cannot join in person, Sportsnet will have you covered airing some of the games. And, for those of you who really want a new experience, check out CurlingGeek and follow along with the action there. I had the opportunity to geek during the Brier and it was a great time. It also is an awesome opportunity to chat with fellow fans and follow shot-by-shot action. Also, take a read at my women's players' championship preview HERE
Enjoy the action on the ice as we say goodbye to the 2014-2015 curling season.