Brier 2017: Contenders, challengers and long shots

Alberta skip Kevin Koe, third Marc Kennedy, second Brent Laing and lead Ben Hebert will attempt a repeat at the 2017 Brier. (Curling Canada/Michael Burns photo)

Well, this should be epic.

Really and truly epic. And I’m not even talking about the curling itself. After an absence of 45 years, the Brier is returning to Newfoundland & Labrador. Mile One Centre will be packed for many of the draws, and the home province has a legitimate contender for the crown. No pressure, boys, but after that sensational Scotties final, you’ve got something to live up to.

Here’s my look at how the Brier field shapes up.


These are the four teams (in no particular order) I feel are most likely to be in the playoffs when the round-robin is complete.

Can the storybook ending happen? Can Newfoundland & Labrador’s Brad Gushue win his first Brier right in St. John’s as that city plays host to nationals for the first time since 1972? It’s as likely an outcome as any other. Gushue will be fresher than ever before after missing the first half of the season with a hip/groin injury and he dispelled any notion that he’d have trouble shaking off rust when he shot 100% in the final of January’s Canadian Open. During Gushue’s absence, third Mark Nichols jumped in at skip and the team didn’t miss a beat, remaining at the top of the World Curling Tour’s Order of Merit standings. In eleven events this season, this team has not missed the playoffs once, winning three finals and losing another two.

Brad Gushue is shooting for his first Brier championship as his home province plays host for the first time since 1972. (Anil Mungal/Sportsnet photo)

Having the luxury of already earning a berth in the Olympic Trials, the defending champions, skipped by Kevin Koe, came into this season with not much to prove or to earn. They’ve fallen out of the top ten on the World Curling Tour’s men’s list (year-to-date standings) and missed the playoffs altogether at the Canada Cup as well as three Grand Slam events, earning a quarter-finals berth at another slam competition, The National. They did win a couple of early events against good fields and also won big at The Skins Game, last month. Koe has shown an ability to turn it on in the midst of a down season or even a down week before, and so it’d be tough to bet against him and his Team Canada running mates doing that again here.

Northern Ontario comes into this Brier with purpose, having failed to nail down an Olympic Trials berth at the Canada Cup, an event for which they’d planned to peak. Even though skip Brad Jacobs and his 2014 Olympic champion team are in pretty good shape, points-wise, when it comes to earning a berth, Jacobs has professed a desire to nab that spot in the easiest way possible and there’s a straight line to those trials, right now, with a Brier win coupled with a podium finish at Worlds. The Canada Cup notwithstanding, this team has enjoyed a pretty good year on the circuit, winning The National, losing to Nik Edin in extra ends at The Masters and finishing in the semi’s at The Canadian Open.

Mike McEwen and BJ Neufeld will attempt to give Manitoba its first Brier championship in six years. (Anil Mungal/Sportsnet photo)

Manitoba, skipped by Mike McEwen, hadn’t had a stellar year up until the Manitoba championship. As one of the teams that had really mastered the art of directional fabric sweeping the previous two years, perhaps there was a needed adjustment period for them after this season’s clamp down on brooms. They missed the playoffs at the Canada Cup and The National, though they did get to the quarter-finals of three slams. At provincials, they seemed to find the range, beating Reid Carruthers in the final and posting a 7 and 1 record. “This is the best we’ve played in a long time,” McEwen told the Winnipeg Sun. Manitoba’s fates can be bolstered by the play of third B.J. Neufeld, who is one of the game’s best clean-up artists when he is on a roll.


British Columbia, skipped by three-time Brier champ John Morris, is the most likely team from this category to leap into a playoff spot if any of the four contenders hit the ditch. Morris and vice Jim Cotter got together again this season and it’s a pairing that has done well in the past, as the two – along with teammates Tyrel Griffith and Rick Sawatsky –  surged all the way to the finals of the Olympic Trials in 2013. This same line-up won silver at the 2014 Brier, with Cotter throwing final rocks and that is the modus operandi they’ve been using again this year, with Morris throwing third stones. They’ve won two events this season and made at least the quarter-finals in three Grand Slam events. Not a stretch to say they ought to have been placed in the “contenders” category.

Quebec’s Jean-Michel Ménard and his well-seasoned rink are rarely an easy mark at the Brier and are most always alive for a playoff spot as the proceedings reach midweek. They face the challenge of rising to the occasion after a long layoff between this competition and their own provincials, as usual. They’ve won four of the eight events they’ve played in but missed the playoffs in the other four, those being spiels filled with top drawer teams. A lot hinges on them just getting hot at the right time. Ménard won the whole thing in 2006 and last saw the playoffs in 2014.

This is not the same Ontario team that was perennially placed in the “contenders” category over the years but with skip Glenn Howard and third Rich Hart on the back end, all the right calls will be made and with a young, strong front end they’ll be able to squeeze every inch out of a draw. They made a playoff appearance at the Grand Slam’s Tier 2 Tour Challenge, where they lost the final to Greg Balsdon. At the Masters, they went winless. Scott Howard remains at lead but second David Mathers is new this year, joining a team that went 4 and 7 at last year’s Brier.

Ontario’s Glenn Howard makes his 17th Brier appearance. (Michael Burns/Curling Canada photo)


Jamie Koe’s Northwest Territories team is the same crew that went 3 and 8 at last year’s nationals. Those strong Koe curling blood lines course though the skip’s veins and he always makes you earn it honestly. Brendan Bottcher’s Alberta crew is still rising and while their coach, Kevin Martin, gives them a strategic leg up, it’s still early for a young team that won a jittery Alberta final. This Brier will likely serve as a learning experience. Saskatchewan’s Adam Casey is appearing in his sixth Brier, but his teammates are all rookies. New Brunswick’s Mike Kennedy brings the same squad that went 3 and 8 last year in Ottawa.

Nova Scotia (Jamie Murphy), Prince Edward Island (Eddie MacKenzie), Nunavut (Jim Nix) and Yukon (Craig Kochan) will play the pre-qualifier, with one of them advancing to the main draw.

PREDICTION: Gushue wins over Jacobs. The locals run up and down George Street draped in provincial flags. Not just the locals, actually.

Homan’s bombs help Ontario win 2017 Scotties

Ontario’s Emma Miskew, Rachel Homan, Joanne Courtney and Lisa Weagle celebrate their win at the 2017 Scotties Tournament of Hearts. (Andrew Klaver/Curling Canada photo)

Laser focus. Laser shooting.

It seems a bit simplistic to boil such a wild, wonderful game down to just a couple of elements. Nevertheless, the lingering sense that remains after Ontario’s temperamental win over Manitoba at the 2017 Scotties is that of skip Rachel Homan’s steely gaze and sharp shooting.

Capping the night with a short angle runback to score two and and take an 8-6, eleven end win over Michelle Englot’s equally impressive team, Homan was mostly gold on the evening, beginning the night with a remarkable double take out in the second end to score three and then bailing her team out in the tenth with an even more difficult-to-make double, holding Manitoba to a score of two and sending the affair to an extra end.

And no one complained about that, really, outside of, perhaps, the Manitoba fans who’d rather have seen a three come out of nowhere, to give their team the victory.

Ontario’s win at the 2017 Scotties in St. Catharines was a masterpiece of curling, as long as you agree that both the Mona Lisa and anything painted by Jackson Pollock are all masterpieces.

There was more to this game than Homan’s heroics, and the sum of those parts made for a dramatic game with momentum swings galore. Some of those parts were highlight reel material. Some were lowlights and mistakes that meant opportunities squandered. However – as is the case with all sports – even small mistakes in curling often lead to interesting scenarios and in this game, there were many, many of those.

In the fifth, for instance, Ontario lead Lisa Weagle opened with two perfect tick shots, a skill she handles with such outlandish perfection that people often call those kinds of shots a “Weagle.” Ontario’s third, Emma Miskew, flashed a peel shot but then rebounded with a superb come around tap. Homan’s last rock attempt came up way light, after Englot had stuck a perfect come around dead buried in the back four-foot. It was a game like that.

Englot, whose delivery always looks a little shaky, with her slide foot twitching beneath her and her body wobbling ever so slightly almost every time she glides from the hack, nevertheless just makes shots. Just. Makes. Shots. Down by a score of 3-1 and facing four in the rings with her final stone of the third end, she planted one at the top of the button to score one and then sunk stones perfectly in both the fifth and seventh ends to steal two more singles, emerging from the seventh with a 4-3 lead. When her deadly accurate line and weight finally betrayed her in the eighth, it was on two toughies, the second of which Homan tried to replicate in order to score a three-spot, nipping a guard and settling for two.

Team Manitoba skip Michelle Englot in the Gold medal game at the 2017 Scotties Tournament of Hearts. (Andrew Klaver/Curling Canada photo)

In an ironic twist, the hard throwing Homan laid in a sublime freeze on the button in the ninth end, forcing Englot to attempt a couple of highly difficult pick shots, neither of which proved successful. It was late in the game, with shots like that forced upon her, that Englot’s shooting percentage started to suffer. Still, with her final rock of the extra end, the 53-year-old Saskatchewan native reverted to form, settling a perfect draw in the back of the four foot, in just the spot third Kate Cameron had pointed to and described as the perfect position. It was, forcing Homan to make the tricky raise take-out on her winning shot.

Speaking of Cameron; What can you say? The 25-year-old Scotties rookie showed off nerves as solid as the stainless steel slider she has attached to the bottom of her throwing broom. A budding superstar, with a hell of a coming out party. They didn’t win on this night but can you not say that you fully expect to see Englot, Cameron, Leslie Wilson and Raunora Westcott at next December’s Olympic Curling trials?

But back to Team Homan, who ultimately owned the night. Miskew, Weagle and Joanne Courtney – who shot 92% and chipped in with her usual tireless and shot altering sweeping – had to rebound from two staggering losses to the same Manitoba team in order to earn the crown.

Homan’s second end score of three was telling. Trailing one-nothing, she had an easy draw for a single and you might have forgiven her and her team for taking the easy route, particularly considering they were up against a rink that had beaten them in both the round-robin and again in a playoff game on Friday night. After sizing it up, Ontario decided to go for it and if that didn’t tell you enough about how Homan was feeling on this night, reading her lips just after she made the shot did.

In 2013, Rachel Homan and her foursome (with Alison Kreviazuk at second instead of Courtney) emerged as a new wave curling team, surprising the field with tons of firepower and some unorthodox strategy. In 2017, there was no such surprise, unless it was the way  the team handled the down-weight game from time to time. “That’s the improvement I’ve seen this season,” said TSN analyst Russ Howard, during the broadcast. “The soft stuff.”

Homan’s freeze in the ninth end is testament to that.

However, all tolled, Ontario’s 8-6 Scotties win was fashioned mostly by those well-known Homan bomb shots. Shots that got them the lead early and then bailed them out with a championship on the line in the tenth.

And one more to win it in the eleventh.

Scotties 2017: Contenders, challengers and long shots

Chelsea Carey’s Alberta crew is aiming for a repeat performance at the 2017 Scotties. (Andrew Klaver/Curling Canada)

The 2017 Scotties Tournament of Hearts has arrived, with a cluster of contenders looking for the crown in St. Catharines, Ontario. Those contenders include a would-be repeat champion, a skip looking for her third national title, and three veteran skippers who would like their long sought-after first championship.


These are the four teams (in no particular order) I feel are most likely to be in the playoffs when the round-robin portion of the Scotties is complete.

The defending champions, Chelsea Carey’s Team Canada rink, have already proven their worth with last year’s run to a championship. It’s true that they are ranked merely 19th in the World Curling Tour’s (WCT) Order of Merit Standings (year-to-date) and have only one win, besting a small field at the Hokkaido Curling classic, in Japan. A less than stellar season includes quarter-final finishes at The Masters and National as well as out-of-the-playoffs finishes at the Canada Cup and the Tour Challenge. In this field, though, a playoff spot should be in the cards and this is a team that should get better as the week goes on.

Ontario, skipped by Rachel Homan, returns to nationals after being shocked at provincials in 2016. Homan has the top-ranked team at this event, sitting third in the WCT year-to-date standings. They have three wins to their credit this season as well as silver medal finishes at the Canada Cup and The Masters. In eight events, they’ve only missed the playoffs once, that being at last month’s Canadian Open. You don’t need me to sell you on this team, though, right? Homan is seeking her third win at The Scotties.

Northern Ontario skip Krista McCarville is looking for more at the 2017 Scotties. (Andrew Klaver/Curling Canada)

Northern Ontario’s Krista McCarville is back, looking to improve upon her team’s silver medal from a year ago. Perhaps you could be forgiven for under-rating them last year as McCarville was returning to action after a year away from competitive curling. They flew a little under the radar despite having a pretty impressive season leading up to The Scotties. They’re lightly played this season and have just the one win but this is a team that has the goods. Last year, they were a stealing machine on the way to the final and you can expect them to once again put all kinds of pressure on opponents when they do not have hammer.

Manitoba, skipped by Michelle Englot, is the tenth-ranked team in the WCT’s year-to-date standings. Englot, a seven-time Saskatchewan champion, took over a very good squad when Kristy McDonald decided to step back from the game for at least this season, leaving third Kate Cameron, second Leslie Wilson and lead Raunora Westcott looking for a skipper. Bringing in Englot has paid off and it showed early, as the foursome made the final at the Grand Slam’s Tour Challenge, last November, falling to Val Sweeting. They knocked off Jennifer Jones in the page playoff game at the Manitoba Championship, then defeated Darcy Robertson in the final, after Robertson upset Jones in the semi.

While the above are my four predicted playoff teams, there are a couple of rinks just below that could find their way in should one or more of the contenders falter.


Alberta, skipped by Shannon Kleibrink, is the most dangerous team in this category and you could sure make a case that they ought to have been plopped down with the “contenders.” Kleibrink has been suffering from back troubles and those ailments saw the team call on Heather Nedohin to skip a couple of games at the Alberta Scotties. While Nedohin won those games as a sub, Kleibrink was back to win the page playoff as well as the final and was up to her old tricks in doing so, earning raves for her ability to make something out of nothing when things were looking dire. Nedohin – a Scotties champ in 2012 – will skip some games in St. Catharines and even if Kleibrink was unable to play at all for some reason, this team would chug along just fine. Their second, Sarah Wilkes, is a superstar in the making.

Shannon Kleibrink will try to win her first Scotties in, this, her fifth appearance. (Curling Canada)

British Columbia is skipped by 2009 Scotties silver medallist Marla Mallett, who is appearing in her fourth national championship. Her third, Shannon Aleksic, is appearing in her fifth. They won a tour event back in September, emerging in a field that included Carey, Kleibrink, Sweeting and Kerri Einarson.


Prince Edward Island’s Robyn MacPhee and Quebec’s Eve Bélisle skip teams at the top of this grade. MacPhee is skipping in her first Scotties but has oodles of experience at other positions, with this being her eighth Scotties appearance, overall. Bélisle is skipping at her third Scotties while her third, Lauren Mann, skipped a Quebec team at the 2015 nationals.

Saskatchewan’s Penny Barker came through what most observers have called a down year in that province’s women’s curling scene. Nova Scotia (Mary Mattatall’s crew will be a sentimental favourite – they range in age from 56 – 61) and Newfoundland & Labrador are in this group, while Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and New Brunswick will tangle in the pre-qualifier stage, with one moving on to the main draw.

Prediction: Team Homan gets back to the top of the Canadian curling mountain, with a win over Team Carey in the final.