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Manitoba's McEwen rides stellar season start into Continental Cup of Curling

01/08/2015 01:53 EST | Updated 03/10/2015 05:59 EDT
CALGARY - This could be the year Mike McEwen's curling team shakes the label as the best team never to play in a Brier.

McEwen, third B.J. Neufeld, second Matt Wozniak and lead Denni Neufeld won six of eight events in the first half of the season, including wins over Olympic champion Brad Jacobs in the finals of both The National in November and the Canada Cup in December.

McEwen's Fort Rouge Curling Club rink from Winnipeg is running away with the No. 1 ranking on the World Curling Tour with $114,000 in prize money so far.

A team at a crossroads in February after losing its fourth provincial final in five years — and falling one win short again of a trip to the Canadian men's championship — decided to remain intact for an eighth season and reinvent itself.

"Very slowly we kind of gathered our thoughts and decided what we had together as a foursome was still very strong and important, but we had kind of lost our way as far as growing as teammates and as athletes," McEwen said Thursday at the Continental Cup.

"We made a commitment to find how to do that again."

The four men began working with the Canadian Curling Association's sports psychologist Kyle Paquette to heal the trouble spots in their game. They stepped up their physical fitness with a personal trainer.

They've been a solid team on the WCT since their formation in 2007 and were among the eight Canadian men's teams who qualified for the 2013 recent Olympic trials.

But winning Manitoba and representing the province at the Brier means beating world and Canadian championship Jeff Stoughton to get there.

Stoughton eliminated McEwen from contention in four of the last five Manitoba provincials.

"We had too many weaknesses," McEwen said. "We were good before but we had some things in certain situations that were cutting us off at the knees when we really needed to be our best.

"We had gotten really good and then kind of stopped getting better. Other teams are obviously pushing the limits and we hadn't figured out how to keep growing as a team."

Under Paquette's guidance, McEwen says he and his teammates have forged a stronger team chemistry. They're committed to sticking to their plan, win or lose.

"His approach has made us really change how we think and how we operate as a team," McEwen explained. "He's really challenged us to be more accountable. It's really hard to re-wire the brain, but that's what we've been attempting to do.

"We're very much more supportive and understanding than we ever have been. We're more of a team now than we ever have been. We got a little individualistic at times and it hurt us.

"You've got to look at your fitness, health, eating, physical training, mental focus and how you practise. It's like any other sport. Curling has grown into having a really high degree of professionalism. Just like hockey or anything else, if you leave holes you will get bit when maybe it really matters."

The Manitoba provincial men's championship is Feb. 4-8 in Brandon. The winner advances to the Tim Hortons Brier from Feb. 28 to March 8 in Calgary at Scotiabank Saddledome.

"I don't want to just play in it. If I'm going to the Brier, I'm going there to win," McEwen said.

Stoughton, a two-time world and three-time Canadian champion, will be in the field again in Brandon.

"There was a time when 'oh man, we have to play this guy or that guy' but now I get more excited than ever to play a top team," McEwen said. "Whether it's Glenn Howard, or Brad Jacobs or Jeff Stoughton, now I'm excited for the challenge more than I ever have been."

McEwen's team is part of the Canadian side at this week's World Financial Group Continental Cup of Curling in Calgary. They've substituted Ben Hebert in at lead as Denni Neufeld and his wife were expecting a baby this week.

The Continental Cup is a chance for McEwen to have his wife Dawn as a Canadian teammate. She plays lead for Olympic champion Jennifer Jones.

The tournament features Canada against Europe in a four-day competition of team, mixed doubles, hot-shots and skins games.

Canada took an early five-point lead over Europe after three draws Thursday.

In the third draw, McEwen edged Scotland's David Murdoch 5-4 in men's play, while John Morris led his rink past Norway's Thomas Ulsrud 6-3. In women's competition, Jones and Scotland's Eve Muirhead tied 4-4.

In Draw 2, Canadians Carter Rycroft and Lori-Olson Johns hammered Sweden's Oskar Eriksson and Russia's Ekaterina Galkina 10-3 in mixed doubles.

Ryan Fry and Emma Miskew downed Sweden's Niklas Edin and Russia's Anna Sidorova 9-6. Rachel Homan and E.J. Harnden split a point tying 5-5 with Norway's Torger Nergaard and Sweden's Maria Pryz.

In the morning team competition, Jacobs beat Edin 4-1, Homan picked up another point for Canada with a 7-2 win over Sweden's Margaretha Sigfridsson. Sidorova saved a point for Europe with a 7-2 win over Val Sweeting.

The day after losing yet another provincial men's final to Stoughton on Feb. 2, McEwen flew to Sochi, Russia, to cheer on his wife and teammates en route to their gold medal. The couple were married in July of 2013.

Dawn McEwen has noticed a change in her husband's body language at the rink this season.

"He's definitely more confident," Dawn said. "I can see it in him. Just the way he carries himself and how he's playing out there, he's definitely stepped up the confidence on the ice and off the ice as well.

"I think it's amazing. They're a great team and they're finally getting . . . in the curling world, their competitors know they're a good team. Now the fans of the curling game are starting to see and recognize the team more."

Note to readers: This is a corrected version of an earlier story. Torger Nergaard and Thomas Ulsrud are both from Norway, not Sweden as previously stated.

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