OTTAWA — Winnipeg skip Mike McEwen picked a tough year to make his long-awaited Tim Hortons Brier debut.
The field is stacked for the upcoming Canadian men's curling championship at TD Place in Ottawa. Reigning Olympic champion Brad Jacobs of Northern Ontario, two-time Brier champ Kevin Koe of Alberta, top-ranked Brad Gushue of Newfoundland and Labrador and four-time world champion Glenn Howard of Ontario are some of the headliners.
Other contenders include defending champion Pat Simmons and his Team Canada rink along with B.C.'s Jim Cotter, Quebec's Jean-Michel Menard and Saskatchewan's Steve Laycock.
"There is probably six, seven or eight teams that have a legitimate shot," McEwen said.
Prince Edward Island's Adam Casey and New Brunswick's Mike Kennedy have also secured berths in the main draw, which begins Saturday afternoon at the 10,000-seat venue. The 12th and final spot goes to the winner of a qualification round-robin between Nova Scotia's Jamie Murphy, Bob Smallwood of the Yukon, Jamie Koe of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut's Wade Kingdon.
McEwen and his team of B.J. Neufeld, Matt Wozniak and Denni Neufeld capped an unbeaten run in the Manitoba playdowns with a 4-2 win over Canadian junior champion Matt Dunstone in the final. It was McEwen's first provincial title after settling for runner-up finishes in five of the last six years.
"I have no doubt that myself and probably some of my guys will have a bit of anxiety that first game when we step out on the ice," McEwen said. "That'll be there for sure and then I think we'll get comfortable pretty quick in that environment."
McEwen, 35, has been a powerhouse on the Grand Slam circuit for years and holds the No. 3 position on the Canadian Team Ranking System standings.
Jacobs, meanwhile, settled for a second-place finish last year after dropping an extra-end decision to Simmons in the final. The Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., rink won the Brier in 2013 before taking Olympic gold the following year in Sochi, Russia.
Menard won the Brier in 2006 while Kevin Koe was victorious in 2010 and 2014.
Howard, a national champion in 1987, 1993, 2007 and 2012, will be making his record 16th appearance at the Brier. Adam Spencer has been added to the roster as a replacement for Wayne Middaugh, who broke his leg in a skiing crash last January.
Gushue has been in top form this season and holds the No. 1 spot in the CTRS standings. The 2006 Olympic champion is hoping his 13th career Brier appearance will prove lucky and get him that elusive national title.
"There are still goals I want to achieve," Gushue said in a recent interview. "Obviously the Brier is the big one for me."
The top four teams will qualify for the Page playoffs starting March 11. The medal games are set for March 13.
"It's really going to come down to some very little things as far as who's going to win the championship," McEwen said. "It might not be much difference, it might literally be reading the ice a little bit better or a break here or there. You're going to have to play well just to get into that situation where you actually have a couple playoff games to hopefully come through.
"But it might come down to whoever is hotter is going to win this."
The gold medallist will represent Canada at the April 2-10 world men's curling championship in Basel, Switzerland. Simmons won bronze at last year's world playdowns in Halifax.
Alberta's Chelsea Carey won the Scotties Tournament of Hearts last weekend in Grande Prairie, Alta. She will represent Canada at the March 19-27 world women's curling championship in Swift Current, Sask.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press