Rob Fowler’s Brandon Curling Club team has a slightly different look this season, but it has the same goal to become Manitoba’s men’s curling champions again.
Fowler heads into the Safeway Championship, which begins Wednesday at Winnipeg’s MTS Iceplex, with familiar faces in Allan Lyburn at third and Derek Samagalski at lead, but Brendan Taylor has come on and replaced Richard Daneault at second. Fowler feels his team — seeded third for provincials — has improved with the addition of Taylor and he can’t wait to see how the new squad fares when it opens the provincial championship against Gladstone’s Geoff Trimble tomorrow at 12:15 p.m.
"It’s always exciting when you have a new player," said Fowler, who won the province and finished third at the 2012 Brier, but finished fourth at the Safeway Championship last year in Neepawa. "It brings new ideas and new attitude and best of all Brendan’s a great player. He’s fit in real good and has made our team better. We think that will improve our chances of coming out on top at the end of the week."
The Fowler foursome has had some mixed results this season. The team reached the playoffs in only three of the seven World Curling Tour events it played in this season and never got past the quarter-finals. Fowler also played in the Road to the Roar Olympic pre-trials and reached a C-event qualifier, which he lost to Saskatchewan’s Steve Laycock.
Like most of the Westman teams going into the Safeway Championship, Fowler’s squad hasn’t played much since Christmas. Although the players have practised quite a bit to prepare for their biggest event of the calendar year, they have only played in the Brandon Men’s Bonspiel, falling in the final to Steve Irwin.
Although they haven’t played many games recently, Fowler feels ready for the Safeway Championship.
"We’re excited and rested and can’t wait to get going again," he said.
One of the teams Fowler will have to deal with to get one of the two spots in the playoff round for his group of eight is skipped by Brandonite Scott Ramsay. Ramsay and his Winnipeg-based team of Mark Taylor, Ross McFadyen and Kyle Werenich are also going into the event with a lot of confidence.
The squad started the season on fire by winning its first three bonspiels, including a Safeway berth bonspiel in Rivers. Since the focus of the team’s season is the Safeway Championship, the Ramsey foursome relaxed a bit after that and played in half a dozen events during the season. Their most recent event was the U.S. Open of Curling in Minnesota earlier this month, but the long break doesn’t bother Ramsay at all.
"We’ve found that less seems to be more for us," said Ramsay, whose team is seeded sixth going into the event.
"We’re not a team that has all that much time to practise or things like that, but playing the way we play and the social aspect is good."
Ramsay opens the event in the 12:15 p.m. draw against Pembina’s Don Nelson. Ramsay believes that top-seeded Jeff Stoughton and second seed Mike McEwen are the favourites this year, but that there’s a bunch of teams that could come out on top if they catch fire at the right time. Ramsay, who was among the final six teams last season, believes Fowler’s foursome and his squad are two of those and he hopes to make it to the championship round.
"Based on last year and the previous years we’ve been there, we’ve been final eight, final four, final five at times and you never know," Ramsay said. "We’re definitely excited about it and we’ll be enjoying ourselves and hopefully the curling is good, too."
Irwin’s Brandon foursome could also be a team that could be a factor if it gets hot at the right time. Irwin heads into the event as the ninth seed and brings a lot of experience with him into the Safeway Championship. He has appeared in six previous men’s provincials and played third for Terry McNamee in 2011 when they finished third. However, he has never skipped at the Safeway Championship before.
The 32-year-old Carberry native took over as skip from McNamee, who left the team at the end of last season but is listed as its fifth this year. Travis Taylor and Travis Saban stayed on at front end and the team picked up Joey Witherspoon to play third.
Irwin opens the event against Ryan Hyde at 8:15 p.m., and knows his road to the eight-team playoff round will be tough as he’s in a group with top seed Jeff Stoughton and eighth-seed David Kraichy. His goal is to get to the final eight and he’ll rely on some of that experience to get there.
"Playing there first time as a skip would definitely be tough, but having played there six times before, we’ve been through it all," said Irwin, who reached the final six last year. "We’ve lost our first game five of those years, so we know if that first game doesn’t go our way that it’s definitely possible to rattle off some wins and make the final eight. Knowing that helps a lot as well."
Meanwhile, Virden’s Graham Freeman will meet Neepawa’s Kelly Robertson in the bonspiel’s first draw on Wednesday at 8:30 a.m., the same time Minnedosa’s Glenn Parrott will take on McEwen, a former Brandonite looking to finally earn his first provincial men’s title. Dauphin’s Greg Todoruk beings his quest against fourth seed and last year’s finalist Sean Grassie at 12:15 p.m.
Carberry’s William Kuran will take on Trevor Loreth in his first game at 4 p.m., with the winner facing the winner of the game between former Brandonite William Lyburn, the fifth seed, and Justin Stanus.
The Page playoff games will be played Saturday at 6 p.m., followed by the semifinal on Sunday at 9:30 a.m. and the final at 2 p.m. Sportsnet will broadcast the final, semifinal and 1-vs.-2 Page playoff game.