There’s a feeling of comfort for Brandon’s Rob Fowler heading into this year’s Safeway Championship at Neepawa’s Yellowhead Centre.
Despite coming in as the defending provincial men’s curling champion, Fowler and his team of Allan Lyburn of Brandon and Winnipeggers Richard Daneault and Derek Samagalski don’t feel any extra pressure this year. Instead, they feel they’re in the exact same position as last season, ranked third in the event — running Wednesday through Sunday — and feeling confident.
"We were a well-known team last year," said Fowler, who won his first provincial men’s title as a skip last year in Dauphin and went on to finish third at the Canadian men’s curling championship. "It’s not like we’re new on the scene. It’s an event where we’re very confident and comfortable at. We’re going to be focused on what we need to do and not too much about how other teams are going to approach it."
Fowler hasn’t had the greatest cashspiel season, winning only $9,500 on the World Curling Tour circuit. However, he felt they played well at two of the three Grand Slam events, capped at The National a few weeks ago where they went 5-0 in the round robin before falling to Alberta’s Kevin Koe in a quarter-final.
Fowler, however, isn’t putting much stock in his money earnings, and believes his team is ready to defend its title.
"I’m definitely confident that each guy on the team knows what they have to do individually to play their best and that’s what we’re all focused on," he said.
Fowler isn’t Westman’s only hope to represent Manitoba at the Brier. Former Brandonites Mike McEwen and William Lyburn are ranked second and fourth, respectively, while Terry McNamee’s Brandon-based foursome is seeded fifth. Nine-time provincial champion Jeff Stoughton is the No.1 seed.
McNamee has had a lot of success at the Safeway Championship the last two seasons — reaching the semifinal in 2011 and losing to Fowler in a playoff B-final last season. He has a slightly different lineup with Travis Taylor replacing Geordie Hargreaves at second, but he has a lot of faith in his young second and believes they should be a contender to reach the final eight for the third straight year.
"We’re hoping to go there and play on the weekend and then we’ll see what happens after that," said McNamee, who is also curling with Steve Irwin and Travis Saban. "We’ve beat all the teams there before, so if we play the way we can, we’ll be there on the weekend."
The two Neepawa-based teams — skipped by Jerry Chudley and Kelly Robertson — are also looking at getting into the playoff round, but know it won’t be easy.
Chudley — whose team includes Kevin Cooley, Brent McKee and Paul Robertson — has to face Winnipeg’s David Kraichy in his first game, and if he wins that one his reward will likely be a date with Fowler on Thursday morning. However, Chudley is motivated after coming within one game of reaching the playoff round last year — losing an A-side qualifying game to Stoughton and a B-side qualifier to McNamee.
Chudley believes the key to his success will be finding his draw weight and using the support of his hometown fans.
"I find if I can get my draw weight down, it’s going to make a difference on that ice," he said.
"There’s so much curl that you can get around the guards," Chudley said. "It’s just a matter of finding the right weight, too."
"I think it will benefit us (to play at home)," he continued. "It’s nice when you have all your friends and family out and getting cheered on. It’s definitely going to help us in the long run."
Robertson, meanwhile, is making his 19th appearance in the Safeway Championship. This year he’s playing with Doug Armour, Peter Prokopowich and Bob Scales, the same team that has won the provincial senior title for the last two years, the national senior championship two years ago and a world senior silver medal last season.
Seeded 13th going in, Robertson hopes to make the playoffs this season, but will enjoy the opportunity to play in front of his hometown fans regardless of how well they fare.
"They’re all really good (events) to get into and to play in," Robertson said. "It’s quite an experience to play on arena ice.
"There’s a lot of people watching and what not, but being at home is extra special because there’s family and friends and a lot of clubmates. It’s quite exciting to play at home."
Other southwestern Manitoba teams in the Safeway Championship include Virden’s Graham Freeman, Deloraine’s Blair Goethals, Gladstone’s Geoff Trimble, as well as Greg Todoruk and Rae Kujanpaa, both of whom are from Dauphin.
Brandonite Scott Ramsay is also skipping a Winnipeg-based team at provincials this week.
EXTRA ENDS: The 1-vs.-1 Page playoff game, semifinal and the final will all be shown live on Sportsnet West and Citytv Winnipeg. The Page game will be played Saturday at 6:30 p.m. The semifinal starts Sunday at 9 a.m., with the final following at 1:30 p.m.