For the first time in a long time, the top team in curling is not led by Kevin Martin or Glenn Howard. Nor is it skipped by Randy Ferbey, Kevin Koe or Jeff Stoughton.
In what might be the first changing of the generational guard in Canadian curling after the Olympics, the best rock tossers in the game right now are a group of Manitoba upstarts who've dominated play on the World Curling Tour this season.
Skipped by Mike McEwen, the rink from Winnipeg has won four events and earned $73,750, tops in the country and a generous $12,000 ahead of Martin in second place. The team's biggest payday – and most significant win – came last month in Windsor, Ont., when it captured the Grey Power World Cup of Curling, one of the four Grand Slam events that brings together the top teams in the game.
Not only was it a breakthrough win for the team, it came over provincial rival Stoughton, a clear indication that McEwen and Co. may be ready to challenge for the trip to the Tim Hortons Brier.
McEwen's team, which includes Matt Wozniak at second and brothers B.J. and Denni Neufeld at third and lead, respectively, didn't exactly come out of nowhere – they've been grinding it out on the tour for several years and their opponents know them as an aggressive and dangerous squad. They also made it to the final game of the prequalifying for the Olympic Trials last year, missing out when a crucial rock picked in the late ends. Still, this season has certainly been a step up.
"It's hard to put a finger on one thing," said McEwen, when asked to explain the success. "It just doesn't seem as hard on the ice as it did in the past."
McEwen was quick to credit some work done in August with national team coach Rob Krepps, who shored up the technical side of the team's deliveries and gave the players some help with maximizing their sweeping. They also received a reality dose of the hard work necessary to get to the top of their sport.
The rink's play over the past few years enabled it to qualify for the national team program and make use of some of the newest research in the sport, much of it gleaned during the run-up to the Vancouver Olympics.
"All of us love the game so much," McEwen stated. "We knew we were a step back from the best teams in the world but we kept an open mind. We just wanted to do anything we could to get better and we thought we would try some new things."
Obviously the training worked and now the team will try to add to its money total at the second instalment of the Grand Slam series, the Swiss Chalet National, which starts Dec. 15 in Vernon, B.C. But the curlers won't be able to step on to the ice unnoticed any more. They are definitely the team to beat, which doesn't rattle the skip at all.
"In the past I don't think we were as mentally strong," he admitted. "Against the top teams, I think we beat ourselves before we stepped on the ice. But now we believe if we play pretty close to our potential we should win."
After the next Grand Slam and a trip to Scotland for the Perth Masters, McEwen's rink will focus on trying to get to the Brier, a route that will go through Stoughton. The eight-time Manitoba champ has called the McEwen rink the team of the future and probably for the next decade in the Buffalo province. He's already lost two championship finals to the young team this year but he beat them in the provincial final a year ago.
For McEwen, the playdowns are all or nothing and second place is as good as last place.
"There's no question in my mind we're going to a Brier," he said. "I'm not sure if it's going to be this year or next or the year after. But I think we'd be a very good representative for Manitoba."
With their play so far this year, most would agree.