Scott Manners has the shortest trip of any skip going to the Tim Hortons Brier, which starts Saturday in Saskatoon, but he may have the roughest road to travel.
It's not enough that Manners is competing in his first Brier and skipping an unheralded team. He's also representing the host province of Saskatchewan, which has produced multiple world champions such as Ernie Richardson and Sandra Schmirler and has a curling rink in almost every town, and he's reminded regularly about the unbelievable fact that Saskatchewan hasn't won a Canadian men's curling championship since 1980.
"I laugh at that one," Manners said. "The Toronto Maple Leafs haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1967. The Boston Red Sox were longer than that without a World Series. And it's tough to be a Chicago Cubs fan these days.''
Manners admits to cheering for the Red Sox, who ended an 86-year drought by winning the 2004 World Series. And he's well aware that Rick Folk claimed Saskatchewan's last Brier victory 32 years ago en route to the 1980 world title. Folk subsequently moved to British Columbia before winning the 1994 Canadian and world curling championships; Folk is listed as a coach for the B.C. squad that will be competing in Saskatoon.
Saskatchewan has appeared in Brier finals in the interim: Brad Heidt of Kerrobert lost to Manitoba skip Kerry Burtnyk in 1995, Randy Woytowich of Regina lost to Kevin Martin's Alberta rink in 1991 and Eugene Hritzuk of Saskatoon lost to Albertan Pat Ryan in 1988.
"Somebody just reminded me about 1988: Pat Ryan had last rock," said Hritzuk, a two-time Brier participant who last weekend won Saskatchewan's senior men's curling championship.
"That's the closest we've been since Rick Folk, nobody's been that close. They've been to the final, but nobody from Saskatchewan has pushed it into the 10th end.''
Hritzuk was serving as a television analyst last month in Assiniboia, Sask., when Manners, whose team was seeded 12th out of 16 participants, won the Saskatchewan Tankard by beating three-time provincial champion Bruce Korte. Hritzuk believes Saskatchewan's curlers are falling behind the high-tech, well-financed, fully committed athletes who train year-round at places such as the Saville Sports Centre in Edmonton. Indeed, two of Saskatchewan's top male curlers – Ben Hebert and Pat Simmons – have joined the prolific Edmonton-based rinks of Martin and Kevin Koe, respectively.
"I think they've worked harder on their game than any other team in Saskatchewan," Hritzuk said about Manners and his teammates. "But the curling will be at a different level at the Brier than what we saw at the provincials. The precision with which they curled in Assiniboia is not the precision they'll need to make the playoffs at the Brier. I'm not saying they won't make the playoffs, I'm just saying they have to bring it up a notch.
"[Curling]at home they're going to have a lot of support. With support comes expectations and with expectations comes pressure.''
Manners was 16 when he attended his first Brier, as a spectator, in 1989 in Saskatoon. One year earlier he had watched on television Ryan's dramatic victory over Hritzuk.
Manners, a third-generation wheat farmer from the border city of Lloydminster whose family farm is "on the Saskatchewan side," constructed his team with the notion of vying for a national championship.
Manners and Ryan Deis, the team's second, decided this past summer to invite Tyler Lang (third) and Mike Armstrong (lead), members of Saskatchewan's 2009 junior men's championship squad, to join them. Lang and Armstrong were about 250 kilometres away, attending the University of Saskatchewan, so during the curling season they would meet Manners and Deis about midway between Saskatoon and Lloydminster for practices and games in the Battlefords. That's why the foursome is affiliated with the Battleford Curling Club.
"We're all really passionate about curling," Manners said. "I know that's what has propelled us to this point. We've played well. We want to keep playing well and build on what we've done.''
Special to The Globe and Mail