HALIFAX — In the chaotic few moments between the end of the game and his march to the podium, Kevin Koe stood near the corner of the ice, smiling and just a little stunned as he soaked in the spotlight for the first time in his career.
The Alberta skip won the Tim Hortons Brier on his very first try, upending a previously undefeated Ontario team to claim the Canadian men’s curling championship Sunday night.
Koe made his best shots when the tension was highest, carving his first indelible imprint on the national stage with a 6-5 triumph in an extra end against Glenn Howard.
“We beat them as a team,” Koe said. “It just makes it feel that much better.”
Carla Koe, his wife, was more expressive.
“They’ve been a world-class team for a long time, but this is their first major breakthrough,” she said between excited phone calls in the stands. “Kevin is a very modest guy, and that’s just the way he would handle it — with very few words, and probably very few smiles.”
Koe sent the game into an extra end with a brilliant hit in the 10th end, and drew for one in the 11th to seal the victory. On top of claiming $40,000 as the winner, Koe and his teammates have won the right to represent Canada at the world championship next month in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.
Howard, meanwhile, was left looking for answers.
“I’m not a very happy camper right now,” Howard said. “We left it all on the ice. We played great. We had one bad end and it looked like we were going to make a comeback and … damn.”
Koe had never made it to the Brier before this year, an absence due in no small part to an accident in geography that has forced him to share not only a province, but a city with iconic Edmonton-based rinks skipped by Kevin Martin and Randy Ferbey.
Koe moved to Alberta from his home in the Northwest Territories to study commerce at the University of Calgary. He remained in the province to compete against its elite class of curlers, having no way of knowing his apprenticeship would last for the better part of a decade, as Martin and Ferbey continued their dominance.
Their shadow was impossible to escape, with one or the other advancing beyond the local playdowns to win the Brier eight times over the last two decades. Martin led Canada to a gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics, and was also the subject of a feature in The New York Times, of all places.
Martin also appeared in Halifax to sign autographs for throngs of fans as Koe was quietly preparing to make his debut.
“It’s just like, if you’re playing on a line with Gretzky, you’re going to get better,” two-time women’s world champion Colleen Jones had said before the Olympic trials. “Martin might have started this. Ferbey raised the bar even more, which then brought Kevin Koe along. It’s the perfect example of the circle of life. It’s amazing.”
Koe posted an 8-3 record in the round robin, but finished third after a narrow loss to the Ontario rink in the final draw. That forced him to take the long road to the final, where he had to beat Newfoundland and Labrador and Northern Ontario in the playoffs Saturday.
Howard rolled through the round robin, posting 11 straight wins. The 47-year-old had an incomparable advantage in experience at the Brier, having already made 11 appearances, and having won the title as a skip for the first time three years ago.
That veteran savvy might have contributed to a surprising turn of events in the first end, when Alberta was sitting two as the skips prepared to throw. Koe flashed the house on a takeout attempt with his first rock, which ultimately allowed Howard a draw for two and an early lead.
Ontario third Richard Hart hit a remarkable raise double-takeout in the second, prompting Koe to blank the end. The third end was also left blank, allowing the tension to build.
Koe drew for three in the sixth end to give Alberta a 4-3 lead.
The Brier rookie made another crucial shot with his last throw of the 10th end, when he hit two Ontario stones, forcing Howard into a draw for one to force the extra end.
“I can’t describe it,” Howard said. “This is just … it’s crap.”
There were pockets of vocal support for both teams in the crowd, which was bigger than it had been all week, but still not large enough to make up for the event’s disappointing overall total. Organizers had been hoping a strong walk-up crowd would push final ticket sales to about 125,000 for the week, still well below the 158,414 sold when the city last hosted the Brier seven years ago.
The big walk-up never arrived, and the final total stood at 107,242.
Graham Harris, co-chair of the 2010 Brier, suggested the Vancouver Olympics had drained the discretionary funds from many of the would-be ticket buyers.
“I think the Olympic experience was great for the game of curling, but at the end of the day, the patron who goes from event to event has to make a decision on which events to take in,” Harris said Sunday. “And when you have the Olympics in your home country, all of the sudden, we’re both chasing the championship dollar.”