Koe, Stoughton enter Brier as favorites

Jeff Stoughton’s 11th Canadian men’s curling championship is a bit of a homecoming. Kamloops, B.C., the host city of this year’s Tim Hortons Brier, is where he won his first Canadian men’s curling crown in 1996. He has won twice since — the last in 2011 — and is a two-time world champion.

Jeff Stoughton’s 11th Canadian men’s curling championship is a bit of a homecoming.

Kamloops, B.C., the host city of this year’s Tim Hortons Brier, is where he won his first Canadian men’s curling crown in 1996. He has won twice since — the last in 2011 — and is a two-time world champion.

“It’s kind of special being able to come back after so many years to a place with some great memories,” he said in an interview. “It’s pretty cool and the team is really looking forward to getting on with the week.”

The Brier starts Saturday and runs to March 9.

Last year Stoughton lost the Brier final in Edmonton 11-4 to Brad Jacobs and his Northern Ontario rink.

Stoughton had a disappointing 3-4 finish at the Olympic Curling Trials in December, as Jacobs went undefeated in claiming the right to wear Canada’s colours in Sochi. Stoughton had lots of company. No one could slow the juggernaut from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont..

“There was only one happy team coming out of those trials and that was obviously Jacobs,” said Stoughton. “We just sort of decompressed for a few weeks and then got right back at it, had a great Skins Game, great fun Continental Cup with the guys, and then just carried right through to the Safeway championship in Winnipeg.”

In this year’s Brier field — with both Jacobs and Alberta veteran Kevin Martin absent — Stoughton and Alberta’s Kevin Koe are favourites. Manitoba has a record 27 wins at the Brier, followed closely by Alberta with 25.

Koe is representing Alberta this year for the third time, after beating Martin 7-5 to take the provincial title. Koe won the Brier in 2010, his first appearance, and went on to win a world championship.

Just getting out of Alberta is tough for Koe, who curls out of Calgary.

“You’ve got to get through one of the top teams in the world in Kevin Martin and it’s definitely not realistic to think you can do that every year,” he said.

He recognizes he’s going to be one of the favourites along with Stoughton but says that’s no different than any other year and the rest of the field may be deeper than some suspect.

“There’s quite a few teams that a lot of people don’t know about that I think will do pretty good, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, maybe even the Territories. I think it’s a pretty tough field actually.”

There’s maybe a little family pride creeping in there. For the third time in five years, he’ll be joined at the Brier by brother Jamie, who skips the Northwest Territories-Yukon entry. Jamie Koe is making his eighth appearance.

In 2012, the brothers met in the 3 vs. 4 Page playoff. Kevin won and Jamie later lost to Manitoba’s Rob Fowler in the bronze-medal match but it was still a strong finish for a Territories team.

Saskatchewan is led by 2003 World Junior champ Steve Laycock, back for his second appearance as skip at the Canadian championship with a new team of Kirk Muyres, Colton Flasch and Dallan Muryes.

Jean-Michel Menard is back for his eighth try after becoming just the second skip from Quebec to win the championship in 2006. His lineup consists of Martin Crete, Eric Sylvain and brother Philippe Menard.

One of the only new faces this year is Ontario’s Greg Balsdon, who stopped Glenn Howard from making his ninth straight appearance at the Brier.

“I don’t want to say we lucked out because we’ve had good games but they’ve obviously beaten us more than we’ve beaten them,” Balsdon said of the final, that saw Howard miss with his last rock and give up the winning point.

Balsdon is new to the Canadian men’s championship. He was part of the Cory Heggestad-led team that won the 2013 Canadian Mixed, but he says this feels bigger.

“It feels just amazing. I don’t think we’ll truly appreciate it until we’re there,” he said.

Another team that has the chops to run with the best is also the hometown favourite — John Morris and his B.C. rink, that features former skip and Kamloops native Jim Cotter at third.

“It’s exciting,” says Cotter. “I think back 18 years ago when it was in Kamloops and Barry McPhee was the hometown team and I remember watching in the crowd there and I was pretty excited for those guys. . . Here we are 18 years later and I’ve got the same opportunity.”

They made it all the way to the final against Jacobs at the Olympic Trials by beating Martin. After a disappointing loss, they took a few weeks off during the holidays to regroup but Cotter says they took good things out of the trials into the provincial finals in B.C.

The addition of the veteran Morris, now curling for his third province, has made a huge difference, Cotter says.

“We really have clicked. John’s just a phenomenal guy on and off the ice.”

Jacobs, meanwhile, is still celebrating his Olympic gold-medal win. The schedule made it virtually impossible to compete for a berth in this year’s Brier, although starting in 2015 the previous year’s winner will get an automatic berth, something the women already do.

With Jacobs out of the mix, 1996 Canadian junior champ Jeff Currie was able to shift the Northern Ontario title from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay with his team of Mike McCarville, Colin Koivula and Jamie Childs.

Former Olympic champ Brad Gushue from Newfoundland and Labrador is still the headliner out of the Atlantic provinces and James Grattan is making his 11th appearance for New Brunswick.

Eddie MacKenzie has led Prince Edward Island to the Brier for three of the last four years and Jamie Murphy is back after also representing Nova Scotia at the 2012 championship.

Brier finalists each receive $40,000 in prize money, the bronze medallist gets $30,000 and the $20,000 goes to the fourth-place team.

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