Jason Gunnlaugson’s Winnipeg team has been on a meteoric rise up the rankings and is preparing for another rocket push with its latest acquisition.
Gunnlaugson announced Wednesday he has landed seasoned pro Denni Neufeld, who has won seven Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling titles and two provincial championships throwing lead stones for Mike McEwen.
The 37-year-old Neufeld will make the switch to second to play alongside Gunnlaugson, third Alex Forrest and lead Connor Njegovan and boosts the surging squad’s chances heading into a new Olympic cycle.
“The exciting part for him is for the last decade he’s beaten up on all the leads, now he gets a crack at all the seconds,” Gunnlaugson said with a laugh. “I think they should be expecting that there’s going to be a new guy in town who’s dominating the percentage board.”
Gunnlaugson is confident Neufeld, who takes over for Ian McMillan, will be able to adapt to his new role on the team.
“It is a different set of challenges but he spent his whole career before he played with his current team as a third, basically,” Gunnlaugson said. “He’s definitely got the skill set and we know he’s going to be one of the best seconds in the world.”
On top of the Grand Slam and provincial titles, Neufeld was one win away from representing Canada at the Pyeongchang Winter Games — Team McEwen fell to Kevin Koe’s crew in the Olympic Trials final — and competed in a third consecutive Brier this season as the first-ever wild-card entry, coincidentally defeating Gunnlaugson in the play-in game.
“Bringing a guy with Denni’s experience will help take our team to the next level in our preparation for the season and how we approach events,” Njegovan said. “Being able to have someone beside me who’s played in multiple big game atmospheres will give us an edge moving forward.”
Team McEwen said earlier this month they’re disbanding after the season ends following 11 years together. McEwen has linked up with long-time pal Reid Carruthers to throw fourth stones while third B.J. Neufeld, Denni’s brother, has latched on with Koe’s Calgary-based club.
“Honestly, it was just an opportunity we didn’t expect,” Gunnlaugson said. “To have one of the top players in the game, somebody who’s been ranked No. 1, won seven Slams and all this experience be interest in adding to what we have been building and had going, we saw that opportunity as something we just couldn’t pass up for our continued growth in climbing up the rankings. I mean, what better than having somebody who’s gone all the way to the top already?”
The roster change left McMillan as the odd man out, however, the team wishes him the best in the future.
“Playing with Ian over the past three seasons has been fantastic,” Njegovan said. “He has made me better in every aspect of my game and his on and off ice character is something to be admired. He’s a true professional, a great friend and I hope him all the best as he moves forward.”
Gunnlaugson, 33, had bounced around through his career before finding the right fit this season with the established trio of Forrest, McMillan and Njegovan. They gelled together instantly claiming the Tour Challenge Tier 2 title in September to earn a promotion. Team Gunnlaugson has proven they belong among the elite ranks by qualifying for the playoffs in three Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling major tournaments.
“The current group has been fantastic and has been working extremely hard to climb up the rankings, get our spots in Slams, compete and qualify in Slams and we’ve got two more chances to break that quarterfinal barrier that we ran into this year,” Gunnlaugson said. “We’re really putting a ton of work and a ton of effort into setting up for the Players’ Championship and the Champions Cup and we really want to finish this year off.
“I think we’re currently about 10th in the world right now and if we finish strong we can get all the way into the top seven or eight, which would be absolutely unbelievable from where we started the year.”
If not in the remaining Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling tournaments this season, Gunnlaugson believes they’ll reach that goal next season with Neufeld in the fold as they already have their targets set on getting into the next Canadian Olympic curling trials and a shot at Beijing 2022.
“He’s going to have new, different ideas to help us continue to grow and we’re really excited,” Gunnlaugson said. “We have no doubt that we want to be a direct entry into the trials team next cycle and not have to go through that pre-trials event. That means consistent top-five in the country results and we think we can do that with this lineup.”
Team Gunnlaugson will wrap up the season at the Players’ Championship, April 10-15 in Toronto, followed by the Humpty’s Champions Cup, April 24-29 in Calgary.