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Eight Ends: 2020 Tim Hortons Brier preview

Eight Ends is your source for news, notes, insight, and analysis from around the curling world. This week’s edition looks at the top contenders and what’s at stake in the Tim Hortons Brier. 

1st End: The Tim Hortons Brier takes over the Leon’s Centre in Kingston, Ont., with the wild-card game kicking things off Friday evening. On top of the prize money, representing Canada at the world men’s curling championship and capturing one of the most coveted trophies in curling, the winner will also secure a berth in the 2021 Roar of the Rings, aka the Canadian Olympic curling trials. It cannot be overstated how massive it is to lock up that spot early. Next season is going to be a mad scramble for points to try and get in the hard way. Having peace of mind plus the luxury of being more selective of which tournaments you want to play and not overextending yourself or running the risk of injuries/burnout is huge.

2nd End: Who will emerge victorious in the Wild Card game between Manitoba’s Mike McEwen and Ontario’s Glenn Howard? Let’s look at why either team could win. 

McEwen missed the start of the season recovering from a knee injury and his team was on the bubble to qualify for Grand Slams but got back on track once the skip returned. Team McEwen has quietly put together a solid season ranked fifth in the world with a 51-27 win-loss record (0.654 win percentage). McEwen captured a title in South Korea and added three runner-up finishes elsewhere on tour. If McEwen can get by Howard, his club will be a playoff contender for sure. Fun fact: McEwen won the 2011-12 Canadian Open in the Leon’s Centre. 

Howard hasn’t had as impressive a season — ranked 18th in the world and holding a 32-25 record — but anything can happen in a one-game, do-or-die situation. Few have played in as many big game situations as the four-time world champion Howard and he’ll rely on that experience to outduel McEwen. The key will be Scott Howard, who has become a critical component to the team swimming or sinking since moving up to third last season.  

3rd End: Who will contend? Start from the top: Northern Ontario’s Brad Jacobs is ranked No. 1 in the world with a sparkling 50-12 record (0.806). Jacobs has won three consecutive Grand Slams plus the Stu Sells Toronto Tankard and earned a runner-up result in the Shorty Jenkins Classic. Missing the playoffs at the Canada Cup in December knocked Team Jacobs down a bit but a huge rebound winning back-to-back Grand Slams put them right back on top. 

4th End: The other odds-on favourite has to be Ontario’s John Epping, ranked right behind Jacobs in second place in the world and sporting a 48-19 record (0.716) this season. This is arguably the best team Epping has had bringing in Ryan Fry at third and Mat Camm and Brent Laing have continued to thrive in their new roles at second and lead, respectively. Epping won two titles out of the gate and although we were slightly skeptical at one point, the Canada Cup victory proved they’re legit. Having the home-province crowd on their side is a bonus, too.

5th End: Defending champion Kevin Koe is aiming for a record-breaking fifth Brier title at skip as the 45-year-old from Calgary is currently tied with all-time greats Randy Ferbey, Kevin Martin and Ernie Richardson. Koe’s team started the season at the top of the world rankings but slipped to 10th although it’s kind of misleading as third B.J. Neufeld missed a portion of the year while he was away on paternity leave. Koe always rises to the occasion at Curling Canada events as seen by his runner-up result at the Canada Cup. He’s also been in the Brier final three of the past four years (the outlier being the 2017-2018 season when he won the Olympic Trials and was away at the Pyeongchang Winter Games). 

6th End: Brad Gushue of Newfoundland and Labrador is ranked fourth in the world although Jacobs and Epping winning just about everything left few scraps. Gushue finished runner-up in two Grand Slams but needs to win the Brier in order to get into the season-ending Humpty’s Champions Cup. The team has made the Brier Page playoffs in four consecutive seasons and is always a legit contender.

7th End: Alberta’s Brendan Bottcher, ranked seventh in the world, has the engines to outlast the competition through the week-long grind. After a slow start out of the station, the Bottcher express picked up steam with a high-profile tour win in Penticton, B.C. and a semifinal result at the Canada Cup. Their three straight Grand Slam titles last season plus their second consecutive Brier silver medal put them into the upper echelon. 

8th End: Some quick hits to wrap up: Manitoba’s Jason Gunnlaugson has the most wins this season with a 60-29 record (0.674) and getting by McEwen in provincial playdowns should provide his team with a boost of confidence heading into their first Brier. … Saskatchewan’s Matt Dunstone has had an odd finals-or-bust season with only three playoff appearances but resulting in a Grand Slam title and a provincial championship plus a runner-up result in the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard. Which Team Dunstone will show up this week? … Jim Cotter of British Columbia has shuffled the deck with third Steve Laycock now calling the shots. The talent is certainly there to challenge their way into the Championship Round but will have to catch one of the higher-ranked teams off guard.