Calgary’s Team Kevin Koe and Edmonton’s Team Brendan Bottcher clinched playoff spots on home-provincial ice in the Humpty’s Champions Cup.
Koe completed a 3-1 run through pool play clipping Toronto’s Team John Epping 7-4 during Saturday’s afternoon action at Calgary’s WinSport Arena. Bottcher, who beat Koe in last month’s Brier final, also secured a spot at 3-1 with a 3-2 extra-end victory over Team Jason Gunnlaugson of Morris, Man.
Koe picked up a huge 8-2 win Friday over the Canadian champion Bottcher and also downed the world champions Team Niklas Edin of Sweden 6-2 in only five ends to start Thursday.
“I’d say 10, 20 years ago in these Slams there were a few easier games in your pool but it seems like now every game is just a battle,” Team Koe third John Morris said. “We’re not taking anyone for granted, so we’re just trying to get some really good games under our belt. We’re a fairly new team with this lineup and it’s been going great. We’ve got a great vibe going on.”
Starting with the hammer was key to controlling the game and that’s credit to lead Ben Hebert, who executed the draw to the button and covered the pinhole.
“You always have a bit of pride on the line,” said Morris, who has won 11 Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling men’s titles. “Kev, B.J. [Neufeld] and I had all been close to the pin but not quite covered it. Now Benny’s got bragging rights because he pinned ‘er and got us that hammer, which is obviously pretty important in an eight-end game at the Slams.”
Team Koe was able to salvage part of a fall tour season and have a 29-8 record on the year, however, they haven’t won a final yet. Morris, who joined the team at second this season, said that was the reason why they’ve tweaked the lineup and he switched throwing spots with Neufeld.
“Here’s the thing with our team and what I love about our team,” Morris said. “Obviously Kev’s our leader, he’s our skip, that’s no question. We just want to win and it doesn’t matter what position we play. I’ve been really impressed with our guys because with this year being as it was, we’ve had a lot of Zoom meetings and lots of time to discuss more so than you ever do in any season.
“The bottom line is we just want to win and find the best lineup for us to do that. Whether that’s with me at third or B.J. at third — probably won’t have Benny at third — but that’s what I’m really impressed with our team. We don’t have any egos. We want to do what’s best for the team and I feel like that’s what you need to have a championship team.”
Morris added this configuration isn’t “set in stone” but it’s been an easy transition for everyone.
“B.J. is a really strong sweeper,” Morris said. “He’s stronger than me and it was something that the guys felt my strengths are in the house calling line and it might be a little bit more of a natural transition if I was playing third and then we’re using B.J.’s strengths of sweeping to go with Benny. So far it’s worked well. We’ve played three really strong games here and now we’re going to see what we can do in the playoffs.”
The loss for Team Epping eliminated them from playoff contention at 1-3. Colton Lott of Winnipeg Beach, Man., is filling in for third Ryan Fry, who is spending time with his family as his father Barry was recently diagnosed with stage 4B lung cancer.
Gunnlaugson (0-4) was already out prior to the game against Bottcher but was unable to play spoiler. Trailing 2-1 at the fourth-end break, Gunnlaugson blanked three consecutive ends and finally settled for a single in the eighth that forced overtime but Bottcher tapped in the winner.
Team Tracy Fleury of East St. Paul, Man., finished undefeated at the top of Pool B in the women’s division scoring a single in the eighth end to edge Scotland’s Team Eve Muirhead 7-6. Although Fleury (4-0) had already qualified, the victory secured a bye to Sunday night’s semifinals. Muirhead dropped to a 2-2 record and now plays the waiting game to find out her team’s fate.
“We’re really excited,” Team Fleury third Selena Njegovan said. “We’ve come out strong this week, so it’s nice to finish off the round-robin at 4-0 and get that bye to the semis.”
Fleury is also unbeaten this season as the Humpty’s Champions Cup is her first event. The skip from Sudbury, Ont., missed the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in February to take care of her young daughter Nina, who was diagnosed with infantile spasms in November. Two-time Canadian champion Chelsea Carey filled in during the Scotties Tournament of Hearts and will take over again during next week’s Princess Auto Players’ Championship as Fleury was only planning to play in the Humpty’s Champions Cup.
“She hasn’t lost a beat, that’s for sure,” Njegovan said. “She’s playing so, so good. It’s been so much fun and we’re happy to have her back. We want to convince her to stay for next week.”
The team entered with no expectations given that it is Fleury’s first event since competing in last year’s Scotties Tournament of Hearts wild-card game. They’re playing like they have nothing to lose and that’s probably why they haven’t lost.
“Obviously, it’s been over a year since we’ve played as a team, so we just wanted to go out and learn from every game,” Njegovan said. “We have been doing that so far and everything’s just been working out.”
Carey is in the bubble a week early helping the team out from the bench and Njegovan said it’s been great.
“She is so smart and she’s been so valuable to us,” Njegovan said. “We’re super grateful she was able to be on the bench with us this week. It’s been really good.”
It has been dicey though with three of their wins coming in extra ends, however, all three times they held the hammer and trusted Fleury to come through in the clutch, which she has.
“We keep joking that we want to spend as much time on the ice with Tracy as possible,” Njegovan said with a laugh.
Switzerland’s Team Silvana Tirinzoni (3-1) will continue their title defence into the playoffs with a 5-3 victory over Sweden’s Team Anna Hasselborg (0-4). It was a struggle to start the bubble run for Team Hasselborg, who were looking to pick up where they left off in the series after winning their third consecutive Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling women’s title at the Meridian Canadian Open in January 2020.
The Humpty’s Champions Cup is the first of back-to-back Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling events and features 12 of the top men’s teams and 12 of the top women’s teams from around the world. Six teams in both divisions qualify for the playoffs with the top two receiving byes to the semifinals.
Two round-robin draws remain on tap Saturday with the quarterfinals and semifinals scheduled on Sunday and both finals set for Monday. The Princess Auto Players’ Championship begins Tuesday.
The series is testing a new rule at the Humpty’s Champions Cup called the no tick zone. A rock touching the centre line, in the free guard zone, may not be moved off the centre line by the opposing team until the sixth rock of the end.