Elite Canadian curlers go head to head in mixed doubles

Manitoba skip Jeff Stoughton watches a rock as they play Quebec at the Tim Hortons Brier in Kamloops, B.C., on March 4, 2014.
Manitoba skip Jeff Stoughton watches a rock as they play Quebec at the Tim Hortons Brier in Kamloops, B.C., on March 4, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Mike McEwen quickly prepared a sports drink after he got off the ice Monday at the Wall Grain Mixed Doubles Classic curling tournament.

“I’m fuelling up here, I feel like I just had a workout on one side of my body,” he said.

The mixed doubles game was a big switch for the Winnipeg skip, who threw and swept stones with wife Dawn McEwen at the Oshawa Curling Club. They were joined by a who’s who of Canadian curlers, who are taking the discipline more seriously now that it’s on the program for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

“The players are enjoying it, learning the new game and having fun with it,” said Curling Canada mixed doubles program manager Jeff Stoughton. “They’re trying to figure out what to do and that’s the whole idea of this is to get these players some game-time experience.”

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READ MORE: Stoughton to prepare Canada’s mixed doubles curlers for Olympics

Most players in the 20-team field are usually focused on the traditional four-person game. The mixed doubles format has been a refreshing change for many as it requires different strategies, heightened fitness levels and quicker decision-making.

While many curlers have at least dabbled with mixed doubles in the past, Stoughton estimated about half the teams were playing in a tournament for the first time. It’s part of the buildup to the Mar. 31-Apr. 3 Canadian mixed doubles trials in Saskatoon and the world championships Apr. 16-23 in Karlstad, Sweden.

McEwen, who’s second behind Brad Gushue in the Canadian Team Ranking System, rarely sweeps when he plays the four-man game. But he was working the broom hard in an 11-4 victory over Janet and Hugh Murphy.

“It’s a lot more learning on the fly,” McEwen said. “Getting your heart rate down after you’ve just swept end to end on your own shot. So it’s a very different game, a very different mindset.”

There are fewer ends and a tighter shot clock in mixed doubles, so games only last about an hour and a half. There is no skip position and curlers have to leave the hack quickly to catch up to the stone to start sweeping.

The $23,000 tournament, which runs through Tuesday afternoon, is aiming to raise the profile of the format. The carrot of potential Olympic participation is appealing and the sport’s top players are interested.

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A scan of players on the ice ahead of the mid-afternoon draw was an impressive showing of curling star power.

Reigning Olympic champion Jennifer Jones was practising with husband Brent Laing while Jones’s regular teammate, Kaitlyn Lawes, was throwing stones with Marc Kennedy. Rachel Homan was on a sheet with John Morris while Gushue and Val Sweeting were also making last-minute preparations.

Stoughton’s goal is to get a Canadian duo on the podium at the next two world mixed doubles championships, which serve as Olympic qualifiers. Only seven countries will join host South Korea in the field at the 2018 Games.

With the big curling names on board, it will only improve Canada’s chances of matching the success it has seen in the four-person game.

“Clearly they’re our best shooters right now in the game as proven by their traditional game,” Stoughton said. “We thought, ‘Well let’s see if they can handle this mixed doubles thing,’ and see if that’s going to be a challenge for them and whether they’re going to embrace it and be really good at it.”

RELATED: Not-so-conventional curling sweeping across Manitoba

Homan and Morris won the inaugural Canad Inns Mixed Doubles Classic last month. It was played between regular men’s and women’s events at the Portage Curling Club in Manitoba.

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Sweden, Hungary and Switzerland are the current powerhouses in mixed doubles. Canada holds the No. 6 position in the world rankings.

“I think everyone is taking it seriously now,” said Emma Miskew, who plays on Homan’s team and is teaming here with Ryan Fry. “Just because it’s the first year, I think it’s a little bit more fun right now because everyone is just trying to learn the game, the rules, what works with your partner, when you should be sweeping, when you should be holding the broom, all that stuff.

“Once people have figured that out I think it’s going to become a lot more competitive and a lot more serious out there.”

READ MORE: Reid Carruthers falls to Brad Gushue in first Grand Slam final appearance

Many of the curlers were already in town for The National, which wrapped up Sunday at the nearby General Motors Centre. Gushue beat Reid Carruthers for the men’s title and Homan edged Tracy Fleury for the women’s title.

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