Mike McEwen made the original suggestion to Curling Canada a few years ago to add a wild-card entry to the field at the national championships.
The play-in game has agreed with him ever since.
McEwen drew the four-foot ring to beat Glenn Howard 5-4 on Friday night to earn the 16th and final berth as Team Wild Card at the Brier in Kingston, Ont.
“That’s about as much pressure as you’re ever going to get until you get to the final,” McEwen said. “So I love that we got that and hopefully we can put that experience to work later in the week if we play well enough.”
McEwen, who represented Manitoba last year, was also Team Wild Card when it was first added to the field in 2018.
With the 14 member associations and Team Canada already represented, the play-in game pits the top two teams in the Canadian rankings who were eliminated in provincial or territorial playdowns.
The Team Wild Card addition also allowed for the creation of two eight-team pools in the preliminary round.
Solid Carruthers double peel
The play-in game has been rising in popularity since it was added to the schedule. The high-intensity win-and-you’re-in matchup serves as a tasty kickoff for the main competition.
“I just happened to be the first one to get on the phone and blurt out the idea,” McEwen said. “It seemed like everybody thought it made sense.”
Tied with hammer in the 10th end, third Reid Carruthers made a nice double peel to help set up the Winnipeg skip for the game-winning throw.
The loss means it’s one and done for Howard, who was denied an 18th career Brier appearance.
“It came down to the final shot and obviously I would have loved to have been on the other side of it,” Howard said. “The unfortunate part now is you put your tail between your legs and you go home.”
Main draw play begins Saturday afternoon.
Both teams needed a few ends to find their draw weight on the fresh ice at the Leon’s Centre.
McEwen had hammer and blanked the opening end. Howard put some pressure on in the second and McEwen was forced to draw for a single.
Costly missed takeout attempt
McEwen second Derek Samagalski wrecked on a guard in the third end, eventually forcing McEwen to make a double takeout. Howard, from Penetanguishene, Ont., drew for the deuce and a 2-1 lead.
The Ontario crowd was noticeably pro-Howard and the veteran skip seemed to feed off the energy.
Howard made a nice freeze in the fourth end that forced McEwen to follow suit for one point. In the fifth, Howard missed a thin takeout attempt for three and settled for a single to take a 3-2 lead into the break.
“They had us sweating real bad in the first half and we played Houdini and escaped,” McEwen said.
Back-to-back blanks left McEwen with hammer in the eighth end. Howard barely missed a double takeout and the Winnipeg skip drew for a pair.
Howard, who was appearing in the play-in game for the first time, settled for one in the ninth.
McEwen, ranked No. 4 in the country, and the ninth-ranked Howard both lost their respective provincial finals.
Top 4 teams in each pool advance to championship round
Canada’s Kevin Koe is back as the defending Brier champion. He beat wild-card entry Brendan Bottcher in an all-Alberta final last year in Brandon, Man.
Bottcher is representing the province this time around in a deep field that includes top-ranked Brad Jacobs of Northern Ontario, John Epping of Ontario and Brad Gushue of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Other expected contenders include Manitoba’s Jason Gunnlaugson, Saskatchewan’s Matt Dunstone and British Columbia’s Steve Laycock.
The top four teams in each pool at the end of round-robin play Wednesday will advance to the championship round.
The four-team Page Playoffs begin March 7. The semifinal and final are set for March 8.
A total purse of $300,000 is on the line with the winning team to earn $105,000.
The Brier winner will represent Canada at the March 28-April 5 world men’s curling championship in Glasgow and also earn a berth at the Olympic Trials for the 2022 Winter Games.