Kevin Koe’s last international curling experience did not go well, but that doesn’t mean he’s about to change his approach for this year’s world championship.
Koe finished fourth at the Olympics last year in South Korea, a big disappointment after years of trying to qualify for the world’s most important curling event.
The 44-year-old from Calgary rebounded beautifully with a different team this year, ran the table at the Brier and is ready to represent the country again at the world men’s curling championship, which starts Saturday at Enmax Centre in Lethbridge, Alta.
“Honestly, I don’t think we’d do too much different,” Koe said.
“Going back to the Olympics, we put the work in and things just didn’t go our way in the playoffs. We had a decent week, played pretty good. In the playoffs, teams played well against us and unfortunately we didn’t play our best games come the semifinal and the bronze medal game.
“That was a different event, different team, so for us, we’re not going to approach it any differently. We’ve put in the work for this worlds, similar to how we prepared for the Brier and it’s just up to us to go and take care of business.”
The Koe foursome, which includes third B.J. Neufeld, second Colton Flasch and lead Ben Hebert, is one of the favourites to win the gold medal in Lethbridge. It’s the top-ranked team in the world and one that is coming off a perfect Brier against many of the greatest teams in Canada. Koe proved himself once again to be one of the greatest sharpshooter in the history of the game, making multiple game-winning shots, including a delicate double in the 10th end of the final against Brendan Bottcher.
But, as Koe and Rachel Homan found out at the Olympics last year, just being a top-ranked team from Canada is not enough to guarantee success on the world stage.
Though both were already world champions, Homan was unable to make the playoffs at the Olympics and Koe lost the bronze medal game.
There was more of the same this year when Canada’s Chelsea Carey missed the playoffs at the women’s world championship in Denmark.
“A lot of the Grand Slam events are won by Europeans,” Hebert said. “It’s not just by fluke that they go to the worlds and win. It’s a lot tougher to win than it was 10 years ago.”
Hebert won his first of two world championships in 2008 with skip Kevin Martin in Grand Forks, N.D., and said much has changed since that first experience.
“It’s a deeper pool today. My first worlds experience, there were a lot of real soft games. We were guaranteed pretty much to make the playoffs. We knew going in that if we played well, we were pretty much going to win.
“The game has changed a lot though. The success of Canada and Canada having three, four, five, six really good teams has driven these other world teams to build good teams and be competitive week in and week out. You see a lot these teams going younger and them all being full-time athletes and really doing the best they can to put a good product on the ice for world championships and Olympic Games.”
That said, Canada has won five gold medals in the last 10 years at the men’s world championship. Sweden has won three and Scotland and Norway have won one apiece.
Those countries will likely be in the medal mix in this event as well. Sweden’s three-time world champion and two-time Olympic medallist Niklas Edin is a co-favourite, while Scotland’s up-and-coming Bruce Mouat, Switzerland’s Olympic bronze medal-winning Peter de Cruz and Olympic gold medallist John Shuster of the United States will all be strong contenders.
“The big teams that are there we play week in and week out at the Grand Slams,” Hebert said. “There’s a lot of other good teams there that we don’t see as much but they’re representing their countries and are going to have some solid game as well.”
Canada opens the world championship on Saturday at 2 p.m. MT, (5 p.m. ADT) with a game against South Korea (Soohyuk Kim) and then takes on Russia (Sergey Glukhov) in the evening.
As Carey found out over social media in her recent worlds experience, Canadians expect success from our curlers at the international level and will be largely unforgiving if a team fails to perform.
“Expectations are high whenever you’re Team Canada at the world curling championship,” Koe said. “That’s fine. There’s nothing to say that’s not fair or not warranted. We expect a lot out of ourselves too.”
Newcomers thrilled to get first taste of worlds experience
While Kevin Koe and Ben Hebert have plenty of international experience at the men’s level, the world championship will be something new for their teammates B.J. Neufeld and Colton Flasch.
Third Neufeld and second Flasch are the newcomers on the team, but they have clearly fit right in, helping Koe to a perfect 13-0 record at the recent Brier in Brandon, Man.
Koe and Hebert have not only played in multiple world championships but have each won it twice, which gives the newcomers a lot of confidence.
“It’s been an unbelievable experience this year, playing with Kevin, who I would have pictured as the best skip in the world,” Flasch said. “I grew up watching Ben play with Kevin Martin, so it’s pretty cool to play with him.
“I’m just learning from these guys and trying to be the best I can be on the team and trying to be the best teammate possible. It’s been a ton of fun all year and hopefully we can keep the train rolling. Wearing the Maple Leaf is something unbelievable.”
Neufeld played for 11 years with the Mike McEwen team out of Winnipeg, and suffered plenty of heartbreak, including a loss in the 2017 Olympic trials final, to Koe.
“It’s going to be cool wearing the Maple Leaf,” Neufeld said. “I’m a super proud Canadian and I have that feeling now of going into this championship representing the country. I want to win it for the country, not only our teammates and our families.”
By Ted Wyman
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019