McEwen, Laycock, Knapp headline Saskatchewan field as curling playdowns continue

Two more berths in the 18-team field for the Montana’s Brier in Regina will be finalized this week as Saskatchewan and New Brunswick complete their provincial men’s curling championships ahead of the Alberta and Manitoba playdowns next week.

Mike McEwen, Steve Laycock, Rylan Kleiter and defending champion Kelly Knapp are the headliners at this week’s Saskatchewan championship. Play in the 12-team event continues through Sunday at Saskatoon’s Nutana Club.

“McEwen is going to be the favourite, but we’ve had a lot of favourites not win our province before,” said longtime curling commentator Russ Howard. “They’re really solid with (vice Colton) Flasch. Laycock is always there and he’s got a nice team. Then you’ve got the up-and-coming Kleiter.

“Just like in the women’s field, these young kids are getting better all the time. I’d be shocked if it wasn’t one of those four (teams). But there’s a lot of depth right now.”

Thirteen entries in the March 1-10 Montana’s Brier at Regina’s Brandt Centre have already been determined. The last berth will go to the highest-ranked Canadian team that doesn’t win a provincial/territorial playdown.

Knapp, ranked 17th in Canada, made his Brier debut in 2011 as an alternate for Laycock’s team. He won his first provincial title as a skip last season and went 4-4 at the Brier.

“He won (Saskatchewan) last year and I think that’s a springboard to a little more confidence,” Howard said Wednesday from Regina. “The first time is the toughest and he did it.”

McEwen, who won the Ontario title last year before changing teams in the off-season, is ranked sixth in Canada. Kleiter is ranked ninth and Laycock is 27th.

New Brunswick’s 10-team men’s competition featuring James Grattan, Grant Odishaw and defending champion Scott Jones, also runs through Sunday at the Miramichi Curling Club.

In Manitoba, fifth-ranked Brad Jacobs, who took over skipping duties from Reid Carruthers in midseason, is a favourite to win the Feb. 6-11 competition in Stonewall, Man.

The Feb. 6-11 Alberta playdowns, meanwhile, boast three of the country’s top eight teams in No. 3 Kevin Koe, No. 7 Aaron Sluchinski and No. 8 Karsten Sturmay.

Top-ranked Brendan Bottcher won’t be in the field in Hinton, Alta., as he pre-qualified for the Brier based on last season’s ranking. Fourth-ranked Matt Dunstone also pre-qualified and didn’t enter the Manitoba championship.

Second-ranked Brad Gushue of Newfoundland and Labrador returns as defending Brier champion.

Other qualified entries include teams skipped by B.C.’s Catlin Schneider, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Andrew Symonds, Northern Ontario’s Trevor Bonot, Jamie Koe of the Northwest Territories, Ontario’s Glenn Howard, Nova Scotia’s Matthew Manuel, Nunavut’s Shane Latimer, Prince Edward Island’s Tyler Smith, Quebec’s Julien Tremblay and Yukon’s Thomas Scoffin.

The 18-team field has been finalized for the Feb. 16-25 Canadian women’s curling championship in Calgary.

Four-time defending Scotties Tournament of Hearts champion Kerri Einarson will skip the Canada entry and Ontario’s Rachel Homan and Manitoba’s Jennifer Jones pre-qualified.

With the top eight teams in the country in the field along with entries like Northern Ontario’s Krista McCarville, B.C.’s Clancy Grandy, Kerry Galusha of the Northwest Territories and Nova Scotia’s Heather Smith, it’s arguably the strongest lineup in the event’s history.

“There’s 10 teams in there for the final two spots, in my opinion,” Howard said. “And it’s a crapshoot for those two spots … we’ve never had depth like that in the women’s field ever. There’s 14 really good teams.”

The Hearts winner will represent Canada at the March 16-24 women’s world curling championship in Sydney, N.S. The Brier winner will wear the Maple Leaf at the March 30-April 7 world men’s playdowns in Schaffhausen, Switzerland.

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