RISK RE­WARDED

Kevin Koe’s dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion to walk away from Team Canada in 2014 has paid off

Ottawa Sun - - SPORTS - TED WY­MAN twyman@post­media.com @Ted_Wy­man

GANGNE­UNG — In 2014, Kevin Koe made one of the tough­est de­ci­sions of his life, giv­ing up his role as skip of Team Canada to form a new squad that he be­lieved would have a good chance of reach­ing the 2018 Olympic Win­ter Games.

On Wed­nes­day, when that team played its first game on the ice at the Gangne­ung Curl­ing Cen­tre, pulling out a work­man­like 5-3 win over Italy, it ce­mented Koe’s be­lief that he made the right call.

“I had no re­grets at the time,” Koe said. “I didn’t have any re­grets even when we didn’t have a great first year and ob­vi­ously I def­i­nitely don’t have any now.”

The Koe four­some, with Marc Kennedy at third, Brent Laing at sec­ond and Ben He­bert at lead, was formed in April of 2014. There was sig­nif­i­cant con­tro­versy at the time be­cause word of the new team leaked out be­fore Koe and his Brier-win­ning team of Pat Sim­mons, Carter Ry­croft and Nolan Thiessen had even com­peted at the world cham­pi­onship.

Un­der the cir­cum­stances, the old team didn’t fare well at the worlds and Koe was heav­ily crit­i­cized for walk­ing away from a team that had al­ready earned a re­turn visit to the 2015 Brier as Team Canada.

Sim­mons moved up to skip, John Mor­ris was added to the lineup and Team Canada won that 2015 Brier, while the Koe team didn’t even make the play­offs.

Sim­mons and Co. went on to win a bronze medal at the world cham­pi­onship.

“I’m still great friends with those guys and we had a great team,” Koe said. “I didn’t even re­ally ques­tion the de­ci­sion when they went and won the Brier the fol­low­ing year. We had played to­gether a while and I felt it was time for a change for me. Lucky enough we put this team to­gether and this was the farout goal, to get to the Olympics and hope­fully do well here.”

It wasn’t all smooth sail­ing from the be­gin­ning.

When the new team was first formed, Koe, Kennedy, Laing and He­bert didn’t im­me­di­ately gel.

Though they were all world cham­pi­ons and two of them — Kennedy and He­bert — were al­ready Olympic gold medal­lists, the play­ers all came with dif­fer­ent styles and philoso­phies.

“The big­gest chal­lenge was we came from three re­ally suc­cess­ful teams and I felt like Team (Glenn) Howard did things the right way and Ben and Marc felt like Team (Kevin) Martin did things the right way and Kevin thought that his team did things the right way,” Laing said. “We were all right but it wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily the right thing for us, we had to re­al­ize that this is the new Team Koe, so how do we do things? We had to fig­ure that out.”

The team came to life in the 2015-16 sea­son, win­ning the Brier and the world men’s curl­ing cham­pi­onship. They fol­lowed that up with a loss in the Brier fi­nal to Brad Gushue in 2017. Later that same year, they had won­der­ful week at the Cana­dian Olympic curl­ing tri­als in Ot­tawa and booked a ticket to the Olympics, edg­ing Mike McEwen in a thrilling fi­nal that came down to the last rock.

“Oh yeah, we had it all planned out ... we knew it was go­ing to hap­pen the whole time,” Kennedy joked.

Turn­ing more se­ri­ous, he praised his skip for stick­ing to his be­liefs dur­ing a tough time.

“It was a big risk for him,” Kennedy said. “He knew he was go­ing to take a lot of heat for it. But we built a plan and we can only hope that you fol­low through on it and we did. Not with­out some huge ups and downs. It’s been a dif­fi­cult jour­ney but all the credit to Kevin for mak­ing a re­ally, re­ally tough de­ci­sion and see­ing it through with the three of us.”

The Cana­di­ans are one of the favourites for the gold medal here, along with Nik­las Edin of Swe­den. Canada has won a men’s curl­ing medal at every Olympics since 1998 (three gold and two sil­ver) and that means the pres­sure is on the Koe four­some to per­form.

Given their tal­ent, abil­ity to keep their cool and their ex­pe­ri­ence, that shouldn’t be a prob­lem.

“This is what we were built for,” said He­bert, whose team played its sec­ond game of the Olympic on Wed­nes­day night

MICHAEL BURNS PHOTO

Canada skip Kevin Koe checks his stone’s line dur­ing his match against Italy at the Win­ter Olympics.

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