Mike McEwen's hot start comes after changes, near collapse of his curling team

Mike McEwen (L) skips his team at the 2013 Canadian Olympic Trials, in Winnipeg. (CCA-Michael Burns)

 There was a moment - more than a fleeting one - last February, when Mike McEwen was certain that the team he had skipped since 2007 was breaking up. In the minutes after their 8-3 loss to Jeff Stoughton in the Manitoba Men's Curling Championship, McEwen and his mates sat in the locker room, denied again. The best team to not reach a Brier was disintegrating.

"At that very moment I would’ve said - and our people around us (coach, sports psychologist) would’ve said - that was it for us,” admitted McEwen. “We had to do something.”

Nine months later, the rink that seemed most assuredly would see its members scattering to find other opportunities, has started the 2014-15 season by winning four competitions and running up a sensational record of 28 wins and 1 loss. As this week's Masters of Curling takes place - the first of the season's majors - Team McEwen has a target on their backs, emerging as one of the early "it" teams of the season.

“Well, we don’t have to worry about the undefeated season, right?,  joked the 34 year old skip as he took a break from watching his wife Dawn's team (Team Jennifer Jones) play a semi-final match at the Canad Inns Women's Classic in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba.

McEwen was in a good mood, in direct contrast to that day last winter when he was certain his team was lost for good. A hot start can do that and it has McEwen, vice B.J. Neufeld, second Matt Wozniak and lead Denni Neufeld feeling confident.

"Early signs are pretty good that we’ve got something figured out going forward,” said the skip.

How McEwen's foursome went from almost certainly ending to re-dedicating to each other has to do with a lot of soul-searching as well as changes to a raft of important elements; from equipment to physical fitness and psychology.

None of it, however, was likely to happen without a trip overseas, just after that crushing loss to Stoughton.

“I stepped on a plane, the very next day, to Russia, to watch my wife play in the Olympics,” McEwen said.

He admits that a rash decision or two might have been imminent had a timeout of sorts not been called. Indeed, with so many other teams on the verge of major change, the likes of which had not been seen in men's curling, it would have been easy to be swept up in that current. “Yeah, we were really close to busting in some form," he reiterated. "I would say that all four of us would have said that.”

“I’m not sure if we would’ve got from that locker room - ready to just give it all up - to where we are right now if maybe I hadn’t had that experience and got to know some people that are now helping us out. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened.”

Some of the people who are helping Team McEwen out are psychologist Kyle Paquette and trainer Adrian Honish, both of whom impressed McEwen during his three week stay in Sochi. While his wife, Dawn, was on a journey to a gold medal, McEwen was getting to know the people around Team Jones.

“The people that I met in and around that team and everything that I experienced there might have been a fairly significant part in where my thought process went. And the guys bought in from that," confirmed McEwen.

When McEwen returned from Sochi, the team finished the season's event schedule. With that as a backdrop, they had ongoing conversations, negotiating how they might salvage the group, going forward.

"It was sort of a long process, actually, to get to the point where we’re like ‘okay, we’re gonna give this a go.' It took a lot of talks.”

Part of that process involved bringing in Paquette, a psychologist who is available on an at-large basis through the Canadian Curling Association.  "There’s no bullshit with this guy," said McEwen, laughing. "It’s a pretty straightforward approach and we probably needed that. Somebody to steer us, a little bit, in that direction.”

With Paquette, the foursome cobbled together a master plan to move forward and had a full agreement in place just after last April's season-ending event, The Players' Championship. The plan is a thorough one. As McEwen says, it involves "the whole scope of how we approach everything to do with curling and outside of it.”

That master plan has come together nicely, with four championship game wins over the likes of Kevin Koe, Jean-Michel Menard, and John Epping (twice). The team's only loss came in its second game at the Canad Inns Men's Classic two weeks ago.

“We’ll try not to get ahead of ourselves," McEwen said, admitting that his rink's gaudy record is exciting. "We’ve got a lot of work in the next two, three months leading up to provincials.”

Ah, yes, provincials. The elusive Manitoba Championship is on the radar screen, of course, but if the team's failure to burst through to a Brier (four finals losses and a semi-final loss in the last five years) is a thorn in McEwen's side, he isn't admitting it. Only that it used to be a bother.

“Initially, especially the first few times, it really bugged me. It’s gotten to a point where I think I’m more motivated by it than anything, now. But, it took a while to get there, for sure.”

Asked if being called the best team never to appear in a Brier is a compliment or an insult, McEwen sees the glass as being both half-full and half-empty.

“It’s both. You take it as a compliment that we are deserving of being part of a national championship picture. But, at the same time, it also says we don’t show up, in February, to play. Or, at least, we don’t show up and play our best.”

“I would say it’s part of a goal” McEwen says, when asked if a berth in the 2015 is at the top of his wish list.

“Our number one goal is to get better. In part, with that, is to get to our national championship.”

Along with the occasional mindset tutorial with Paquette, the changes to their fitness regimen as spelled out by Honish, and some new equipment from Hardline Curling, Team McEwen enacted another change for 2014-15, one that sees them returning to their roots.

They no longer have a full-time coach.

“In that aspect we’ve gone back to just the four of us relying on each other a little bit more,” said McEwen, noting that they'd done it that way in the early days of the team. While it's not carved in stone that it will remain forever thus, it's the route the rink is taking for now. It isn't broke right now, so no need to try and fix it.

“I think we’re all pretty excited with the changes we’ve seen early, even in just the first few months, here," said McEwen, reflecting on the contrast from the dark days of last February.

“Rather than exploding our line-up, we had a big challenge this year with keeping the same four guys and trying to have a fresh start.”

“We had to make some changes with how we approach everything that we do and some of the people that work with us. We’ve been trying to search for the right combination.”

So far, the tumblers have clicked precisely. So far, the team that came within a whisper of being no more is revitalized and has started the season as the team to beat.