Heading into Sunday night's final of the Tim Hortons Brier, Kevin Koe had never beaten Glenn Howard but he sure picked a good time to get his first.
The soft-spoken skip from Grande Prairie, Alta., led his team of Blake MacDonald, Carter Rycroft and Nolan Thiessen to a thrilling 6-5 extra-end win over Ontario to claim the Canadian title in front of 7,233 fans at the Metro Centre.
"It's awesome for this team," Koe said. "It's been a long time coming to get to a Brier and to come through in our first one and win it and to beat Glenn Howard, one of the best teams in the world and who we've never beat him as a team, just makes it that much better."
In one of the closest finals in recent memory and the first extra-end finale since 1996, Koe made two dramatic shots to clinch the title.
Leading by one in the 10th end, the skip played a magnificent chip and roll with his last rock to hold off what looked like certain defeat, forcing Ontario to take one and push the game to an extra end.
"We're dead all end there," admitted Koe. "We were lucky to even have a shot to get out of that end. That was a tough one and we made it and that just gave us hope for the extra."
Koe almost didn't have any option in the 10th. In fact, Howard's first rock in 10 may have been the final nail in the coffin for Alberta but it ran just a touch straighter than the skip expected, failing to roll far enough and giving Koe the chance to bail out.
"If it curls another two inches I probably don't have to throw my last one," said Howard. "It didn't curl enough and Kevin threw a great shot and rolled into the pocket. I had nothing but the draw for one."
In the extra frame, Howard managed to get a stone buried just nibbling the button, but Koe, with the help of Rycroft and Thiessen on the brooms, and MacDonald barking orders, dropped his last rock perfectly on the pin hole to score the winning point.
"It was a great team effort," Koe said of the final shot. "You don't realize how much pressure is on the sweepers there. I just wanted to make sure I wasn't heavy and give them a chance and they swept it beautifully. A draw to the button to win the Brier is pretty good."
Koe didn't get off to such a great start in the game. With his last rock in the first end, he attempted a down-weight takeout to sit two and force Ontario to take a single. But the skip's shot ran straight and he missed the target by nearly a foot, gift-wrapping two points for the Howard foursome.
Two ends later, Koe had an opportunity to score a possible three points but he and third MacDonald went back and forth over which shot to call. Even as he sat in the hack, the skip seemed unsettled, changing the shot and the ice, eventually making only half a shot to score one.
But the next end, Koe got the break he needed, capitalizing on a missed raise takout from Howard to score three points and take his first lead of the contest. From there, the teams pushed each other back and forth, setting up the dramatic ending.
The victory by the Alberta foursome marked the first time a team has come out of the 3-4 page playoff game and gone on to win the national title. And Koe becomes the first skip to win the Brier in his maiden appearance since Vic Peters accomplished the task in 1992.
Koe's team has been one of the most successful on the cash circuit over the years but has never been able to capture the Alberta crown, having to contend with the lock on that held by Randy Ferbey and Kevin Martin. Those two have shared the last 11 provincial titles until Koe finally broke through this year.
"I knew when we finally won Alberta this year we'd have a good chance and it came true," Koe stated.
For Howard, it was his first loss of the competition and marked the second time this season the team has been tripped up in a major event. In December his rink lost the final of the Canadian Curling Trials to Kevin Martin, missing out on a trip to the Vancouver Olympics. It was also the skip's sixth loss in a Brier final against just three wins and also the third time this exact lineup has finished second in the last five years.
"I can't describe it," said an obviously crushed Howard. "It's crap. We had a tough loss in the trials and then to come back and have a tough one here, I'm not a very happy camper right now."
Still, Howard was able to take some consolation in the fact his team played well and also admire the shot-making of his counterpart.
"We left it all out on the ice," said Howard. "We played phenomenal. We had a great game and Kevin made a couple of unbelievable shots, one in 10 and obviously in 11."
The Koe rink now moves on to the Capital One world championship, slated to begin April 3 in Cortina D'Ampezzo, Italy.
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