LETHBRIDGE, ALTA. — Kevin Koe loves winning big bonspiels the hard way. It’s just how he’s done it most of his curling career.
His four Brier wins (excluding this year’s undefeated run), two previous world titles and even the Olympic trials win in Ottawa in 2017 were all a grind – in so many of those victories Koe was forced to take the long road to glory and play in extra playoff games.
He also enjoys letting the time clock tick dangerously close to zero more often than not – his latest heart-stopping shot-clock antics came Saturday at the men’s world curling championship against Scotland.
Koe delivered a perfect hack-weight tap with just five seconds left to put the pressure on the Scots.
Scotland’s skip Bruce Mouat needed to score two to tie the game, but he missed his final shot, giving Canada a thrilling 6-5 victory.
“That was a little tight, even for me,” Koe said, laughing. “I felt that one a bit.
“I can see the clock on these new scoreboards so I know where I’m at. And I just remind myself to throw it good. It’s worked this year, that’s for sure.”
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The team’s new third this year, B.J. Neufeld, has been on the other end of the sheet for the last-rock drama watching the clock tick down all season long.
“That was a classic Koe finish, wasn’t it?” Neufeld said.
Just a few weeks earlier, Koe threw yet another heart-stopping last rock with 14 seconds left to win the Brier in Brandon, Man., to get to the world championship. Koe seems to thrive in the pressure-packed moments.
“We’ve been here before,” Koe said, calmly. “It’s been a dogfight all week. If we could pull it off here it would be pretty special.”
Canada now plays Switzerland in Saturday night’s semifinal. Japan and Sweden play in the other semifinal, with the winners advancing to Sunday’s championship game.
Backs against the wall
Koe often talks about how much he enjoys the playoff games at a curling tournament. He’s fearless when it comes to the big moments on the pebbled ice. It’s almost as if everything slows down for him when the pressure ramps up.
But the team’s coach, John Dunn, sees it a little differently.
“I don’t think Kevin Koe gets better under pressure. I think his opponents get worse under pressure. That’s the difference,” Dunn said.
Dunn has spent the last 12 seasons with Koe. He marvels at the skip’s ability to stay so calm amidst the granite storm.
“We’ve got a saying on this team and I stole it from a book, it’s ‘you don’t rise to the occasion you sink to your level of training,'” Dunn explains.
“I think with Kevin, the way he trains and the way he prepares and his attitude towards laying it on the line and not being afraid to lose is what sets him apart from the rest.”
What Koe, Neufeld, Colton Flasch and Ben Hebert have done in their first season together is nothing short of remarkable.
There were some growing pains — including dropping to the C-side of Alberta playdowns and having to win five-straight games just to get to the Brier.
But those challenging moments have allowed for this team to grow and learn throughout the year and it’s propelled them to a Brier victory and now two wins away from a world title.
“We’re a brand new team and still getting to know each other. We’re playing against some teams who have been together forever. But I’m learning I like my team,” Koe said.
“We get along great on and off the ice. I think we’re going to continue to get better.”
‘Everyone is pulling for us’
Earlier in the men’s world curling championship, Koe and his team lost two games in one day. Some teams would have panicked. Not this team.
“We’re very good at parking losses,” Dunn said. “It’s a marathon. There are so many speed bumps along the way at these things. And I think we’re really good at moving forward.”
Koe has his entire family in the stands this week. He’s been to the worlds three previous times but never before has he had the chance to wear the Maple Leaf at home.
And after last year’s Olympic disappointment, this one seems to mean so much more to the skip.
“These chances don’t come to often. We want to win it really bad,” Koe said. “I didn’t know what to expect coming here, first time playing in Canada as Team Canada.
“It’s been better than I could have hoped. Look at the crowds. It’s been packed and everyone is pulling for us.”
This story originally appeared on CBC