Koe flourishing under the weight of Canadian curling expectations

LETHBRIDGE, ALTA. —Despite being at three previous world curling championships, this one couldn’t be more different for skip Kevin Koe.

Koe has never before been able to wear the Maple Leaf on home soil at at world championship, and curling for his country has seemingly never meant so much to him.

He’s had his wife and kids in the arena for every game. Koe’s entire family from Yellowknife is also in the crowd this week. After every victory, he’s raised his broom to salute them all.

Koe isn’t flashy or emotional. Anyone who’s ever watched him play points out his poise on the ice. He’s unflappable in the face of adversity on the pebbled ice.

This week he’s provided at least two (and probably more) memorable curling shots that fans will be clamouring about for years to come.

His first curling sorcery came against the Americans. Koe played an in-off takeout on a rock sitting outside the twelve-foot ring to shoot across the house and knock out a States stone to score two. B.J. Neufeld had one foot on the bumper – that’s how far over the rock was. That shot was a game-changer for the Canadians who would go on to win the game.

WATCH | Koe makes amazing shot against reigning Olympic champs:

Kevin Koe played the in-off double takeout to score a deuce in the ninth end, as Canada beat John Shuster’s American rink 6-3. 1:09

Then came Saturday’s night’s curling Houdini act in the semi-final against Switzerland. The Swiss had four stones in the house and the Canadians were in massive trouble.

Cue Koe’s curling magic.

He blasted out of the hack with lightning speed, sending his rock zipping down the pebbled ice towards the pile of stones. His yellow stone exploded into the first Swiss red rocks, into the other red rocks – a quadruple takeout that sent the crowd into fits. They cheered and cheered and cheered as the replay was shown over the big screen.

WATCH | Koe’s magic continues with quadruple takeout:

In the 3rd end of Canada’s semifinal vs. Switzerland, Koe managed the shot of the tournament as he cleared four Swiss stones with an incredible quad takeout. 1:41

“That was a pretty good one,” Koe said, humbly. “Not even knowing what was going to happen over there. Throw it hard. I thought we might get lucky but to say I knew that was there, no chance.”

Ben Hebert, who has played the game for most of his life and has seen almost everything to be witnessed on the curling ice, had never seen a shot like that.

“No one else in the world can make a quad like that. It was a game-saver. That was huge,” he said.

The skip has taken this Canadian team on his back all week and guided them to victory. He’s also shouldering the heavy weight of every Canadian curling fan’s expectation for a gold medal.

There’s just one more game to go, Sunday night’s championship final against Sweden’s Niklas Edin. It’s the third-straight year the two countries are meeting in the final game at the world championship.

A burst of emotion after a big win

And just how much did it mean to the Canadians to punch a ticket into the final?

The team’s post-game celebration told the story.

Koe had just made a draw to the four-foot, which for a second looked like it might not stop in time, and the crowd was still whipped into a frenzy as the Maple-Leaf donned foursome left the ice.

In the post-game scrum area — behind the curtains, to the right of the ice — Koe, Neufeld, Hebert, Colton Flasch, and even Jeff Stoughton who’s here coaching with the team, were fist-pumping and hugging and celebrating.

It was a special moment for a team feeling the great expectations of a country so desperate to stand atop the curling world again. How badly they want to win for Canada so evident in their outpouring of emotion in that moment.

Hebert searched for words as he tried to describe what he was feeling after the heart-stopping victory over Switzerland to punch a ticket into the championship game.

“How’s that crowd. I’m just goosebumps central right now. That was special,” Hebert said, almost giddy. “You never get to play in front of crowds like this. At home, the barn sold out.”

Koe, who was as animated as the calm and collected skip will ever get, was beaming.

“This has been better than I could have expected. Look at the crowd here. It’s been awesome. Hopefully we can give them something to cheer about one more time,” he said.

Remarkable resilience

The celebration on Saturday was in such stark contrast to what played out behind the Olympic curtains in the Pyeongchang curling arena last February for Koe and Hebert. The two, alongside Marc Kennedy and Brent Laing walked off the ice twice, dejected, after losses to the Americans in the semifinal and the bronze-medal game against the same Swiss team they beat in Lethbridge on Saturday night.

“There’s no way to sugar coat it,” Hebert said after those defeats. “We were prepared. We practiced. We said all the right things and when it came down to it our execution was brutal.”

So would a win a little more than a year later to capture a world title replace that sting? Probably not. In fact Hebert, Koe and that Olympic coaching staff have talked a lot about how they’ll never able to fully get past what happened in South Korea.

“The Olympics will scar all of us who went through that forever. You don’t pretend it didn’t happen or put a band-aid over that,” the team’s coach John Dunn said. “It was devastating. We didn’t think for one second, and this isn’t arrogance, that we wouldn’t come home without the gold medal.”

Perhaps that’s what makes this year’s magical curling journey so remarkable for this team, specifically Koe. Instead of allowing that disappointment to hold him back going into this season, Koe has put together a new team and has come back with vengeance.

And there’s just one more game to go to get back on top.

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