Canada-U.S. rivalry hits the curling ice

Koe, Shuster clash in Olympic men's semis

Canada-U.S. rivalry hits the curling ice
American skip John Shuster, left, will face Canada's Kevin Koe in the semifinals of the Olympic men's curling tournament. © Getty Images/Associated Press

By Devin Heroux, CBC Sports

One of the more heated rivalries on ice is coming to the curling sheet.

Canada and the United States, longtime foes in hockey, will clash in the Olympic men's curling semifinals Thursday at 6 a.m. ET, with a chance to play for gold on the line.

"We know they have a great team, so we'll have to be ready to go against them," said Canadian skip Kevin Koe. "They're obviously on a roll but so are we. It should be a great game."

Redemption will be on the minds of the four Canadian curlers after dropping their round-robin game against the Americans in an extra end. It was the first time in Olympic history a Canadian curling team had lost to an American team.

That loss also marked a third straight Canadian defeat and sparked a three-game winning streak for the United States that propelled them into the playoffs. The Americans' 5-4 record earned them the No. 3 seed. Canada (6-3) is the No. 2 seed.

"Everything changed," skip John Shuster said. "I was tired of not having fun at the Olympics."

These two teams couldn't have taken more different paths to get to this point.

Koe's rink was cruising along in the tournament after winning its first four games. The Canadians were in control, confident and playing the way many expected them to. But then losses to Sweden, Switzerland and the U.S. dropped Canada into the middle of a fight for their playoff lives.

"The middle of the week was pretty stressful," third Marc Kennedy said. "I think we handled it great and I think that adversity is only going to make us better in the playoffs."

Canada bounced back with two wins to close out the round robin and clinch second place, which gives them the first-end hammer against the lower-seeded Americans.

"It's just reassuring to have it and to make sure we get a lead. It's like a safety blanket," Koe said. "And if you could ever get two [points] to start, we're typically a great team when we're leading." 

The Americans found themselves in a massive hole after they started the tournament 2-4. Another loss and they would have been eliminated. But Shuster saved his best curling for last. He was lights out against Canada. Then he guided his team to a win over Switzerland and made it three in a row by trouncing Great Britain.

"We are the best team we've ever been today because of the work we've put in together," Shuster said.

Time for a change

Four years ago, after going 2-7 for the second straight Olympics, Shuster said he had to look in the mirror and decide if he wanted to take his game to a different level. He got more serious about his sport than at any other point in his career.

Today he's 35 pounds lighter, in the best shape of his life and playing the best he ever has.

"Three and a half years ago I committed to a workout program," he said. "I needed to do it. To compete at this level now you have to be in great shape. I have a lot more left in the tank."

This is Shuster's fourth Olympics. He played lead for Pete Fenson's American team in 2006 when they won bronze, the best American finish ever at the Olympics. This is his third Games as a skip. The previous two were disastrous, but this experience couldn't be more different.

"I've had fun at every single big competition I've been to and have enjoyed being out there. But, honestly, over the last two and a half Olympics that wasn't the case," he said. 

So halfway through these Games he and his team decided to start having fun. Now they're loose and relaxed and winning.

"[We thought], if we enjoy this, that's when good things start happening. And that's when good things started happening."

Big-game team

If there's a massive advantage for Canada going into this game, it's experience. 

Kennedy, the team's third, and lead Ben Hebert won Olympic gold with skip Kevin Martin in 2010. Second Brent Laing has played in 12 Briers and has won three world championships. Koe is a three-time Brier champion and two-time world champ.

And if that resume isn't enough, remember this team had to knock off Canada's best at the national Olympic trials just to get here.

"At our stage in our career, you're looking to play in these big games. That's what gets the juices flowing," Kennedy said. "You're not worried about losing. You're not worried about your reputation. We've all done that already."

Now these four Canadian men get ready to battle the Americans in a game that has the winner going for gold. They feel battle-tested and ready.

"We've always been good at winning the big ones."