Ontario skip turned coach key to N.W.T. early success at Scotties

Ontario skip John Epping reached out to Kerry Galusha about helping out with her Yellowknife team two years ago.

John Epping did Skype sessions with the team to prepare for Canadian championship

Ontario skip turned coach John Epping has the N.W.T. rink on a strict schedule this week at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

ST. CATHARINES, ONT. — It's an unlikely curling connection but right now it's creating some Scotties magic.

Two years ago elite Ontario skip John Epping, currently fifth on this year's money list on the World Curling Tour, reached out to Yellowknife skip Kerry Galusha about helping the team out.

"Kerry was down and out with curling," said Epping. "She was really frustrated with how it was going."

Epping told Galusha not to give up and that if her team wanted help he was ready and willing. But the skip didn't take him up on the offer at first. A few months later at a charity curling bonspiel the two connected again and this time Galusha said yes to the coaching help.

"He keeps us grounded," said Galusha. "We're doing things we've never done before. We're a team from the North. Usually we'd be out shopping on our free time or sightseeing. He's keeping us focused."

Epping has the team on a strict schedule this week at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts. He's mapping out everything from shutting down their phones and the TV, to training, to what they eat.

N.W.T. skip Kerry Galusha connected with Epping at a charity curling bonspiel, and this time Galusha said yes to the coaching help. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"They're not hard to work with. It's basically them putting full trust in me," said Epping.

It's been a long journey for the team from the Yellowknife Curling Club. Last year, in the early days of coach Epping, the team lost in the pre-qualifying final. Heartbroken but not deterred the team refocused and even incorporated Skype sessions over the past year with Epping to prepare for this year's Scotties.

"We've had a lot of Skype sessions and I made sure each of them could reach out to me privately and separately," said Epping.

He would even Facetime with second Danielle Derry while she was throwing stones at the rink.

"We get more out of an hour Skype session with him then if we had an actual coach in Yellowknife," said Galusha.

Nerves for the coach and the skip

Saturday afternoon's pre-qualifier win for Galusha's crew was gut-wrenching for the skip and the coach. Galusha had to make a tough shot to book her ticket into the tournament.

"I have never been so nervous," said Epping. "I was more nervous for her last throw than I've ever been throwing a rock."

After the win, Galusha was shaking at the podium as she talked with reporters.

"Losing the last two years, I was crying because we lost. This year I cried because we won," said Galusha after the victory. "I had to make a tough shot to win and my girls played amazing."

Epping said last year's loss in the pre-qualifier final was devastating for all of them, making this year's pursuit for the playoffs that much more satisfying.

"I love Kerry. I love the team of girls. They're so much fun to work with," he said.

Playoff chances?

Right now the N.W.T has a 3-1 record and is currently poised for a playoff push later in the week. Tuesday will be the toughest challenge yet. The team has games against the defending champions in Team Canada in the morning draw and then Rachel Homan's Ontario rink in the afternoon.

"I think we can be a 6-5 team. If we can sneak out one we can get that seventh win."

And seven wins at the Scotties is usually good enough for a playoff spot, something Galusha has heard a lot about from Epping in the lead up to and during the tournament.

"He's told me over and over we can be a playoff team," she said. "John has the games we need to win mapped out for us. He'll tell us what we need to do."

So far, John's plan is working to perfection and should the team make the playoffs, it'll be a first in the history of the N.W.T at the Scotties.