Newfoundland and Labrador’s Brad Gushue, Mark Nichols, Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker, left to right, hold the Brier Tankard after defeating Team Canada 7-6 to win the Tim Hortons Brier curling championship at Mile One Centre in St. John’s on Sunday, March 12, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

As curling changes, young skips still learn from those who came before

REGINA — Greg Smith claims he packed approximately 400 pieces of gum as he prepared to travel to the 2018 Tim Hortons Brier. It’s a habit he picked up from former world and Tournament of Hearts champion Colleen Jones, one that the 21-year-old skip representing Newfoundland and Labrador at the Canadian men’s curling championship believes helps ease the nerves.

“I chew a literal metric tonne of gum and so that just distracts me from the whole stress of the situation,” Smith said. “I think the psychology behind it is it tricks your brain into thinking that you’re not in a stressful situation because it thinks that you’re eating.”

As much as the game has changed a lot at the national level since Jack MacDuff won Newfoundland’s first Brier title in 1976, one thing that has remained the same is young skips learning from those who came before.

Smith’s team, made up completely of Brier rookies, has been working hands-on with Toby McDonald, the third for MacDuff’s Brier-winning team. Smith believes McDonald, who was also the coach for Team Canada skip Brad Gushue during his gold medal run in the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, is putting the team in its best position heading into its first-ever Brier.

“(McDonald)’s been an absolutely instrumental help to our team,” Smith said.

Smith and Gushue, a native of St. John’s, have never competed against each other despite sharing a home province. The two skips will meet for the first time in the round-robin in Regina. Gushue will skip Team Canada after winning the 2017 Brier in his hometown.

“In 2008 we hosted a Gram Slam here in St. John’s and I remember Brad Gushue actually gave me his broom after he’d been eliminated from the tournament,” Smith said over the phone from his home late Wednesday night as he packed his suitcase.

“I never ever thought that I would be playing against Brad only 10 years after that.”

The two-time provincial junior champion skip is most excited for one of the “newer” changes to championship curling — electronic hog lines, which came into the professional circuit in the early 2000s.

A red light will flash if a player fails to release a rock before the hog line, while a green light will flash if the rock is released in time.

“To get to touch the electronic handles, I mean, I’m going to be stoked … I just like seeing those green not red lights,” Smith laughed.

Smith will be alongside third Matthew Hunt, second Andrew Taylor, lead Ian Withycombe and coach Joe Murphy. The rink out of St. John’s is seeded 13th heading into the Brier.

They will participate in a national championship undergoing big changes. The pre-qualifier games have been replaced by a more inclusive format created by Curling Canada’s member associations. The 16 teams — made up of the 14 member associations, Team Canada and the wild-card winner — will be split into two pools for round-robin play with the top four teams from each pool advancing to the championship pool.

The remaining top four teams from that round will continue onto a page playoff to determine the 2018 champion.

The wild-card team will be determined Friday night between two Manitoba rinks, Jason Gunnlaugson and Mike McEwen. The Brier’s main draw gets underway Saturday.

The other teams in Regina are: Alberta (skip Brendan Bottcher, Edmonton) Nova Scotia (skip Jamie Murphy, Halifax) British Columbia (skip Sean Geall, Kelowna) Yukon (skip Thomas Scoffin, Whitehorse) Northwest Territories (skip Jamie Koe, Yellowknife) Manitoba (Reid Carruthers, Winnipeg) Northern Ontario (skip Brad Jacobs, Sault Ste. Marie) Ontario (skip John Epping, Toronto) Saskatchewan (skip Steve Laycock, Saskatoon) Quebec (skip Mike Fournier, Dollard-des-Ormeaux) New Brunswick (skip James Grattan, Oromocto) Prince Edward Island (skip Eddie MacKenzie, Charlottetown) and Nunavut (skip Dave St. Louis, Iqaluit).

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