Down to Earth at the Brier

You won’t see an entourage trailing the competitors at the Tim Hortons Brier.

LONDON, Ont. — You won’t see an entourage trailing the competitors at the Tim Hortons Brier.

There are no tattoos in sight, the haircuts are neat and the jerseys are crisp. To many, it’s a refreshing change from the overpaid, overhyped, image-conscious athletes who dominate the professional sports scene.

These curlers are clean-cut Canucks. A mother-in-law’s dream. The guy who’ll stop on the side of the road to help you change a flat tire.

“We’re not high-paid athletes that sometimes think our crap don’t stink,” said Alberta third John Morris. “I think it’s one of the appealing things to curling. It’s a working man’s sport.”

The intensity is there on the ice at the John Labatt Centre but the smiles come just as easily. There’s no bling, no attitude, no trash talk. These are normal guys with regular day jobs.

Ontario skip Glenn Howard is a beer store manager. Northern Ontario skip Brad Jacobs is a sales rep at Future Shop. New Brunswick skip James Grattan is a customer service agent for Air Canada.

It’s all part of the appeal to an event and a sport that is very popular across the country.

“It’s just a whole culture,” Morris said. “I know that there’s people that have probably been to the last 30 Briers and they have all these pins to show for it. It’s a real cool culture to be a part of. I think it’s what makes curling very unique.”

Morris, who works as a firefighter back home, is off to a good start. His Alberta rink has opened with three victories. Manitoba’s Jeff Stoughton, a 9-4 winner over Eddie MacKenzie of Prince Edward Island (0-4) on Sunday night, leads at 4-0 after five draws of round-robin play.

Alberta skip Kevin Martin started the day with an 8-6 victory over New Brunswick before downing B.C.’s Jim Cotter 8-2 in seven ends on Sunday afternoon.

It was Martin’s record 29th straight Brier victory and 100th overall. Martin said he doesn’t pay much attention to landmark achievements, adding his only big goal for down the road is to defend his Olympic title at the 2014 Sochi Games in Russia.

“We’ll train extremely hard the last couple of years before that because that’ll be my last hurrah,” Martin said.

Stoughton, who beat Shawn Adams of Nova Scotia (0-3) in a morning game, says his rink is trying to keep things simple.

“Good start,” Stoughton said. “The teams we’re playing are just missing some half shots. We’re certainly capitalizing when they make a mistake. So far so good.”

Francois Gagne of Quebec (2-1) is off to a decent start in his first Brier appearance. He dumped MacKenzie 10-3 in the morning before falling 8-7 to Steve Laycock of Saskatchewan (2-1). Laycock then dropped a 10-3 decision to Howard (2-1), who brought his son Scott — a team alternate — into the game for his Brier debut with the contest well in hand.

“A little nervous getting thrown into a Brier game,” Scott said. “I felt comfortable after I threw my first one and the crowd was with me on that shot.”

Northern Ontario (1-2) defeated Jamie Koe of Northwest Territories/Yukon 11-8 before falling 7-5 to Brad Gushue of Newfoundland and Labrador (2-1) in an extra end. Koe (2-2) bounced back with an 8-7 extra-end victory over New Brunswick (1-3) and British Columbia edged Newfoundland and Labrador 6-5.

Cotter says it felt good to get his first victory as B.C. improved to 1-2.

“We’ve just been on the wrong side of a shot here or there,” he said. “I know the scoreboards haven’t shown that but we feel like we’re playing alright.”

Many skips thought the ice conditions improved Sunday after a challenging opening day. Event organizers rented a portable dehumidification system to minimize the frost that was a problem during the first two draws.

Gushue says it’s still tough to get a feel for the ice.

“For all my Briers, right now this is probably the most uncomfortable I’ve been after two games,” Gushue said before his evening match.

Notes: There are 12 teams competing in the round robin — one rink from each province plus entries from Northern Ontario and the Territories. Four teams will qualify for the Page Playoff next weekend, with the final set for March 13. … A nervous Scott Howard was a little wobbly on his first practice slide before the eighth end. He gave the crowd a thumb’s up and a smile after a much smoother second slide. … The portable dehumidification system will be used right through to Sunday’s final.

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