Brad Gushue’s team hit a rare podium trifecta last year in a one-of-a-kind curling season.
The lead-up to this year’s Canadian men’s curling championship has been a complete 180.
The Tim Hortons Brier will be the first competitive game action for Gushue and his St. John’s, N.L.-based team in almost seven weeks. The veteran skip said it’s a “dramatically different” approach from last season.
“The overall theme this season is we’ve been taking it a little bit lighter than what we typically have in the past,” Gushue said. “We haven’t played as much, we’re still practising a lot. We’re just not on the road.”
The road was essentially home for the first few months of 2022 after Gushue won the Olympic Trials. The squad held an isolated training camp in B.C. before travelling to China and winning bronze at the Beijing Games.
They barely had time to catch their breath after the long trip home before heading to Lethbridge, Alta., as a wild-card entry at the Brier.
Gushue guided a three-man team to victory after vice Mark Nichols missed the final weekend due to a positive COVID-19 test. A world silver medal followed a couple weeks later.
The team’s 2023 calendar has been much quieter.
With no need to enter provincial playdowns thanks to an automatic Brier entry as defending champions, Gushue’s team will be well-rested entering Friday’s opener against British Columbia’s Jacques Gauthier.
Gushue’s last competitive game was back on Jan. 14, a semifinal loss to Sweden’s Niklas Edin at the Canadian Open.
“That’s the biggest challenge any time you’re Team Canada going into the Brier,” Gushue said of the extended break.
The 42-year-old skip from St. John’s, N.L., headlines a strong 18-team field at Budweiser Gardens that includes Manitoba’s Matt Dunstone, Alberta’s Kevin Koe and wild-card entries Brendan Bottcher, Reid Carruthers and Karsten Sturmay.
Teams are divided into two pools with round-robin play continuing through March 9. The top three teams in each pool will qualify for the playoffs with the final set for March 12.
London last hosted the Brier in 2011 when Manitoba’s Jeff Stoughton beat Ontario’s Glenn Howard in the final.
Howard reached the provincial final this season before falling to Mike McEwen, who will wear Ontario colours at the Brier for the first time.
“I believe if we compete at the level that we’re capable of, we’re very, very difficult to beat,” said McEwen vice Ryan Fry. “That’s a really good feeling going into a national championship.”
Also in the field are New Brunswick’s Scott Jones, Quebec’s Felix Asselin, Nathan Young of Newfoundland and Labrador, Yukon’s Thomas Scoffin, Saskatchewan’s Kelly Knapp, Jamie Koe of the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia’s Matthew Manuel, Northern Ontario’s Tanner Horgan, Nunavut’s Jake Higgs and P.E.I.’s Tyler Smith.
The winning team will claim $108,000 of the $300,000 total purse. The champions will represent Canada at the April 1-9 world men’s curling championship in Ottawa.
The 9,090-seat Budweiser Gardens, home to the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights, also hosted the 2006 Canadian women’s curling championship. Kelly Scott of British Columbia was victorious that year.
The 1974 Macdonald Brier, won by Alberta’s Hec Gervais, was played at the old London Gardens.
This year’s event will be the final one with Tim Hortons as title sponsor. The restaurant chain, primarily known for its coffee and doughnuts, first sponsored the Brier in 2005.
Curling Canada announced last fall that it was seeking expressions of interest for title sponsorship. The only other title sponsors in event history - which dates back to 1927 - are Macdonald Tobacco, Labatt Breweries and Nokia.
Canada’s Kerri Einarson skipped her Manitoba-based team to a fourth straight Scotties Tournament of Hearts title last week in Kamloops, B.C. They will wear the Maple Leaf at the March 18-26 world women’s curling championship in Sandviken, Sweden.