By Terry Jones 2017-03-31 09:10:23
It was the morning after the night before – actually the afternoon after the night before – and Brad Gushue was trying to put words to it. The 36-year-old skip from St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador once told your correspondent that he believed winning a Brier would mean more for him than winning the gold medal he scored at the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games. He finally won that Brier the the previous night, at home – the Mile One Centre – in St. John’s to create one of the greatest scenes in the history of the sport and send him to the worlds wearing the red maple leaf on his back as Team Canada for the first time in 11 years. The celebration for Gushue and his team in St. John’s went on through the night and into the morning. “We shut it down at 7:30 a.m., had breakfast and went to bed,” he said in a late afternoon interview the next day. So how did Gushue end up scoring it? Olympic gold No. 1? Or Newfoundland Brier? “I think the fact that we did it at home under the pressure that we had in front of family and friends and 6,000 other friends, I think it ranks right up there,” he said. “Obviously it’s a really difficult comparison with the magnitude of the Olympics. But the fact that we did it at home under the circumstances that our team had this year with injuries and whatnot, boy it’s hard to top this. “I don’t remember feeling happier in a long time. It was such a feeling of excitement and relief to be honest. I’m not going to lie. The pressure we felt was intense.” The expectations weren’t just because of it being 14 kicks at the can and the first Brier hosted in St. John’s since 1972. “There were the expectation that also came from being the No. 1 team in the world going into the event. To pull it off is pretty special.” Indeed. Gushue, as predicted and projected in The Curling News, went into the Brier as the favorite, slightly ahead of defending champion Kevin Koe. Gushue was in his 14th Brier and Newfoundland teammate Mark Nichols is in his 13th. All those Briers and they never once won one. They lost the final last year. Now they were at home after leading the quest to bring the event to Newfoundland. Nervous and tight The skip already had Brad Gushue Crescent, Team Gushue Highway, Team Gushue Recreation Centre with a hockey rink, baseball field, three soccer fields, a Team Gushue Scholarship and a playground named after him in St. John’s. Gushue was clearly nervous and tight in the early draws but ended up in the 1-2 playoff game with Manitoba’s Mike McEwen, both with 9-2 records. Gushue won that playoff battle 7-5 to advance to the final. In the final Gushue scored three on the second end and two more on the fifth for a 5-1 lead, but Koe battled back with some sensational shooting to send it to the 10th end, all tied up. In the end it came down to one shot, a last rock draw to the eight-foot on dramatically changing ice, for Gushue to win it. Second Brett Gallant ended up the unsung hero of the Brier with the sweeping job he did to get Gushue’s stone just into the full eight-foot for the win. Third Mark Nichols needed to race out to help brush as lead Geoff Walker had to step out, unable to sweep due to a shoulder injury. “It was incredible. I threw that a little lighter than I wanted,” said Gushue. The 36-year-old skip ended up a 7-6 winner over the defending champions before a sellout crowd of 6,471 in the Mile One Centre, where a total of 122,529 attended for the event. McEwen’s crew was in the driver’s seat in the semifinal against Koe, after the defending champs had ousted Northern Ontario’s Brad Jacobs in the 3 versus 4 playoff game. But it all slipped away as Koe made another comeback for the stolen win. The Manitobans recovered to beat Jacobs in the bronze medal match, and enjoyed a decent haul of Canadian Team Rankings System (CTRS) points as the Olympic Trials draw closer. Québec’s Jean-Michel Ménard and British Columbia’s John Morris finished a game out of the playoffs at 7-4. Traditional powerhouses Alberta and Ontario were nowhere to be seen, with veteran Hall-of-Famer Glenn Howard finishing 4-7 and Brendan Bottcher’s rookie Edmonton crew logging a 3-8 won/lost mark. That’s the first losing record for Alberta at the Brier since 1999. Storybook win “To win a Brier, my whole team, myself and Mark Nichols who have been so close so often, was just so emotional,” said Gushue. The win was worth $225,000 in prize money and funding over the next two years. Gushue was already qualified for December’s “Roar of the Rings” Olympic Trials on CTRS points but also won the right to return to next year’s Brier in Regina as Team Canada, the next Continental Cup in London, Ont. and, most importantly, the World Men’s Curling Championship in Edmonton. Clearly, nothing is going to compare with Gushue’s storybook win of his first Brier in his hometown of St. John’s in his 14th appearance to repeat the feat of Jack MacDuff who won the only other Brier for Newfoundland back in 1976. But… To win it at home in St. John’s and then come to Edmonton in the province where so many Newfoundlanders have relocated, is about as good a double whammy as he could ever have imagined. Unlike a lot of Brier champions, who go on to compete in a world championship in some out-of-sight, out-of-mind location, Gushue’s celebration was to continue in the first week of April in the world capital of curling. Last hurrah Curling fans have bought 1,075,907 total tickets in five major events dating back to the “Last Shootout of the Century” Brier in the old building. Gushue had hardly hoisted the Tankard over his head when ticket sales for Edmonton 2017 passed the most recent men’s worlds in Canada (Halifax in 2015) that drew 56,837. While Edmonton holds the event record of 184,970 from 2007, the goal for this year’s “Last Hurrah” in the old Northlands Coliseum is to beat 116,167, the second-place hosting of the event in 2005. Third is Regina’s 99,445 from 2011. Moncton drew 78,470 in 2009 and Victoria 60,382 in 2013. There are energetic plans to celebrate all the Canadian teams to ever curl in a major event in Edmonton, dating back to Matt Baldwin’s team that won the 1954 Brier at the Edmonton Gardens. However, it’s going to be the Gushue crew that sells the tickets in the town where Randy Ferbey drew the all-time world record of 281,985 for a curling event (his fourth Brier win in 2005) and where Kevin Martin attracted 175,920, the record for an Olympic Trials in 2009, en route to winning gold at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. “We’re a Canadian team in Canada and I think we’re going to have incredible support. There are a lot of people with Newfoundland roots in Edmonton and Alberta and I’m sure they’re going to come out and support it. That’s going to be wonderful,” said Gushue. Indeed, Team Gushue has enjoyed popular support at a few Grand Slam events hosted recently in Alberta, particularly two that were held in Fort McMurray. “It’s going to be very similar, I believe, to what we felt here in St. John’s,” said Gushue. “We really tried to soak in the moments just when people were cheering for you when you were just sliding down the ice. You want to look back in 20 years’ time and remember those moments. “I was quite happy with the job I did personally with staying in the moment as well as enjoying the moment. And I certainly want to do that in Edmonton as well.” No alpine village Gushue admits that wearing the red maple leaf in Edmonton is entirely different than going to some alpine village before 500 fans in Europe. And it’s been a long time since he wore the uniform. “It’s been 11 years,” said the skip. “It’s pretty special. It’s always a nice feeling when you get that Canadian jersey and outfit. It’s a great moment when you get to see your name and the maple leaf on the back of that.” Event coordinator Terry Morris would have been happy to have Alberta’s Kevin Koe or Brendan Bottcher (who finished 3-8 in his first Brier appearance) but said having Gushue is going to be great. “We not only have a great team to represent Canada but I think the entire nation is thrilled for these guys,” he said of Gushue, third Mark Nichols, second Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker. “With all the Newfoundlanders living in Alberta, I’m sure that will give us a big boost in attendance, too,” said Morris. And there’s strong local content with the team, too. In Newfoundland, if you are not a born-and-raised local, they say you’re from “away.” In Edmonton, half the members of Gushue’s Brier-winning team from “away” are going to be at home. Like Walker, the team lead and a native of Beaverlodge, Alberta. We've proved it “It’s obviously a dream come true, first of all for winning the Brier and then being able to come back to Edmonton for the worlds. It was a hometown Brier for Brad and Mark and now it’s basically going to be a hometown worlds for me,” said Walker, who recently was engaged to Edmonton curler Laura Crocker and bought a house in Edmonton. “I’m really looking forward to it. Obviously growing up an Oilers fan and being from northern Alberta and being able to play in the last event in the Northlands Coliseum is going to be unbelievable, too.” Walker made the decision to become a Newfoundlander to be able to have this day. “Six years ago I made the decision to move to St. John’s and curl with Brad. It was sort of a rebuild for Brad. We definitely had some growing pains the first couple of years and just got better and better every year. The last two years we’ve proved it. It’s been quite the journey and quite the storybook last couple of years, that’s for sure. “I’m just looking forward to getting back to Edmonton now. That’s going to be awesome, too.” Walker pulled a muscle in his shoulder late in the round robin, soldiered on but was eventually unable to sweep Gushue’s Brier-winning draw into the rings. He did not join his teammates for the Grand Slam event that immediately followed the Brier in Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia. “It’s basically a muscle strain. I pulled it on the final round robin draw on the Thursday. It doesn’t look like there’s a tear, so that’s big. I should be completely healthy and ready to go for Edmonton.” They’ll have to come down and get back up again, he admits. “The entire Brier and the final game was phenomenal. It was a blast afterwards with all the people who stayed around. We had a good time, that’s for sure. “It’s obviously a dream come true, first of all for winning the Brier and then being able to come back to Edmonton for the worlds. It was a hometown Brier for Brad and Mark and now it’s basically going to be a hometown worlds for me.” Then there’s coach Jules Owchar of Edmonton. “Boy, was this some kind of wild time,” said the man who coached Kevin Martin through his entire career and got a call from Gushue prior to last year’s Brier in Ottawa to offer him the job to help put him over the top. “I left those guys at 6:00 a.m. and they were still going,” said Owchar on the phone at noon St. John’s time before he headed to the airport. Dream story “I think the whole Rock was turned on. The reception at the Brier Patch when we brought the Tankard there was unbelievable. The Patched was jammed. It was a dream story. I couldn’t believe it there, throughout the entire Brier. I don’t really know anybody there but everybody seemed to know me. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life and I can’t wait for these guys to come to the worlds in Edmonton and get embraced by the curling fans back home,” he said. “I think it’s going to be great. Obviously Edmonton probably would have wanted Koe. But these guys are super. It’ll be good. Hopefully it’ll be like it was there with Kevin when we won the Olympic Trials.” And there’s yet another connection. Tom Sallows will join the team for the Slam event replacing Walker and be Gushue’s fifth man at worlds. “He’s a buddy of mine,” said Walker of his old junior teammate from Grande Prairie. “He actually came up and helped us this weekend. He was a fifth man for Canada at the Halifax worlds two years ago. He did everything a fifth man does except to be able to actually play. We went without a fifth man at the Brier because he couldn’t be from out of province. He was there helping out Jules all the time.” Sallows has become a bit of a pro at this. He won the Calgary Brier as an alternate with Pat Simmons, John Morris, Carter Rycroft and Nolan Thiessen and went to the Halifax worlds and last year’s Ottawa Brier with that team. “Obviously playing with Geoff growing up, this is something we dreamed of sharing together in some form since we’ve been 15 or 16 years old,” said Sallows. “It was unbelievable to see your best friend from when we were kids go through that in the Brier from behind the scenes. Now we get to come back to Alberta and do it all over again, except now I get to be an official member of the team.” Follow on Twitter @sunterryjones
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