OTTAWA - He skips the best curling team in the world right now, the reigning Brier and world champs and the top rink on the World Curling Tour so far this season.
On Saturday, when nine teams hit the ice at Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre – otherwise home to the NHL’s Senators - for the 2017 Tim Horton’s Roar of the Rings, Brad Gushue will be the odds-on favourite to win the right to represent Canada at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in three months time in South Korea.
Of course, that’s nothing new to Gushue, who shocked the curling world a dozen years ago when he won the 2005 Trials in Halifax, and went on to win gold at the ’06 Torino Olympics, the first gold medal won by a Canadian men’s curling team.
However, here’s a fun fact of which some curling pundits might not be aware: the Ottawa Trials marks the first time Gushue has curled for a shot at the Olympics since, you guessed it, 2005.
Twice, in 2009 and 2013, Gushue tried to reach the Trials, but both times fell short in his bid to come through the Pre-Trials (he was added as an alternate to Kevin Martin’s 2013 Trials championship team, but that doesn’t count).
Even his long-time third, Mark Nichols, has a second Trials appearance, that coming in 2013 when he threw lead stones for Winnipeg’s Jeff Stoughton.
Between the Olympic win and 2015, when Nichols came home and rejoined Gushue as his vice-skip, change was the one constant with the team that went through five different curlers – seven if you include Torino holdovers Jamie Korab and Mike Adam, before they were turfed.
But things began to settle in 2012 and 2013 when the team’s front end, second Brett Gallant and lead Geoff Walker, currently the best in the business, came on board.
Patience, together with a bit of planning and a lot of maneuvering, has paid off with Gushue, in his estimation, the architect of the best team he’s ever skipped.
“We had many changes on our team in 2009 (Ryan Fry and, back in the fold, Korab, in for Chris Schille and Dave Noftall), and at the end of the day, we probably weren’t ready to win,” Gushue says.
“We were not going to beat Kevin Martin … or certainly the odds were against it.
“Same in 2013. I think we were good enough to be in the Trials, but probably not good enough to win … definitely not ready to win.”
The 2013 Pre-Trials, in Kitchener-Waterloo, marked the first big event for Gallant and Walker together, although the former was throwing third stones with Nichols curling for Stoughton.
Of course, it all came together last spring when Gushue, Nichols, Gallant and Walker won the Brier on home ice, a thrilling last-shot victory over Alberta’s Kevin Koe at Mile One Centre.
A month later, the Newfoundland and Labrador team swept through the field at the Ford Men’s World Championship, going 13-0 in the process.
“Now I feel we’re ready,” he said. “No doubt, we’re ready to win. Everything has fallen into place.”
There is plenty of experience here at the Ottawa Trials. John Morris and Jim Cotter, who throws last rocks for Morris, are back for their third Trials appearance, along with Koe. The Morris team was a finalist in 2013, when it lost to reigning Olympic gold medalist Brad Jacobs, returning for a second trip to the Trials.
In addition to Gushue and Nichols, Morris, along with Koe curlers Marc Kennedy and Ben Hebert, played for Martin’s winning team at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and all of Jacobs’ team which won gold at the 2014 Sochi Games are back.
Mike McEwen and John Epping are also second-time participants at the Road of the Rings, while Brendan Bottcher, Reid Carruthers and Steve Laycock are curling in the Trials for the first time.
Gushue is slated to practice 4:30 p.m. today (NL time), with his first game against Epping 8:30 p.m. Saturday night (NL time). Gushue and Co. curls against Bottcher 3:30 p.m. Sunday (NL time) and Morris 10:30 Monday morning.
That means two of Gushue’s three opening games are coming against teams (Bottcher and Morris) who advanced to the Trials through the Pre-Trials.
TSN will be broadcasting the entire Roar of the Rings event.