Plenty of things still to accomplish for St. John’s native and province’s best curler
Say one thing for Brad Gushue’s team: if the curlers fall short again at the Canadian Olympic Pre-Trials next month, it won’t be because the team has lost its edge lounging in the recliner.
Newfoundland and Labrador skip Brad Gushue, centre, watches his shot as Geoff Walker and Adam Casey sweep in this photo taken at last year’s Tim Hortons Brier in Edmonton, Alta. — Photo by The Canadian Press
Gushue, Brett Gallant, Adam Casey and Geoff Walker are pounding the World Curling Tour circuit, ensuring they’re ready for the Pre-Trials early next month in Kitchener, Ont.
This weekend, the group from Bally Haly Golf and Curling Club are in Saskatoon for the Point Optical Curling Classic. There will be three more spiels between now and Nov. 5 when the Pre-Trials open, making it seven events on the Tour circuit in which the St. John’s foursome will have curled.
Up next are events in Toronto, Portage La Prairie, Man., and Gatineau, Que.
“There’s no ice at home until the middle of October, and all the teams we are competing against have been on the ice for a couple of months,” Gushue said this week. “We feel the best way to get in game shape is to go out and play.
“We want to make sure we’re ready in November. Usually, we’re just getting going into our season come November. This year we have to be peaking.”
Back in 2009, Gushue — with a completely different team, one that featured Mark Nichols, Jamie Korab and Ryan Fry — entered the Pre-Trials as the reigning Olympic champs, but rather than slide into the Trials in Edmonton, they fizzled out and lost their final three games in the triple knockout bonspiel in Prince George, B.C.
Four years ago, Gushue said, the team spent a lot of time practising for Prince George, but played very little, at least compared to this season.
As a result, he said, their touch on the rocks was missing.
“At least that’s the way it was with me,” he said. “I just didn’t feel that at that point in the season I had reached peak form.
“We didn’t have the luxury of doing both this year because the practice ice wasn’t available, and if we’re going to fly somewhere to practice, it’s just as well to try and win some money.”
Gushue, Gallant, Casey and Walker were busy working out all summer, and the skip reports his team is in good shape. But curling on the Tour is more than a test of physical will.
There’s the mental test, as well.
“The grind of being on the road, in airports and hotels and eating at restaurants, that can be a little taxing come November,” Gushue said. “When we get on the ice, that’s what really matters so as long as we’re not physically tired, I see the upside of playing a lot being far greater than the risk.”
Twelve men’s teams will curl in Kitchener, looking for two spots in the Trials slated for Dec. 1-8 in Winnipeg. Eight teams will curl in the Peg, and six have already been decided — Kevin Martin, Glenn Howard, Jeff Stoughton, Kevin Koe, Mike McEwen and John Epping.
Getting out of Kitchener won’t be easy, when you consider a field that includes Brier champ Brad Jacobs, Winnipeg’s Rob Fowler and Jim Cotter of B.C., who will have former Martin mate John Morris calling the game but throwing third stones.
Jacobs leads the Tour in points and while Gushue sits in seventh spot, he’s garnered the second-most points since the 2013-14 curling season got underway.
In fact, since last Christmas, Gushue has the second-highest points total of any curling team on the Tour.
“So when you look at the selection process,” he said, which determines Canada’s Olympic representative for the Sochi Games, “that part of it is silly.
“You have a team like Jacobs, with a Brier win, which probably is the only team that had more points than us last year, and neither one of us are in the Trials.
“They favour the three- or four-year teams that have had some longevity as opposed to some teams that are playing well now.
“It’s a little frustrating, but we knew what it was four years ago. Unfortunately we didn’t build enough points the first couple of years.”
Back in 2006, there were no Pre-Trials, just an eight-team Trials in Halifax. Gushue qualified for Halifax by winning the Canada Cup the previous season.
After picking up a Hall of Famer to call the game and throw second stone, that Gushue team which featured Nichols and Korab sputtered at the start of the 2006 season, and limped into the Trials.
But the foursome soon found their game, and was red-hot through the week.
“I like how our team is progressing this year,” he said. “From last Christmas until now, we’ve made the playoffs in every event we’ve curled, and the games we’ve lost have been by a shot or two. So we’ve given ourselves a chance (to win) every game.”
After the Prince George Pre-Trials, Gushue shook up his team. Korab and Fry were the first to go, and Nichols moved to Winnipeg and hooked up with Stoughton.
In came Gallant and Casey, a pair of 23-year-olds from P.E.I., and 27-year-old Geoff Walker of Alberta. The three now live in St. John’s. Gushue, at 33, is now the old man on the team.
“I’ve seen a huge amount of improvement from last year to this year,” said the skip. “The guys are young, and were fairly inexperienced when we started curling together. They were making a lot of mistakes that our teams in the past wouldn’t have necessarily made because we played on the Tour for so long.
“You could get away with those mistakes in junior curling, but when you play against the Kevin Martins and the Glenn Howards of the world, you can’t make those mistakes.
“But since Christmas of last year, we’ve reduced a lot of those mistakes. They have enough talent they can curl 90 per cent. It’s just what do you do with 10 per cent of your misses? That’s where we weren’t very good and a lot of that was simply experience, or lack of.
“They’re definitely much better at that now.”
As for Gushue himself, he yearns for a crack at another Olympic gold medal, and the competitive fire still burns.
But the spitey, hard-headed, broom-throwing skip is in the past, he said.
“I believe I’ve mellowed out quite a bit,” he said.
“Part of it is just the role I have with the team — I’m the old guy now. You can’t have four guys with the intensity and temperament I had, out there banging brooms and the like.
“When you’re 23, you kind of feed off that. Obviously, there are moments when you have that intensity and your temper gets the best of you, but for the most part, I try and keep an even keel to keep them on an even keel. I can play well when I’m fired up, but not everybody can do that.”
No doubt, when this Olympic cycle ends this year, there will be plenty of movement on the curling front. It’s not likely Martin or Howard, and perhaps Stoughton, will continue playing, and the others will be jockeying for positions on other teams (Koe, for example, may pick up some members of Martin’s team).
As for Gushue, he’s not looking past Kitchener, and beyond that, Winnipeg. And then, hopefully, Sochi.
But he can see himself gearing up for another four-year Olympic cycle, and the elusive second Brier championship for Newfoundland. That would be all the sweeter if it was done in 2017 in St. John’s (see story, page A1).
“I’m having fun, and I’m still driven,” he said. “But I think it’s safe to say after this next cycle, I’m not going to commit to anything.”
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort