Gushues' front end gets little glory, but is earning much respect
They may go unnoticed much of the time, but skip Brad Gushue certainly appreciates the work of lead Dave Noftall (left) and second Chris Schille (right). Submitted photo
They're curling's answer to the defensive specialist in hockey, or the slick-fielding but light-hitting baseball shortstop. Unnoticed by many, yet integral to championship teams.
While the skip and, to a lesser degree, the third get all the curling glory, the front end guys (and girls) sweep their way into relative obscurity.
"But this is a team game," notes Brad Gushue, "and if the team isn't curling well as a whole, the team doesn't win."
Gushue has been winning his share of games this season and the St. John's skip likes what he sees in his front end - the lead (who throws first rocks each end) and second - of Dave Noftall and Chris Schille.
Noftall is the team's elder statesman at 36, a veteran of 20 years throwing curling rocks who joined reigning Olympic gold medallists Gushue and third Mark Nichols in the fall. Schille is a 24-year-old firecracker from Red Deer, Alta., who hooked up with Gushue in the fall of 2006, replacing Russ Howard.
Noftall took over from Jamie Korab after the latter was dumped in a highly-publicized move following the Brier spring. Korab and Howard were the front end for Gushue and Nichols on their way to Canada's first Olympic gold medal at the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy.
Noftall competed in six Labatt Tankard provincial championships - three as third and three curling lead. In 1998, while attending university in Nova Scotia, Noftall was the alternate on Paul Flemming's team at the Brier.
"You have to enjoy the position," he said. "I had no problem making the switch."
That's a point Howard has made many times. The Hall of Famer cites another curling icon - Ontario's Neil Harrison - as Exhibit A on how to be a great lead. Harrison, said Howard, wanted to play the position and set out to make himself the best lead in the game, a feat he accomplished.
While Ed Werenich was among the game's top skips in the '80s, Harrison was a vital, if not hidden, cog in The Wrench's machine.
"As long as curling's been around," Noftall said, "it's the skip's team. They're the guys in the spotlight. Brad and Mark, they deserve the recognition they get. They've earned it. I have no problem taking a back step when it comes to media. I just want to throw rocks, anyway."
While the front end's primary role is to sweep for the third and skip, it's the lead and second who also set up the end.
If those two curlers make their shots, it generally leaves the third and skip in good position for their shots. Sort of a domino effect.
Poorly placed rocks to start the end, said Schille, "can get you in a pretty undesirable position."
"Ninety per cent of the lead's shots are draws, guards or comearounds to the top of the house," Noftall said. "Chris is a really good curler who can throw big weight for a small guy. He always has my back. If we need a double (takeout), we can get it from Chris."
As sweepers, Noftall and Schille are wholly responsible for determining the weight on each of Nichols's and Gushue's shot, adjusting their sweeping accordingly. Nichols and Gushue, however, will call the line on each shot.
"And if we call them on weight, they give us heck," laughed Gushue.
While Noftall said he had no problem making the switch from third to lead, Schille's transition into a second wasn't as seamless.
A skip in his native Alberta, Schille led that province's team to a 7-5 record in the Canadian junior championship. In 2005, he reached the tie-breakers in the always hotly-contested Alberta men's playdowns.
"It was a little difficult early on adjusting to second," admitted Schille, who joined Team Gushue for the 2006-07 curling season. "Mostly it was because I wasn't thinking of the role of a second. I wanted to throw different shots than what Brad was thinking.
"But I settled in and started to think about what shot I would ask of my second if I was skipping."
Both Noftall and Schille agree they have a good relationship on and off the ice where they're roommates on the road.
"We have a good chemistry," Schille said. "Before and after shots, we're constantly talking, constantly looking for feedback. I suppose two strangers could play lead and second, but I don't know how much success they'd have."
Noftall and Schille will be sweeping for Gushue and Nichols this weekend in Quebec City at the 2007 BDO Classic Canadian Open, the first Capital One Grand Slam of Curling event of the season.