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Lead story: Fogo Islander playing for Nunavut at the Brier

Nunavut's Darryl McGrath and Edmund MacDonald (right) sweep a shot during Brier pre-qualifying play at Mile One Centre Thursday night. McGrath, who is lead for the team, is from Tilting on Fogo Island.

Keith Gosse/The Telegram
Nunavut's Darryl McGrath and Edmund MacDonald (right) sweep a shot during Brier pre-qualifying play at Mile One Centre Thursday night. McGrath, who is lead for the team, is from Tilting on Fogo Island. Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Fifteen years ago, if you had met Darryl McGrath at a St. John’s Maple Leafs game at Mile One Centre and told him that one day he’d be competing in a high-profile national competition on the ice below, he’d probably would have laughed and told you to have another beer. But this week, the 37-year-old from Tilting on Fogo Island is at Mile One as lead for Nunavut’s entry at the Tim Hortons Brier Canadian men’s curling championship.

"It’s great to be here … to be back here. It would be great anywhere because it’s such an excellent event. But it’s that much better having it here in Newfoundland and me being home for it,” said McGrath after Nunavut’s pre-qualifying game against Nova Scotia Friday morning.
In a brogue that comes from being from one of the most Irish-infused communities in Newfoundland, the son of Pat and Beth McGrath provided a short biography, including how he started a curling career that brought him to Mile One.
“Grew up in Tilting, went to school on Fogo Island, left there in ’99, and spent two years in Baie Verte at trade school, lived in here (St. John’s) for three years, bounced around a bit and finally decided to move up to Iqualuit and went to work for an airline up there. Met and married my wife (Nancy, a native of Corner Brook who was nursing there) … we have two kids,” related McGrath, a cargo supervisor for First Air.
“I started curling about nine years ago. A buddy of mine asked me one day to play with him at a funspiel. I had fun and it went from there.”
And eventually led him here.
McGrath’s team almost made it as Nunavut’s representative for the 2016 Brier in Ottawa, but lost to Wade Kingdon in the territorial final.
“We’ve thought about this (being at the Brier) for a while,” he said. “We’ve gone to a couple of national events … we were at the Travelers (Canadian club championships) for two years. We figured we had just about good a chance as anyone from Nunavut to be here.”
That loss to Kingdon proved to be a motivator for McGrath’s team. And for him, there was an additional catalyst,  considering the 2017 Brier was being held in St. John’s.
“We knew we were that close, so that’s why we brought Jim in,” said McGrath.
That would be 61-year-old Jim Nix of New Glasgow, N.S., a longtime fixture on the Nova Scotia curling scene who became the Nunavut skip by virtue of Curling Canada’s now-formalized “parachute” rule (allowing teams to have one out-of-province/territory member) and the sport’s well-established social network.
Nunavut third Edmund MacDonald is a native of Nova Scotia (that last name is a giveaway) and the team’s coach, Donalda Mattie, is also from there.
“She lined up Jim for us,” said McGrath about Mattie, whose Turning Point clinics are credited with expediting the team’s improvement.
But probably not enough to get them into the main draw of the Brier, which begins Saturday at Mile One.
Nunavut still could be the one team advance from the four-team qualifier, but after decisive losses to Prince Edward Island (11-4) and Nova Scotia (17-4), McGrath, Nix and their teammates (second Greg Howard and spare Howard Fick are the others) would need to beat the Yukon this afternoon, hope for a three-way tie for second place, win a couple of tiebreakers and then pray for even more miracles in a play-in final Saturday.
The reasons for the lopsided losses are readily available to McGrath. Competition in Nunavut is scarce. The territory has a population of less than 38,000, including about 7,000 in Iqualuit (about half of whom are Newfoundlanders, says McGrath). There are only three curling clubs with about 100 active participants — and most, including him (before this week), have never thrown rocks on arena ice before.
But he refuses to offer up any excuses, no matter how obvious.
“Yes the ice is a lot different (here),” he said. “I’d say it could be about two feet of extra curl, but we’ve picked it up pretty good. We knew to expect the wide swing and the late breaks at the end.
“We’re getting better and we’ll keep getting better, especially because there's always people to help you, to give you pointers. The great thing is that curling is a sport where everybody helps everybody else.
“It’s one of the main reasons I enjoy it so much.”
Next year, there will be no pre-qualifying round at the Brier and Nunavut will become a full participant in what will be a 16-team, two-division event. It’s even more incentive for McGrath and his teammates to get back.
“But we need to get some training in over the summer … cardio training to play (that much more),” he laughed.

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