Ottawa - Four years of planning and building for a week-long, tension-filled test of endurance that is the Canadian Olympic Trials evaporated in just under three hours on the pebbled ice of Canadian Tire Centre as Brad Gushue and his curling team were bounced from contention in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Mike McEwen, the hard-luck skip from Winnipeg, was lights out Saturday night, ending Gushue’s hopes for another Olympic appearance with a 6-4 win in the Roar of the Rings semifinal Saturday night.
McEwen and his team of B.J. Neufeld, Matt Wozniak and Denni Neufeld will play Kevin Koe’s Calgary-based foursome Sunday night for the right to represent Canada in the South Korea Games in February.
On the women’s side, Jennifer Jones and her Winnipeg team won’t get a chance to defend their Olympic gold medal after losing to hometown favourite Rachel Homan 6-3 in the women’s semifinal earlier in the day.
Homan, the defending Canadian and world champion who’s now won eight straight games here in Ottawa, will play Calgary’s Chelsea Carey in Sunday’s final.
The women’s game is 3:30 p.m. (NL time, TSN), while the men’s final game goes 8:30 p.m. (NL time, TSN).
Gushue, Mark Nichols, Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker entered the semifinal on a roll, winners of four straight games, including an 8-3 win over McEwen and a final round-robin decision over Koe.
But it was a different McEwen who showed up at the rink Saturday, a player Gushue would later displayed the best performance the Newfoundland and Labrador team had ever seen.
“We didn’t play poorly, we didn’t play great,” Gushue said. “And with the level that Mike played at, we had to play at an extremely high level, and we didn’t.”
Gushue and Nichols curled in the 2005 Winter Olympics, where they won gold in Torino, Italy, and they, along with the front end of Gallant and Walker, arrived in Ottawa as the team to beat this week.
They’re the defending Brier and world champions, and had been lights out on the World Curling Tour this fall, going 32-5.
McEwen, on the other hand, had been dogged with the reputation of failing to win the big one, despite finishing on top of the Tour’s money list four out of five years from 2011-15.
Saturday’s game, in front of 7,161 at Canadian Tire Centre, was a see-saw battle through the early goings, with McEwen leading 3-2 at the fifth end break.
After exchanging points in the sixth and seventh ends, McEwen had the floodgates open in the eighth with a steal of two to go up 6-3.
It effectively clinched the win for the Manitoban.
With his last shot, McEwen made a lovely hit and roll to count two, forcing Gushue to attempt a difficult double takeout.
It appeared the St. John’s skip might have had a chance to slip his last shot in to grab a piece of the button to score, a shot Gushue said afterwards was simply not there, with a McEwen rock at the top of the 12 foot and another in the four foot hugging a piece of the button.
“He made such a good shot that any chance I had for one was extremely difficult,” Gushue said. “The shot I tried was for two and to me it was equal difficulty, and obviously the upside was a whole lot better.
“So no, I wouldn’t change it. I’d like to have the chance to throw it again. It was the worst rock I threw of the day. It ran a lot straighter than I thought, but at the end of the day, I could have thrown it better.”
McEwen agreed with his opponent with his shot selection.
“He is the best at game management and scoreboard management, by far,” he said of Gushue. “He’s a master at that.
“I think he made the right choice, because the single was very difficult as well.”
Walker said there was very little discussion over what Gushue should throw with his last stone.
“A shot for one was tough, and when you play the odds at that point in the game, yeah, you’re still around but your chances at winning at that point are tough,” said the Albertan.
“We needed the deuce, and Brad was confident. It was one of those times when he put the broom down, was confident and was ready to throw it. You don’t really get in his way.
“If it was an easy shot for one, you probably take it. But it was difficult and the deuce was there. It was not something that you were throwing up on a prayer.”
Entering these Trials, Gushue was taking an laid-back approach, reminding himself he’d been there, done that on the Olympic stage.
Not that he didn’t want to win, mind you, but a loss would only amount to a couple of sleepless nights, he said.
Afterwards, Gushue was gracious in defeat, but admitted the setback was “extremely disappointing”, as you’d expect.
“It sucks … it sucks,” he said. “But I’m extremely proud of our team this week. We got off to rough start, yet we kept ourselves in there and gave ourselves a chance.
“This is the nature of the Olympic Trials. When you get a guy like Mike McEwen, as good as he is playing at that level, boy, it’s tough.
“We talked about it before the game … if we go out and throw a 90 per cent game and if somebody beats us, so be it. I imagine that’s pretty close to what happened (Team McEwen curled 87 per cent to Team Gushue’s 83).”
If the loss was hard for Gushue and Nichols to come to grips with, you can only imagine how Gallant and Walker felt, as those two were looking to going to the Olympics for the first time.
“It’s a loss that’s going to sting for a while,” Walker said. “You can still look at it from the point of view that we’re young and we have four more years, but man it’s tough … it’s tough.
“We know how much of a grind it is to get this far and be a champion. It’s not easy.”
As for Gallant, there’s still the chance he could curl in the Olympics in mixed doubles, but that might not even pan out. He could be looking for a new partner as Jocelyn Peterman, who is also his girlfriend, is playing in today’s final with Team Carey, and as such might not be curling mixed doubles, depending on Sunday’s outcome.
“That’s not something I’m even thinking about,” he said. “It’s going to be another four years before we get back here, right?
“We put a lot of work in with these guys, and we wanted to do it together. It didn’t happen. It’s tough.”
The team will take from each other for the next few weeks, through Christmas, before getting back in the saddle in the New Year and gearing upwards a defence of their Brier title and, depending on how things work out in Regina, Sask., the worlds.
As for Sunday’s final, Gushue isn’t making any predictions. Not that he was in the mood to do so Saturday.
He did offer this, however: “It’s Mike’s time. If he plays like that Sunday, Koe’s got his hands full.”