Greg Smith had a taste of what it’s like in curling’s big leagues, and he liked what he experienced. Now Smith is determined to return to the Tim Hortons Brier.
Smith made his first appearance at the Canadian men’s championship last spring, and though he went a combined 1-7 in Regina, Sask., the skip from St. John’s can’t wait for another shot at the Brier five months from now in Brandon, Man.
And he’s not alone.
With Brad Gushue’s team guaranteed another spot in the Brier as Team Canada, interest is high amongst local curling teams this season to get a trip to the Brier, just as there was last year when someone other than Gushue, who was returning to the nationals as the defending champ, would be representing Newfoundland and Labrador.
“To be honest,” said Smith, “I think there’s even more interest this year. Teams have made changes, and teams are travelling, trying to get some competition before the Tankard (provincial championship).”
Smith rolled through provincials last season, going 8-0 in the round-robin. After losing 9-4 to Andrew Symonds of St. John’s in the first championship game, he rebounded for a 9-6 win in the final to punch his ticket to the Brier.
Smith’s team has changed from last year’s foursome. Nick Bissonnette of Sudbury, Ont. — officially listed as an import under Curling Canada rules — is the vice-skip, replacing Matt Hunt. Bissonnette curled for Tanner Horgan out of Sudbury last season. John Sheppard replaces Andrew Taylor at second and Ian Withycombe is back as lead. Randy Turpin is the alternate, and Toby McDonald is coach.
“Just his presence has added a ton to the team,” Smith said of McDonald, who won the 1976 Brier and coached Gushue’s foursome to a gold medal at the 2006 Olympic Games in Torino, Italy.
Smith got off on the wrong foot last year in Regina, losing 9-7 to the Northwest Territories in his first game. He beat the Yukon in his third start to sit 1-2, but then dropped his remaining games.
He quickly became a fan and media favourite for his outgoing personality and good quotes, but that didn’t translate into wins.
He hopes to change that this year.
“Mid-way through the week in Regina, we soon realized this could have been a totally different week had we gotten off the island and played some of these teams,” he said.
“You need to see these guys more often. And the only way to get better is to play them. We’ve seen what we have to do, and that’s get off the island.”
Earlier this month, the team from the Bally Haly Country Club and Remax Centre (St. John’s Curling Club) curled in the Stu Sells Toronto Tankard where they were 3-3. One of their wins came against John Shuster’s team, the same one which won Olympic gold last spring in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
This weekend, they’re in Gatineau, Que. for the Gatineau Challenge. Some top teams entered are John Epping of Toronto, Scotland’s Bruce Mouat and Charley Thomas, who’s skipping a new team that includes former Saskatchewan skip Adam Casey.
Next month, Smith and Co. will be curling in the Stu Sells 1824 Halifax Classic.
In addition to the lineup changes and the addition of McDonald, Smith’s team has been training at the Newfoundland and Labrador Training Centre in St. John’s, and is working with sports psychologist John Rowe.
“We’re all in much better shape, and John is helping us step up our game by helping us get to a point where we’re maintaining performance throughout the game,” he said.
Smith is sponsored by Lasik MD, Asham, City Wide Taxi, Stavanger Dental, Ches’s and Quidi Vidi Brewery.
Smith’s team isn’t the only one which has made changes. Symonds switched up his lineup, bringing in Chris Ford at vice and Adam Boland at second.
Ford skipped the Newfoundland and Labrador mixed team to the national bronze medal last year, while Boland skipped the Memorial University team to the 2017 U Sports Canadian university championship. Keith Jewer returns at lead.
Ford will throw third stones and sweep skip rocks with Jewer. Boland will throw second stones and will hold the broom for skip rocks.
“I think some teams,” Boland said, “look at last season as somewhat of a missed opportunity (to curl in the Brier). As a result, they’re putting more time and effort into curling this season.”
The Symonds team, sponsored by Crosbie Group, is also in Gatineau this weekend, and they’re scheduled to curl in the Charlevoix, Que,. Casino Challenge next month.
Boland threw third stones in juniors a few years ago, but for the most part has been skipping curling teams.
“At the end of last year,” said Boland, who skipped a team that included Stephen Trickett, Zach Young and Sheppard, “I was open to all options. This opportunity came about and I jumped at it.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Andrew. He’s a Canadian champ in his own right,” said Boland in reference to Symonds’s win at the 2015 Canadian Travellers Curling Club championship.