Call it the 17th rock on the ice.
And unwanted stone maybe, and one that showed up for just single shot, but in Brad Gushue’s estimation, it was the deciding factor as he and Team Canada lost 7-2 to Edmonton’s Brendan Bottcher and his Wild Card entry in Saturday’s 3-4 Page Playoff game at the Tim Horton Brier in Brandon, Man.
The eliminating loss ended a two-year reign by Gushue and his St. John’s rink as Canadian men’s curling champions and denied them a continued shot in Brandon at being only the second rink in history to claim three straight Brier titles.
Gushue, Mark Nichols, Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker had last-rock advantage for Saturday’s matchup and after a blanked opening end, they looked ready to take advantage of the hammer in the second, when Gushue had a crack at scoring two points — possibly three, with a favourable roll — on his final shot of the end.
But his rock picked, catching debris on the ice, and went astray. Bottcher came away with a steal of one. As the score went up on the board, Gushue dug the misdirecting pebble out of the ice using his fingernail.
"It was a big rock. It was sharp," said Gushue "When (the curling rock) went over it, I could see some snow flying from behind it.
"It’s just a freak thing and it sucks.”
From that point, the teams exchanged singles with the hammer, leaving the score tied 2-2 entering the eighth end, when Bottcher scored four points. If that wasn’t a knockout punch, it was the setup for one that came in the ninth when the Albertans stole one more.
The four points in eight — the most ever scored in one end in a Page 3-4 game at the Brier — certainly stick out, but Gushue said the second-end turnaround is what he can’t shake.
“Probably one of the top three or four worst breaks I’ve had in my career,” he said. “It happens. I’ve had it happen to us and happen against us, but it’s kind of disappointing the run ended on those terms.
“We lost two games to Alberta and Northern Ontario this week when guys made incredible angle raises to beat us. I’d sleep easier if we had been beaten that way instead of (by) a rock in the ice.”
Afterwards, there were those on social media questioning if giving up a single point in a game that had eight ends remaining was as big a deal as Gushue made it out to be. And he was asked in the post-game scrum whether he and his team felt, at the time, that they could recover, especially given the incident had happened so early in the game.
“Absolutely,” he replied. “I thought our team hung in there really well and I was really proud of the way we performed, (but) I think after that you could see Bottcher’s team spirits get higher. They played incredible after that.
“I felt like we had to push the issue in eight and we did. We went hard for (a steal), but they made a bunch of good shots.
“You’ve got to give them credit. They made everything in eight. We made good shots, but they made better ones. We executed OK, (but) we had to execute great, because they executed great.
“They outplayed us in the eighth end, but it shouldn’t have been that score.”
With the loss, Gushue extended his winless record in 3-4 Page Playoff games to 0-5.
Gushue believes the second end left Bottcher as the rabbit and Team Canada as the hounds the rest of the way
“The pick was the story of the game,” said Gushue. “(If you) get two points in the second end, you can really dictate the play, control the game. When it flips and all of a sudden they have a one-point lead, you feel like you’re chasing, especially under those circumstances.”
Watching from St. John’s, Greg Smith agreed the result pivoted on a hinge established in the second end.
“I think the momentum swung incredibly right there,” said Smith, who skipped Newfoundland and Labrador’s entry at the 2018 Brier. “That’s a three-point swing. Yes, there was a lot of time left, but Bottcher and his team played just incredibly, especially after that.
“That pick really set the tone and established momentum early.”
After two Brier wins, a world men’s championship in 2017 and a runner-up finish at the worlds last year, Gushue and Co. exit Brandon with a fourth-place finish behind third-place Brad Jacobs and Northern Ontario, and Bottcher and fellow Albertan Kevin Koe, who met in Sunday’s night final.
But this is far from the beginning of an end, said Gushue.
"There’s still lots of curling left in us," he said. "We’ve had a good run, not only the last two years, but probably the last four years.
"I certainly expect there’s still going to be some highlights left in this team, but it just feels rotten right now to end that way…
"That one is going to sting."
With files from The Canadian Press