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Gushue feeling like a kid on Christmas ahead of hometown Brier

Brad Gushue is hoping it’ll be Christmas in March next week at the Tim Hortons Brier.

Gushue, a 14-time provincial winner, will resume his quest to capture his first Canadian men’s curling championship and there’s no better place than on home ice at the Mile One Centre in St. John’s, N.L.

The biggest present under the metaphorical tree will be winning the Brier trophy itself although Gushue said he’s going to enjoy the week ahead regardless of the outcome.

“It does feel like Christmas as a kid,” he said. “I know that week is going to be so exciting for us no matter the result, to be honest. I know that’s kind of cliché to say, but growing up and even over the last number of years, I never thought we’d have a Brier in St. John’s never mind playing in it. It is going to be a great experience for me and I’m going to try and enjoy every minute of it.”

It’s been 45 years since Newfoundland and Labrador hosted its lone Brier back in 1972 when the event was still sponsored by the Macdonald Tobacco Company, corn brooms were the sweeping device of choice and sweet vintage curling sweaters were, well, just regular curling sweaters. That was well before Gushue’s time and having his home province hold the Brier again was something the 36-year-old believed was just a dream. That all changed when he started a social media campaign a few years ago that helped spark the conversation.

“As I was growing up, I was always told by Curling Canada that St. John’s was too small, we didn’t have the market, we didn’t have the venue or the patch size wasn’t going to be big enough,” he said. “It was really back in 2013 when I heard the Brier was going to Kamloops, I was quite mad realizing our city is bigger than Kamloops, our venue is bigger than Kamloops, our patch is bigger than Kamloops and I posed a question on Twitter: Why not? Why can’t the Brier be in St. John’s? And it really went viral. That kind of instigated our committee and the process to get the Brier here this year.”

The Mile One Centre has hosted other major curling events in the past such as the 2005 Players’ Championship where a then 24-year-old Gushue faced off against the Ol’ Bear Kevin Martin for the title in front of a sold-out capacity crowd. Martin wasn’t ready to pass the torch just yet winning 6-3, but Gushue said it’s still one of the better moments of his curling career.

“Even though we lost that game it was so much fun and such a great atmosphere,” Gushue said. “The game has certainly changed. We were wearing big baggy golf shirts and to see how the sport has evolved in just 10 years is pretty incredible.”

An Olympic gold medal and seven Grand Slam titles later, Gushue is at the top of the game with his rink — featuring third Mark Nichols, second Brett Gallant, lead Geoff Walker and coach Jules Owchar — ranked No. 1 on the World Curling Tour’s Order of Merit. While that should make him the Brier favourite, there’s a handful of teams just as a capable of claiming the title including defending champ Kevin Koe (Team Canada), reigning Olympic gold medallist Brad Jacobs (Northern Ontario), six-time Grand Slam winner Mike McEwen (Manitoba), 2010 Olympic gold medallist John Morris (B.C.) plus the odd underdog looking to play the spoiler.

“I think there’s four, five or six teams that really have a high-percentage chance of winning it. But having said that, the other teams are certainly capable of knocking a bunch of teams off,” Gushue said. “It’s the type of field that you can’t take any team for granted, which is nice because you know you can probably afford a loss or two and it’s not going to take you out of the [Page playoff] 1-2 game running.”

More cause for concern is Gushue’s hip/groin issue that limited him to just two Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling events and provincial playdowns this season. Granted, when Gushue feels good enough to play, he’s usually good enough to win it all as evident with his Meridian Canadian Open title victory in January. He’s still taking extra precautions though leading up to the grind of the Brier.

“I’ve been limiting the amount of rocks that I’ve thrown just to make sure I don’t overuse it and continue to get stronger because curling is what affects it the most,” he said. “That’s been a bit of a challenge because it’s kind of like I’m a pitcher that’s on a pitch count. I certainly would like to throw a few more rocks but as far as how it feels and how strong it is, it’s as good as it’s been now since, really, March of last year or April.

“To be completely up front and honest, I’m a little bit concerned with how it will hold up over that 14 games over eight days because I haven’t tested it with that sort of load this year, so fingers crossed.”

Gushue will take full advantage of having the Brier in his hometown in that regard since he’ll be able to maintain his regular routine and checkups with his personal physiotherapist and massage therapist.

“They’re going to be on hand at the rink so even if I’m in the middle of a game and I feel something’s not right I could, in theory, get some help right away or get a muscle worked out or whatever it might be right after a game,” Gushue said. “That is a luxury of playing at home and having that hometown advantage.”

Gushue fully understands if people are puzzled when they look at the Brier rosters and see his team doesn’t have an alternate listed just in case something does go wrong. It’s not for a lack of trying to find someone as Gushue explained the difficult process that took a few wrong turns along the way.

“The guys that we asked here in Newfoundland, if they joined us as a fifth man, they would get banned from the Travelers [curling club championship] for four years,” he said. “None of them were willing to take that ban because with us playing at the provincials, most of them have shifted their focus to the Travelers and being a four-year ban and affecting the rest of your team, nobody was willing to do it.

“We were also given permission to look outside of the province and we asked a couple players, but once you sign up for another province you can’t sign up with Newfoundland. It really reduced it down to one or two players and when we contacted them they were going on vacation! We made every effort but we didn’t want to take someone just for the sake of taking someone. We wanted to take someone that if I couldn’t play they could fill in. We weren’t comfortable beyond the people that we asked and bringing someone into the mix that we didn’t know very well or hadn’t been around enough.”

The team relied on a number of spares during the start of the season while Gushue was on the mend — such as Charley Thomas, Adam Spencer and Pat Simmons — however, none of them were eligible either. Thomas already skipped his own squad in Alberta playdowns, reaching the semifinal, while Spencer played in the Ontario Tankard with Mark Bice and joins provincial winner Glenn Howard as his fifth for the Brier. Simmons’s situation is a little complicated, having recently parted ways with Alberta’s Brendan Bottcher, but he will be at the Brier serving as Saskatchewan’s coach.

“We asked Pat and Pat was actually signed up in Alberta,” Gushue said. “He could go as a coach, but he couldn’t go as a fifth.”

Gushue kicks off the main draw of the Tim Hortons Brier Saturday afternoon against Bottcher.