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No. 13 Team Gunnlaugson aiming to close the gap in GSOC events

Jason Gunnlaugson and his Morris, Man., teammates aren’t feeling unlucky being ranked No. 13 in the world.

Although it looked like they were on the bubble to even enter the Calgary bubble for the two upcoming Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling events, Team Gunnlaugson received invitations to both elite tournaments after No. 12 Team Paterson declined.

Even then, if it wasn’t for the COVID-19 pandemic putting the rankings on pause, it’s likely Team Gunnlaugson would be higher up the charts entering the back-to-back tournaments — beginning Wednesday with the Humpty’s Champions Cup followed by the Princess Auto Players’ Championship — with momentum on their side after representing Manitoba in last month’s Tim Hortons Brier.

“I think we’re definitely feeling good, especially the first two-thirds of the Brier we were playing really, really well, so I think we’re confident coming in,” Gunnlaugson said last week in a phone interview. “It is a weird season and different teams are at different places. … We’re usually a team that’s in pretty good shape, feeling good and playing a lot and we were pretty tired after the Brier, so it’s definitely going to be an interesting week. Some teams are going to be rusty and some teams are going to be tired all at the same time. Usually, that doesn’t happen. It’s going to be a fun couple events there for the Slams.”

Team Gunnlaugson also had to fast-track their rebuilding process with the COVID-19 pandemic wiping out the fall and winter tour. Third Alex Forrest stepped back from competitive curling after last season to focus on his family. Adam Casey, the team’s import from Charlottetown, moved up a spot in the lineup and seven-time Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling title winner Matt Wozniak joined at second.

Lead Connor Njegovan and Gunnlaugson both said the team joked their first game together would be at the Brier, on national television and against a top team. No one was laughing when that exact scenario played out as they took on Team Alberta, skipped by Brendan Bottcher, who went on to win the Canadian men’s title.

“We all thought it was really, really funny until it actually happened,” Njegovan said. “It was super unique, definitely difficult to iron out all of the kinks. You never want to be doing that at the Brier but it was a lot of fun. We took everything in stride through the week and are kind of looking at this next six months as we might get a limited amount of games in so we have to take every chance we get on the ice to make sure we’re trying to improve.”

Gunnlaugson defeated Bottcher 5-4 in that opening game and rattled off five consecutive wins to start the Brier campaign. The team hit a rough patch, however, and picked up just one more victory down the stretch as they finished with a 6-6 round-robin record and missed the playoffs. Still, Team Gunnlaugson walked away from arguably the toughest Brier ever as a learning experience for their newly configured roster and feeling fortunate for the opportunity to play at all.

“It’s hard to curl in a pandemic but it was really fun to get to play again,” Gunnlaugson said. “We were kind of concerned we weren’t going to play for a really long time so it was great to get out there and play. For us, with one new player, it was great to start to identify some of the things we want to improve on and then we’ve got a little bit of time before the Slams start. It kind of started the process in motion of building towards next season, the (Olympic) trials and all that stuff. It would have been impossible without the bubble experience.”

Njegovan added: “I guess my biggest takeaway is just how awesome it is to be curling again. You go through a year of quarantine and being at home and you kind of forget how much you love playing but once you get out on that ice there’s no better feeling than curling again.”

Integrating Wozniak into the lineup hasn’t been a problem at all as both Gunnlaugson and Njegovan have been longtime friends with him off the ice.

“It’s been seamless, honestly,” Gunnlaugson said. “The fact that we were able to compete at a reasonably high level out of the gate at the Brier gave us even more confidence in him as a teammate and him in us and all of that. It’s been really nice.”

Wozniak, who has focused on mixed doubles during the past couple seasons, was Njegovan’s first boss and was also the best man in his brother’s wedding, so the two have been getting along just fine on the front end of the team.

“It’s just awesome to have a guy with that much experience on the ice,” Njegovan said. “He just makes me better and I’m looking forward to learning from him as I go here.”

Team Gunnlaugson are expecting the number of games they’ll get to play between now and the Olympic trials or pre-trials in the fall will be limited and getting to play against the best in the two Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling events is massive for them.

“Obviously, there’s huge prize money but for us, some of the bigger things are we have so many wonderful sponsors and we haven’t gotten to represent them like we would in a normal year, so this is really big for that,” Gunnlaugson said. “Just to play against the very best teams in the world, we’ve been pretty consistent versus some of the teams outside of the top 10 but the more times we can play teams in the top 10, the faster we’ll improve. The fact we’ll get nine-plus games versus the best teams in the world is just huge for us right now.”

Njegovan echoed those comments as they look to narrow the gap between themselves and top teams like those skipped by Bottcher, Brad Gushue and Matt Dunstone.

“The level of competition is just so ridiculous, we just have to keep finding ways to improve and keep focusing on trying to keep up to guys like Bottcher and Dunstone and what are they doing that works well,” Njegovan said. “In some ways, it’s like playing a game of copycat and what do the good teams do well, where are we finding our weaknesses and how do we close that margin?”

“We’re trying to focus less on results and more on how we get quality reps and every game is a stepping stone to being prepared for whatever the trials hold next year,” he added. “Obviously, we’re competitors, we want to try and go out there and win but it’s going to be really important to us to make sure that we don’t take anything for granted, we really, really take the time to analyze our game and where we’re at stacking up against the world’s best.”

Gunnlaugson’s first game in the Humpty’s Champions Cup is during the opening draw Wednesday morning against Toronto’s John Epping. The event will be closed to the general public. Broadcast coverage begins April 15 at 2 p.m. ET / Noon local time on Sportsnet.