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Team Newfoundland and Labrador skip Brad Gushue has won Olympic gold but not the Canadian championship. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Team Newfoundland and Labrador skip Brad Gushue has won Olympic gold but not the Canadian championship. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Hometown favourite Brad Gushue in tough against stacked Brier field Add to ...

The last time Newfoundland was host of a Brier, 1972, The Big O – Orest Meleschuk of Manitoba – won the event at Memorial Stadium, the former home of the St. John’s Maple Leafs. The Watergate scandal was in full bloom. The Beatles were freshly into their solo careers. Canada’s prime minister was Justin Trudeau’s father.

But now that the wait is finally over – and the main draw of the 2017 Tim Horton’s Brier starts Saturday – pretty much every curler in the field is as gaga over the host city as they are the actual competition.

“It’s going to be wild in St. John’s,” predicted Brent Laing, who is part of the defending champion Kevin Koe rink, competing as Team Canada. “The party for the fans is going to be epic. The venue [Mile One Centre] is nice and small so it’s going to be packed. It’ll be a great atmosphere – and there’ll be a lot of good storylines.”

Even though Koe’s team also goes into the event as the reigning world championships, the spotlight will naturally fall on the home team, Brad Gushue’s Newfoundland and Labrador rink, topping the chart as the No. 1 storyline.

Parity came to curling a long time ago, and it means that most top rinks still have a box or two to check to flesh out their career résumés. For Koe’s team, it’s a chance to compete in the Olympics, an event Gushue won back in 2006, for Canada and his fervently supportive home province over in Turin, Italy.

But for as long as Gushue has been competing in the upper echelons of men’s Canadian curling – this is his 14th Brier appearance – he has yet to win the national championship. Runner-up finishes in 2007 (at Hamilton) and last year (in Ottawa) were as close as he’s come.

So while there will be massive hometown support for Gushue, vice-skip Mark Nichols, second Brett Gallant and lead Geoff Walker from the packed houses, there will be pressure, too, as the host team competes against a stacked field.

In addition to Koe and his Team Canada squad from Calgary, the 2017 qualifiers include Ontario’s Glen Howard, a four-time Brier champion; Northern Ontario’s Brad Jacobs, 2013 winner and 2014 Olympic gold medalist; John Morris of B.C., the 2015 Brier winner; plus the always tough rink of Mike McEwen from Manitoba.

Gushue’s opener will be against a young up-and-coming Alberta squad, skipped by Edmonton’s Brendan Bottcher, which is coached by four-time Brier champ and 2010 Olympic gold-medalist Kevin Martin. Martin’s son Karrick is throwing lead rocks for the Bottcher rink, while his own long-time coach, Jules Owchar, is now working with Gushue’s team.

Like others in the deep and talented competition, Koe’s team will try to spoil the party for Gushue, if they can.

“That’s the plan for sure,” Koe said. “The nice thing about the Brier is, typically, there is always someone new there. Just about everybody we thought would be there is – all the big favourites and a few newcomers like Alberta. It’s a tough field. What can you say? It never gets any easier.”

There is an automatic berth in December’s Olympic trials up for grabs here, but that’s not a concern to Koe’s team, which has already qualified twice for the event – by winning last year’s Brier as well as the 2015 Canada Cup of Curling. And while the Brier is the current task at hand, Koe will acknowledge qualifying for the Olympics – now less than a year away – tops their calendar 2017 to-do list.

“I mean, it’s been in the back of our minds ever since we won our first trial spot over a year ago at the Canada Cup,” he said. “Everything we do is partly geared towards that event in December, including this week, at the Brier. It’s a big event on the road to the trials – and big events against top teams are good competition. This is only our third year as a team, so any big events we can play in help.

“We’re not going to lie and say we’re not thinking about the trials because it’s on everybody’s minds. But for this week, for sure, it’s the Brier. Hopefully, there’ll be [world championships] between the Brier and the trials and then we’ll really start to gear up for them once this season is over.”

Koe’s team, which consists of Laing, third Marc Kennedy and lead Ben Hebert, was assembled only three ago, so it is still a work in progress, according to the skip.

“Every team, every top curling team, seems to be different,” Koe said. “Sometimes, you have a little more of a dictator. Sometimes, you have more of a collaborative approach. I think we’re more collaborative. We’ve taken the best of all our old teams and we’re still working on our own style. But we get along well. The chemistry is good – and I think we’re still getting better.”

As for this week, the defending champs, in the midst of an up-and-down season, say they are taking nothing for granted.

“The Brier is harder and harder every year,” Laing said. “It used to be kind of a three- or maybe four-team race. A lot of people might have it as a four-team race this year, but I think that’s naive. It’s more a six- or seven-team race.

“We plan on being there in the end in the playoff mix. Last year, we played really well and came out on top, but we had our share of breaks along the way too – and you need those to get there. When the teams are so evenly matched, especially at the top level, you play your heart out and see what that gets you.”

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