Brad Gushue has had the headaches, but isn't sure he can find the guts to wear a helmet.
The 35-year-old Olympic champion and skip of the Newfoundland and Labrador entry in the 2016 Brier suffered a horrendous fall during the Masters curling tournament held in Truro, N.S., back on Oct. 31. He slipped while sidestepping moving rocks, his face slamming hard onto the ice. He was taken to a nearby hospital, took seven stitches to close a head wound and, unbelievably, returned to play the final two ends of the very game in which he was injured.
Old-time hockey fans would cheer – but old times are also past times when it comes to head trauma. In hockey, anyway, if not in the supposedly gentle and genteel sport affectionately known as "the roaring game."
Curling, it turns out, has no concussion protocol – though it hopes soon to draft a clear national program to follow – and it was left up to Gushue to decide what he should do. He elected to play on, and his team excelled on the World Curling Tour even as he battled troubling concussion symptoms along the way.
Gushue's aim was to, once again, represent his province in the Brier, which he has not won in 13 appearances – missing only the 2006 Brier when he was tied up in Turin, Italy, skipping Team Canada to a gold medal.
The marks of that fall are still visible around his eyes. Most days are good, he says, but some days are bad. He found his first match here, a 5-4 extra-end victory over Manitoba, "really difficult personally, just getting in the swing of things, getting the feel and getting comfortable out on the ice.
"I was hoping it would just take a couple of ends, but it was the whole 11 ends before I felt comfortable. Fortunately, we were able to make a lot of shots, but I didn't feel very good."
The next day, Gushue's rink lost 4-3 in extra ends to Ontario's Glenn Howard rink. "I felt much better playing Glenn," he says, "even though we lost."
The physically gifted Gushue is today more cautious on the ice than before. "I'm still nervous out there," he says. "I'm more nervous now than I was in the first 20 years of my life, there's no doubt about that."
Curling head injuries – including falls that have caused death – have led some to call for helmets to be part of any proper protocol for the game.
Could Gushue see the day coming when he and other high-level curlers – currently sliding about the TD Place sheets like skaters who left one of their skates at home – would count the helmet as a piece of equipment as necessary as the slider and broom?
"Potentially," he says. "But I think the stigma of someone wearing protective headgear has to go away. If I showed up and wore it, I'm sure there would be a lot of comments and remarks."
Certainly, that is a stigma the far, far more physical ice sport of hockey has dealt with. While there were sporadic instances of NHL players experimenting with helmets since the 1920s, it took the death of Bill Masterton from a brain injury suffered in a 1968 game between the Minnesota North Stars and Oakland Seals to begin a slow attitude change. In the 1972 Summit Series, it was notable that only one Canadian player, Paul Henderson, wore head protection while the entire Soviet team was helmeted. Today, helmets are mandatory in the NHL.
"I think we have to get over that stigma," Gushue says. "And maybe it takes someone like me, or someone at this level, to do just that. Just for me, I'm not comfortable doing that. I've slipped and fallen more just walking to my car in winter than I have on the ice, so do I have to wear a helmet when I go out in the winter to try and get my car?
"But I do believe that it should be mandatory for kids under 13, until they get comfortable out on the ice. Then I think after that it's the adult's choice, but I do think that we have to do something about the stigma of wearing one."
Helmetless and, for the moment, symptom-free, Gushue took his 2-1 rink up against Steve Laycock's Saskatchewan 1-2 rink on Monday afternoon. Both master strategists, the two skips battled hard through the seventh end when Laycock attempted a most difficult takeout that, had it worked, might have been pivotal. It did not work, however, and it handed Newfoundland and Labrador three points and, essentially, the game, which ended 7-5 in Gushue's favour.
For Laycock, falling to 1-3 in the tournament is not reflective of how well his Saskatchewan rink has played. "We're going to have to let it go," he says.
A dozen years ago, Laycock was the volunteer coat-check man at the Brier held in Saskatoon, his rink having come up just short in the provincial finals.
"I ended up being a volunteer instead of a player," Laycock laughs. "I had signed up even before the provincials were played. That was my obligation. I knew if I wasn't playing that I'd be doing that."
This, then, is another chance for Laycock to win a Brier to match the Canadian and World Junior championships he won back in 2003.
"Four games in and we're not too disappointed in how we've played," he says. "We've just got to keep playing well – and win."
As for the winning skip, Gushue, a strong 3-1 start to the round robin pegs Newfoundland and Labrador as an early contender in this Brier. A victory here would be especially sweet, as the defending champion is automatically in next year's Brier, which will be held in Gushue's hometown of St. John's.
"That would be awesome," he says. "It would be nice and take the stress out of having to win the provincials to get in."
And added stress, of course, is something he doesn't much care for these days.