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Team Canada skip Pat Simmons delivers a rock as he plays Northern Ontario during gold medal game curling action at the Brier in Calgary on Sunday, March 8, 2015. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Team Canada skip Pat Simmons delivers a rock as he plays Northern Ontario during gold medal game curling action at the Brier in Calgary on Sunday, March 8, 2015. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Duhatschek: Team Canada keeps the crown at the Brier Add to ...

One team came in as the reigning men’s Olympic champion, the other the defending Brier champions (sort of).

One came in with a nearly spotless record, dropping just a single round-robin game all week and then advancing to Sunday’s final of the 2015 Tim Horton’s Brier with a win in the 1-2 Page Playoff game Friday night.

The other made it the hard way, Team Canada starting the week so slowly that they made a key internal line-up change – third Pat Simmons throwing skip stones instead of John Morris – but then caught fire after the switch.

Simmons, curling beautifully, scored three in the ninth end and then made a pressure-packed shot to the button draw in the 11th end to squeak out a 6-5 the win over Brad Jacobs’ Northern Ontario team, culminating a week of high drama and extraordinary shot-making at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

Team Canada was 2-3 when they got together on a Monday night and handed the reins to Simmons, who only lost one match the rest of the way – to Jacobs in round-robin play by a 6-3 score. But Simmons predicted that if they played it smart, it would come down to the last end and it did.

It meant Simmons, second Carter Rycroft and lead Nolan Thiessen won for the second year in a row, after being part of last year’s championship squad from Alberta, skipped by Kevin Koe.

When Koe decided to go in a different direction, they recruited Morris as their skip. Under Curling Canada criteria, the only way they could have held onto the Team Canada designation was if three members of the winning team returned to curl together this season. After much thought, Morris said yes, the quartet played a limited schedule of games this season, which had them sputtering at times early in the competition.

The decision to switch the order and permit Simmons to throw skip stones for the first time in five years turned out to be just the ticket to get them through a tough weekend, which included an 11th end win over Saskatchewan, the eventual bronze medalists, in the 3-4 playoff as well as an 8-6 victory over Newfoundland later Saturday to make the final.

It was the first final in history in which all eight players had previously won a Brier championship and evolved in a close, cat-and-mouse affair, in which the first four ends were blanked, something else that had never happened before in a Brier final.

Jacobs, with the hammer, finally got on the board with two in the fifth with a nicely executed raise takeout, but Simmons came back to square the game, by drawing to the button for two in the seventh.

Simmons forced Jacobs to take one in the eighth, and then put up the three, to go up 5-3 heading into the 10th end, where Jacobs managed a deuce to force extra ends.

Even with a hometown team in action twice Saturday and again in Sunday’s final, overall attendance was well down compared to the three other times the event had previously been held at the Saddledome. Sunday’s final produced the largest crowd of the week – 11,846 – almost 100,000 down from the 246,126 spectators that passed through the turnstiles back in 2009, or the last time they held the event here.

The Brier attendance record of 281,985 was set in Edmonton in 2005 during an NHL lockout and before the constantly improving television coverage made it easier for a lot of committed fans to stay at home and watch from their couches.

For Newfoundland skip Brad Gushue, Saturday night’s 8-6 loss to Team Canada, in which Simmons squeaked out the win with a three in the 10th end, was a heartbreaking end to an otherwise solid week. Gushue took no pleasure in playing and losing Sunday’s bronze-medal game against Saskatchewan’s Steve Laycock by a 7-5 score – or any solace from the fact that they were the only rink in the event to defeat Jacobs in round-robin play.

Next stop for the champs is the Ford World Curling Championship in Halifax.

Members of the Canadian Curling Reporters selected Jacobs, Ryan Fry (Northern Ontario), Rycroft (Team Canada) and Colin Hodgson to the first all-star team, while Gushue and a trio of curlers from Alberta, Marc Kennedy, Brent Laing and Ben Hebert to the second all-star team.

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Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

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