Tim Hortons Brier
The 2017 Tim Hortons Brier was one of the most anticipated Briers in recent history as it returned to St. John’s, Newfoundland for the first time in 45 years and, if everything fell into place for the host province, its Olympic hero and favourite son would win his first-ever Brier and do it in front of a hometown crowd.
As was the case in the recent Scotties Tournament of Hearts, the round-robin provided some exciting, terrific shot-making and some interesting storylines but, by the end of the week, the four teams most people expected to be in the playoffs were the four teams left standing. The round-robin was almost devoid of upsets outside of the Northwest Territories defeating Newfoundland and Labrador with only British Columbia, led by veterans John Morris and Jim Cotter, defeating more than one of the playoff teams.
The big story during the round-robin at the 2017 Brier were the crowds who certainly gave Brad Gushue and his team a hometown advantage. It was interesting to see experienced teams having to adjust to playing in an environment that was much louder than at any other curling event. The St. John’s crowd certainly did their job as they cheered their team on to a playoff spot. Admittedly, Curling Canada and the City of St. John’s caught lightning in a bottle at the 2017 Tim Hortons Brier. A hometown hero looking to win his first Brier, and his province’s first title since 1975, coming into St. John’s as the #1 ranked team in the world despite facing adversity throughout this season as he struggled with an injury. It sounds like the overly dramatic plot line for a sequel to “Men with Brooms” but that was the storyline and the crowd played its role to perfection all week.
Among the secondary stories at this year’s Brier was the performance by Glenn Howard and his team from Ontario who likely deserved a better fate than their 4-7 record as they ended up on the “wrong side of the inch” on several occasions including three extra-end losses. It was a record 17th Brier appearance for Glenn Howard who was given a standing ovation by the crowd following his team’s last round-robin game in St. John’s. For its part, Nova Scotia survived the pre-qualifier and kept their momentum going by winning their first three games of the round-robin only to lose 7 of their 8 final games on their way to a 4-7 record. Team Bottcher of Alberta, the 13th ranked team in the world, had high expectations entering their first Brier but were never able to get momentum on their side early in the week and were 1-4 and out of the playoff picture by the end of the day on Monday while finishing 3-8 for the week. The Northwest Territories, led by the always popular Jamie Koe, had a difficult week but did generate the biggest upset of the round-robin when they defeated Newfoundland and Labrador for their only victory of this year’s Brier. New Brunswick also finished 1-10 and fell just short of their own major upset when they lost 9-7 to Manitoba after leading the game 7-3. Saskatchewan was in the playoff mix for most of the week but three early losses are never good when your round-robin schedule ends with games against Kevin Koe, Brad Jacobs and John Morris. Saskatchewan lost all three of those games and failed to advance. British Columbia was the one team that some people felt might be able to displace one of last year’s playoff quartet; but early losses against Ontario and Quebec negated hard-fought victories against Manitoba and Canada as BC fell just short of the playoffs with a 7-4 record. In an interesting concidence, Quebec missed the playoffs at both the Scotties and Brier this season by going 7-4 in both events while only losing to the 4 teams that made the playoffs. Jean-Michel Menard and his team were competitive throughout the week and, as they seem to do each time they are at the Brier, the team provided the crowd with several “highlight reel” shots to cheer.
The 2017 Brier First Team All-Stars were – Brad Gushue-NL (Skip), Caitlin Schneider-SK (3rd), E.J. Harnden-NO (2nd) and Denni Neufeld-MB (Lead). The Second Team All-Stars were – Mike McEwen-MB (Skip), Mark Nichols-NL (3rd), Matt Wozniak-MB (2nd) nd Geoff Walker-NL (Lead).
When the round-robin ended, we were left with the same four teams that made the playoffs at last year’s Brier in Ottawa. Manitoba (Team McEwen) finished tied atop the round-robin standings with Newfoundland and Labrador (Team Gushue) at 9-2 and received the top seed in the 1 vs 2 game by virtue of their 8-4 victory when the two teams met in the round robin. Meanwhile, Canada (Team Koe) and Northern Ontario (Team Jacobs) were set to play in the 3 vs 4 game.
Manitoba played relatively well in the 1 vs 2 game but when your opponents curl 94% as a team your chances of victory are not great. Newfoundland and Labrador put pressure on Manitoba throughout the game and forced them to single points in the first and third ends while scoring two points when they had the hammer in both the 2nd and 4th ends to take a 4-2 lead, a textbook start for the team from St. John’s. After the lead was extended to 5-2 with a steal in the 7th end, Manitoba did manage to close the gap when they scored their first deuce of the game in the 8th end only to have Newfoundland and Labrador respond immediately with two points of their own in the 9th end on their way to a 7-5 victory and a spot in Sunday’s final.
The 3 vs 4 game between Canada and Northern Ontario included one of the stranger moments in recent Brier history as a major wind storm in St. John’s caused a power outage at the Mile One Centre following the 3rd end. The game was delayed for over an hour as the ice crew, in consultation with both teams, decided to scrape and re-pebble the ice following once the lights came back as the ice had slowed considerably during the power outage. Prior to Mother Nature’s interruption of the proceedings, Canada had gotten off to a 2-0 lead after failing to roll out on their last rock of the 1st end to score one then stealing a point in the 2nd end. When play resumed, Canada seemed to adapt more quickly to the ice conditions than Northern Ontario and stole another point to go into the 5th end break ahead 3-0. The team from Sault Ste Marie scored two points in the 6th end and then held Canada to a single point in the 8th to go down 4-2 but then gave up a steal of two that put the game out of reach.
In a rematch of the 2016 Brier semi-final Canada and Manitoba met to decide who would play Newfoundland and Labrador in Sunday’s final. The game started with two blank ends before Canada stole a point in the 3rd end for a 1-0 lead. In the 4th end Manitoba took advantage of two uncharacteristic mistakes by Kevin Koe to score three points and took a 3-2 lead into the 5th end break after holding Canada to one point in the 5th. Manitoba took a 5-2 lead when they scored two points in the 6th and looked to be in control when they held Canada to a single point in the 7th end. On a windy day in St. John’s it might not have been a surprise that the “winds of change” made their way into the Mile One Centre. It started with Canada stealing a point in the 8th end and then holding Manitoba to one point in the 9th end to make the score 6-4. A well played end by Canada tied the game at 6-6 leading to a dramatic extra-end. In a decision that will be discussed for a long time, Manitoba decided to draw behind a centre line guard with Mike McEwen’s first rock in the 11th end rather than simply removing that guard and opening the front of the house. The result was that Canada had a chance to corner-freeze to the rock in the four-foot behind cover and Kevin Koe did just that. Manitoba was left with a very difficult double run-back which was missed and Canada won the game 7-6 to earn a chance at defending their title against Newfoundland and Labrador in a rematch of last year’s final.
The bronze medal game is one of the most difficult games to play for elite athletes in any sport and it is usually reflected by a slow start. The first half of the game between Manitoba and Northern Ontario ended with a deuce from Manitoba to take a 3-2 lead after Northern Ontario had stolen a point in the 4th end. The team from Winnipeg followed that up by a steal of their own in the 6th end to take a 4-2 lead. In the 10th end, down by one with hammer, Northern Ontario had two counters in the rings and Mike McEwen had to make a difficult double takeout forcing Brad Jacobs to settle for one point to send the game to an extra-end. With their last rock in the extra, Northern Ontario attempted to freeze to a Manitoba stone in the back four-foot but over-curled allowing Mike McEwen an open hit for two points and the victory. It was the second consecutive year that these two teams met in the bronze medal game at the Brier with Manitoba gaining a measure of revenge after losing last year.
The 2017 Brier final will probably go down as one of the more exciting finals in a generation. Playing in front of a hometown crowd in St. John’s while representing a province that had not won a Brier since 1975, Brad Gushue made a draw to the eight-foot against two Team Canada rocks in the 10th end to win the game and the Brier by a score of 7-6.
The game certainly did not look like it would be a close one as Newfoundland and Labrador took advantage of some key misses to score three points in the 2nd end then took a 5-1 lead in the 5th end, although it could have been much worse for Team Canada who made a corner freeze that prevented Newfoundland and Labrador from attempting a hit that could have netted as many as four points. As they did in the semi-final, Team Canada came out of the 5th end break looking to start a comeback. With his last stone in the 6th end, Kevin Koe made a triple takeout for three points that should still go down as one of the great pressure shots in recent Brier history. The final four ends were tension-filled as Team Canada stole a point to tie the game in the 7th end then the two teams exchanged single points in the 8th and 9th ends to set-up the dramatic 10th end. With his last rock, and with a rock already straddling the back-twelve/back-eight line, Kevin Koe placed a rock in a similar position at the front of the rings forcing Gushue to draw on a side that was considerably slower than it had been earlier in the game. Gushue made the shot with about an inch to spare to win the game, win his first Brier and earn the right to represent Canada at the World Championships.
World Wheelchair Curling Championships
The World Wheelchair Curling Championships were held in Gangneung, South Korea last week and served as a test event for the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games.
Andre Smirnov and his team from Russia were attempting to win the Champion for the third consecutive year and it certainly looked like they were positioned to win another title after placing first in the round-robin with a record of 8-1. Russia was joined in the 1 vs 2 game by Scotland while China qualified for the 3 vs 4 game where they would play Norway who defeated Canada 5-4 in a tie-breaker.
Russia won the 1 vs 2 game against Scotland 4-2 in a game where they stole three of their four points. Meanwhile, Norway continued their strong play in the 3 vs 4 game as they defeated China 6-3 aided by three points in the 5th end that gave them a 5-2 lead and control of the game. Scotland could not overcome the Norwegians either as they gave up five stolen points, including three points in the 4th end to lose the semi-final by a score of 7-3.
In the final, the Norwegians took a 3-2 lead in the 4th end then took control of the game by stealing three points in the 5th end for a 6-2 lead on their way to an 8-3 victory. It was a third World Wheelchair Curling Championship for Rune Lorentsen who skipped Norway to victory, avenging a loss in the final to the Russians last year. In the bronze medal game, Scotland overcame an early 4-1 deficit and won the game 9-5 by scoring three points in the 7th and stealing two more in the 8th end. It was Scotland’s first medal at the Championship since 2011.
Week 31 Preview
There are two major events on the curling calendar this week with the World Women’s Curling Championships starting in Beijing next Saturday and the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling’s Elite 10 taking place in Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia.
The Women’s World Curling Championships has a strong field this year that includes 8 of the top 30 teams in the world rankings. Team Homan of Canada, ranked number one in the world, enter the event as the likely favourites but they will face a number of teams that have had strong seasons and some that have had previous success at the World Championships. Team Muirhead of Scotland has not made a podium at the Worlds since winning in 2013 but have been in the playoff mix the past two years. Team Paetz of Switzerland are participating in only their second World Championships but they won the only other time they qualified in 2015. Team Sidorova of Russia have had a difficult year but they defeated the reigning European Champions, Team Moiseeva, to qualify for the Worlds where they have won three consecutive bronze medals. Nina Roth will be in her first worlds as a skip for the United States after competing as the 3rd on Erika Brown’s team at the 2010 Worlds. The wild card this year will be Team Hasselborg of Sweden who have been one of the two or three best women’s teams in the world this year but will be playing under the bright lights and pressure of a World Women’s Championship for the first time. Bingyu Wang will represent the host country while playing in the World Championships, an event she won in 2009, for the first time since 2013. Wang and her team from Harbin have won two events on the WCT this season and placed second at the Pacific-Asia Championships. Other teams that will be in Beijing include Team Eun-Jung Kim of South Korea, Team Gaspari of Italy, Team Jentsch of Germany, Team Nielsen of Denmark and Team Kubeskova of the Czech Republic.
The defending champions will be coming into this year’s Princess Auto Elite 10 on quite a high as Team Gushue will be fresh off their first Brier victory in front of a hometown crowd in St. John’s. Team Gushue is in a pool with Canada Cup champions Team Carruthers, Team Morris of BC, Team Laycock of Saskatchewan playing their first event without Colton Flasch and the Elite 10 Select Team. For those wondering about the Elite 10 Select Team, it is a team of retired, elite curlers that includes Jeff Stoughton at skip along with David Nedohin, Jamie Korab and Nolan Thiessen who have won a total of 10 Briers, 6 World Championships, 11 Grand Slams and one Olympic Gold Medal between them.
The other pool at the Elite 10 includes Team Koe coming off their loss in the Brier final, Team Epping of Ontario, Team Jacobs of Northern Ontario, Team de Cruz of Switzerland and Team Edin of Sweden who have won two Grand Slam so far this season.
Several top European teams, including Team Murdoch, Team Kyle Smith, Team Ulsrud and Team Stjerne, along with Team McEwen of Canada and Team Shuster of the United States are in Aberdeen Scotland this week for the Aberdeen International Curling Championship.
Photo credits: Team Gushue (Curling Canada), Team Norway (WCF/Celine Stucki)