Brad Gushue’s rink embracing favourite role at Olympic trials

Team Gushue skip Brad Gushue makes a shot during a draw against Team Epping at the 2017 Roar of the Rings Canadian Olympic Curling Trials in Ottawa (Justin Tang/AP)

OTTAWA — The last time Brad Gushue and his Newfoundland rink won Canada’s Olympic trials, as the veteran skip puts it, “we were younger, much more intense and much more high-strung.”

Adds third, Mark Nichols: “Whoa, man. That was so long ago!”

It was. Twelve years, to be exact, and much has changed for the once plucky underdog team who earned a berth to the Winter Games back in 2005 and went on to win Olympic gold, aside from their age.

Today, they’re the reigning world champions and the favourites here at the Roar of the Rings, which culminates next Sunday to determine which of the nine men’s and women’s teams will compete at the Olympics next February in South Korea.

“This time around, I feel if we play the way we can play, we’re gonna be there at the end of the week,” Gushue said.

On Sunday, Team Gushue took a first important step in that direction. After dropping their opener a day earlier against Toronto’s Team Epping, Gushue and his foursome of Nichols, second Brett Gallant and lead Geoff Walker moved to 1-1 with their first win, a 6-5, 11-end victory over Brendan Bottcher of Edmonton.

“It felt good,” Gushue said, with a grin, shortly after walking off the ice to cheers from the more than 5,000 fans at Canadian Tire Centre. “It was an improvement for sure.”

On his final shot in the 11th end, Gushue drew the button with an in-turn draw. As his rock eased to a halt for the win, fans cheered and clapped. And then, from the crowd: “Neeeew-found-laaaaaand!”

The team may be nearly 3,000 miles from home, but Gushue is behind only Ottawa-born Rachel Homan and her local rink when it comes to fan favourites. On the sheet beside him on Sunday, Team Homan also earned their first win to move to 1-1, and walked off to a roar from the crowd.

Shortly after that, Gushue sealed his team’s first victory. The turning point came in the fourth, when he stole a pair after Bottcher sent his attempted takeout-and-stick just right. “[He] probably should have scored there, but instead we got a free deuce, which was a bonus,” Gushue said. “After that I felt we really controlled the game.”

When he artfully floated his red rock around a few guards and took out a yellow one on the button in the seventh end, the crowd responded with a: “Neeeew-found-laaaand! Laaa-bra-dooor!” cheer, and Gushue grinned. Then he drew the button on his next shot to score a single and take a 4-2 lead into the eighth end.

With his final rock in the ninth, Gushue managed a double takeout to score one and give his team a two-point lead coming home, but Bottcher, a 25-year-old chemical engineer, scored a pair in the 10th to tie things up and force OT.

Gushue stood at the far end of the ice, swayed back and forth a couple of times, then stretched his neck before this thing went to an extra end, and he drew the button for the win.

The skip was encouraged with the improvement over yesterday, but the team that earlier this year won the Brier and world championships hasn’t quite found its stride. Team Gushue has also won two Grand Slam events this season, and came into this tournament as the obvious rink to beat.

“I still think we got another notch to bring it up. We still made some mistakes,” Gushue said. “We’ve got a couple tough games with [John] Morris and [Brad] Jacobs coming up, but I do like the step we took today.”

It helps that Gushue and Nichols have both been through this, and come out on top. They’re the only two who remain on the team that won 2006 Olympic gold.

Nichols laughs, thinking back to that run at the 2005 Roar of the Rings in Halifax. It was basically a home tournament for them, and fans showed up in orange garbage bags to match the orange shirts their foursome wore.

“In ’05, we were one of the lowest-ranked teams, 8th, 9th or 10th. We were underdogs,” Nichols said, grinning. “It’s so different now. There’s no denying that we’ve been one of the best teams in the world the last number of years. We’ve got a big target on our back anytime we go on the ice. This event kind of brings out the best and worst in teams, with so much on the line.”

Nichols isn’t sure if it’s better to be the underdog or the top dog.

“When you’re the underdog, no one’s looking at you until you get going. Here, teams seem to bring the best game against you when you’re No. 1 in the world. It’s different. Hopefully we’re doing the right things to set us up for the end of the week.”

Certainly this a much more confident group than they were 12 years ago, and for good reason. Team Gushue is 33-6 this season.

“In 2005, we knew we had to play as good as we could, and maybe not above our heads, but certainly to our limit to win that, and we did that,” Gushue said. “This time around, we don’t have to play our A+ game. If we come out and play solid — just play solid — we’re gonna be around at the end of the week.”

Spoken like a skip who isn’t quite as young, intense or high-strung as the last time he won this thing.

Said Gushue, with a grin: “That’s just maturity.”