Burning questions heading into Tim Hortons Brier

Brad Gushue at the 2015 Tim Hortons Brier in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

It’s been heralded as one of — if not the — greatest curling fields of all time.

Olympic gold medallists, national champions, Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling winners and more are set for an epic clash at the Tim Hortons Brier. The winner will represent Team Canada at the world men’s curling championship next month in Basel, Switzerland, and is guaranteed a berth in next year’s Tim Hortons Brier to defend the title.

“It is a great field in so many ways,” said Blake MacDonald, who won the 2010 Brier and world championships playing alongside Kevin Koe, Carter Rycroft and Nolan Thiessen. “You’ve got so many of the top teams here that were able to make it through their provincial playdowns, which you’ve got Gushue, McEwen, Koe and Jacobs, you really have a lot of the top teams here. There’s only one or two of the top 10 teams that aren’t actually in the competition this year. That’s pretty neat. Team Simmons, who’s returning, they’re the two-time reigning Brier champs. It’s going to be really interesting.

“There’s going to be a lot of really great games and the teams that win are going to have to have some luck on their side, they’re going to have to play super well and have a career week,” MacDonald added. “It’s going to be exciting for the fans, for sure.”

Here are some of the burning questions ahead of the main draw, which gets underway Saturday at the TD Place Arena in Ottawa.

1) Is 13 the lucky number for Gushue?

This is Brad Gushue's 13th Brier appearance in the past 14 years. The 2006 Olympic gold medallist from St. John's, N.L., has yet to win the Brier with a runner-up finish in 2007 and a bronze medal performance in 2011 as his top results.

Team Gushue have been the top rink on tour this season with a stellar track record winning six tournaments including the National. Overall they've reached the final in three of the four Pinty's Grand Slam of Curling events played so far this season.

Next year the Brier heads to their home province and how cool would it be for Team Gushue to return wearing the maple leaf as Team Canada and also have a second N.L. team among the field in St. John's? If you're a fan of storybook endings, this is the one you'll probably want to keep an eye on.

2) Will McEwen find magic in his Brier debut?

While Gushue seeks his first Brier title in his 13th chance, Manitoba's Mike McEwen is looking to go 1-for-1.

After finishing runner-up at provincials five times, the Winnipeg-based team punched through this season and will make their Brier debut.

Although they haven't had a dominant season on tour like they did a year ago where they won eight events, they're ranked third on the World Curling Tour's year-to-date charts and captured the Point Optical Curling Classic, Stu Sells Toronto Tankard and Masters titles. The McEwen rink have a good chance of becoming the first "rookie" team to win the Brier since Koe's crew in 2010.

3) Battle of Alberta: who has the edge?

Once again, two top teams from Alberta are among the field with Koe representing the province once more and former teammates Pat Simmons, Rycroft and Thiessen (along with John Morris) back as Team Canada.

Koe missed the playoffs at last year's Brier, but his team -- third Marc Kennedy, second Brent Laing, and lead Ben Hebert -- have turned it up a notch this season winning the high-profile Tour Challenge Tier I and Canada Cup events.

Team Simmons have a couple tour wins under their belt this year but also had mixed results on the Pinty's GSOC circuit. Still, they pulled it off last year working the near-impossible to defeat Team Jacobs with an extra-end draw to the button.

MacDonald, who's now president of Orangetheory Fitness Canada, believes either team is capable of finishing atop of the podium.

"If you’re going to ask me to make a pick I’m definitely going to go with Team Koe or Team Simmons," MacDonald said. "Obviously those are the teams I’m going to be cheering for, but also too, for me, I look at those teams and know they’re coming in physically prepared because they’ve been working with Orangetheory and we’re behind those guys 100 percent. We think their preparation has been unbelievable for this event. They’re here to win. I’m excited for them.

"I think obviously there’s going to be teams like Gushue, McEwen and Jacobs that will be kicking around on the weekend but that’s certainly who my picks are."

4) Home-ice advantage for Howard?

Glenn Howard will make his 16th appearance at the Brier representing Ontario, although his journey this time was unlike any other before. Third Wayne Middaugh is sidelined recovering from a broken leg. Richard Hart moved up from second to third during provincial playdowns and played through a knee injury. Adam Spencer was the unlikely hero as the spare second helping Team Howard power through provincials where they posted a 13-1 overall record.

Howard said following his Ontario Tankard victory he's looking forward to having the home crowd on his side.

"People say, ‘Oh it’s too bad you’re staying locally,’ but no, I love the fact that we’re going to Ottawa," he said. "I have great memories in Ottawa. I won my second Brier actually at the same building. It was the old Ottawa Civic Centre, it’s a new name now, but that was back in 1993. So we’re going back a few years.

"We’re going to have the majority of the crowd behind us because we’re the hometown boys and I love that. It gives you a little bit more kick in the butt and I figure it’s another point on the scoreboard because you’ve got the local fan base. I think Ottawa’s going to do a fantastic job and can’t wait to get started."

On top of Howard's four Brier championships, he's also settled for second seven times and finished third on three occasions. That's a lot of hardware for the trophy case.

5) Best of the rest?

It's hard not to highlight reigning Olympic champion Brad Jacobs of Northern Ontario when his team came so close to winning the Brier last year. That speaks volumes to the depth of the field, but Team Jacobs will contend of course as they've been perennial powerhouses.

Saskatchewan's Steve Laycock won the bronze at the Brier a year ago and his team could go on a similar run this time if they hit their stride.

Quebec's Jean-Michel Menard, the 2006 Brier champion, could give other teams fits during the round robin and work his way into contention.