2021 Brier preview: Gushue, Koe chasing record books

Brad Gushue kisses the Brier tankard after winning his third Canadian men's curling championship Sunday in Kingston, Ont. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Are you ready for more? After a thrilling Scotties Tournament of Hearts, it’s now time for Canada’s men’s teams to face off inside the Calgary curling bubble for the Tim Hortons Brier at WinSport Arena.

The Brier will feature an expanded 18-team field with 14 squads representing their respective regions, three wild cards and the defending champions. These aren't just the top teams in the nation, some of them are the best in the world rankings including a sweep of the top four and altogether eight of the top 13. Can you say stacked?

Here are the main storylines to keep an eye on heading into Friday night’s opening draw.

What’s the format and what’s at stake?

The Tim Hortons Brier will follow an identical format as the Scotties Tournament of Hearts with the 18 teams split into two pools for round-robin play. The top four teams from Pool A and Pool B advance to the Championship Pool. Teams carry over their records and square off against the four teams from the opposite pool.

Unlike in previous years where there has been a four-team page playoff, this time only three teams qualify for the playoffs. The top team earns a bye to the gold-medal final with the second- and third-place teams advancing to the semifinal. A tiebreaker, or tiebreakers, may be required to determine third place but, let’s face it, given how tough the field is that’s not an “if necessary” scenario but closer to a guarantee. It would be surprising if there aren't any tiebreakers.

The Brier winner will represent Canada at the world men’s curling championship taking place in the bubble a few weeks later. That gives them a leg-up to start the event as they’ll already be accustomed to the bubble conditions on and off the ice. The winning team will also qualify for the Olympic trials later this year (if they haven’t already) and claim $100,000.

The lack of crowd noise could play a factor for veteran teams used to relying on that atmosphere. They’ll have to look within for that added energy boost as the only sound they'll hear is the occasional echo of a toilet flush. (No really, just ask Saskatchewan's Sherry Anderson about her Scotties experience.)

Could Brad Gushue repeat as Brier champion?

OK, I just copied and pasted the question from our Scotties preview but changed Kerri Einarson’s name to Brad Gushue. Seeing as how Einarson successfully defended the Scotties title, could you blame me? Gushue and his St. John’s, N.L., crew are looking to become the first repeat Brier winners since . . . themselves in 2017 and 2018. All right, so it’s not like the women’s side where there was at least more than a handful of years between back-to-back winners but it’s no cakewalk.

Team Gushue actually played in a couple of fall tour events in Halifax and won both of them undefeated, however, they also had to make do with super spares at lead as Geoff Walker lives in Alberta. Friday night’s opener against Ontario (John Epping) will be their first game as a foursome since winning the Brier a year ago. It’ll be a tough test to start, but the 11-time Grand Slam winner Gushue has proven time and time again even when he’s good that’s sometimes good enough. Once that confidence builds though, Gushue’s dangerous. Team Gushue also captured the 2018 Humpty’s Champions Cup in this very rink, not that they need any extra motivation.

Gushue is also looking for a record-tying fourth Brier gold medal as a skip to join the likes of Ernie Richardson, Randy Ferbey, Kevin Martin and Kevin Koe. More on Koe in just a bit.

Is Jacobs gearing up for another Olympic run?

The hottest team in the world entering the Brier last year was Northern Ontario led by skip Brad Jacobs. The Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., crew was on a red-hot run winning three consecutive Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling men’s titles. Anything can happen in a single-elimination game though and Jacobs missed the podium at the Brier finishing fourth after losing to eventual winner Gushue in the Page 3-4 playoff game. Part of that problem was a slow 1-3 start and Jacobs needing to win two tiebreakers in order to qualify. With the playoff change to only three teams, Jacobs cannot afford to let that happen again.

Three-time Brier champion Marc Kennedy, of St. Albert, Alta., joined the team at third last season and proved to be the spark they needed to soar to the top of the world rankings. That’s not a slight to former third Ryan Fry, who linked up with good friend Epping and also proved to be a good fit there as they sit No. 2 overall.

Jacobs has won the Brier once before in 2013 just ahead of an Olympic year and en route to capturing gold for Canada in Sochi. His team could be on a similar path here with the Beijing Winter Games on the horizon.

Could Koe capture record fifth Brier title?

Move over Gushue, Koe is aiming for the history books as well seeking a fifth Brier title and sole possession of the skip's record. What’s amazing is Koe has managed to win the Brier with four different vice skips along the way and, what do you know, new second John Morris was handling those duties during the brief fall tour season.

Morris, who has won Olympic gold in men’s and mixed doubles, joined his former teammate Koe after the Calgary-based club parted ways with Colton Flasch. Although Koe won the Brier in 2019, his team missed the playoffs last year losing to Jacobs in a tiebreaker. Remember what we said in the previous storyline about new players? Morris will provide a spark all right and will be counted upon to get Koe and Team Wild Card Two back on top. At the end of the day though, it'll be down to the 46-year-old Koe coming through in the clutch as they have in the past and usually with only a few seconds left on the time clock.

Fourth time’s the charm for Bottcher?

If Jacobs is overdue, what about Alberta’s Brendan Bottcher, who has claimed silver at the past three Briers?

The Bottcher train was rolling at full steam last year with an incredible 10-1 record through pool play. Their one loss came against Koe in an extra end – so it’s more like a 10-0-1 record, right? Bottcher carried the team throwing 88 per cent through the week to earn first team all-star honours including a perfect game against Gushue. He did not have his best in the rematch for gold though shooting 71 per cent – compared to Gushue's stellar 97 per cent – in the 7-3 defeat.

Team Bottcher have proven they have what it takes to go all the way, winning three consecutive Pinty's Grand Slam of Curling titles in 2019, and just need to ensure they have enough in the tank when it matters most.

Boom or bust for Dunstone, Epping?

Matt Dunstone claimed the bronze medal last year while looking to end Saskatchewan’s title drought at the Brier that dates back to 1980. Dunstone had an interesting 2019-20 season where he captured his first Pinty's Grand Slam of Curling title at the Masters but then missed the playoffs at the following three events in the series. That streakiness followed his team on tour where they missed playoffs but also finished runner-up at the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard to Epping.

Likewise, Epping had the hot hand heading into the Brier last year after winning the Canada Cup and finishing runner-up at the Meridian Canadian Open until running into Jacobs in the second round of tiebreakers.

If Dunstone and Epping have a handle on the ice conditions and the rocks, whatever you do, don’t leave them any opportunities to hit for runbacks. Just don’t. They say curling is like chess on ice but sometimes it’s more like checkers when you see one guy clear the board in one move.

Who’s likely to play the role of upset or spoiler?

Considering any of the previously mentioned teams could win the Brier and we haven’t even talked about Team Wild Card One (Mike McEwen) yet, it just shows there's too much talent at the top to see a team pull off a week’s worth of upsets. Never mind potential championship teams missing the playoffs, there are going to be very good teams even missing the eight-team Championship Pool. The Scotties proved even without a tour season the elite teams still rose to the occasion.

However, that doesn’t mean there can’t be a team playing the spoiler role and take away crucial wins from teams that need them. Manitoba’s Jason Gunnlaugson is no underdog reaching the Championship Pool last year and will give some other teams fits with his ability to throw razor-sharp runbacks ala Dunstone and Epping. Team Wild Card Three should live up to its wild-card designation with skip Glenn Howard on the mend following a snowmobile accident and three-time world champion Wayne Middaugh coming off the bench. Middaugh hasn’t played at the Brier since 2013 and looked like his career was over following a leg injury while skiing but will be counted on to deliver a vintage performance. Scott McDonald skipped Ontario into the Championship Pool in 2019 and is filling in for Nova Scotia’s Jamie Murphy making them another intriguing entry.

These teams might not go all the way – although you never know – but will more likely provide a thorn in the side to the top contenders along the way.

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