Brad Gushue experienced mixed emotions as he prepared to throw practice stones for the first time this season.
He opened his curling bag and found the gold medal, crest and Newfoundland and Labrador jacket as he left them after winning the Brier last March before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. While excited to be back on the ice ahead of a new season, Gushue felt a tinge of sadness too.
"I was like, 'Whoa, this is starting to hit me now.' The last rock I threw was to win the Brier," he recalled. "It was an odd feeling because usually you win a big event like that and you get to go to worlds.
"You play a couple Slams and you probably play a little fun bonspiel here and there, get to celebrate and enjoy that win. But we never had that opportunity."
Gushue, vice Mark Nichols and second Brett Gallant started practising together again a couple weeks ago. They'll make their season debut this week at a bonspiel at Halifax's Mayflower Curling Club.
Geoff Walker, a new father who's based in Edmonton, will miss the first few bonspiels of the season. Joel Krats, a Labrador City native who won Canadian junior silver last season, will fill in at lead.
"The competition part is what I miss the most," Gushue said from St. John's. "I am looking forward to this weekend and having to draw the four-foot against a couple shots and hopefully having some shots to win some games.
"That's the fun part for me. I am looking forward to that more than the grind of the practices and the workouts."
Gushue delivered a clinical 7-3 victory over Alberta's Brendan Bottcher in the Brier final at Kingston, Ont., for his third national title in four years. The win also gave him a berth in the Olympic Trials next fall and a spot in the 2021 Brier as Team Canada.
The 2006 Olympic champion missed out on wearing national colours again at the world championship in Glasgow, Scotland, when it was cancelled due to the pandemic.
When the off-season started early, Gushue focused on family and non-curling pursuits, including his work as an Orangetheory Fitness franchisee. He has two locations in St. John's and is partners with Mark Dacey - a 2004 Brier winner - at two locations in Nova Scotia, including a studio that recently opened.
That meant 60- to 80-hour work weeks over the summer.
"We'd (love) to get our capacity up and actually get to operating at a normal level," Gushue said. "But the fact that we're at 50 per cent (due to restrictions), we're doing extremely well."
Gushue's team is planning to stay in the Atlantic bubble this fall, with bonspiel appearances planned for next month in Halifax and possibly around the holiday season in December.
With Brier and Trials spots locked in, the foursome can play a reduced schedule that works for them without the pressure or urgency that other teams may face.
"We want to make sure that we're doing the right things for us and our families and our supporters," Gushue said. "We've got the full support of our sponsors, which is awesome. We're taking it as it comes."
The first four Grand Slams of the season were cancelled and the Canada Cup has been indefinitely postponed. A hub or bubble-type setup is being considered for national championships but there is no word on when Curling Canada might unveil details.
Gushue admits his excitement level is somewhat lower than normal given the ambiguity surrounding the 2020-21 campaign. The veteran skip expects that will change as soon as confirmed details are released.
"I think the engagement and that focus kind of goes up a notch or two when you know what's going to happen," he said. "There's just so much uncertainty right now where you can grind it out for a year, train and practise and nothing can happen.
"Now obviously that's going to help you for next year. But when when you get to be 40 years old you don't really want to grind when you don't need to."
In the meantime, Gushue and his teammates will build up with regional bonspiel appearances. After a long break of almost eight months, they're excited to get going.
"This is an opportunity for us to go out and do something that's a little bit closer to normal for us, even though there's some rule changes and things that we're not used to doing," he said.
"But it does bring us a step or two closer to some normalcy and we're certainly excited about that."