Brad Gushue has always worn red and white at the Tim Hortons Brier but this year his team will have the Maple Leaf on their backs instead of the Newfoundland and Labrador crest.
Gushue, third Mark Nichols, second Brett Gallant and lead Geoff Walker return to the men’s national curling championship — which starts Friday in Regina with the wildcard game — in the Team Canada auto-berth spot as they prepare to defend the title they won in their hometown of St. John’s a year ago.
The 2006 Olympic gold medallist and reigning world champion Gushue has been busy since last hitting the ice at the Meridian Canadian Open in Camrose, Alta., providing colour commentary for Sportsnet’s coverage of the Manitoba men’s provincial championship in Winkler, Man.
We caught up with Gushue over the phone this past Friday for Eight Ends to discuss his team’s Brier preparation plans, his thoughts on the new format plus what went wrong for Canada at the Winter Olympics.
1st End: Same colours, different crest
Jonathan Brazeau: What’s it like going into the Brier as Team Canada instead of Newfoundland and Labrador?
Brad Gushue: I don’t think it’s any different at this point. The only real difference is we didn’t have to play provincials, which was nice but really our preparation is going to be the same. The uniforms are almost identical, so I guess when we turn around and see the Maple Leaf versus the Newfoundland coat of arms, that’s going to be a little bit different.
We have had a few little giggles when Geoff was looking at the schedule and basically started rattling off the Newfoundland games. We had to tell him that we were the other team [laughs]. Really, other than that, that’s the only difference I see. It’s my first time going through it so certainly, I’m sure … we might have some differences that we’re not aware at this time.
2nd End: Prep plan
JB: How has the team been preparing for the Brier?
BG: After the Grand Slam in Camrose, I took a pretty long stretch off actually. I took about two-and-a-half weeks where I didn’t throw a rock and kind of got away from the game. I encouraged the guys to do the same thing. I think we were experiencing some pretty heavy burnout after that stretch of the mixed doubles, Continental Cup and Camrose. We took that break and when I went to Winkler and did the commentary I started to feel myself getting hungry to get out on the ice again, so I knew that was a good thing to take that break.
Then since we got back on the ice we’ve fallen into our usual routine of practice. We’ve thrown a few two days in there and over the next week now we’re going to start easing off and taking a couple days off to make sure we’re good and rested for when the Brier starts.
3rd End: Less pressure this year
JB: It’s going to be hard to top winning in your hometown last year but do you feel there’s less pressure going into the Brier now that you’ve won it already?
BG: Yeah absolutely. If you look at my career going into the Brier last year, there was one pretty obvious hole in there and that was the Brier. I had won just about every other event we had played in at some point in my career and the Brier was the one that had kind of eluded me. To get that monkey off our back and to do it at home was even more special.
This year is certainly a lot easier going in without that burden on your shoulders. It’s going to make it a little less stressful and you know what? It might even free us up to go out there and to really play the way we’re capable of playing.
I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to getting back out on the ice. It’s been a nice break but it’s been long enough between Camrose and the Brier, so I’m looking forward to getting back out and playing some competitive games.
4th End: The other Team Newfoundland and Labrador
JB: With two teams in the Brier from Newfoundland and Labrador, what are your thoughts on Team Greg Smith?
BG: I’ll be completely honest, I don’t know a whole bunch about them at this point. I obviously know Greg but I haven’t really watched their team play a whole lot of games. I was in Winkler for most of the provincials so I only got to see them play once or twice. He himself played really well and I’m certain they’re going to love the experience of the Brier but the calibre of teams they’re going to be facing is going to be a big adjustment from what they played at the provincial championship. The ice is going to be a big adjustment and the crowds are going to be a big adjustment. I certainly hope they perform as well as they’re capable of doing.
I’m really happy they’re in our pool. I would have been really disappointed to not get a chance to play Newfoundland as Team Canada. When I found out they were in our pool I was pretty excited because I loved the chance to have that Newfoundland-Canada matchup no matter who it was. I thought that would be pretty cool to play your home province.
JB: Pretty cool but also awkward perhaps?
BG: It’s going to be a little different looking at their jackets and seeing the N.L. on the back instead of ours but it’s probably going to be the one time in my career I’m going to be cheering against Newfoundland [laughs]. It should be a fun game and it’s certainly one I’m going to be looking forward to.
5th End: Not a fan of new Brier format
JB: How do you feel about the new Brier format with pool play?
BG: I don’t like it. I think from what I’ve seen at the Scotties, I found at the beginning of the week there weren’t a whole lot of great matchups and then at the end of the week there are a ton of great matchups but you can only show one on TV. From a fan’s perspective, I don’t think it’s great in that regard. Certainly, from the players’ standpoint, that wildcard game is tough. You’ve got to tell your boss or your family I’m either gone for a day or I’m gone for 10. That makes it a challenge.
Also, there are going to be some teams that you don’t get to play, which I know from my perspective if Newfoundland was in the other pool I would have just been super disappointed that I wouldn’t have got a chance to play them. If you look at it from someone like Greg Smith’s perspective, he’s worked hard to get to the Brier and unless he gets to the championship round to play a team like Brad Jacobs, Reid Carruthers or Steve Laycock, that’s kind of disappointing too that they don’t get that chance. I think there are better options out there for a format that will meet all the criteria that they’re trying to meet and also make it a little bit easier on the players and for the fans.
6th End: On the mic
JB: How was your commentary debut at provincial playdowns in Manitoba?
BG: I really enjoyed it. Rob Faulds is a true professional. He made it easy for me or as easy as he could. I think from my perspective it was probably a little more challenging than I expected with the people talking in your ear and trying to make sure you didn’t talk too much and make sure you talked enough, trying to find that balance. It was certainly a different perspective. I had a blast. It’s something I’d love to do a little bit more of in the future. It was fun. Hopefully, I did a good job.
JB: Mike McEwen sure made it interesting returning from a hospital stay due to chickenpox.
BG: It made a great storyline for sure. He was gone all week and then to show up in the final and play, definitely a strong effort for him. Nice of his team to support him and allow him to go in that way. Probably didn’t give him the best chance to win because I’ve been in that situation that Mike was in where you come back after being away for a period of time. It can be hard to get your feel back right away. They obviously brought it down to the last shot and it was definitely a good provincial.
7th End: Mixed doubles
JB: You also mentioned during the commentary about using a corn broom during mixed doubles so you wouldn’t have to sweep. I spoke with your teammate Val Sweeting about that and she was not amused.
BG: She let me know that. I’ll have to stick to my regular broom and start working on the sweeping a little bit. We had a blast playing together. If we’re not fortunate enough to win the Brier, we’re going to play the mixed doubles nationals this year and give it a go. I don’t have a corn broom so she can rest a little easier.
8th End: Canada falls short at Olympics
JB: With Canada finishing off of the podium at the Winter Olympics for the first time in men’s and women’s curling, what needs to be done to react to the situation without overreacting?
BG: I don’t think we need to overreact and I’m not convinced that [the world teams] have totally caught up. They have gotten better. I think there are two sides to this and one is the world teams have gotten better but the other side of it is I think that it’s fair to say Rachel [Homan] and Kevin [Koe] probably didn’t play as well as they had expected to or had hoped to.
My biggest concern would be how do we ensure as Canadians our teams are ready when they get there? I just think the timeline is too tight. The schedule that those athletes were put through was too much and I say that from experience because I obviously went through it 12 years ago. It’s just absolute chaos from the point you win to the point you get to the Olympics where you really don’t have much time to decompress and really take in what you’re about to take part in and also what you achieved when you won the trials.
You turn around, you’ve got a couple weeks where you just really need to recharge the batteries physically after playing the trials and then all of a sudden you’re into Christmas and everybody knows how chaotic that is for 10 days to two weeks. Then by the time you’re through that you’re only three or four weeks away and then you’ve got to prep, get your family taken care of to make sure that their flights are there, their hotels and their tickets. You’re probably fundraiser because going to a place like Korea or in our case Italy was $8,000 to $10,000 per person. You want all your family to be there and not all of us have $40,000 or $50,000 to bring five or six family members over. All those things go into it.
I would certainly love to see Canada push back our trials three or four weeks. I think it would make a huge difference. The other side, I think, we need to change our qualification process to get into the trials to make it not as rigorous. I think right now we really wear our teams down for three years earning as many points as they can, travelling around, playing in all the events that they can. There’s a good possibility that those teams were a little bit more tired than they should have and they probably don’t even believe it but they have to be. I know how I felt over the last few weeks and my burnout after the event in Camrose, the Grand Slam. They had to be feeling very similar and then they’re going into the biggest event of their lives. I don’t know if they were set up for the success the way they should have been.
In Kevin’s situation, there’s nobody close to Kevin in that field other than Niklas [Edin]. I could see on the women’s side, they have a little bit more depth in that field, but certainly, in the men’s field, Kevin and Niklas were on a different level. So to see him not get a medal is certainly a surprise but I think it goes back to how little time that they had and probably how chaotic things were for them and through no fault of their own. It really just kind of comes down to the scheduling of the events, all the media stuff that they had to do and you just layer all the stuff on top of each other. I’m sure they did all they possibly could to be as good as they could. I just don’t know if the scheduling allowed them to be at their best.
Extra End: Kaetlyn Osmond
JB: What was it like seeing fellow Newfoundlander Kaetlyn Osmond capture two medals at the Pyeongchang Games in figure skating?
BG: It’s awesome. She did great. I watched both her skates and to come through in that moment and perform the way she did I’m very proud of her. I know as all Newfoundlanders are we’re extremely proud of her. We are a small province and it’s nice to see athletes make it on a big stage. It really shows the kids across our province that just because you’re from a small little island off the coast of Canada in the middle of the ocean you can achieve great things if you put in the work, you put in the effort, you get the right coaching and do all the right things that Kaetlyn did, it is possible.
When we won in 2006 I certainly felt that and heard that from kids all over the province. I still hear it to this day how our win inspired people to push a little harder in sport or school or business, all those things, which is great to hear. I’m certain what Kaetlyn did is going to have the same impact. I’m very proud of her as a Newfoundlander and she should be very proud of herself.
JB: I’m just waiting for them to name a highway after her now too.
BG: I don’t know if she wants a highway named after her because the one we have has a lot of potholes and everybody gives us a hard time about it [laughs]. Certainly, she’s deserving of any honour that the province wants to bestow upon her. What she did is incredible and I don’t think the average sports fan or the casual sports fan really understands the amount of commitment that she put into it or any of the athletes that are competing in the Olympics have. What she did was truly special and, to be honest, any honour they put on her she deserves 100 percent.
Brad Gushue stands in front of a sign for the Team Gushue Highway in Newfoundland.