SAULT STE. MARIE, Ont. — Bruce Mouat expected the Essar Centre crowd to be just a little one-sided during his Boost National tiebreaker match last Friday.
Mouat took on Brad Jacobs in the defending champion and reigning Olympic gold medallist’s backyard with a playoff spot on the line, so you can see why he expected a hostile environment.
The 23-year-old from Edinburgh, Scotland, didn’t waver in the high-pressure situation under the bright TV lights and Sportsnet cameras covering the pin with a perfect draw in the pre-game shootout to secure hammer. Both teams had early jitters burning rocks in the tense opening end, but Mouat managed to capitalize scoring three points and never looked back from there. Mouat secured an 8-5 victory to upset and eliminate the hometown hero.
Curling fans always cheer for good shots (always) and the Sault Ste. Marie fans couldn’t resist applauding for Mouat whenever he delivered (which was as often as the mailman).
“It sounded like the crowd was clapping some of ours as well, which was nice,” Mouat said. “It’s always really cool to play in Canada against home favourites like Brad and his team. The crowd was really good and we just kind of soaked up the atmosphere.”
That was the spark that lit the fire as Mouat, third Grant Hardie, second Bobby Lammie and lead Hammy McMillan Jr. went on a red-hot run all the way to the Boost National championship. Not only were they the first men’s squad from curling’s homeland to capture a Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling title, Mouat also became the youngest men’s skip ever to win a championship in the series.
“We had so much depth in Scotland and still we have lots of teams that are doing really well,” Mouat said. “Just to be able to say I was the first skip and we’re the first team to win from Scotland is a great feeling as well.”
It’s been a swift and spectacular rise for Mouat, who only made his Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling debut a year-and-a-half ago at the 2016 Humpty’s Champions Cup. Mouat earned an invitation to that event as the world junior champion and raised eyebrows in his promotion to the big leagues defeating the likes of Niklas Edin of Sweden and American John Shuster — both of whom had just represented their respective nations at the world men’s championship — before falling in a tiebreaker to Saskatoon’s Steve Laycock.
Mouat captured the Winter Universiade gold medal earlier this year and finished runner-up to two-time world champion and 2014 Olympic silver medallist David Murdoch at the Scottish nationals.
The off-season brought upon the waiting game with Team Great Britain making its decision for the Winter Olympics. Kyle Smith’s squad was selected and caused a domino effect of changes. Murdoch called it quits joining British Curling as a technical and tactical consultant while the other tops teams shuffled their lineups. Lammie was the only holdover from Mouat’s old squad (along with coach Alan Hannah) with cousins Hardie, who previously skipped, and McMillan Jr., from Tom Brewster’s team, coming on board.
“We’ve always known all the guys have got talent,” said Murdoch, who joined Hannah behind the boards coaching Team Mouat at the Boost National. “We have a lot of talent in Scotland and with our new facility, we’re hoping we can appreciate these teams and have a few Scottish teams coming over here and do well. For Scottish curling, it’s an exciting time ahead.”
The Tour Challenge opened the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling season and featured 30 men’s teams divided into two tiers of action. With Team Mouat ranked No. 35 on the World Curling Tour’s Order of Merit at the time, they hit the road on the “Tier III” circuit and clicked together in a flash. Mouat won back-to-back tournaments in September at the Oakville Curling Club in Ontario capturing the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard and Biosteel Oakville Fall Classic. His opponent in both finals: Chang-Min Kim of South Korea, who also fast-tracked his way to the top ranks.
“We gelled really well at the start of the season,” Mouat said. “We played really good competitions in Oakville. The [roster change] over the summer period was up in the air for a while because we didn’t know what the Olympic team was. When we found that out we just got in contact with each other and said this was the team we wanted to form. It’s gone amazingly so far.”
Team Mouat was in tough to qualify for the playoffs at the Boost National with a pool featuring Mike McEwen, Brad Gushue, John Morris and Greg Balsdon, all of whom need no introduction. Mouat split his round-robin games defeating Morris and Balsdon while losing to McEwen and Gushue. The game against the Gushue could have gone either way though with Mouat stealing to take the lead before the reigning Brier and world champion rallied late and won in an extra end. That forced the tiebreaker situation against Jacobs with the winner moving on and the loser gone.
“We had Gushue and McEwen in our group so we knew we had to play well just to get out of our group because we had Morris and Balsdon as well,” Mouat said. “Tough group and as soon as we got to play Brad Jacobs in front of the home crowd it was a good game to win. We got really pumped for it and just went on a roll from there.”
After knocking out Jacobs, Mouat continued the “giant killer” role taking down 2016 Brier and world champion Kevin Koe in Saturday’s quarterfinals and avenging the loss over the six-time Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling title winner McEwen in the evening semifinals. That set up a showdown in Sunday’s final against who else but Kim, who was making his Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling debut no less and riding the wave as well.
“Coming here, it’s our second Slam for most of us, so we kind of knew what to expect,” Mouat said after defeating McEwen in the semifinals. “We never expected to have easy games and we didn’t get one. It’s just amazing to be in the final of a Grand Slam. It’s weird to say but it’s exciting.”
Another key to Mouat’s unreal tournament was the unusual field. Edin and Smith were both overseas for the European Championships while Canadian teams had either arrived straight from competing in the Olympic pre-trials and fighting fatigue or preparing for the upcoming Canadian Olympic curling trials and attempting to minimize their risks by playing tight. That set up an ideal scenario for an underdog like Mouat to come through relaxed with nothing to lose.
“Our guys were loose, enjoying it and the ice was just fantastic,” Murdoch said. “Every shot could be made and it was so consistent all week so it’s a credit to the ice crew as well. It’s just been a pleasure.”
After Kim gave up a steal in the first, the reigning Pacific-Asia champion took control with a deuce in two followed by a single swipe of his own in three to lead 3-1. The tables turned though and Mouat pulled ahead with a three-count in four. Mouat flashed his first skip stone in five but was given a mulligan when Kim also misfired. He didn’t miss the mark the second time around to set up another steal and make it 5-3.
Mouat had all the momentum making back-to-back sensational shots in the sixth end — a cross-house double takeout followed by a double raise takeout — to limit Kim to just one.
“I played pretty much three shots in a row in the out-turn half stone or thinner than that,” Mouat said. “Even in the fifth end, I was playing those shots so we knew I was throwing them good. We just tightened up the ice and gave it to the sweepers. Then with that second shot, the double raise, it was just tick-tight ice and just gave it to the sweepers again and they held it.”
Kim, who shot 57 percent in the final, ran out of steam in the seventh end with his last shot rolling wide open and allowing Mouat to pop it out, score four and bring out the handshakes with a 9-4 decision.
Mouat, who remained cool, calm and collected throughout, described the win as simply “average” before laughing.
“No, it’s really good,” he said with a smile. “I’m really excited. It’s so tough it’s unbelievable really just the competition we’ve had. We’ve played so well and hopefully, it’s a sign of things to come.”
The amazing part, as Murdoch can atest to, is Team Mouat still has room to grow and can somehow only get better from here.
“Alan has done a lot of work with the team dynamics and we’ve done a lot of work back home with me on strategy and shot-playing,” Murdoch said. “They really tuned into that this week. We had a good feeling about the guys. They were feeling confident and some of the calls they made and the shots, especially Bruce made, were just phenomenal. The shots he’s called I haven’t even seen from some teams here.
“It’s impressive stuff and for this team, it’s still a stepping stone. They now belong here and now they’ve got to stay here. We know how tough it is. They need to continue to work hard and see themselves as a progression as to what they want to achieve.”