TORONTO — Brad Gushue said it’s nice to actually play in the Stu Sells Toronto Tankard for once this year.
The St. John’s, N.L., skip was limited to spectator status at the High Park Club last season while recovering from a hip/groin issue. Third Mark Nichols took the reins with spare Adam Spencer filling in at vice duties (second Brett Gallant and lead Geoff Walker remained in their front-end roles). Team
Gushue Nichols persevered and won the World Curling Tour event regardless finishing with an unblemished 6-0 record.
With the injury far behind in his rearview mirror, the reigning Brier and world champion Gushue returned to Toronto ready to defend the title he never won in the first place.
“It’s a fun event and Stu [Sankey] puts on a good show,” Gushue said Friday. “The guys were talking about a lot of stories that happened last year with me not here. Well, I was here for the beginning of the week but not being on the ice was a little bit odd, so it is nice to be playing this year. I feel pretty good and things have been going well so far.”
Gushue made the most of his time in T.O. last year getting the opportunity to attend the decisive Game 3 of the ALDS at the Rogers Centre with the Blue Jays sweeping the Texas Rangers. The Blue Jays missing the playoffs could be one reason why several other top teams opted to skip the Stu Sells Toronto Tankard this year — normally a 24-team triple knockout preliminary round, the event is down to 20 teams — although the more logical explanation is they’re focusing on the pre-trials and Canadian Olympic Curling Trials coming up in November and December, respectively.
“It’s an Olympic year and I think all of the trials teams and pre-trials teams are really scheduling their year for those events and a lot of teams are playing a little bit less than they have in the past, which has caused some teams not to come to an event like this or some of the others,” Gushue said. “We’re not changing much. It is like any other year it’s just there happens to be a big event this year. I guess every team has their own decisions to make and it’s unfortunate that we didn’t see 24 teams here because it is a great event.”
Team Gushue didn’t alter their schedule too much from previous seasons — only dropping Gatineau in late October — as sticking with a front-heavy tour season was their only option to even get ice time.
“We wanted to play a lot early because we don’t have ice at home, but hopefully now this week when we get back to St. John’s we’ll have some ice and be able to practice,” Gushue said. “Otherwise, if we were to take a week off at this time of the year we wouldn’t be on the ice at all. We felt play as much as we can September and early October and we’ll space it out then in November and the end of October.”
This will be Gushue’s first Olympic Trials since winning it all in 2005 en route to gold for Canada at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Gushue was eliminated in both the 2009 and 2013 pre-trials although he did attend the 2013 Olympic Trials riding the pine as the alternate for Kevin Martin.
“Certainly at the 2009 trials we were good enough to be there. I felt at that time we were probably the third or fourth best team in the country behind Glenn [Howard] and Kevin, so for us not to get there that year was a big shocker,” Gushue said. “In 2013 we were kind of in a rebuilding mode with Brett, Geoff, and Adam Casey and I think we would have had to play extremely well to have done well there. I don’t think we were ready to win at that time, so that wasn’t as devastating to not be in that one. Obviously to get the opportunity to play with Kevin, or to join that team, that was a great experience for me. It was painful not being able to play there but certainly a good experience and something that’s helped me over the last number of years.”
One of the positives was sitting alongside Team Martin coach Jules Owchar, who has since taken on a similar role with Team Gushue in recent years.
“It’s paid dividends and sometimes you never know the relationships you’re going to develop, how they’re going to impact your career or your life as you go forward,” Gushue said. “Obviously that week-and-a-half or two weeks I spent with Kevin’s team I got to know Jules pretty well, developed a very good relationship and comfort level with him and you’ve seen what’s happened over the last couple years with Jules as part of our team, we’ve played very well. He’s fit in so seamlessly on this team. That relationship and that situation would have never come about had I not gone and played fifth and spent that time with Jules.”
Nichols, who spent the previous Olympic cycle playing with Winnipeg’s Jeff Stoughton, returned to St. John’s in 2014 and rejoined Team Gushue, which meant Casey was the odd man out to make room. Team Gushue has risen to the next level since then winning the Brier and world championships as well as seven Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling titles including last month’s Tour Challenge Tier 1.
Certainly nobody is going to say Gushue, ranked No. 1 on the World Curling Tour’s Order of Merit, has “no chance” to win the trials this time, as Stoughton (in)famously said in 2005, although looking at the depth of the field that also features reigning Olympic gold medallist Brad Jacobs, Kevin Koe, Reid Carruthers, Mike McEwen, John Epping, Steve Laycock plus two more teams from the pre-trials, it’s anybody’s ballgame.
“I’m never going out as far as saying nobody has a chance. I certainly think right now the seven teams that are in there, all of us have the capability to win it. Some probably have a higher percentage chance than others but certainly everybody has a chance,” Gushue said. “Obviously if a team like [John] Morris gets through the pre-trials, they’re going to have a chance. In theory, we could have nine teams that could win and it really is going to come down to who gets hot, who gets the breaks and it’s an unfortunate way to go to the Olympics but there’s no other way to do it. We have so many top teams and great teams in Canada it really is the only way to do it but when you’ve been playing well for years it could come down to one shot. It could be the difference but it’s the same way each and every year with the Brier and the worlds so you’ve got to deal with it.”
Gushue said he’s not worried about peaking at the right (or wrong) time as his team has proven over the previous three seasons they come to play no matter what.
“We know how to develop our schedule and how to make sure we’re ready for big events and we’ve shown that over the last three years that all the big events we’ve been pretty well ready to play,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to win but we’re going to be kicking around there at the end of the week. You see that with the Slams, the Brier, and the Canada Cup, we’ve been knocking at the door at each one of them. Hopefully, we give ourselves that same opportunity and then it comes down to a little bit of luck and a little bit of timing to see if you can actually finish it off.”
NEWS & NOTES
– Team Gushue got out to a hot start at the Stu Sells Toronto Tankard winning their opening pair of games Friday to reach the A finals of the triple knockout preliminary stage. Gushue scored four in the seventh to beat Jordan Chandler 5-1 during the afternoon draw and followed that up with a 7-4 victory over Greg Balsdon in the evening.
– Spencer is playing the super spare role once again although this time he’s filling in for third Richard Hart on Team Howard. The Guelph native Spencer is no stranger to the squad as he subbed for Wayne Middaugh during the 2015-16 season and helped Howard capture the Ontario Tankard to represent the province at the Brier.
– It was also a two-win Friday for Norway’s Thomas Ulsrud, who made it to the other A final. Ulsrud beat Team Hall, skipped by spare Mike Harris, 5-3 and topped William Lyburn 5-1.
– The women’s division features a round-robin format with 18 teams split into three pools.
– Preliminary play continues through to Sunday with the playoffs set for Thanksgiving Monday.