Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Gushue heading back to the Rock Much to be said for Virtue

Regina skip enjoys watching his team start putting it together

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PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE -- Brock Virtue sank into a stuffed-up couch in the Canad Inns hotel lobby, looking for all the world as if it was his home.

The Saskatchewan skip was resting then, lounging easy between battles on day two of the Prairie Classic. Behind him was a confident 6-1 win over reigning Brier champion Brad Jacobs on Saturday afternoon, and ahead was a Section A final against Manitoba's Mike McEwen. Still, Virtue looked as chilled-out as a guy on vacation. Don't let that part fool you, though. Brock Virtue means business.

"We're in a good spot right now," said Virtue, 27, of going undefeated through three games, including toppling veteran Glenn Howard 5-3 on Friday.

In the Prairie Classic, yeah, but also looking forward to the rest of the season, and beyond. Team Virtue -- which includes third Braeden Moskowy, second Chris Schille and lead DJ Kidby -- has more wins on the World Curling Tour so far than they did all last season, their first year together.

Last weekend, they curled their way to second place behind Kevin Martin in Edmonton's Direct Horizontal Drilling Fall Classic. That was the first qualifier they've made, as a team. True, the field wasn't as strong as it is in Portage la Prairie this weekend, but Virtue could still feel how the four were finding their flow.

"The team's been curling really well," he nodded.

Of course, the rink was picked to be that way. It's not as if they were pals before they started curling together, Virtue shrugged.

"We designed this team for the purpose of becoming a competitive team," he said, though he noted they're all buddies now, over a year into their mission. "It was just a matter of getting to know each other."

It all came together last year, after Virtue decamped from his old stomping grounds in Lethbridge, Alta., and settled in Regina. Right away, he fit right in -- "everyone curls" in Saskatchewan, he said -- and assembled his current team. But building chemistry takes time, and their first tour season was a slog. Last season, Team Virtue never made a World Curling Tour event qualifier, but waded instead through loss after loss.

"It was extremely tough for us to work through that," Virtue said. "It was really hard last year, dealing with all of the losses weekend after weekend. But we definitely worked through it."

When it was over, the four buckled down, hit the practice ice and chilled out together outside the rink. Then, in advance of the provincial championships, something seemed to click. Virtue -- the Alberta runner-up with his previous team, just a year before -- took the Saskatchewan title, and headed to the Brier.

In the national championship, Virtue went 5-6. It wasn't a sterling record by the numbers, but the skip thought his rink curled well. With that came a little confidence, and with confidence, well, comes the chance to push past just about anyone.

"I honestly believe that's one of the most important things in any sport," said Virtue, the 2007 world junior champion. "Knowing you can win is extremely important."

So flash forward to Saturday afternoon, three unbeaten games into the Prairie Classic, with two tough tests against Howard and Jacobs behind them and a doozy of a challenge against McEwen's rink looming that night.

Virtue looked relaxed then, even knowing the winner of the evening game would take a qualifying berth. Even knowing McEwen -- a two-time Prairie Classic champion -- tends to steer a tight ship in this event.

Because maybe a young skip, just over a year into his fresh start in Saskatchewan, is ready to crash those waves too.

"I hope we're on our way somewhere," Virtue said, before ambling back to his hotel room. "I guess we'll find out."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 20, 2013 B10

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