Jason Gunnlaugson isn't approaching the next 10 days in the Calgary bubble as a bonus Brier.

Jason Gunnlaugson isn't approaching the next 10 days in the Calgary bubble as a bonus Brier.

Nor should the 36-year-old skip as his Team Manitoba crew eagerly awaits the dawn of the Canadian men's curling championship. A second consecutive appearance might not have been earned in the traditional sense, but make no mistake about Gunnlaugson's merit.

The Morris-based squad is more than worthy of inclusion in the stacked 18-team battle royal at Markin MacPhail Centre. Indeed, full marks to Gunnlaugson, third Adam Casey, second Matt Wozniak and lead Connor Njegovan, who comprise the eighth-ranked outfit in the country and 13th on the planet.

After cancelling its provincial playdowns — including the Viterra men's championship in Selkirk — because of ongoing health concerns and restrictions owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, Curl Manitoba tabbed its 2020 champions to return to the nationals.

Jason Gunnlaugson and his team comprise the eighth-ranked outfit in the country and 13th in the world.

SEAN KILPATRICK / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Jason Gunnlaugson and his team comprise the eighth-ranked outfit in the country and 13th in the world.

Gunnlaugson, seeded eighth at the Brier, said receiving the appointment doesn't diminishes the significance of battling for the coveted title, particularly when a flashing asterisk already delineates a mostly hijacked 2020-21 curling season.

"It's disappointing that such a great (Viterra) championship wasn't possible to run this year. That's the first thing. But once it became clear how it was all going to shake out, the opportunity to wear the buffalo is extremely exciting. I know when we got our jerseys and kit for the event, it was probably as excited as we've been during this whole process," Gunnlaugson said Wednesday, from self-isolation in his hotel room.

Four-fifths of the squad, including fifth-player Jacques Gauthier, arrived from Winnipeg by convoy in three vehicles Tuesday evening, while Casey, an import from Charlottetown, flew into Calgary on Wednesday.

Gushue embraces uncertainty at unique Brier

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Defending Brier champion Brad Gushue expects most teams to experience some early struggles before the cream, inevitably, rises to the top.
Defending Brier champion Brad Gushue expects most teams to experience some early struggles before the cream, inevitably, rises to the top.

Posted: 7:00 PM Mar. 3, 2021

Brad Gushue is a titan in Canadian curling.

No monument — a la Mount Rushmore — exists celebrating the greats of the men's game. If one did, strong consideration would be given to include his image among those carved from the granite.

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"We get to represent our province again and get a bit of a two-for-one, which, again if we had never won before would have been really weird — going without having ever won. But we'll take the two-for-one and try and improve on our performance from last year."

The Brier, which begins Friday and wraps up Sunday, March 14, follows closely on the heels of the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, which started a run of six competitions in a spectator-free setting at the rink at Canada Olympic Park.

Gunnlaugson won't be the lone team brandishing some impassioned Manitoba pride.

Mike McEwen slides into his sixth straight Canadian championship, guiding a West St. Paul unit of third Reid Carruthers, second Derek Samagalski and lead Colin Hodgson.

It marks McEwen's third time bearing the wild-card label, after Curling Canada confirmed his team, along with Kevin Koe of Alberta and Glenn Howard of Ontario as the final entries in early February.

The Brandon product, skipping the fifth-seeded team, maintained the challenge never becomes pedestrian.

Mike McEwen slides into his sixth straight Canadian championship.

SEAN KILPATRICK / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Mike McEwen slides into his sixth straight Canadian championship.

"Just like any kid that grew up curling, this is big. I've been chasing after a Brier title since I was dreaming about it at 10 years old, and I'm not going to pretend that I have an infinite amount of years left," he said Wednesday. "Even at 40, I'm very excited to try and do this, especially with some great teammates. To have this opportunity to go at it against the best teams in Canada — many of the best in the world — is amazing.

"Six in a row after a lot of opportunities lost — probably eight or nine — before actually actually making it," he added. "Getting the sixth opportunity, I'm very happy about that. I know how difficult it can be to get here, especially from a province like Manitoba, so we're not going to take it lightly. You try and lay it all out there like it's your last one."

2021 BRIER Canadian men's curling championship

March 5-14, Markin MacPhail Centre, Calgary

THE FIELD
(teams listed by seed, and in order of skip, vice-skip, second, lead, fifth, coach)

POOL A
1. Northern Ontario, Brad Jacobs (Marc Kennedy, E.J. Harnden, Ryan Harnden, Lee Toner, Rick Lang; Sault Ste. Marie)

POOL A
1. Northern Ontario, Brad Jacobs (Marc Kennedy, E.J. Harnden, Ryan Harnden, Lee Toner, Rick Lang; Sault Ste. Marie)
4. Alberta, Brendan Bottcher (Darren Moulding, Brad Thiessen, Karrick Martin, Patrick Janssen, Don Bartlett; Edmonton)
5. Wild Card 1, Mike McEwen (Reid Carruthers, Derek Samagalski, Colin Hodgson, Rob Meakin; West St. Paul)
8. Manitoba, Jason Gunnlaugson (Adam Casey, Matt Wozniak, Connor Njegovan, Jacques Gauthier; Morris)
9. Wild Card 3, Glenn Howard (Scott Howard, David Mathers, Tim March, Wayne Middaugh; Penetanguishene, Ont.)
12. British Columbia, Steve Laycock (Jim Cotter, Andrew Nerpin, Rick Sawatsky, Tyler Tardi, Gerry Adam; Vernon)
13. New Brunswick, James Grattan (Jonathan Beuk, Andy McCann, Jamie Brannen, Kevin Keefe; Oromocto)
16. Northwest Territories, Greg Skauge (Tom Naugler, Brad Patzer, Robert Borden, David Aho; Yellowknife)
17. Yukon, Dustin Mikkelsen (Alexx Peech, Brandon Hagen, Robert Mckinnon, Ray Mikkelsen; Whitehorse)

POOL B
2. Ontario, John Epping (Ryan Fry, Mat Camm, Brent Laing, Jim Wilson; Toronto)
3. Team Canada (defending champion), Brad Gushue (Mark Nichols, Brett Gallant, Geoff Walker, Ryan McNeil Lamswood, Jules Owchar; St. John’s)
6. Wild Card 2, Kevin Koe (B.J. Neufeld, John Morris, Ben Hebert, Mike Caione; Calgary)
7. Saskatchewan, Matt Dunstone (Braeden Moskowy, Kirk Muyres, Dustin Kidby, Adam Kingsbury; Wadena)
10. Nova Scotia, Jamie Murphy (Scott McDonald to skip; Paul Flemming, Scott Saccary, Phil Crowell, Kevin Ouellette; Halifax)
11. Quebec, Mike Fournier (Martin Crête, Félix Asselin, Jean-François Trépanier, William Dion, Benoit Forget; Glenmore/Etchemin/Valleyfield)
14. Newfoundland/Labrador, Greg Smith (Greg Blyde, Alex McDonah, Evan McDonah, Adam Boland, Leslie Anne Walsh; St. John’s)
15. Prince Edward Island, Eddie MacKenzie (Tyler Smith, Sean Ledgerwood, Ryan Lowery, Aaron Bartling; Crapaud/Montague)
18. Nunavut, Peter Mackey (Jeff Nadeau, Greg Howard, Jeff Chown, Brady St. Louis; Iqaluit)

Gunnlaugson, McEwen (Wild Card 1) and a long list of stellar participants — many competing for the first time since the 2020 Brier in Kingston, Ont., are aiming for the national men's title, which has been hogged by a couple of giants in the sport, Brad Gushue of St. John's, N.L., and Kevin Koe of Calgary (Wild Card 2) the past five years.

Gushue hoisted the trophy in his hometown in 2017, repeated in 2018 in Regina and won last year, while Koe staked claim to the Brier in 2016 and again in 2019 (in Brandon).

But a half-dozen others have the proficiency and experience to prevail, including Alberta representative Brendan Bottcher, who has lost the last three Canadian finals, 2014 Olympic gold medallist, 2013 Brier champion and top seed Brad Jacobs of Northern Ontario, No. 2-seed John Epping of Ontario, four-time world champion Glenn Howard of Ontario (Wild Card 3) and 2020 semifinalist Matt Dunstone, a former Winnipegger now skipping Saskatchewan.

Mirroring the Scotties, the Brier field has been expanded to 18 to accommodate teams that had their provincial or territorial championships scrapped, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. The field has been split into pools of nine, with seeding based on the 2019-20 Canadian Team Ranking System final standings.

Teams will bash around in a round robin within their respective pools, with the top four in each advancing to the championship round — carrying their records forward — to battle the quartet of teams from the other pool.

Skip Brad Gushue has hoisted the trophy in 2017, 2018 and last year.

SEAN KILPATRICK / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Skip Brad Gushue has hoisted the trophy in 2017, 2018 and last year.

McEwen and Gunnlaugson are in Pool A with the likes of Jacobs, Bottcher and Howard, and don't play on Friday's opening draw, set for 7:30 p.m.

"It looks like a gauntlet," McEwen said, laughing. "I looked at Pool B (with heavyweights such as Gushue, Koe, Epping and Dunstone) and thought, 'Oh, that's the pool of death,' and then I looked at ours and it's like, "Whoa, that's the pool of death.'

DRAW TIMES

Preliminary round-robins in pools A and B

Friday, March 5
7:30 p.m.

Preliminary round-robins in pools A and B

Friday, March 5
7:30 p.m.

Saturday, March 6 and Sunday, March 7
9:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m.

Monday, March 8
2:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m.

Tuesday, March 9 to Thursday, March 11
9:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m.

Friday, March 12
Tie-breaker (if necessary)
9 a.m.

Championship round
1:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 13

Championship round
1:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 14

Tie-breaker (if necessary)
9 a.m.

Semifinal (2 vs. 3)
1:30 p.m.

Final (1 vs. SF winner)
7:30 p.m.

"As far as depth, it looks like the greatest Brier field ever assembled, in my opinion. When you look at the men's field, there isn't anyone missing."

In Kingston, mere weeks before masks and social distancing became the norm as the virus began to take hold in Canada, McEwen finished with a 6-1 record in his pool a year ago but lost three of four contests in the championship round (7-4) before getting eliminated by Epping in a tiebreaker.

Gunnlaugson, meanwhile, was 5-2 to crack the Elite 8 before stumbling badly with four consecutive defeats.

"That definitely left a little bit of a sour taste in our mouth, especially after how good we played in the first half of the week. We probably have ratcheted up the expectations slightly, not ridiculously so. But we'd like to improve on our previous result, and we think we can," he said. "Our goal is to make it to that championship round again and be a little better prepared, knowing what to expect, and, hopefully, turn some of those losses into wins.

"You're playing such good teams and it's inevitable if you don't play absolutely fantastic — right on top of your game — you're going to be in trouble."

BELL'S PICKS:

Championship round

Pool A
Jacobs (N.Ont)
Bottcher (Alta)
McEwen (WC1)
Howard (WC3)

Championship round

Pool A
Jacobs (N.Ont)
Bottcher (Alta)
McEwen (WC1)
Howard (WC3)

Pool B
Epping (Ont)
Gushue (Canada)
Koe (WC2)
Dunstone (Sask)

Semifinal
Bottcher def. Koe

Final
Bottcher def. Gushue

The three teams with the cleanest records after the championship round qualify for the playoffs. The frontrunner goes straight to the final (Sunday, March 14, 7:30 p.m.), while the second- and third-place teams collide in the semifinal (March 14, 1:30 p.m.).

The lone survivor earns $100,000, the opportunity to wear the Maple Leaf at the world men's championship, April 2-11 in the Calgary bubble. There's also an Olympic Trials berth on the line, as long as the winning team doesn't already own one.

"There's been a lot of sacrifice by every, obviously by Curling Canada and its partners to make this happen, but also by the athletes to do this," said McEwen, whose wife, Dawn, is pregnant with the couple's second child and missed the Scotties. "It's an amazing sacrifice that everyone's put together and I'm just thankful we can do this as a team and all of our competitors can do that.

"Hopefully, we put on a show like no other that Canadian curling fans can relish in. That's what I'm hoping."

 

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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