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KINGSTON, Ont. — The quiet chatter at the outset of the 2020 Brier has become a loud, united chorus from the competitors themselves and people connected to it.
The Kingston rock-fest is the finest Brier in the 91-year history of the Canadian men's curling championship.
That's a rather subjective statement, to be sure. But the field is stacked, with eight of the top 15 teams on the World Curling Federation rankings competing at 6,700-seat Leon’s Centre, located at 1 Tragically Hip Way. Clearly, the additions of Team Canada and Team Wild Card have beefed up what was already a gathering of sensational squads before.
The playing surface, crafted by head ice technician Greg Ewasko of Oakbank and his crew, continues to get glowing reviews from competitors, most who've played on sheets across Canada and around the world.
And, it seems like absolutely no lead is secure with the mounting library of eye-popping shots — absurd attempts rendered possible by brilliant players from coast to coast, including a couple of Manitoba skips, Jason Gunnlaugson and Mike McEwen.
If there's one guy whose opinion carries the weight of a tall pile of granite — or, more appropriately, limestone in historic Kingston, Ont. — it's Brad Gushue, fully engaged in the 17th Brier of his career. The St. John's, N.L. skip, a two-time champion (2017, '18), remains unrivalled in terms of career Brier appearances and triumphs (138).
Gushue said Wednesday he's blown away by the depth of the 16-team field, the pure skill and attention to detail of the athletes here and the incredible array of highlight-reel shots delivered through Day 5 of the annual celebration of Canadiana.
"The top level of the men's game right now is so even and so deep and so strong. I haven't seen anything like it. It's deep," said Gushue. "I remember coming to Briers and you'd always get three or four games that you knew — for lack of a better way of describing it — if you showed up you knew you were going to win. The rest of them you at least had to go 50 per cent to go 7-4 or maybe 8-3. Here this week, you can't do that. If you let up... they're going to kick your butt.
"I thought I was going to get a little bit of a pass when Kevin (Martin) and (Randy) Ferbey retired, and (Glenn) Howard was getting up there. But now you have (Brendan) Bottcher and (Brad) Jacobs and (Matt) Dunstone. We're in a good place in this country."
Case in point, Gushue was in a zone Sunday night, shooting 96 per cent in Newfoundland-Labrador's battle with Alberta. Trouble was, Bottcher tossed a perfect game to hand the 2017 world champion his only defeat of the event.
"So you have to play really well. If you're going out there expecting to win curling low 80s, you're not going to be in luck very often," he said.
"The shot-making has been incredible, and not only that the timeliness, last shots. A lot of guys making it when they need to be made. And that's fun to watch. I can only imagine at home watching all these shots being made, and probably coming off your couch a number of times this week."
Each day — nay, each draw — the needle keeps moving on what's considered the best shot of the Brier. But these four fabulous flings stand out:
Manitoba trailed former world senior champion Bryan Cochrane of Prince Edward Island 8-6 and was down to his final stone of the 10th end Tuesday morning. He had rocks of his own to use but needed to figure out a way to dislodge two well-protected rival stones from the foot-foot. His sweeping crew of Alex Forrest and Connor Njegovan pointed out a convoluted but plausible solution.
With a wicked leg kick, 'Gunner' shot from the hack and delivered heat, hitting a long, opposition guard at the precise angle, driving it into one of his own rocks in the 12-foot and knocking it back to remove the two P.E.I. counters and remaining for a game-winning three — then leaping into Njegovan's arms.
"We got so fortunate and he hit (the guard) in the right spot and then just hoped. Very impressive," said Manitoba second Adam Casey, who calls line for his skip's two stones. "You look at the angles... you can't worry about what's coming behind. Just hope it takes care of itself."
The young former Winnipegger, who now calls Kamloops, B.C., home, was the most shocked of all when his insanely complex shot against his former teammate actually worked Monday morning.
Here's the scene: Steve Laycock of B.C. led 8-5 after nine ends, and, in some situations that might have signalled handshakes. But Saskatchewan elected to throw them back. And it didn't take long for a major mess to build up in the house, made worse when B.C.'s final thrower, Jim Cotter, botched both his last rocks.
Dunstone tossed his yellow stone with authority, made a short runback in the eight-foot and, ultimately, sent three reds flying to count a whopping four and prevail by one.
"Not at the Brier. Not anywhere, really," Dunstone said, when asked if he thought a final-end four-spot was possible. "You rarely have a chance for three in that situation. The curling gods definitely wanted us to win today."
There wasn't even a hint of indecision from the four-time Brier-winning skip Tuesday afternoon. While a simple draw for one to send a game with Wild Card's Mike McEwen into an extra end was there, he asked third B.J. Neufeld to nestle broom against a red rock in the eight foot for an attempted triple-takeout.
With Koe settling into the hack, McEwen leaned across the scoreboard, back to the unfolding drama, and locked eyes with his coach, Rob Meakin. But as the rival yellow stone started to make its way down the sheet, he turned.
Carving a skinny slice of the rock and sending it spinning, Koe's shooter caromed into the back four-foot and removed a second stone and then continued on its destructive path and wiped a third Wild Card stone. Two yellows remained, giving Canada a seemingly unthinkable 3-2 triumph. Then again, it was Kevin Koe on the delivery.
Former Olympic gold medallist Brad Jacobs struggled early in the week but strung together three victories to slip into the championship round. On Sunday, his squad from Northern Ontario dropped a 6-5 decision to Manitoba, however, Jacobs ignited the crowd with a stunning shot in the sixth end.
The Sault Ste. Marie team was down 4-2 to Manitoba playing the sixth end and Gunnlaugson had him on the ropes, with a well-hidden rock lodged on the button.
Out of any sensible options, Jacobs and third Marc Kennedy settled on a Hail Mary — a long angle-raise of a corner guard. Pressed to make low-percentage shots in the past, he showed why he's trusted to guide the world's top-ranked squad and the top-seeded team here, blasting out the Manitoba yellow stone and sticking around to count three.
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).
Updated on Wednesday, March 4, 2020 at 8:22 PM CST: Fixes typo.
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