‘EPIC CURLING STORY:’ Gushue’s win with three-man team at Brier will go down in history

They did not even bring an alternate player because they believed they’d be better off playing with three.

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A day after Brad Gushue and his teammates pulled off something a few people believed was possible by winning the Tim Hortons Brier with only three players in the lineup, the curling world was buzzing with reaction.

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Gushue’s team from St. John’s, NL, beat Alberta’s Kevin Koe 9-8 in an extra end on Sunday night at Enmax Center in Lethbridge, Alta., to win the Canadian men’s curling championship for the fourth time.

What was amazing about the win was the fact that the wild card team was playing without vice-skip Mark Nichols for the entire playoff round, after the two-time Olympian came down with COVID-19 on Friday.

Gushue, second Brett Gallant and lead Geoff Walker absolutely gutted out three playoff wins after Nichols went down, in a performance described by many as “legendary.”

“How can Gushue solidify himself in curling lore any further?” Manitoba skip Mike McEwen said Monday. “It’s a crazy story, isn’t it? (Gallant’s) athletic performance was remarkable, combined with (Gushue’s) unmatched focus.

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“An epic curling story.”

With Nichols cheering the team on over social media from his Lethbridge hotel room, the Gushue trio played brilliantly. As a team they curled 83% in a 9-7 win over Saskatchewan’ Colton Flasch in the Page 3-4 game, then came in at 95% in a 9-3 win over defending champion Brendan Bottcher in the semifinal.

In the final — against four-time champion Koe — they curled 87% and won the Brier for the fourth time since 2017, even without one of the best players in the game on the ice.

“It was unbelievable,” said Ontario’s Glenn Howard, himself a four-time champion.

“It happened in the Brier playoffs, playing against the best teams in our country, for our national championship. They were able to overcome all this and performance at a very high level. Very impressive.”

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Many fans, watching the playoffs from the stands or on TV, were left wondering why the Gushue team would not have brought in an alternate player.

The reason is simple: They did not even bring an alternate player to the Brier because they believed they’d be better off playing with three.

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“If they brought another guy in, it would be a bigger disruption, especially since they haven’t really played with an alternate much,” said Darren Moulding, a former Canadian champ who played for New Brunswick’s James Grattan this year at the Brier.

“It was extremely impressive and it shows how versatile and talented they all are.”

Canadian women’s champion Kerri Einarson said it made sense for the team to continue on with three players, especially when they are all so experienced and talented in multiple disciplines of curling.

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“They are amazing curlers and athletes,” she said.

“Throwing someone into a team that hasn’t worked with them much would change a lot of the team dynamics. So I can see why playing with three would be easier, because they know each other’s tendencies.

“Also, (Gallant and Walker) have played a lot of mixed doubles, so that for sure helps.”

Gallant was a skip when he was a junior player in PEI and Walker won a world junior championship as the third for Alberta’s Charley Thomas in 2006.

Their experience of playing different positions and being strong mixed doubles players, who often have to sweep their own rocks, came in handy.

“Team Gushue is a team made up of former back-end players with a lot of experience, which I believe helps, because they are so interchangeable,” said Manitoba’s Colin Hodgson. “It was smart and successful to build the team that way.”

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There are some who would argue that a team can be just as good playing with three as with four. A positive is that two players get to throw three rocks each, in each end, and they get a better feel for the ice.

However, the same two players have to throw different shots than they normally do and they have to do it with just one sweeper.

“All three had to throw shots, knowing they had only one sweeper and mentally, that adds stress,” Howard said. “Both (Gallant and Walker) had to sweep alone and that adds pressure, as they feel that they have to do more. And Geoff was thrust into holding the broom and calling line (which Nichols normally does), so out of his comfort zone.”

All this happened just a few weeks after the Gushue foursome represented Canada at the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing and came home with a bronze medal. They had barely overcome the jet lag from their China trip when the Brier started.

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“I’ve tried to find all the best adjectives to describe what they did — mind-blowing, impressive, ridiculous,” said curling analyst Jill Officer, a six-time Canadian women’s champion.

“But I think they fact they did it just weeks after the Olympics is really surreal.”

Given how tired the Gushue team was already, it was at least fortunate the Nichols wasn’t forced out of the tournament earlier in the week. He was named the all-star third after helping the team go 8-0 in the round robin.

“For the whole tourney I would say there’s no chance you could win with three players, but still impressive, nonetheless, to do it in the playoffs,” said Matt Dunstone, who skipped a wild card team out of Regina.

“Geoff Walker was most impressive to me, after throwing shots he’d never even throw in practice.”

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Out of the 18 teams in the Brier, only two did not bring alternate players — Gushue and Dunstone.

Many skips said they’ve played, and been successful, with three in the past, however, and often prefer it to trying to work a new player into the lineup.

“It would be different if we were like the Jennifer Jones team and had someone like (alternate player) Lisa Weagle around all the time,” Dunstone said. “But for us, bringing in another body who hasn’t been around our team and isn’t involved in the team culture we’ve built, there wouldn’t be much benefit.”

Being from Newfoundland, there’s a limited number of players available to the Gushue foursome. Clearly, there was no need to try to force the issue and bring in an alternate.

“I’m not at all surprised that Gushue won,” said Jason Gunnlaugson, skip of a wild card team out of Manitoba.

“The list of players that makes that three-man team stronger is extremely short.”

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